Life of Dr. Alagappa Chettiar ( 1909 - 1957 )

The replacement value of the establishments and endowments created by Alagappa Chettiar can be conservatively placed at $ 3,000,000,000. K.V.AL.RM. Alagappa Chettiar was born to Ramanathan Chettiar of Kottaiyur and Umayal Achi of Karaikudi. He belonged to the Nattukottai Chettiar community. This community was known for its adventurous entrepreneurs. They were bankers and merchants among them. The name ' Chettiar ' was derived from the Sanskrit word ' Shreshti ' meaning ' best of all ' who was part of a mercantile guild. These Chettiars were also known as ' Nagarathars '. They hailed from Cauvery Poompattinam earlier. Various happenings took them to their current home Chettinad. This region is located around Karaikudi and they have been living there for a long time now.

The Chettiars live in 96 villages and they indulged in commerce by travelling across South East Asia. They had spread out into Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. At one point of time, investments of this community in Myanmar was higher than that of the English. They had made a significant contribution to the economic and cultural history of the above mentioned countries. The visionaries amongst them foresaw the future and they made significant investments in India. The resurrection was helped by Alagappa Chettiar. He had set up a string of institutions in Karaikudi, the heartland of Chettinad.

Mansions and the nine temples belonging to the Chettiars form the core of Chettinad. Their family weddings are held in the family homes even today. The temples are located in Ilayathangudi, Mathur, Vairavanpatti, Iranikovil, Pillaiyarpatti, Nemem, Iluppakudi, Soorakudi and Velankudi. The words of the community elders are held sacred by the Chettiars. Alagappa Chettiar is a descendent of Kauppan Chettiar. Meiyyan Chettiar was the father of this person and his youngest son was Veerappa Chettiar. This gentleman had six sons and the fourth one was Alagappa Chettiar. This Alagappa Chettiar adopted the son of his younger brother Muthiah and named him Ramanathan Chettiar. Our Alagappa Chettiar happens to be the son of Ramanathan Chettiar.

Alagappa Chettiar went to Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Vidyalaya at Karaikudi. He learnt the Chettiar way of accounting at his home. Those days one Rupee was made up of 16 Annas and each Anna consisted of 12 paise . Thus a Rupee was made of 192 paise. One had to be adept in calculating up to the last paise in each Rupee. Alagappa Chettiar was to join his family activity Federated Malay Estates but his illness forced him to disembark from the steamer and he joined Presidency College in Chennai. It was his presence of mind which helped him secure an admission. The serial numbers 1 to 40 had been filled up by Alagappan ( Alagappa Chettiar ) stated that 0 was still available !

(Left : Postage stamp released in honor of Dr. Alagappa Chettiar - received by Mrs. Umayal Ramanathan

Right : President Dr. rajendra Prasad laying foundation stone of Alagappa Polytechnic College)

The youngster got married to Valliammai of Kottaiyur. He did his BA and MA too in Presidency College. He met Dr.S.Radhakrishnan and was impressed by him. The young man joined the protest against the Simon Commission but was warned by the Principal and then let off. Alagappan moved over to England in order to do his ICS ( Indian Civil Service ). Unfortunately the early medical tests confirmed that he was afflicted with Hansen's disease commonly known as Leprosy. He was referred to the Chartered Bank by a family friend Right Honourable Srinivasa Sastri. He had impressed the management team and was the first Indian to be trained in that bank.

Alagappan joined the Middle Temple in London's Inns of Court and passed law exams to become the first Chettiar Barrister - at - Law. He was also the first Chettiar to study in the West. Alagappan obtained a Pilot Certificate after a successful completion of training in 1933. While at London he helped AMM.Murugappa Chettiar and V.Vr.N.M.Subbiah Chettiar to travel all over. Alagappan was very good while communicating and it was his asset. He returned to India in 1933 and his uncle Ramanathan Chettiar was broken on seeing the scarred features of his nephew.

The young Alagappa Chettiar enrolled himself in the Madras High Court in 1934 but it was not of must interest for him. He got into the world of commerce. He acquired Ayer Manis Rubber Estate ( abroad ) and the Gowripetta Estate in Coorg. Alagappa Chettiar bought a property at Orchard Road in Singapore those days. His friendship with R.K.Shanmukham Chetty, R.K.Kandaswamy Chetty encouraged him to start Cochin Textiles in Pudukad near Thrissur. The power for the same was got from Shanmukham Power House, a project which had been endowed with Shanmukham's interest. The war boom made him earn big money and the 50000 spindle mill was named as Alagappa Textiles. The capital was Rs.25,00,000 and it employed 2500 people. Alagappa Nagar came up and it was followed by Ashoka Textiles with a spindleage of 25,000. Umayal Weaving Extablishment came up in Cannanore and a cloth calendering mill took place at Chennimalai near Erode. By 1943, Alagappa Chettiar was floating in cash.

Alagappa Chettiar brought up his daughter Umayal from her age of 9 years. She had been brought up by Lakshmi Achi, her mother's elder sister. The cousin S.A.P. Annamalai founded the Tamil magazine Kumudam those days. Umayal got married to Vairavan Ramanathan of Kandanur in 1943. Zamindars, the rulers of Mysore, Travancore and Pudukottai were among the guests. It was a very grand occassion. 2000 people took part in the welcome procession. A huge ceremonial tent ( shamiana ) was made at a cost of Rs.20000. It could seat 5000 people. Fans and 43 loud speakers were fitted in the same. Tents for serving food, 500 volunteers from the scout movement and 50 policemen were part of the managing team. Film industry people did the decorations and M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar gave a concert. The celebrations went on for 10 days. K.B.Sundarambal, M.S.Subbulakshmi, M.M.Dhandapani Desigar, G.N.Balasubramaniam, M.L.Vasanthakumari, T.N.Rajaratham Pillai and Rukmini Devi Arundale along with her team gave performances. More than 10000 people enjoyed the musical feast.

More than 20,000 attended the wedding and the gifts received were worth more than Rs.150,000. A diamond pendent was from the Maharaja of Cochin, household utensils in solid gold from Sathappa Chettiar and the Zamindar of Devakottai. The Tamil magazine Kalki carried a feature on all this. 1700 special guests were given an autographed photograph of the couple along with a silver vessel. Alagappa Chettiar became Vallal Alagappar eventually. He made crores in the share market. He was known as ' The Madras Express ' in the Bombay Stock Market. The investments of Alagappa Chettiar in industries, banks and insurance companies are well known. One could write a book about all this. He purchased " Ritz Hotel ' in Mumbai.

Alagappa Chettiar built several educational institutions. An engineering college, arts college, college for women, a polytechic etc., were built by him. A college for music was part of his vision. He had been assisted by his friend G.Kuppuswamy Naidu of Lakshmi Mills and therefore he built the G.Kuppuswamy Naidu Hostel in his memory during the year 1955. The Shanmukham General Library came up in 1954 and this was in memory of Dr.R.K.Shanmukham Chetty of Coimbatore. He had been close to the great A.Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar and was always indebted to him.

Chettiar sold his holdings in Mumbai in order to fund his educational objectives. He believed that money had to be spent. Karaikudi became a better place because of his charitable activities. Chettiar had known Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Kamaraj, Rajaji and several others very well. He was deeply religious all his life and he fully believed in the hands of providence. Several Institutions came up in Karaikudi because of him. He made huge donations of land and money. His illness never deterred him. The noble mind kept indulging in charity at all times.

Dr.Alagappa Chettiar wanted to establish a research institute in Karaikudi. He offered 300 acres of land and Rs.15,00,000 in the year 1948 to Prime Minister Nehru. Thus the Foundation for CECRI ( Central Electrochemical Research Institute ). The inauguration was attended by nine Nobel Laureates ! Sir M.Viswaesvarayya, Sir C.V.Raman and many others were present. He remembered Srinivasa Ramanujam by founding ' Ramanujan Institute ' in a portion of his own house ' Krishna Vilas ' at Vepery, Chennai. This was to become a part of Alagappa University later. This was managed by Prof T.Vijayaraghavan and was funded from Chettiar's private account ! Such was his commitment towards mathematics. From 1943 to 1957, Dr.Alagappa Chettiar gave away millions for charity.

The Socialistic Capitalist Dr.Alagappa Chettiar strode the world of philanthropy like a colossus. This great son of India will forever be remembered. Gnana Saraswathy will continue to bless Alagappa Chettiar and the institutions founded by him for eternity. The fame of the soul becomes immortal due to the good deeds performed. The life and times of Dr.Alagappa will continue to motivate a lot many to indulge in good deeds.

Source : Alagappa - A beautiful mind, by Ramanathan Vairavan published by Dr. Alagappa Chattiar Educational Trust / Asoka Charitable Trust

Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of The Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.