Colourful dubashes: The people with two tongues of Madras

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
Colourful dubashes: The people with two tongues of Madras

CHENNAI: The list of achievements of the dubashes in political and commercial fields, as well as in charity and patronage are significant. But along with those, their abuse of power and corruption makes early history of Madras rather vibrant. Even today in Georgetown and Purasaivakkam, several streets are still named after dubashes.

When the kings and zamindars in Madras were being eased out of history; only those closest to the omnipotent British were likely to become the new aristocracy. As the trade of the East India Company was wholly with the local people, it naturally drew to their proximity some who were capable of learning two languages and could interpret. The word dubash comes from ‘do bash’ (two languages).

In a sense, the oldest profession of this city was that of dubash. Training for dubash included speaking English, accounting and business negotiation skills. As influence and recommendation was the main criterion for appointment as a dubash, family clusters can be found serving the same firms or families. After the retirement of a dubash, his sons or brothers inherited the mantle.

Despite being described as an interpreter and an economic intermediary, dubash bridged cultural divides as well between the company and the natives. The East India Company did not clash with the Indians in many serious situations.

When the company decided to flatten the black city to provide an esplanade for the fort, they were unsure on how to remove the Chennakeshava Perumal temple for natives had worshipped him for a hundred years.

Dubash Manali Muthurishna Mudaliar came to their rescue. He cleverly got a grant of land and money for the replacement temple and built two instead of the one demolished shrine.

Initially dubashes were a class created by the East India Company for its own needs, but they soon had a distinct authority of their own. In the 1600s the eldest of them was given the title of Chief Merchant of the East India Company. The dubash of the governor was the most powerful man in black town and his word was considered the law.

The dubashes lived in pomp, travelling in palanquins and even had poets write verses in honour of them. Tired of residing in the crowded black town, they created their own suburb Komaleeshwarampet (locals called it Pudupet) on the banks of the Cooum.

But dubashes were remembered more for their public works than personal grandeur. It was a time when religion and performing arts in the South were without patrons. Like the kings of yore, they built and managed temples. A dubash Sundaresa Mudaliyar, a benefactor of the arts, hosted one of the Carnatic trinity Thyagaraja in his Madras house. Thyagaraja wrote almost a dozen songs while in Madras.

As the company transitioned from a merchant to a ruler, trade declined. Tax collection, protection money from Indian rulers and other forms of revenue appeared bigger for the company. Dubashes were needed for negotiating with kings and peasants to collect taxes and settle disputes.

By 1750, when the hand of a dubash was found wherever there was financial malfeasance or political intrigue, the career of dubashes had to come to an end. The British Parliament itself debated the evils of dubash’s influence and suggested that dubash should be the first post to be removed when the Company consolidated itself.

One dubash who brought down the whole system down was Avathanum Paupiah, who started out as a clerk at the customs department. He would be noted in many British records as a ship owner and zamindar of Chingelpet at the peak of his career.

When Paupiah’s boss becomes the governor of Madras, Paupiah ran a reign of corruption and chaos. Understandably, He was caught up in a scandal and was prosecuted for forging evidence against his employer’s foremost rival. Twenty-seven hours of testimony, a three-day trial and Paupiah was eventually sentenced to three years in prison and fined two thousand pounds. Paupiah is immortalised in Walter Scott’s novel The Surgeon’s Daughter.

The greatest of all dubashes, Pachaiyappan Mudaliar who had migrated to Madras as a young orphan, learnt English and French and became dubash at the age of 16. By the time he died (without heirs) he was perhaps richer than many Indian kings of his era.

At one time Pachaiyappan Mudaliar would lend up to one lakh pagodas to the King of Thanjavur to clear his tax arrears. The impact of the dubash benevolence was felt long after they vanished.

— The writer is a historian and an author

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