Madras miscellany: Oxford professor without a degree

Tiruvadi Sambasiva Venkatraman

15MPMUTHIAH_2107412eOxford professor without a degree

Two of today’s items may have only tenuous connections with Madras, but I’m writing about them as they do have intriguing links with the city. My first tale is about a person whose linguistic bonds should make him known at least to the world of Tamil Studies, but I wonder how many in that world here recognise the name of Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865-1937). Certainly, despite all my years in Ceylon and my peripheral contact there with education, archaeology and epigraphy — that an all-round journalist and a dabbler in history must have — I had never heard of him till another history hobbyist, Thiru Arumugam, sent me some material the other day from Australia.

After his high school education, Wickremasinghe joined the Colombo Museum Library, was later transferred to the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, from where he was sent on scholarship to Germany. The focus of his work till then had been Sinhalese, Pali and Prakrit. And it was no doubt for this that the British Museum Library recruited him to do cataloguing of books and manuscripts in these languages. We next find him being appointed in 1899 as the Epigraphist of the Government of Ceylon and working on theEpigraphia Zeylanica at the Indian Institute at Oxford University. Which record would not really interest readers of this column. But now comes the twist in the tale.

In 1909 Wickremasinghe was appointed first, Lecturer, then Reader, in Tamil and Telugu at Jesus College, Oxford! He was also an External Examiner for other British Universities in Sinhalese, Pali and Sanskrit. And all this without a university degree! As though there was no degreed native speaker in Tamil or Telugu with expertise in Sanskrit in India! It is, however, stated that he was a fluent speaker in English, German, Sinhalese, Pali and Prakrit — all understandable achievements in the background of what has been said before — but also in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. So fluent that he lectured in all of them — and, to emphasise the point, the ‘all’ included the last three languages listed! Now where did he learn them — and at a level to be so highly rated? That’s a mystery that I hope to get an answer to some day.

To set this unique academic record straight, Oxford awarded him an honorary Master’s degree. And before you knew it, in 1916 he was being described as ‘Lecturer in Tamil and Telugu in the University of Oxford, and in Pali and Prakrit for Jesus College, Oxford’. Later the same year, he was being referred to as the ‘Epigraphist Lecturer in South Indian Languages in the London School of Oriental Studies’. And in 1928, he was described as ‘Reader in Tamil and Telugu in the University of London, Lecturer in Sinhalese, and Head of the Dravidian Department of the London School of Oriental Studies’. Somewhere midst all this he was the Professor of Sanskrit in the University of Edinburgh, all this with only that belated honorary degree from Oxford University!

During these years, apart from scholarly titles on epigraphy, Wickremasinghe came out with a series of popular books published in London by E. Marlborough & Co: Tamil Grammar Self-Taught and Tamil Self-Taught in 1906, and Sinhalese Self-Taught and Malayalam Self-Taught in 1916. Why he did not do Telugu Self-Taught or why it did not come out if he had indeed done it is another of the mysteries in Wickremasinghe’s life.

Perhaps some of the answers to all this would be with an old friend of JNU and Madras University, Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne, who is the new High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in New Delhi and who had held the only Chair in Archaeology in any university in Ceylon. He had done his Ph.D. at JNU, his thesis being ‘Social Base of Early Buddhism in Southeast India (Andhra and Tamil Nadu) and Sri Lanka, 3rd Century B.C. to 3rd Century A.D.’ His guides for this work were S. Gopal, R. Champalakshmi and K. Meenakshi, all from Madras, and much of his research was done in the Theosophical Society Library. During his 10 years in India, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu were all languages he could communicate in. When he was in Madras in 2003 to deliver a couple of lectures, at the one at the University of Madras Prof. Seneviratne invited its Department of Archaeology to forge links with his Department at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka’s premier university, and work on digs that had been allotted to it. But nothing came of it. Sadly.


He fostered Indian cricket

The other link with Madras I recently found was in a news item that caught my eye for two other reasons: One, it had to do with heritage, a heritage mansion being allowed to crumble in Bombay, and, two, that building being where Lord Harris had lived when he was Governor of Bombay, 1890-95. Lord Harris, it could be said with considerable justice, was the person responsible for first class cricket getting its beginnings in India and for, later, sending out the first team from England to play India in ‘Tests’, unofficial though they were.

Though Harris had a fairly impressive cricket record in his youth, and yearned to play the game in India, he was also a stickler for protocol. So he never played in Bombay, but did so every time he took a ‘holiday’ at Ganeshind near Poona. And there he encouraged an annual fixture between teams led by the Governors of Bombay and Madras. Of this series he later wrote in his biography:

“During a part of my five years in India, my old school fellow, Lord Wenlock, who had been a Wet Bob at Eton but was always quite a good cricketer, was Governor of Madras (1891-96), and we arranged a visit one year of the Madras Eleven to Poona, another of the Poona Eleven to Madras. Poor Wenlock had a very serious accident while playing Cricket one day. The ball hit him in the mouth, driving his teeth through his lips. In writing him a letter of sympathy, I could not help adding that I should advise him in future not to put his head where his bat ought to be.”

Harris, a bit of a martinet and a stickler for the rules also had a sense of humour. He also, as I said earlier, had a notable cricket record. He won his Blue at Oxford, captained Kent — which county contributed significantly to Madras cricket — for 15 continuous seasons, and led England against Australia in four ‘Test’ matches between 1878 and 1884. He became the President of the Marylebone Cricket Club that virtually governed world cricket at the time, and, while also heading the Imperial Cricket Conference, got England to send out A.E.R. Gilligan’s team to tour India (1926-27). It was just after this that plans were drawn up to form an organisation to run Indian cricket. Many years earlier, in 1892, Harris sowed the seeds for first class cricket in India by mooting a match, Bombay Presidency Europeans vs. the Parsis, that was to lead to the Pentangular. And he offered the Harris Shield for school cricket in Bombay — and the still ongoing competition for the shield is where the world first heard of Tendulkar and Kambli.

To see Bombay of all places, once the leader of the urban heritage movement in India, let a place that should be a memorial to the birth of Indian cricket languish and slowly crumble, is unbelievable. But there it is. Perhaps the BCCI will do something to resurrect it as a memorial. Why not as its office?


Making sugar a success

Today, India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar but success appears to bring with it its own problems. Almost daily for some months now the dispute over the pricing of sugarcane has hogged the headlines. This attention being paid to sugar would not be possible but for a scarcely remembered man, Tiruvadi Sambasiva Venkatraman (TSV), virtually forgotten by all, even those making the loudest noises about the price of cane. But in his day his work won him numerous honours, including a knighthood.

To meet the Empire’s demand for sugar, the British established in Coimbatore in 1912 the Imperial Sugarcane Station. Charles Barber, a South African botanist, was appointed its first superintendent. He took as his deputy TSV, who had joined the Indian Agricultural Service after getting a postgraduate degree from the University of Madras.

At the breeding station, now called the Sugarcane Breeding Institute, TSV got down to hybridisation in what was described as “the first attempt to improve the subtropical types of canes”. What he developed was sugarcane that yielded 35 times more sucrose than what the natural stock yielded! Of this achievement it has been said that “the development of high-yielding cane varieties in India was a breakthrough which matches the development of high-yielding varieties of wheat in Mexico by the Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug”. The first variety released by the Station in 1918, Co 205, is said to have recorded more than “50 per cent improvement in cane yield over the native varieties and replaced them within a short span of six to eight years, marking the green revolution in sugarcane”.

The thirty years TSV spent on ever improving the yield of sugarcane in India was a rare commitment to research that began as a response to renowned educationist Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya’s call to “undertake research to increase production of sugar, making it available especially for the malnourished children”.

The only work of substance on TSV’s contribution has been a biography by J. Thulajaram Rao, TSV’s student and a Director of the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in the 1960s and 1970s.

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