Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vallal Chettiar – The socialist Capitalist*

The following article written by me has appeared in the 1-15th December,2015 issue of Madras Musings

                                   In January 1948, Dr. Alagappa Chettiar  of Kottaiyur went to see Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi, to sell  Karaikudi  as a town to house one of the science research institutes , promising  to offer 300 acres of land and 1.5 million rupees to set up the institute in his native place. Impressed by his commitment to people and the country, he introduced Chettiar to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandid, as a socialist capitalist.

Out of the offer came the  Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CECRI) as a wing of  of  Council of  Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Karaikkudi.  On 25th July 1968, Jawaharlal Nehru laid  the foundation stone for CECRI in a sprawling campus between Karaikkudi and  Kottaiyur, an area that was later to be named as Alagappa Nagar.  It was the seventh in the chain of national institutions and the second to be opened in the Madras province that year.

The main  building of the institute was declared open by Dr. S Radhakrishnan the then Vice President of India on the 14th January 1953.  At the opening ceremony there were  nine Nobel  laureates on the dais including  Sir Visveswarayya  and Sir C V Raman.

Ramanujan  Institute, as a remembrance to a great man was another of  Chettiar’s initiative. A standing monument to  Chettiar`s love for research.  It was established in a portion of his own house ‘Krishnavilas` in Vepery  in December 1951.

That is what  Alagappa  Chettiar was – a successful businessman who believed in ploughing  back the money he earned from his varied business  to  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,  Chettiar believed in having a diversified business portfolio. The philonthrophist in him came to the fore only in late 40s.

Dr. A Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar  the then Vice Chancellor of University of Madras, who was presiding over the Dr. Annie Besant  Centenary celebrations on 3rd July 1947 made an appeal to philanthrophists and industrialists in the audience to come forward to start colleges in the state to meet the  dire  need for  educational institutions, as many were denied education due to lack of colleges.

The  then 38 year old  Alagappa  Chettiar who was moved by the appeal.  He rose to spontaneously announce 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 5 weeks from the date of announcement Dr. Alagappa Chettiar College of Arts & Science was inaugurated on 11th August 1967, at Gandhi Maaligai, the 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,  Allagappa College for women, Alagappa Physical Education College and  Alagappa Polytechnic  among many others.

He sold many of his business interests abroad to fund many of his dream projects devoted to education.

Alagappa Chettiar`s  dream of elevating the status of educational institutions in Karaikudi to a full fledged  University was  however  not to be realized during his life time.  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 Alagappa School 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 by  Alagappa  Chettiar was AL V Valliammai Achi School referred to as the Board School  at Kottaiyur. Other schools that he established include the Alagappa Model  School, Alagappa Montessori  School & Hostel, Alagappa Elementary School, Alagappa  Business  School, 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 Alagappa Group of Institutions by starting Alagappa School of Music in 1956.

 Chettiar, was also a lover of sports.  He believed in healthy minds in healthy bodies.The Bhavnagar stadium on the Alagappa Arts College campus in Karaikal was inaugurated on 2nd February 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 to Bhavnagar stadium , stands as a testimony   to a life of service and sacrifice


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 had ventured into educational projects  during his last decade`
Said Dr. S Y Krishnaswami , ICS ( Retd.)and a friend from college days paying his tribute to Chettiar recalled 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,  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 90 degree angle and equal spaces.

Apart from his abiding interest in Tamil language and Tamil 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  Dr. Chettiar spoke ex-tempore.  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 Smt. Valliammal Achi in 1928. Then came a series of debilitating illnesses.  In his early twenties  Alagappa Chettiar travelled to London to take the Indian Council Service examination, During the medical examiniation he discovered that he had fallen victim to the dreaded 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 scar left  behind  by the disease on his face, fingers etc. made him very self conscious about his looks .  In the later years he contracted  bone cancer, with  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 stint on this  eternal state was one of the best ever played.  With ambition pushing him up and health pulling him down the two words `perseverance`  and  `sacrifice` sums the life of this compassionate man, ` it was said of him.
On  Republic day of the country in 1957, the President of India had conferred the Padma Bhushan on. Chettiar.   Less than three months after that , on April,5,1957,  Alagappa Chettiar breathed his last at Krishna Vilas, his house in Madras on 5th April 1957, He was only 48. He  considered his life mission to be charity and charity he  did until his last breath.  No wonder people called him `Vallal Chettiar`.
        ( This article is based on the Book- `Alagappa- A beautiful Mind  -  a  saga of Perseverance, Compassion and Sacrifice`  by  Ramanathan Vairavan, grandson of Dr.Alagappa Chettiar)

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