To most people who come to Ethiraja Kalyana Mandapam on TTK Road in Alwarpet, it is nothing more than a spacious wedding hall. However, its owner — the Narayana Guruviah Chetty Charities — makes it historically significant. According to the scholar Mattison Mines, this was probably the first of many posthumous personal trusts of Madras, and it completes a 100 this year.

Narayana Guruviah Chetty made out his will on October 12, 1915 and passed away on the 28th of the same month. The document was, to quote from the High Court records, “a detailed and elaborate one prepared under the instructions and with the assistance of a lawyer and contains 95 paragraphs.” What is more interesting than the list of bequests and beneficiaries is the brief biography that Guruviah Chetty writes, perhaps to emphasise that his fortunes were all earned by him through hard work and business acumen.

According to the will, his father Narayana Ramiah Chetty belonged to Sholavaram where he was “keeping a sundry bazaar and passing time being hard up for living.” When Guruviah was five, his maternal grandmother Chekka Mangamma brought him to Madras, entrusting him to the care of her son, Chekka Rungiah Chetty. Guruviah was educated to an extent and then apprenticed at Rs. 4 a month with Nagasurin Paupiah Chetty, a businessman of George Town. Having worked hard, he gained enough experience to be absorbed as a partner in his uncle’s business that was into making wooden crates. A few years later, he became a working partner in Chalavadi Raghaviah Chetty & Co, a firm dealing in piece goods with cloth imported from Manchester. He rose rapidly, for the firm soon became C Raghaviah Chetty, N Guruviah Chetty & Co and finally, N Guruviah Chetty & Co, with offices at Varadamuthiappan Street, George Town. With prosperity, he came to own houses and land at various places, including the distant village of Alwarpet.

His personal life was, however, full of strife. His first wife died childless. His second wife too did not conceive. Frustrated, he adopted Radhakrishna, his first wife’s nephew. The boy’s wedding was celebrated in style but he died soon thereafter. Guruviah was prepared to take care of the young widow but her parents took her away, and then, in what was a pathbreaking move for the times, got her married a second time. Guruviah broke all contact with her thereafter but allowed her to keep the jewels he had gifted her when she married his adopted son. When the time came for his will, he had plenty of money but no inheritors. He left his wealth to charities, the execution of which would be in the hands of his second wife and seven kinsmen. The funding for the charities was to be from the income of his estate. Perhaps the most profitable of these is the wedding hall, built on his land at Alwarpet and named after his second wife, Narayana Ethirajamma.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 7, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.

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