Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 6, July 1-15, 2021

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

by Sriram V

A School named Seetha Kingston

school

Picture courtesy: Ramanujar Moulana.

The Hindu last week carried a story on the handing over of the Seetha Kingston school to the HR & CE Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu. With that one of the most historic properties of the city has once again changed hands, or I should say it has gone back to its rightful owner.

The Kanchipuram Ekamranatha/Ekambaranatha Swami Temple owns around 141 grounds on Poonamallee High Road. As to who gave it that vast acreage I do not know but around 44 grounds of this has for over a 100 years now been part of a compound where a stately home named Kingston stands.

The Calavala family was well known in business circles in Madras. They ran King & Co which was into piece goods, timber and sanitary fittings. But it was ‘Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur’ Calavala Cunnan Chetty (1869-1920) who made the name Calavala immortal. Having studied in the Pachiappa’s School and the Madras Christian College, Cunnan Chetty joined the firm of King & Co in which his family had shares. He soon became very successful in business.

Eventually, he and his brother Ramanujam came to run the company. It was most significantly, one of the first Indian-owned businesses to have an office on First Line Beach. The building still stands, having been the office till recently of Thomas Cook. The brothers clearly believed very strongly in branding and if they ran King & Co, they resided respectively at Kingston and Kingsford. The former comprised the 44 grounds referred to and was leased for a 100 years in 1898 by Cunnan Chetty. It is likely that he planned and built the house as well. Kingsford on the other hand was at McNichols Road in the Chetpet area, where several successful business barons of the Arya Vysya community lived.

cunnan-chetty-and-his-wife-seetha

Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty and his wife Seetha, Courtesy: Veejay Sai.

Cunnan Chetty and his wife Seetha were of an extremely generous bent of mind and, being childless, decided to spend their money on charitable causes. In 1909, Cunnan Chetty became involved with the affairs of the Tiruvallur Native School (founded in 1887). In gratitude for his financial contributions, the institution changed its name to Rao Bahadur Cunnan Chetty High School. He also began a school in Perambur which still functions. Many years later, yet another school and a college in his name came up in Pattabhiram. Actively involved in welcoming the Prince of Wales on his visit to Madras in 1905, Cunnan Chetty, however, refused the knighthood that was offered as a reward. He felt that he had done his duty and that was all. He had however already been conferred the Rao Bahadur title for his good work. The prefix Dharmamurthi was conferred posthumously on him by Annie Besant.

In his will he had left instructions that all his wealth be used for charitable purposes. These were defined as education, healthcare and poverty alleviation. The bulk of the income came from renting out properties that Cunnan Chetty owned. Kingston, though only leased, was with the trust for it do deal as it felt fit. After Seetha’s death the place was rented out as a home for a few years to Dr. S. Rangachari, the eminent surgeon. During World War II, the mansion was requisitioned by the Government. The Charities that administered Cunnan Chetty’s will got the property back and in 1969, which was the birth centenary year of Cunnan Chetty, set up the Seetha Kingston School here. It was named so to commemorate the benefactor’s wife and also the stately building in which it was housed.

picture-courtesy-ramanujar-moulana

Picture courtesy: Ramanujar Moulana.

The 100-year lease that Cunnan Chetty signed with the temple having expired in 1998, the school management and the HR & CE entered into negotiations for renewal which predictably landed in court. The judgement, which came in 2020 fixed the rent at Rs 20 L a year which it appears was beyond the Cunnan Chetty Charitable Trust’s capacity to pay. The trustees opted to close the school. The Government however, keeping in mind the fate of over 700 students has now stepped in and taken control of the property and the school, which it will continue to run. Will the Education Department now have to pay the HR & CE Rs 20 L pa? I am not well qualified in law to comment on that. But what is certain is that the name Seetha Kingston will soon vanish and with it a lot of history. The Government of Tamil Nadu has in recent years adopted a practice of not acknowledging any donor in school names, ostensibly to do away with caste references.

Interestingly, Cunnan Chetty’s younger brother, Dewan Bahadur Ramanujam Chetty (1875-1919) was in every way qualified to be the honoured sibling. A dynamic businessman and one of the few Indians to be invited by the Madras Chamber of Commerce to become a member, he predeceased his older brother by a year. He and his wife Ethirajamma were childless too and they bequeathed their wealth to several charities one of which was the Calavala Ramanujam Chetty School in Purasawalkam. In turn that institution was handed over to Sir MCt Muthiah Chettiar to administer and when he died in 1929, it became the MCtM School. It still functions under that name.

It is also worth pondering over the fate of the rest of the land that the Ekamranatha Swami Temple owns adjoining the school. This is even larger and in it are several interesting but run-down buildings including an erstwhile post office and an Ayurveda dispensary. The temple or the HR &CE do not seem to have any clear plans on what is to be done with the space. There are some age-old trees on the premises as well. Given that the school has been taken up to be run by the Government will it consider taking over the rest of the land and converting it into a park or even better, retain the old buildings and use them as a performing space? After all if the Government was willing to forego loss of rent in continuing the school can it not consider one more public benefaction alongside?

That of course is just quixotic thinking. What is most likely to happen is that the vast parcel of land will be leased out to a real estate developer who will put up a monstrous commercial complex on it.

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