A journey from rags to riches
This is the story of a vegetable seller who became a prince; a penniless ten-year-old who grew up to become one of the richest men in the City; who opened several educational institutions, helped build one of Bangalore’s most iconic buildings and established orphanages and homes for needy people. This is the story of Dharmarathnakara Rai Bahadur Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar.
My interest in Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar was piqued when I came upon his samadhi (grave) in Ulsoor one day. I realised that though I was familiar with the initials RBANM, I knew nothing of the person who had built not just so many schools and colleges, but also the Attara Kacheri. Curious to know more about the man who left us such an impressive legacy, I sought out T V Annaswamy, great-grand-nephew of Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, President of the RBANM’s Educational Charities and author of a very informative book on Bangalore’s history.
Annaswamy showed me a collage about his family that he is putting together. Alongside the family tree and portraits of various people including Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, was a picture of vegetables. “That is there because he began his career as a vegetable seller,” explained the soft-spoken gentleman. It was the beginning of an inspiring rags-to-riches story driven by resourcefulness, determination and hard work.
Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar was born into an aristocratic family. His great-grandfather was secretary to the Raja of Gingee. His grandfather Muthu Pillai also did well for himself as a headman and supplier of provisions to the Raja. But fate dealt him a serious blow when a fire destroyed everything he had. Muthu Pillai died soon after leaving his son Muniyappa Mudaliar virtually penniless.
Muniyappa’s son Narrainsawmy Mudaliar was born on May 14, 1827. With a family to feed, Muniyappa desperately needed to earn a livelihood. Some 200 km away, the recently established British Cantonment of Bangalore beckoned with the promise of jobs and opportunities. Muniyappa heeded the call and moved to Bangalore to work as an accountant.
But when Muniyappa died soon after, it fell to Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, then a ten-year-old child, to support his widowed mother and his two younger brothers. How he managed it for the first few years, we do not know, but in 1850, when he was 22 years old, he began to trade in vegetables, buying them in Bangalore and selling them in Chennai. “I don’t know how he did it, because in those days, the train only ran till Bowringpet (Bangarapet),” says Annaswamy, with quiet pride.
The venture was successful and he soon expanded into the lucrative salt trade, buying ‘Madras salt’ as it was known, to sell in Bangalore. Business prospered and before long, Narrainsawmy Mudaliar had set aside enough capital to open a shop in the Cantonment, with a branch in the Infantry Barracks following shortly after. As he established a name for himself, his list of customers quickly grew to read like a who’s who of Bangalore.
His most illustrious client was the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who became a patron in 1859. From then on, Narrainsawmy Mudaliar remained forever devoted to the Maharaja. “He even changed the name of his shop from Mysore Hall to Mysore Maharaja Hall,” says Annaswamy. A biography written in the early 1900s recounts how the Maharaja once inquired if there was any favour he could bestow on the merchant. Narrainsawmy Mudaliar’s gallant reply: he wished no other favour than His Highness’ grace.
Story behind building contract
How did a trader with no experience in construction then build one of Bangalore’s grandest edifices? In the early 1860s, the then British Commissioner of Mysore, Lewin Bentham Bowring, decided to construct a new building to house the Public Offices, the old premises in Tipu’s Palace being considered unsuitable. Col Richard Sankey designed the building and the contract for construction was awarded to M/s Wallace and Co. As Annaswamy notes, thanks to his shop in the barracks, Narrainsawmy Mudaliar had an ear to the ground and soon heard that Wallace and Co. planned to subcontract the construction work. Sensing an opportunity, he partnered with Bansilal Ramrathan, the regimental banker, and bid for the project. His reputation and the high esteem he was held in helped Narrainsawmy Mudaliar get the contract.
The Attara Kacheri, which now houses the High Court, was built to exacting standards.
Says Annaswamy, who retired as the Joint Director of Town Planning, Government of Karnataka, “I am a civil engineer. I checked the building’s joints by running my nails through them. Even after all these years, they were good. The mortar was still good!”
Respect and money
The timely and satisfactory completion of the building earned Narrainsawmy Mudaliar considerable respect and also money. He used this windfall to diversify into other businesses. He set up a valuation and auctioneering firm called the Bangalore Agency on South Parade (as MG Road was called then). Thanks to his Midas touch, this venture flourished too. In fact, his success in business earned him the sobriquet Merchant Prince of Bangalore.
The Prince used his wealth to help those who were less fortunate. He had a particularly keen interest in education. Finding a lack of good schools for Indians in the Cantonment, he established a free English primary school in 1873. Other branches and schools soon followed, including a technical training institute, and some schools exclusively for girls.
In 1893, at the foundation-laying ceremony of an orphanage that Narrainsawmy Mudaliar established, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, spoke warmly of the many charitable institutions that the generous merchant had founded. He recalled how during the great famine of 1876-77, Narrainsawmy Mudaliar had built rest houses and had taken up the maintenance and care of many destitute children. To quote Lord Lansdowne, Bangaloreans “owe a deep debt of gratitude to the benevolence of Mr Narrainsawmy Mudaliar.”
It was in recognition of his services that in 1877, he was given the title Rai Bahadur by the British. Later, in 1894, Maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar gave him the additional title Dharmarathnakara.
Today, the fifteen educational institutions that bear his name are run by the RBANM’s Educational Charities. The Rai Bahadur having no children, successive generations of brothers and nephews have managed them for more than 100 years. “They say his spirit is still here,” says Annaswamy. “Perhaps that is why whenever we are in some great difficulty, it somehow gets resolved,” he says, gazing at the photo of Narrainsawmy Mudaliar that adorns his office. “I don’t take a single decision without looking at him…He is a role model for most of his family members.”