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Institutions that educated Madrasis

DT Next takes a look at the abodes of learning that formed the basis of higher education in the State.

Institutions that educated Madrasis

Illustration: Saai

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CHENNAI: If Chennai tops the social indices in many fields today, it’s because of education, which looked markedly different in the days of yore. Colleges and universities focused more on strengthening arts, culture, films, sports, animal care and even ancient languages like Sanskrit. DT Next takes a look at the abodes of learning that formed the basis of higher education in the State.


The knowledge ecosystem for which Chennai is known today originated early in the 1800s. A series of colleges were started to educate the common men. Many of these colleges are not functioning and their buildings in ruins. But the sense of importance of learning inculcated in the people of the city still goes strong.

The regular colleges that we see today were supplemented by colleges imparting a different field. Starting from the Art of War in Officers’ Academy to home science, a host of subjects have been taught by other colleges in the city.

They include agriculture, animal care, music, flying, catering, filming, fashion, sports and Sanskrit. With Teachers Day fast approaching, here are colleges that had an entirely different curriculum instead of the routine arts and engineering colleges that have flooded the city today.

The Veterinary College

Before automobiles became the ultimate option of travel and commute, the bullock cart or the horse drawn jutka were the main modes of transport within the city. So, there were thousands of animals within the city. To treat sick animals, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) functioned on a large plot with a veterinary clinic on Vepery High Road, with a colonial bungalow called Dubbin Hall opposite to it.

Meanwhile, the Madras Veterinary College (MVC) was started as an equine treatment school with five students in a temporary structure at Saidapet in 1903. The MVC started on October 1, 1903, in the rented Dubbin Hall from SPCA, which later gifted the land.

A handsome brick-faced two-storied Indo-Saracenic building was built, which survives even today. Two crossed stone tusks greet a visitor upon entry. It’s one of the oldest veterinary schools in the country and of the very few colleges to offer separate courses on elephant and camel management.

The Government College of Arts

The Madras School of Art was established in 1850 by Dr Alexander Hunter, a surgeon, as a private art school. It was common then, for doctors to dabble in other fields too. Madras owes its zoos, museums and botanical gardens to such doctors. In 1852, after being taken over by the government, it was renamed as the Government School of Industrial Arts. During British rule in India, the company found that Madras had many talented and artistic minds.

They decided to establish an institute that would cater to the artistic expectations of the royals in London. At first, traditional artists were employed to produce furniture, metalwork, and curios, and their work was sent to England.

The school was located at Popham’s Broadway. In 1852, it was shifted to its present premises, a four-acre campus on Poonamalle High Road. A focus on art for art’s sake was introduced with Indian principals especially, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. The statues and paintings done by students adorn the prime public places in the country. Even a dropout, Maniam, became illustrator of historic novels of Kalki.

The Film Institute

Tamil cinema started speaking in 1931. Soon, there was a flurry of activity and studios of all southern languages started coming up. The government felt this was a booming industry and people needed to be trained in various aspects of it. The film institute was established in 1945 as Adyar Film Institute and was a part of the Central Polytechnic.

In 1965, it moved into its present campus in Taramani. At the time, the campus was spread over 54 acres, which has been reduced over the following decades. Parts of land were given to the IIT Madras and many private IT companies, bringing it down to the present 10 acres.

A full-fledged ‘Film City’ is situated adjoining the college campus. In 2006, it was renamed MGR Film and Television Training Institute. It boasts of an illustrious alumnus, with many yesteryear actors and today’s stars, including superstar Rajinikanth, having trained there.

East India Company College

The East India Company College, which operated here between 1812 and 1854, was essential to the establishment of the Nungambakkam area. Madras Collector Ellis established the college to teach officials for acclimatisation to local languages and culture.

Ellis gathered the college faculty — Indian lecturers, Tamil pundits, Telugu experts and Urdu munshis – to instruct the British and Scottish officers. Ellis made certain that instructors from non-Brahminical castes, primarily from the Pandaram and Vellala groups, were selected who were well-versed in Tamil religious writings.

There was an Indian headmaster who supervised the teachers to lecture and arranged for the printing of books. Students studied for two years, and those who cleared the exams got promotions and diplomas from the Governor himself.

A year after starting college, Ellis got a printing press. The first thesauruses in the subcontinent were printed here. The college was closed when the company was taken over by the British monarchy, but it had contributed substantially to Tamil ethos. The Tirukkural was first translated here, and the Dravidian group of languages first identified here as well.

The Sanskrit College

In a city known for its opposition to northern languages, a Hindi Prachar Sabha and a Sanskrit college have been functioning for a century. Madras had a long association with Sanskrit and Sarva Desa Vilasa (Madras described as an abode of gods), an 18th-century text in Sanskrit, describes many places in Madras during the colonial times.

The Madras Sanskrit College, founded in Mylapore in 1906, is the country’s oldest Sanskrit-based educational institution. It was formed by prominent lawyer V Krishnaswami Iyer, who saw the gurukulam concept vanishing under the onslaught of western education, a shrinking number of professors, and rapidly worsening Sanskrit education standards. By rehabilitating and revitalising Sanskrit in this region of the country, the college has validated its founder’s goals.

The college contains an exceptional collection of ancient and mediaeval Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscripts. One of these is the Gaja Sastra, a Sanskrit veterinary treatise for elephant care. Gandhi and Tagore who visited this college were astonished by its success in resurrecting a rapidly fading ethos.

Music College

The year 1940s was a turbulent time in the music scene in Madras. The choice of language and thus the composers were a great issue of infighting. After the independence, TS Avinasilingam Chettiar, the Education Minister of Madras, decided that a well-planned institution for musical education was the need of the hour.

Till then, for hundreds of years, it was a gurukul style of learning that was in vogue. The Central College of Karnatic Music was started in Santhome in August 1949 in ‘Rahmed Bagh’ with Musri Subramania Iyer as the first principal. After a couple of location changes, it ended up in Brodie Castle on Greenways Road.

Brodie Castle had been built on 11 acres in 1798 by the East India Company’s civil servants on the quibble island. The tranquil Adyar river flowed on its rear. In the beginning, the college taught vocal, violin and veena besides inculcating general musicology for a two-year Sangeetha Vidwan title course. Now, the college has grown and has departments of mridangam, nadaswaram, thavil, flute, ghatam, kanjeera, nattuvangam and Bharatanatyam.

YMCA College of Physical Education

Harry Crowe Buck, an American college sports coach and physical education instructor, founded the YMCA Sports College, which played a key role in promoting sports, and in establishing the Olympic movement in India.

The college stands as a hallmark for training physical education teachers and coaching the students in skills and techniques of games. Started in 1920, it’s the first Physical Education College of South Asia. The college surprisingly started in cramped George Town, moved to Royapettah before residing in the 64-acre campus on the Mount Road in Nandanam.

The college became co-educational in 1940 and is also one of the first colleges of physical education to promote sports for persons with disability and sports medicine. Buck was a manager of the Indian team at the 1924 Olympics. When India competed at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, the Indian team comprised seven athletes and seven tennis players (including two women), with Buck as manager. They trained in the YMCA college.

Teachers’ College

The banks of the Adyar were very cool and verdant and the government thought it was ideal for teaching classes. The East India Company was serious about providing education to Indians. But with a long term plan for the presidency, they decided a college to train teachers was the first step to enhance learning far into the future.

The Institute of Advanced Study in Education, Saidapet, popularly known as Teachers’ College is the premier Teacher Training institution in our country and the first of its kind in Asia. Its origin is to be traced back to the Government Normal School started in Vepery in 1856. With affiliation with the University of Madras in 1887, the institution then came to be called the Teachers’ College and was shifted to Saidapet. The college building was constructed in 1889.

Two girls were admitted for the first time to the college in the LT Class in 1892. Incidentally, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whose birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day, trained here to be a teacher having secured an LT Qualification from the college. Teachers’ College is one of the main reasons the Madras Presidency was far ahead of the rest of the country in education.

The college has had many notable educators and teachers since its inception. Some of its prominent alumni include, VS Srinivasa Sastri. A college in the south African town of Durban is named after him – Sastri College.

The Agricultural College

Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), the premier varsity in this part of the world, now at Coimbatore, had its humble beginnings on the lush land surrounded by the Long Tank on the one side and the Adyar River. Through the persistent efforts of William Robertson and Charles Benson (graduates of the Royal Agricultural College of Cirencester, UK), an experimental farm was established first in Saidapet in 1863.

It soon incorporated a high school-level teaching facility in farm skills. A Saidapet plough was developed on this site and a new type of sheep, called the Saidapet sheep, was bred here. After a three-year study of a few agricultural disciplines, this college offered a diploma in agriculture.

The 300-acre area was allocated to the experimental farm in the 1860s but it was reduced to 20 acres by the turn of the century as the government reclaimed more property. The Government of Madras relocated the college to Coimbatore in 1906, and the site was developed into a golf course and government residences.

A survey school that became Anna University

Known as one of the foremost knowledge creators in this part of the world, Anna University began as a survey school for orphans. When the British government was establishing itself in India, there was a need for surveyors to measure the land to increase revenue. So, the decision to start a Surveying School in St George Fort in 1794 was taken and the main aim was to train the orphaned children of British soldiers.

In 1858, it was transformed into a Civil Engineering College, which was shifted to Kalasa Mahal in Chepauk Palace. With continuous growth, the college was shifted to Guindy, a place amid lush thickets and forests. Deer from the forest used to cross over till recently into the campus. It was then that the college was renamed as ‘College of Engineering, Guindy’.

The college was designed by architect WA James, who conceived the building based on the Indo-Saracenic styles of architecture. Exemplary principals led the college. One of them was Professor Love, who wrote the important ‘Vestiges of Madras’, a book considered to be a bible of Madras history.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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