The acquittal at Pondicherry of the two Acharyas of the Kanchipuram Matth and of all the others brings fresh energy to Sri Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal’s lifecode of pushing beyond the limits of old-style worldviews despite the challenges. As many will recall, Swamiji broke with tradition as far back as 1987 to ‘disappear’ to the source of the holy Kaveri, where he reflected on his role as a modern religious head. He did not want to remain a remote figure but to actively engage with the world and promote seva. When he came back to Kanchi from his controversial retreat to Talakaveri, he set up the NGO ‘Jan Kalyan’ and inspired the Sankara Nethralayas. Although the politics rebounded, the seva holds. Swamiji had an exalted guru, the Paramacharya of Kanchi (1894-1994), who is still widely revered. He had a profound effect on many including the intense sculptor Sri Ganapati Stapathi who, after exchanging one look with the Paramacharya, vowed to carve only those idols which were meant for temples. Thereafter, the most interesting commissions came his way in India and from abroad, including the making of the magnificent ‘Somaskanda’ image in Delhi’s Uttara Swami Malai, popularly known as ‘Malai’ Mandir (‘malai’ means ‘hill’ in Tamil).
The news not only vivifies layers of memory and meaning about Tamil Nadu (Kanchipuram is about an hour’s easy drive from Chennai) but also joins in a curious way with a small news item in the latest edition of ‘Madras Musings’, an interesting eight-page fortnightly tabloid. This fortnight’s issue has a fascinating snippet about Madras hotelier Giacomo d’Angelis of Corsica. He set up a world class hotel on Mount Road in the early years of the last century with the first running hot water in taps, first electric fans and first fridges in South India. It seems the hotel also had a fine French restaurant and a pleasant garden where good food, famous around South and South-East Asia, was served to the strains of music. The death by drowning of a d’Angelis son (Carlos) in 1920 at a local jheel while trying to shoot duck was even reported in some detail across the sea in ‘The Straits Times’. And a grandson of Giacomo d’Angelis settled as far away as Santiago, Chile, has actually written to the ‘Madras Musings’ editor to take up these lost trails.
Now here’s a small but piquant twist, given how much cricket has been in the news this month. D’Angelis sold his hotel to another Madras-based Italian called Bosotto, who renamed the hotel after himself and sold it eventually to his Indian dairyman, a Chaudhry. But though lost to time as a grand hotel, the name ‘Bosotto’s’ lingers in cricket lore because it was here that game-changer Douglas Jardine and his team stayed on their way to play the Bodyline series in Australia.
Whether it is about reclaiming an old name or making a new one, don’t you think some intriguing stories have a resonance this week with ‘Madras that is Chennai’?