From a manifesto to a movement

The author acknowledges in his new book, Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times , that part of the pull to write a history of the region was the “South Indianness” of his mother, Lakshmi Devadas Gandhi. In his four-centuries-long story, from 1600 to modern times, he attempts to study “the people inhabiting this varying, intricate peninsula.” It is a story of four powerful cultures — Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu — and “yet more than that, for Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya and Tulu cultures have also influenced it, as also other older and possibly more indigenous cultures.” Of the four principal cultures, which are “unsurprisingly competitive” and yet complementary, he finds the Tamil part the most Dravidian and possessing the oldest literature. An excerpt: The 1911 census showed that Brahmins were slightly over 3 per cent of Madras Presidency’s population, and non-Brahmins 90 per cent. Yet in the ten years from 1901 to 1911, Madras University turned out 4,074 Brahmin graduates compared with only 1,035 non-Brahmin graduates. Numbers for other groups (revealing also how the Empire classified the population at this time) included ‘Indian Christian’, 306, ‘Mohammedan’, 69, and ‘European & Eurasian’, 225. A little over 22 per cent of Tamil Brahmin males in the presidency were literate in English by 1911. The corresponding figure for Telugu Brahmins was 14.75, for Nairs in Malabar around 3, for Balija Naidus 2.6, and for Vellalas just over 2. Among Kammas, Nadars and Reddis, males literate in English were below half a per cent. Many more had attained mother tongue literacy: 72 per cent of Tamil Brahmins, 68 per cent of Telugu Brahmins, 42 per cent of Nairs, 20 per cent of Indian Christians, and 18 per cent of Nadars. The span from 1914 to 1918 — in Europe the World War I years — saw competition in Madras between nationalists and opponents of Brahmin domination. A small but significant advance for the latter was the opening in 1914 of ‘The Dravidian Home’ for non-Brahmin students. Financed by men like Panaganti Ramarayaningar (the Raja of Panagal), whose lands lay in the Telugu country to the north of Madras, this hostel was run by C. Natesa Mudaliar, a Vellala doctor in the city. Demand for Home Rule Leading the Madras nationalists was the Irishwoman Annie Besant (1847-1933), who had arrived in India in 1894 after tumultuous years in England where she announced that she was an atheist before embracing theosophy. Though also spending time in Varanasi, her political base was Madras, where in June 1914 she purchased a newspaper, renaming it New India . Through the paper, she asked for Home Rule for India. That stand, plus Besant’s oft-expressed adoration for India’s scriptures, her impressive bearing, and her eloquence made her a force to reckon with. The British in Madras, official and civil, responded to Besant with dislike, and New India was frequently asked to furnish security, all of which added to her popularity.

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