When Mahatma Gandhi set foot in colonial Madras on October 24, 1896, he was a visitor from a distant continent and had little idea that he would one day return to his homeland for good. He also had no idea if India would ever become independent and that he would be remembered and honoured as the Father of the Nation.
Gandhi returned to Madras 13 times and his carefully chronicled life depicts the evolution he underwent. With every visit, there was a change in him — from his clothes, speech, ideas to attitude.
Revisiting the records shows us the metamorphosis of Gandhi from Mohandas to Mahatma. Interestingly, his physical stature grew diminutive even as his aura became gigantic. The accounts also show us how the city transformed from a British hub into a nationalist nerve centre. There was a difference in the cityscape, the outlook of its citizens as well as their interests and biases.
1. When he first stepped into the city, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi preferred dressing in suits and staying in opulent hotels run by the British
2. Gandhi with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji
3. On his second visit, the suits were replaced with Kathiawar shirts, panjakacha dhotis and turbans
4. Gandhi at the Cosmopolitan Club
The extravagant first visit
In 1896, an extremely different version of Gandhi than what most people are familiar with, stepped into the city. Dressed in a suit (refer to photo 1), Gandhi stayed in a British-run hotel called Buckingham in George Town. He had a habit of meticulously maintaining accounts and we learn much about him from it. During his tours around the then Madras, he watched jugglers, magicians and other street performers and tipped them lavishly. Gandhi also splurged a great deal on stationery, books (including those in Tamil), laundry and food. His food habits too were strikingly extravagant. When one could buy a good meal for 2 annas during that time, he spent 1 rupee 4 annas on a meal.
First speech and its consequences
Gandhi’s first speech in the city was far away from the fiery orations that would one day unite the country against the foreign rule.
His speech was titled “The Plight of Indians in South Africa” and lasted for a tiring one-and-a-half hours.
The newspapers in Madras reported that Gandhi “read out” a protracted speech which the crowd at Pachaiyappan Hall (an imitation of an Athenian temple) was patient enough to sit through.
News agency Reuters misreported the news back home in South Africa and on his return to that country, Gandhi was beaten up in the port by angry locals.
The second visit and makeover
By 1916, Gandhi had returned to India for good and 20 years later, he visited Madras for the second time.
The reception committee was waiting for him in the first class alighting area of the station but Gandhi had opted for a third class compartment. The committee had to jog all the way to the other end of the station to receive him.
This time, however, there was a marked difference in Gandhi’s attire. He had ditched the suit and worn a Kathiawar shirt, a panjakacha dhoti and a turban (refer to photo 3).
He was already popular in Madras and the organisers had arranged a horse-drawn chariot for him. But, enthusiastic students who were a part of the procession freed the horses and pulled the chariot themselves.
At that time, the future father of the nation was not against the British rule at all. In fact, in a meeting held at People’s Park with the entire high court in attendance, Gandhi thanked the British empire. “Nowhere else in the world can you get as much freedom as under the British crown.”
He would, however, change his stance after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 13 April 1919.
The punishment for being Gandhi
Gandhi was a stickler for time and during the later part of his life, would not waste a minute on leisure activities. During the earlier visits to Madras, however, Gandhi let his itinerary loose and let the events of the day plan out by itself. He also spent a lot of time entertaining himself. Since he was a popular man, all the who’ who of the city invited him and held feasts and festivities almost daily in his honour. Once, he listened to a Veena kutchey under the Adyar banyan tree in the Theosophical Society. He was also taken to Victoria Public Hall to watch Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s play Harichandra. Gandhi’s friend and roundtable conference partner Srinivasa Sastri remarked “This is Gandhi’s punishment for being Gandhi.”
Dress code smashed to smithereens
In 1925, Gandhi visited the Cosmopolitan Club known for its strict dress code where even collarless shirts were not allowed. Gandhi went to the club without a shirt. Expecting this, the president of the club Thyagaraja Chetty (after whom T Nagar was named) boycotted the meeting. The rest of the officials, however, welcomed Gandhi with a garland of hand spun khaddar yarn. Today, the Cosmopolitan Club flaunts a life-size oil painting (refer to photo 4) and a bust of Gandhi in front of the building in remembrance of that meeting.
Students switch silk for khadi
A few years after Women’s Christian College was founded, it hosted its most famous visitor — Mahatma Gandhi. In 1925, he addressed the students who were reportedly so excited about the visit that they dressed in their finest silks and then ‘in the nick of time’ (according to an article printed in the college magazine, The Sunflower, that year) switched their silks for khadi to impress him. The students’ choir also sang ‘Abide with me’ which was one of his favourite hymns.
1,200 cobblers, kin meet Gandhi
In 1927, Gandhi held a meeting with cobblers at YMCA grounds in Saidapet which was attended by 1,200 cobblers and their families from Madras and its surrounding areas. Gandhi’s love for working on leather was well-known. He even stitched his sandals and bound books by himself. He had learned the craft in South Africa from his close German friend Kallenbach.
Uplifter being lifted to balcony
About 2 lakh people had gathered on Triplicane beach to attend a meeting called by Gandhi in the 1930s. The turnout surprised the British who knew that the people had come on their own accord. Soon, there was almost a stampede as people tried to get close to Gandhi. He managed to speak for only seven minutes and was escorted away safely. During another gathering, held on the on the first floor of a building in Kannappar Vasaga Salai, Royapuram, Gandhi was held up by the sheer number of people inside the building. There was hardly any space for him to take the stairs, hence, he sat on a chair and allowed others to lift him to the first floor balcony.
Taking a bus from T Nagar
It was 1946 when Gandhi visited Madras for the last time. The occasion was the silver jubilee of Hindi Prachar Sabha. The entire area had been decked up with several decorative arches leading to the compound. Gandhi wanted to review the decorated gates of the Hindi Prachar Sabha and walked onto one at Thanikachalam Road in T Nagar. Realising that the others were pretty far away, he flagged down a corporation bus destined for Mylapore and made the driver take a diversion to drop him to the next gate. The crew and the passengers were possibly too surprised to even react.
Chancing upon Sathyagraha
Fortune Hotel that stands in Cathedral Road now, was the house rented by freedom fighter Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, who was fondly known as Rajaji. In 1919, Gandhi stayed at the house while on a visit. It was here that one day, close to dawn, an idea occurred to him in a half-awake state: “Why not refuse to co-operate with the rulers?” A nation-wide strike would paralyse the British administration in a peaceful way. He discussed it with Rajaji in the morning (refer to photo 2) and soon emerged the concept of Non-Cooperation Movement and the Satyagraha.
Encounter with Rajaji’s father
Once Gandhi called on Rajaji’s ailing father at ‘Venkata Vilas’. But the old man, a retired judge, was angry at Gandhi for having ruined his entire family by ‘mesmerising’ his son Rajaji into the nationalist movement. So when Gandhi’s visit was announced, there were many who were anxious of the encounter as Chakravarthi Iyengar had predicted calamitous consequences. But, hours before Gandhi arrived, the ailing man woke up and asked for his best clothes. Although weak and in pain, he rose from his seat to greet Gandhi with folded hands and welcomed him with a “Namaste”. Gandhi bowed before senior Chakravarthi and called him an illustrious father of an able son and spoke highly of Rajaji’s contribution to the nation. To everybody’s surprise, Chakravarthi Iyengar said that he was more than happy with what his son was doing for the country.
Refraining from speaking on politics
In 1933, when Gandhi undertook a fast in Yerawada Jail, he had been officially released but until he was let go from the premises, he considered himself a prisoner and refrained from speaking on politics. He undertook his special Harijan tour to Madras to reconcile with the untouchables. This made independence movement activist KM Munshi likened Gandhi to a digvijaya of Buddha.
Many, however, were afraid that he was diluting Hinduism by calling upon temples to open their doors to all castes and creed. The freedom fighters, on the other hand were concerned that he was weakening the Civil Disobedience Movement by not talking on politics. Placards that read “Go back Gandhi” came up in a few places and many city walls were scribbled with anti-Gandhi slogans and graffiti.
Mahatma’s death and Gandhipattanam
In 1948, the news of Gandhi being shot dead reached the people of Madras through public radios in parks and beaches. The city went into mourning. The Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten and his family, who were in Madras for a visit and rushed back to Delhi as soon as the news broke. After the funeral was over in Delhi, the Marina Beach was crowded with thousands shaving off their hair and bathing in the sea in mourning.
The urn containing Gandhi’s ashes was placed in Rajaji Hall, formerly known as Banquetting Hall, for people to pay their respects and was then immersed into the sea by the then chief minister OP Ramaswamy Reddiyar. Footage of the funeral held in Delhi were shown in cinema theatres. The town planning and improvement standing committee of the corporation even recommended renaming Madras to Gandhipattinam.
Taking time out for a friend
In 1915, freedom fighter VO Chidambaram Pillai dispatched a letter to Gandhi which read: “Dear Brother, I have had the luck of seeing you and my revered Mrs Gandhi when you came out of the Railway station the other evening… I want to have a personal meeting with you at any time convenient to you before you leave Madras.”
To which Gandhi replied straightaway with a single line missive: “If you kindly call at 6am next Friday, I could give you a few minutes”.
Pillai, who once owned two ships but was by then in poverty, replied: “I cannot reach your place before 6.30 am. The tram car, the only means of transportation which I can now afford, leaves Mylapore after 5.30 in the morning”. Gandhi obliged and the two met soon after.
Gandhi, the fundraiser
Gandhi was great at raising funds. Knowing his value among those who collect memorabilia, he once auctioned the trowels he used to lay the foundation stone at Thakkar Baba School. It was sold for Rs 2,000. In another instance, the papers he wrote a speech for a students’ meeting in General Patters Road was bartered for two gold bangles. Gandhi also raised funds through his autographs. He would charge Rs 5 for each of them.