In my weekly column in The Hindu, I returned this week to one of my favourites – V Krishnaswami Aiyer. This concerned the controversy that surrounded the installing of his statue outside Senate House. He became the first Indian to have a statue for himself on the Marina.
Statues are dime a dozen in our city, today, but a 100 years ago, the idea of statues for Indians was unusual and indeed, a matter of debate and controversy. Almost the first Indian to have a statue in his honour was Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer, the first Indian judge of the High Court of Madras. This was bitterly opposed by many, chief among these being V. Krishnaswami Aiyer, then rapidly rising to the top of the legal profession. He, though second to none in his admiration of the late judge, felt it was against Hindu tenets to have statues put up for people. The statue was put up regardless, and remains a symbol of justice to many, in the centre of the High Court.
Ironically, it would be Krishnaswami Aiyer‘s turn in 17 years. After a dizzying rise in the Bar, he became judge and then member of the Governor’s Executive Council, only to pass away at the relatively young age of 47 on December 28, 1911. During that short life, he set up several enduring institutions — the Sanskrit College, Venkataramana Ayurveda Dispensary, Ranade Public Library, Mylapore Club and the Indian Bank, to name just a few. It was felt that a statue would be the best memorial for him. Funds poured in, of which Rs. 5,000 came from the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, the premier amateur dramatic society of Madras, of which he was president.
If Krishnaswami Aiyer had many admirers, he did not lack detractors either. The Hindu was one, for its proprietor Kasturiranga Iyengar had been cold-shouldered when he was a struggling lawyer. The Swadesamitran had never reconciled to Aiyer’s accepting the post of a judge, its former sub-editor Subramania Bharati in particular pouring scorn on him for joining the British-dominated judiciary.
When a public meeting was held on January 16, 1912, at the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall to consider the matter of a suitable memorial for Krishnaswami Aiyer, the opposition nearly managed to sway the tide of public opinion. Their chief argument was that Krishnaswami Aiyer had disliked statues. But they had not contended with Sir S. Subramania Iyer, then a Justice of the High Court and a mentor to Aiyer. His emotional speech carried the day and swung opinion in favour of the statue. The next day, The Hindu expressed distress that a man of Sir Subramania Iyer’s stature had displayed emotion in public.
The statue, the first beach-fronted one for an Indian, came up in due course outside Senate House. It was a singularly appropriate location, for Krishnaswami Aiyer had been a member of the University Senate and had also saved the beach from a proposal to build a railway line on it. The statue’s pedestal records that it was put up by public subscription, a statement that carefully hides the differences of opinion therein.
In 1935, Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s statue came up alongside and there the two remain, gazing at the sea.