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Vol. XXV No. 16, December 1-15, 2015

‘Vallal Chettiar’ – the ‘Socialist Capitalist’

by R.V. Rajan
Feedback welcome on rvrajan42@gmail.com

In January 1948, K.V.Al.Rm. Alagappa Chettiar of Kottaiyur went to see Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi, to ‘sell’ Karaikudi as a town to house one of India’s new science research institutes. He offered 300 acres of land and 1.5 million rupees to set up the institute in his native Chettinad. Impressed by his commitment to people and the country, Nehru introduced Chettiar to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, as the socialist capitalist.

Out of that offer came the Central Electro-Chemical Research Institute (CECRI), a wing of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Nehru laid the foundation stone for CECRI in a sprawling campus between Karaikkudi and Kottaiyur, Chettiar’s home village, an area that was later to be named Alagappa Nagar. It was the seventh in the chain of national institutions and the second to be opened in Madras Province that year. The main building of the institute was declared open by Dr. S Radhakrishnan, the then Vice President of India, on January 14, 1953. At the opening ceremony there were nine Nobel laureates on the dais.

The Ramanujan Institute, dedicated to a genius, was another of Alagappa Chettiar’s initiatives. A standing monument to his love for research, it was established in a portion of his own house, Krishna Vilas in Vepery, in December 1951.

nehru-with-the-socialist-capitalist
Nehru with the Socialist Capitalist in his sick bed.

Alagappa Chettiar, true to Nehru’s description, was a successful businessman who believed in ploughing back the money he earned from his varied business into social causes. His business interests consisted of rubber plantations in Malaya, tin mines in Burma, textile mills in Kerala, insurance companies in Calcutta, hotels in Bombay, theatres in Madras, a flourishing stock broking company and a private airline. Referred to as the ‘Unsung Business Maharajah of South India’ in the 1930s and ’40s, Alagappa Chettiar believed in having a diversified business portfolio. The philanthropist in him came to the fore only in the late 1940s.

Dr. A Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras, who was presiding over the Dr. Annie Besant Centenary celebrations in July 1947, made an appeal to philanthropists and industrialists in the audience to come forward to start colleges in the State to meet the dire need felt for educational institutions, as many were denied education due to lack of colleges.

The then 38-year-old Alagappa Chettiar was moved by the appeal. He rose simultaneously with the appeal and announced that he would be happy to start an Arts College in his home town in Ramanathapuram District and announced a donation of Rs. 5 lakh on the spot.

“It was a great but sudden impulse, a great turning point, a transition in his life. With this one act, he seemed to have found his calling in life – the care for education,” writes the author, his grandson, on whose book* this article is based.
Within five weeks from the announcement, Alagappa Chettiar College of Arts & Science was inaugurated on August 11, 1967, at Gandhi Maaligai, the former Karaikudi Municipality Building which had been rented for Rs. 2400.
Other generous donations were to follow. He started a string of educational institutions in Karaikudi, making it an important educational centre. These included Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering & Technology, Alagappa Arts College, Alagappa Teacher Training College, Alagappa College for Women, Alagappa Physical Education College and Alagappa Polytechnic, among others.

vallal-alagappa-c hettiar
‘Vallal’
Alagappa Chettiar.

He sold many of his business interests abroad to fund many of these projects devoted to education.
Alagappa Chettiar’s dream of elevating the status of the educational institutions in Karaikudi to a full-fledged university was, however, not realised during his lifetime. It was only in 1985 that it became Alagappa University, but run by the State Government with the numerous colleges he had founded over the years.

He loved children, as much as he loved education. His daughter recalls, “He had a dream – a dream that every child who enters an Alagappa school should be able to complete his/her studies. ‘We should provide for them, such that they never need to seek other institutions throughout their educational career,’ he used to say.” The first school started was AL.V. Valliammai Achi School referred to as the Board School in Kottaiyur.

Other schools that he established include the Alagappa Model School, Alagappa Montessori School & Hostel, Alagappa Elementary School, and Alagappa Preparatory School.

Despite his religiousness, which included carrying a box of small religious icons and pooja articles as a part of his luggage wherever he travelled, he was not a temple-goer nor did he donate to temples of worship. “His temples were the towers of education and his donations were mainly aimed at helping the less fortunate,” writes the author.
Carnatic music was another of his passions. He played a significant role in the proceedings of the first Tamil Isai Conference held in August 1940 in Chidambaram. Chettiar introduced the universal language of mankind – music into the Alagappa Group of institutions by starting Alagappa School of Music in 1956.

Alagappa Chettiar was also a lover of sports. He believed in healthy minds in healthy bodies. The Bhavnagar Stadium in Alagappa Nagar was inaugurated on February 2, 1952. The stadium held a special place in his heart. Whenever he was in Karaikudi, he always stayed in one of the rooms in the pavilion. In fact, his dying wish was that his mortal remains be laid to rest in the stadium, which to him was a haven of peace. Now his memorial temple, just opposite Bhavnagar Stadium, stands as testimony to a life of service and sacrifice.

Alagappa Chettiar’s generosity extended beyond education. He made innumerable donations to various institutions devoted to causes, not necessarily related to education. Nobody who came to see him for any kind of help went back disappointed.

Alagappa Chettiar was a driven man. “Ambitious ideas, quick planning, immediate execution became his mantra, especially after he ventured into educational projects during his last decade,” said Dr. S.Y. Krishnaswami, ics (rtd.), a friend from his college days, paying his tribute to Alagappa Chettiar while recalling his capacity for work and his energy which were truly immense! The words ‘cannot’ and ‘impossible’ were not in his dictionary. Every challenge must be overcome, Alagappa Chettiar would tell his staff repeatedly.

His meticulousness, his sense of perfection, extended to even small mundane activities. He could be seen explaining to his staff how a postage stamp should be affixed on an envelope – ensuring a 90-degree angle and equal spaces.
Apart from his abiding interest in the Tamil and English languages and their literature, he was interested in journalism and was the honorary editor of Kumudam, the most popular Tamil weekly from its inception.

Books were his constant companions on his travels. He would finish a book overnight on a train and do the same on many a flight. A voracious reader, he had a vast collection of books pertaining to various fields. His reading habit not only made many consider him a scholar but he was also much in demand as a speaker.

Right from his teenage years, Chettiar spoke extempore. His speech was clear and interspersed with sparkling wit and wisdom. He was a gifted conversationalist with a brilliant sense of humour.

The first blow of fate was the death of his wife Valliammal Achi in 1928. Then came a series of debilitating illnesses.

In his early twenties, Alagappa Chettiar travelled to London to take the Indian Civil Service examination. During the medical examination, it was discovered that he had leprosy. He probably got the disease from someone who looked after him when he was a child. Though the disease left him after 20 years, the scars left behind by the disease on his face, fingers etc. made him very self-conscious about his looks. In later years he contracted bone cancer, with a few more cancer lesions on other parts of his body. He was constantly in pain.

“Fighting a life-long battle against his health, and yet venturing in ever-new ways to make the world a better place, Alagappa Chettiar was a great soul whose role on this eternal stage was one of the best ever played. With ambition pushing him up and health pulling him down, the two words ‘perseverance’ and ‘sacrifice’ sum the life of this compassionate man,” it was said of him.

On Republic Day 1957, the President of India conferred the Padma Bhushan on him. Less than three months after that, on April 5, 1957, Alagappa Chettiar breathed his last at Krishna Vilas. He considered his life mission to be charity and charity he did until his last breath. No wonder people called him ‘Vallal Chettiar’.

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