A recent article on the much-loved India Coffee Houses in the Sunday Hindu reminded me of the many hours I’d spent in the Madras one, then, if I remember right, on the first floor of India Silk House on Mount Road. This was in the 1950s and 60s when my host used to be the big, bluff, hearty VPV Rajan of The Mail. He was The Times of Ceylon’s Madras correspondent and I was The Mail’s in Colombo. And every time I came to Madras, for a Test match or the All-India Rugby Football Tournament whenever it was competed for on the Madras Gymkhana grounds, he’d have me trying to make sense of rugby for him, while I’d have him bring me up-to-date with Madras gossip, political and otherwise. Later, when I returned to India, he’d had me writing my first Madras columns and the occasional leader on international affairs.
To this day, India Coffee House, Madras, is to me associated with Rajan and South Indian rugby. For the last 20 years there’s been a sort of start-stop-start rugby revival in Madras after it had faded out in South India — Madras and the plantation districts — in the 1960s. The last time Madras hosted the All India XVs tournament was when the Gymkhana organised it in 1963. At the time, the game had been played in the South for over 75 years — but entirely by the Europeans, except for an Indian planter or two, usually a Coorg, who entered the game in the hills c.1954.
Alexander Arbuthnot, that exemplary Madras Civilian (Miscellany, August 9, 2004, February 16, 2015) who had been to Rugby School in England, said to be the birth place of rugby football, claimed he introduced the game in Madras on the Island Grounds when he served here (1842-74). E H D Sewell, later a famous cricket correspondent but once a Madras Civilian (1892-1900), writes in one of his books that he revived rugby in Madras following a Club bar conversation. Recounting it, Sewell wrote, “Rugger?! Cried the Man of Gloom …You’ll never again see Rugby in Madras; why, how the heck are you going to raise two teams, not to mention those necessary nuisances, a ball and a referee?”
“That did it,” writes Sewell, picking up the gauntlet.
Whether it was Sewell or someone else who pushed it, the Gymkhana instituted the Madras Rugby Football Challenge Cup in 1900, competed for every October during what it called Madras Week. Apart from a couple of Gymkhana teams, some British regimental teams, teams from the Anamallais and the High Range, Calcutta, Bombay and, later, Ceylon fought it out ferociously on the field and had a ball after play at Madras’s European clubs. The Week was the social event of the year for Europeans in the South. But it also drew a local crowd. The South India-Ceylon final at the Gymkhana in 1929 drew a crowd of 5000 and The Mail devoted half a page to it.
The tournament evolved into the All-India in 1926 when the British Rugby Football Union presented it a handsome trophy. Madras and, later, as South India won it only once but was runner-up six times.
Expatriates in Madras revived the game in Madras c.1997 and got a few score Indians playing it. The locals proved themselves when the Chennai Cheetahs won the All-India in 2004 and 2006 and finished runners-up in 2007, 2008 and 2010 before vanishing from the Madras rugby scene. The game then died out in Madras, but a dedicated attempt is on to revive it, with the focus on the shorter, faster seven-a-side game, both for men and women. I hope a similar effort is put into reviving the India Coffee House in Madras. Why it faded out, despite serving fabulous coffee, toast, omelettes and cutlets, I’ll never know.
With Republic Day not so long ago, Syed Cassim, collector of scrips and other historic printed material, sent me the cards featured today. The invitations were sent to his grandfather Janab M.H. Cassim Sait for a very special day that makes for an intriguing quiz question: When was the first and last time in Madras that a Governor, Chief Minister, Chief Justice and a Cabinet of Ministers were sworn in together? The card indicates January 26, 1950, the first Republic Day.
Carnatic music buff R Seshashayee on two or three occasions when we’ve met recently told me that in my item on Karthik Narayanan (Miscellany, December 25, 2017), I had omitted one aspect of Narayanan’s interest in music. Namely, that he was an accomplished mridangam player who had occasionally accompanied a leading artiste or two. Narayanan’s involvement with motor engineering put his mridangam on the back-burner, says Seshashayee, who too was in the automobile industry.
The old 10th Regiment, Madras Infantry (Miscellany, January 1), was disbanded in 1890, writes Maj Gen Jose Manavalan. It was replaced with a new unit, the 10th (Burma) Regiment, Madras Infantry. The two units had nothing in common but, in 1990, the latter was authorised to maintain the lineage of the 10th Madras Infantry, including all battle honours and traditions.
The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today