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Those were the days: A premier college that imparts technical education
Chinnaswamy Rajam founded Madras Institute of Technology to make India technically self-sufficient
In 1949, when bullock carts were still the mode of transport, a college in Madras offered to teach its students Engineering in Aeronautical, Automobile and Electronics for the first time in India. Madras Institute of Technology was created ahead of the IITs and ambitiously had the same acronym as of the Boston College.
The 27-acre location seemed apt for more than one reason. Highly industrialised Chromepet itself was named after a business establishment (the other Madras locality being Parry’s). Prophetically, it also had two world war hangars within, perhaps supporting the Tambaram airfield. And more importantly, it was a leather industry area, a field in which the institute’s founder had made his first million.
The man responsible for its inception, Chinnaswamy Rajam was born in Swamimalai and after failing in early businesses even became a Congress volunteer because one meal was assured daily. But soon enough destiny beckoned and he put up a leather product sales stall in the highly crowded Mahamaham festival in Kumbakonam. By the time the festival ended, Rajam had booked orders for Rs.10,000, a princely sum those days. More importantly, he also gained an immense self-confidence and delved deep into the leather business. Rajam was often said to have booked advance amounts for Mysore tanneries even when the hide was still on the back of the live animals.
The leather industry was too small for him. He started trading in coal tar and cars. He, finally, became a notable business magnate with his investments in steel and electricity. Rajam built a palatial house on Edwards Elliot’s Road (later owned by Sivaganga Raja and SS Vasan) and patriotically called it ‘India House’. Rajam’s socialising parties were popular and attended by the who’s who of that time. Rajam, becoming a connoisseur of arts, also sponsored the first concert of a skinny little girl from Madurai who sang as her mother played the Veena. The launch was lucky for MS Subbulakshmi and she never looked back.
When Rajam was forced to hire German engineers to work at his steel mills in Nagapattinam, he realised that there was a dearth of competent technical engineers in India. The idea to start the institute must have been sparked then.
But the immediate trigger was when Rajam lost his son and his wife in quick succession. He found life bereft of interest thereafter. He was slowly becoming ascetic but then he still had that one burning desire – to make India technically self-sufficient. To fund the institute, Rajam sold his house for a sum of Rs 5 lakh and moved to a rented place.
The inaugural function was held inside the aeroplane hangar that was already in the premises in 1949. Kumarasamy Rajah, the then Chief Minister of Madras, did the honours and Rajam hoped that enthusiastic engineer-scientists would emerge out of the institute. It was obvious that Rajam dreamt of great future for his students. The function ended with the national anthem sung by students from the Queen Mary’s College.
The college opened with 96 students from all over the country as Rajam boasted and was ably supported by many who realised its potential. GD Naidu took all the students on an internship at his factories. The Birla family built two hostels. Remembering how Rajam sponsored the musical event in which she made her Madras debut in 1933, MS Subbulakshmi went on to do charity concerts to collect funds.
In its initial days, the institute was not well-equipped and science practicals were conducted on the Madras Christian College campus in Tambaram. The timing was from 6 am to 9 am, before the regular MCC students came. True to the vision of the founder, the institute became a premier college for imparting technical training. The Prime Minister attended the convocation of the first batch, realising how many from this college would replace foreigners in the Indian Army. Much later, when the college was celebrating its golden jubilee year came the news that one of the alumni had been awarded India’s highest civilian honour of Bharat Ratna. He studied Aeronautical Engineering in the hope of becoming a fighter pilot. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the cockpit or the Indian Army. But, ironically, he ended up as the Commander of Chief of the Indian Armed Forces by virtue of becoming perhaps India’s most popular President. He is none other than Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Chinnaswamy Rajam’s dream had indeed been fulfilled.
— The writer is a historian and an author