Gandhi's Rs 2k royalty

Some of the exhibits on display at the centenary celebrations of the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai.

Mahatma Gandhi’s six-and-half minutes talk, recorded for the Columbia Gramophone Company, at Kingsley Hall in London, had fetched him a royalty of “approximately Rs.2000”.

His speech was recorded on Oct 18, 1931 and the gramophone record, voicing his intense reflections on God, hit the market in December that year.

The ‘arrangement’ made with Mr. Gandhi was that the royalties realized from the sale of these records “would be paid to a charity named by him”.

Though Gandhiji, through a letter from London, wanted the royalty amount to be paid to the ‘All Spinners Association at Ahmedabad’, the sole agent in South India for the products of Columbia Gramophone Company and based in Madras, was not sure of the Association’s background then.

“In view of the recent political developments, we prefer to take the instructions of the Government in this matter,” the MD of ‘ORR’s Columbia House’, the agent, wrote in a letter to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras, Fort St. George, dated Jan 9, 1932, furnishing details of the royalty due to Mr. Gandhi from the sale of his gramophone records.

Interestingly, the letter also pleaded with the then British Authorities not to ban the India sale of the records, “as they do not contain anything whatever of a political nature and were passed by the India Office (in London) as unobjectionable. A sales ban, it said, would mean a loss of Rs. 30,000 as they still had “approximately 12,000 of Gandhi’s records”.

This letter not merely recorded, unwittingly though, for posterity about a little known fact of Gandhiji’s life, but was also a reflection of the politics, protocol and culture of those days, leave alone a testimony to how letters written to the ‘Raj’ ended with the words, “Your Most Obedient Servants.” The domain of archival and historical materials is full of such nuggets. Again, how many knew that in an open letter ( Feb 4, 1941), when Gandhi wrote to Hitler, explaining the concept of non-violence and non-cooperation, he addressed the latter as ‘Dear Friend’. Find it shocking?

“That I address you as a friend is no formality. I owe  (have ) no  foes,” explains the Mahatma earnestly, in that bold and candid letter to the German dictator.
Windows to such rare occurrences in history opening up are rarer still. But scores of such unique, fascinating and priceless documents and papers saw the light of day in Chennai last week, as curtains went up on the ‘Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research’, housed in a splendid red-brick Indo-Saracenic architectural style building here, to mark its Centenary.

A Jan 26, 1796 dated Intelligence report on the movement of Tipoo Sultan during the ‘Mysore War’, another Intelligence letter of Feb 12, 1797, to the Government disclosing a plan of then Afghan Ruler, Zaman Shah, in concert with Tipoo Sultan, for the “ultimate purpose of depressing the British power in India,” were among the catalogued documents on display.

That a revolt by sepoys at Vellore (in Tamil Nadu) preceded the great 1857 Mutiny is testified by a record, dated 19 July, 1806, on the ‘Mutiny at Vellore’. It notes that the Mutiny was due to “introduction of new turbans and orders forbidding religious marks.”

Immolation of widows

Surely, the agony expressed by an English Magistrate of Tanjore (as Thanjavur was then called) about Government officers having “no means” to prevent the frequent practice of immolation of widows on the funeral pile of their husbands (‘sati) in that district, in a ‘special report’ to the Government on July 27, 1821, could well fascinate  a sociologist.

Equally significant in its persisting relevance is a document containing Queen Victoria’s proclamation, declaring that all British territories in India came directly under the Crown, in November 1858. It speaks of Great Britain taking up more constructive activities for the Queen’s “subjects” in India.

“In their prosperity will be our strength; in their contentment our security, and in their gratitude, our best reward,” says the Queen’s declaration. The Home Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram may find the choice of those words apt even now in quelling violence of the Maoist extremists.

An eye-catching letter from St. Helena (written on May 10, 1821) from France to Major General Sir Thomas Munro, then Governor of Madras, announcing the death of Napoleon due to cancer earlier in March that year and recording his post-mortem report, is another gem of a document.

A November 1799 official report on the trial and execution of the freedom fighter Veerapandiaya Kattabomma Naick, a January 16, 1941 Government Order disallowing the use of ‘Gandhi caps’ by ‘A’ Class prisoners since it was considered a ‘political symbol’, besides documents in Persian, Dutch and Tamil besides maps lend great variety to the rare exhibits.

As one ambles across, all these are strung by a common thread, namely the realization that recorded history is no dead wood. Confront any ‘Document’ or ‘Text’, and it opens up many layers of meaning and interpretation, as the great French philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say.

Precisely that phenomenology unfolded as one saw a mute and solid structure, the Tamil Nadu Archives, break its silence with a low-profile event to remember its own past. This was, notwithstanding, the State Deputy Chief Minister, Mr MK  Stalin, inaugurating the additional floors of the archival library built at a cost of Rs.83.40 lakhs, on the occasion.   

A treasure-trove of South Indian history, the Tamil Nadu Archives as a custodian and repository of primarily Government records, with the earliest preserved one in Dutch dated to the year 1657, truly reflects its teleology.  

Ricoeur had argued that writing history as a narrative was to “support, correct or refute collective memory”. In his vision of modern historiography, the build up and use of the “Archives that contain traces of the past”, was an essential constituent, even if the past at any point was not fully accessible.

“History-involving people” need some records of ‘collective memory’ even to defend, correct or refute it, as he pointed out. The military-economic conflict between the Colonial powers in search of virgin pastures then saw peninsular India at the threshold of a new history-making era.

One key manifest of that British consolidation phase was the setting up of the ‘Madras Record Office’ in 1909, in what was known as ‘Grassmere Garden’ in Egmore here, though its nucleus goes back much earlier to 1805.

Accumulation of records

Some of the exhibits on display at the centenary celebrations of the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai.Lord William Bentinck, the then Governor in Council at Fort St. George here, had ordered the “centralization of the Secretariat records which hitherto were scattered in various Departments,” says Mr. R.K. Khanna, Principal Secretary and Commissioner of Archives and Historical Research.  

By 1801, the whole of Madras Presidency had come under the spell of East India Company and the spurt in accumulation of records had compelled the Government to seriously think of their custody and preservation.

Bentinck even assigned a ‘records room’ in the Secretariat for the purpose, but it took another 103 years to evolve into a full-fledged separate establishment, recalled Mr. Khanna, who has just initiated an exciting project to digitize all the records in the Archives by micro-filming. The Archives’ Library now boasts of a staggering 2.30 lakhs rare books.

The majestic building in a seemingly romantic deep wood of four acres in Egmore, where the Archives stands like a silent sentinel, was built in 1909 after the Government of the day felt the need for a more spacious venue.

Even the Archives building’s architect is not yet known. “We guess it may be Robert Ghislom, the then Chief Government Architect who designed many State buildings of that time,” remembers another senior officer. For Tamil Nadu Archives, it is still history in the making, in Ricouer’s metaphor.

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