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Vol. XXXIII No. 7, July 16-31, 2023

A hundred years of the handbook of south-Indian grasses – by K. Rangachari and C. Tadulinga Mudaliyar

-- by Anantanarayanan Raman (

I bit my tongue when I realized that two years have elapsed without me remembering the centenary of the publication of the Handbook of Some South Indian Grasses written by K(adambi) Rangachari (a.k.a. Kadambi Ranga Acharyar) assisted by C(hinnakavanam) Tadulinga Mudaliyar. The Superintendent of the Madras-government Press published this 318-page handbook in 1921 and priced it at Rupees four and a half. Here it is! Better late, I suppose, than never!!

Grasses (‘Poaceae’, previously ‘Gramineae’) represent the largest, single, homogeneous group of flowering plants with nearly 12,000 species throughout the world and 1,500 species in the Indian subcontinent.

Many highly useful plants, such as rice, wheat, maize, barley, and millets are grasses. Many grass varieties are useful as fodder for cattle and other plant-feeding large mammals. Bamboo (species of Bambusa) and sugarcane (species of Saccharum) are amazing Indian grasses, although a non-botanist will find it hard to believe that they are grasses. A little more than 50 per cent of dietary energy is provided to us from edible grasses. However, I do not see a reason to regale those details here.

Scientific treatises dealing with the southern-Indian plants started appearing in the early decades of the 20th century. The earliest was by P(hilip) F(urley) Fyson, Indian Education Servant and botanist at the Madras Presidency College. Fyson published the Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney (read as Palani) Hill-Tops (3 volumes, 1915, Superintendent, Government Press, Madras). It is important to note here that his wife Diana-Ruth, a versatile artist, helped Fyson with the illustrations included in these volumes. Close to these, J(ames) S(ykes) Gamble’s multi-part Flora of the Presidency of Madras started appearing. Gamble (1847-1925) of the Indian Forest Service started work on Madras flora in 1912 and the first part was published in 1915. Before he could complete the later parts – including an extensive treatment of the grasses of the Madras presidency – he died in 1925. C(ecil) E(rnest) C(laude) Fischer (1874-1950), another Indian Forest Servant, completed the work of Gamble. P(allasena) V(aithi-p-Pattar) Mayuranathan (botanical assistant, Madras Museum) published the Flowering Plants of Madras City and its Immediate Neighbourhood in 1929, which referred to plants – including grasses – in the then Madras city that extended up to Chenglepet, as a part of the Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum. The Mayuranathan volume was revised and updated by C(hrispus) Livingstone (Madras Christian College) and A(mbrose) N(athaniel) Henry (Botanical Survey of India, Coimbatore), published by the Commissioner of Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu in 1994.

K. Rangachari C. Tadulinga Mudaliyar.

In the early decades of the 20th century, during an intense knowledge-seeking phase in Madras and the rest of southern India, Rangachari and Mudaliyar brought out the Handbook of Some South Indian Grasses. In this handbook, Rangachari provides details of c. 100 species of grasses of the southern-Indian plains, mainly because of their high economic importance. By specifying that this book pertains only to the grasses of southern-Indian plains, Rangachari and Mudaliyar clarify that they had not explored the grasses of southern-Indian mountains. The preface includes two critical remarks that are strikingly valid today: 1. Use of the term ‘indigenous grasses’, which is a brilliant spark of foresight. 2. Use of ‘deterioration of grasses’. Obviously, it means the deterioration of grasslands and grass populations in different biomes of southern India due to overgrazing by cattle and trampling by cattle and humans. These two remarks, while setting the context for this handbook, are extremely valid and are being explored rigorously presently.

Cover page of Rangachari-Mudaliyar handbook.

Kadambi Rangachari (1868–1934) was born in Madras, completed the First Examination in Arts (F.A.) diploma through the Madras Christian College (1888), B.A. degree through the Pachaiappa’s College (1890), and M.A. degree through the Presidency College (1892?), followed by a licentiate in teaching (L.T.) diploma in 1895 (Teacher’s College, Saidapet?). After a short stint as the headmaster at the Municipal High School, Anantapur (1895), he joined the Madras Museum as the herbarium keeper in 1897, then superintended by Edgar Thurston. Rangachari officiated as the relieving superintendent of ethnography in the Madras Museum in 1901. This posting enabled him to hone his capability as an ethnographer. Co-operating with Thurston, Rangachari co-wrote the monumental 7-volume set entitled Castes and Tribes of Southern India, published by the Government Press, Madras in 1909, a highly valued book on southern-Indian ethnology and which refers to some brilliant, but presently outdated, science of phrenology. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Madras Agricultural College, Coimbatore, as a lecturer in botany. In 1918, Rangachari was promoted to the Indian Agricultural Service. He was recognized with the title Dewan Bahadur. In the early days of sound recordings done using a wax-cylinder phonograph, Rangachari has recorded the songs of the Nilgiri tribal people using such a device. One G.N.R. (no further details available) has published the obituary of Rangachari in Current Science (Bangalore) in 1934. This article (G.N.R., 1934, Dewan Bahadur K. Rangachari, M.A., L.T. (1868-1934), Current Science, 3, 197–198) is freely accessible.

Chinnakavanam Tadulinga Mudaliyar (1878-1954) was born in the Madras presidency (in Chinnakavanam, near Ponneri, Tiruvallur District?). He is remembered for his Handbook of Some South Indian Weeds: Containing Complete Descriptions and Short Notes on Some of the Common Weeds Indigenous and Introduced in South India (356 pages; Superintendent of the Government Press, Madras) published in 1932. He was an elected Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and recognized by the British government with the title Rao Bahadur. He was the Mayor of Madras in 1942-1943. Kadambi Rangachari acknowledges Mudaliyar’s help, then an ‘Assistant Lecturing and Systematic Botanist’ at the Madras Agricultural College, Coimbatore, in the handbook as ‘considerable’. In later years, Mudaliyar served as the Principal of the Coimbatore Agricultural College. It is highly likely Mudaliyar’s help and support in writing and publishing the Handbook of Some South Indian Grasses was so profound that Rangachari decided to include Mudaliyar as a co-author of that book on the cover page, preceded by the terms ‘assisted by’.

Grasses, per se, are a highly complex group of flowering plants, stunning even a trained botanist. Their floral parts are extremely minute and unrecognizably modified as slender, sharp, bristly, minute appendages. A majority of the grasses are herbaceous with their leaves including abundant calcium-oxalate crystals. A handy volume, therefore, such as the one published by Rangachari and Mudaliyar must have been extremely relevant and useful not only to botanists, but also to agricultural scientists of southern India at that time. In this book, basic details of many common grasses of southern-Indian plains are briefly explained.

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