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

Vol. XXXI No. 24, April 1-15, 2022

Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

by Karthik Bhatt

An interesting sidelight of the Kapapleeswarar temple Brahmotsavam is the display of antique dolls, paintings and memorabilia belonging to Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar at the Chittira Chattiram (also known as the Bommai Chattiram) constructed by him on South Mada street. The collection is open for public viewing only during the festival, with the choultry remaining locked for the rest of the year. A recent search on the internet threw up two interesting documents on the life and times of Vinayaka Mudaliar and the charity he founded.

Vinayaka Mudaliar was born in October 1803 to Arjunan Mudaliar and Nagathammal. He was the eldest of six children born to the couple and was followed by two sisters and three brothers. Arjunan Mudaliar had moved from Vyasarpadi to Mylapore along with his siblings and was a mason by profession. His siblings assisted him in his duties and they lived together in a house built by them in Tachi Arunachala Mudali Street. Vinayaka Mudaliar developed an interest in Tamil at an early age and attained a certain level of proficiency in the language. Following the death of his parents, Vinayaka Mudaliar took over the responsibility of running the family and ensured his siblings were comfortably settled.

Vinayaka Mudaliar worked for some time in Triplicane under a merchant named Desingu, who was involved in supplying articles to the household of the Nawab of Arcot. Making frequent visits to the Chepauk Palace, he gained proficiency in Urdu. It was during these visits that he came into acquaintance with Gantz (probably John Gantz), noted architect and illustrator who was involved in civil contracts belonging to the Nawab. Gantz took a liking to him and invited him as his assistant. Vinayaka Mudaliar impressed Gantz with his ability in making proper estimates and drawings and execution of works and was soon invited into a partnership with him. Following Gantz’s demise, Vinayaka Mudaliar was awarded several works by the Nawab, which he executed to the latter’s satisfaction with the help of his brothers. In appreciation of his services, the Nawab showered him with many expensive gifts and also granted a monthly pension and soon, Vinayaka Mudaliar became a wealthy man.

Vinayaka Mudaliar was a devout man with a deep attachment to the Kapaleeswarar temple. In 1850-51, he purchased an empty plot of land belonging to Manambedu Veeraswamy Mudaliar at No 13, South Mada Street in Mylapore and constructed a choultry, which he named the Chittira Chattiram, and endowed it to charity. The charity was formally registered in 1851 in the Registrar’s Office in the presence of barrister William Scharlieb (the husband of the pioneering doctor, Mary Dacomb Scharlieb). The objectives of the charity were to present offerings and perform deeparadhana to Lord Kapaleeswara whenever he came out on procession and also during the annual brahmotsavam held in the Tamil month of Panguni every year and feed poor Brahmins every Dwadashi day. Vinayaka Mudaliar bought a vast grove, which had in its midst a pond bordering the Nungambakkam Tank on the road to Kodambakkam at Rs. 3,000 and two shops near the Flower Bazaar police station in George Town and decreed that the income from these be used to carry out the objectives of the charity and also maintain the choultry. He also made over all his possessions excepting utensils being used by him personally to the charity. The possessions included several gifts received by him, dolls, paintings and curios such as a globe and were put on display in the choultry.

Vinayaka Mudaliar was a great patron of Tamil poetry. Several poets across South India presented their works before him and were richly awarded for their efforts. Noted amongst them was the great scholar Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai, the guru of U Ve Swaminatha Iyer. Meenakshisundaram Pillai wrote the Chittira Chattira Pugazhchi Maalai and later, the Vyasaikkovai extolling the beauty of the building and the munificence of Vinayaka Mudaliar. The Vyasaikkovai was authored jointly with his student Vidwan Thyagaraja Chettiar, the Tamil Pandit of the Kumbakonam College.

Vinayaka Mudaliar administered the charity established by him for nearly 17 years, before he passed away in 1868. In his will (registered two days before his demise in December 1868), he appointed his eldest son Somasundara Mudaliar (born to his second wife) and nephew Tiruvenkada Mudaliar as executors responsible for carrying out the charities. He also nominated four members belonging to the Sozhia Vellala community (to which he belonged) to oversee the performance of the charities. The executors had to maintain proper accounts and render them half-yearly to this committee. The committee was empowered to even replace an executor in case he was found to be in dereliction of his duty. Vinayaka Mudaliar also decreed that the charities had to be carried on by descendants belonging to his lineage or those of his siblings, a task that would prove to be easier said than executed.

Following Vinayaka Mudaliar’s demise, the charity underwent a prolonged period of litigation, with his younger son Gangadhara Mudaliar (born to the first wife) accusing Somasundara Mudaliar of mismanagement and alienation of the income from the properties for his personal purposes. The charities were not carried out between 1894 and 1901, as the choultry remained closed. Over a period of time, the four members of the committee appointed by Vinayaka Mudaliar too passed away and hence Gangadhara Mudaliar appealed repeatedly to the members of the Sozhia Vellala community to take matters in their hands and ensure that the charities were carried out. Finally, matters came to a head when a civil suit was filed in the Madras High Court for the formation of a scheme to administer the charities. A settlement was later affected and it was decided that the management of the charities would be undertaken by a committee formed by the Thondaimandalam Sozhia Vellala Marabu Dharma Sangam comprising its members and heirs of Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar. Today, the charities are being administered by the Sri Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar Dharma Paripalana Sangam.

In recent years, the old paintings (mostly depicting important tales from mythology) and dolls have been touched up and given a fresh lease of life. Interestingly, there are also paintings of King Serfoji II and Swathi Thirunal. In a marker of where the grove probably stood, there are to this day, two streets in Nungambakkam which bear the names of Vyasarpadi Gangadhara Mudali and Vidwan Sundara Mudali (a nephew of Vinayaka Mudaliar, who administered the charities for a few years in the early 1900s and was a Tamil Vidwan of the Ettaiyapuram Samasthanam).

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