TODAY, Desoddaraka Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao is known by a flourishing park on the main highway of south Madras on Luz Church Road. But this multifaceted man should be remembered for many activities — all oriented towards alleviation of suffering of his fellow men. First of all, Rao should be recollected as the saviour who eased off Indian headaches over a century.
Rao was a product of Madras Christian College, but post graduation became trained as an apothecary (a term for a chemist who formulates and dispenses medicine that the doctor prescribes). He had a stint in a couple of medical manufacturing houses in Calcutta and Bombay where he learnt the basics of formulating medicines.
Nationalism was on the rise and so was the Swadeshi movement. Indians had started manufacturing import substitutes. Rao decided to become an entrepreneur and put together a concoction of herbs and chemicals into a yellow analgesic balm without which no Indian household could soon run — Amrutanjan. Though commanding a hefty price of 10 annas it was still popular and filled his coffers.
To propagate the balm, Rao would stand outside concerts and meetings and distributed it free of cost. The stratagem worked. Soon, there was not a house in India that didn’t store a bottle of this balm. And with hefty advertising soon it became a generic name for headache medicines.
He was advertising a lot that it made sense to start a newspaper of his own. Rao started the Andhra Patrika as a weekly in Bombay. But there was a poor response as it was a non-Telugu area. There was a need to shift it to Madras and when it came in 1914 to the city, its new avatar was as a daily.
Luz till then was a road of Brahmin lawyers. Buying a huge bungalow called Sribagh from a lawyer’s family, he put up his residence and Amrutanjan factory thereby giving an aromatic smell to that part of the road. Gandhi during his 1932 visit to Madras visited the house.
Next to his house was a pond (refilled annually by the overflow of the Mambalam Tank) called Aratha Kuttai. Half of the tank was owned by him. With Rao donating it to a public cause, it was filled and made into a flourishing park which exists in his name even today.
The Madras arrival of Rao was indeed a watershed moment for Telugu literature. Andhra Patrika was at many times the only Telugu daily being published with others joining and leaving the list. Top Telugu writers contributed to it and in fact, some of them had an initial break into writing because of Andhra Patrika. Its speciality was supplements and abundantly interspersed hand-drawn paintings and photographs. His publishing house — Andhra Grandha Mala — and the 120 libraries it created spread literacy and creative writing across the Telugu speaking areas of Madras presidency.
During the non-cooperation movement, salt satyagraha and the Quit India, it was a potent force that organised the Telugu population in anti-British activities. Pictures and advertising in this magazine are so valuable that historians can get an idea of Madras of the 20s and 30s from them. But the daily had its own specialities. While others were asking for foreign cloth to be burnt in bonfires, Andhra Patrika said the act of burning was by itself an expression of hatred and not conforming with the Gandhian ideals.
Very active in the Congress movement, Rao was given the title Desoddaraka or uplifter of the masses by the Andhra Mahasabha. Rajaji drew a plan for salt satyagraha based on the Gandhian model, but Madras, the capital city of the presidency, had no role in his planning. The Telugu population felt left out. As the entire Congress leadership was concentrating on Vedaranyam, Madras chose the leadership of Prakasam and Nageswara Rao. They reached Marina and started boiling brine while loud slogans rent the air. The salt was crystallised and auctioned, fetching them Rs 800. Though the marches were not very well organised, the agitators had indeed broken the salt law and challenged the British emperor. The police confiscated the salt and dispersed the satyagrahis. The police action attracted public interest and Madras began to witness confrontation with the police every day. After a trial that lasted barely three minutes, Prakasam and Nageswara Rao were slapped with a fine of Rs 500.
Though this Marina event is not well covered in the press or history, as a byproduct it crystallised not only the salt but also the Telugu unanimity in the Madras presidency. The salt satyagraha of Marina in which Rao along with Prakasam played an important role was a turning point of Telugu unification. With freedom almost assured, Indians started looking at other issues they would have to face once the British left. The main issue other than religion was linguistic ratios. Telugus have been a dominant force in the Madras city ever since its founding. The Telugus of Madras were worried about their future.
Rao became one of the founders of the Andhra Movement. However, soon differences started cropping up between coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. The leaders of the Andhra movement wanted to pluck the weed of differences before it grew.
In 1937, the leaders of both the regions sat for an agreement in Sribagh, the house of Rao, and discussed the conditions to be fulfilled if Rayalaseema should cooperate with the Coastal districts in the demand for an Andhra Province. This agreement came to be known as the Sribagh pact. This gelled the linguistic state movement which would come to the fore fifteen years later.
Sadly, however, Nageshwara Rao would not be alive to see his country becoming free or the birth of an Andhra state.
— The writer is a historian and an author