Raja Seetharaman – A Heritage Warrior
Had he been around, Raja would have turned 42 just as this issue of Madras Musings rolled out, for his birthday was on 15th September. But it was willed otherwise. Barely a couple of days after Madras Week celebrations had concluded, he had called at my office, to collect a copy of my book on the historic residences. He had gently reminded me that his own house could have merited an inclusion and I promised him that if there was a second volume, I would definitely do so. Conversation then moved to the success of the celebrations. He was very excited about the response to the exhibition on stamps, coins and other artefacts related to the city that he and his friend D Hemachandra Rao had organised at Rajaji Hall. Next year, he promised, it would be an even grander affair. The city will turn 370 he said and we will have a postage stamp released and not just a special cancellation. As he departed, I asked him the secret of his ever ready smile and his sprightly talk and walk. He attributed it all to yoga and a happy frame of mind and that was that. A couple of days later, Vincent D’Souza informed me that Raja was gone. Dead. Killed in an accident in Mambalam Railway Station. It is something that I am yet to come to terms with.
My acquaintance with him was not a very old one. And therefore grieving even more in his memory was Hemachandra Rao with whom he had worked since 1996 or so. Rao remembers first seeing Raja at the Madras Coin Society’s exhibition at the Vaishnava College. He remembers how Raja and his sister Ms Lakshmi Srinivasan would go through each and every exhibit and talk about them animatedly. The friendship between Rao and Raja ripened and a year or so later, they worked in helping Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary V Kalyanam in putting together an exhibition on the Father of the Nation. In 2002, Raja under Rao’s guidance put together the Coin Society’s annual issue. From 2005, the two worked each year in organising an exhibition with Madras as its theme, which took place in Madras Week. The first year, 2005 it took place in the then newly restored Clive House in the Fort. It later shifted to the Museum Theatre and for the past two years was held at Rajaji Hall. Rao says that Raja was one man who never hesitated in spending money from his own purse for this event or for that matter any other event connected with heritage. His logic was simple- if the event was not exciting enough for the organiser to sink in money, then who else will?
Dr Prema Kasturi, who worked with Raja on the Coin Society’s issue, says that from being a collector of coins and stamps, Raja graduated to becoming an academic and gave talks and wrote papers on the subject. She remembers in particular a series on archaeology that he wrote for a magazine brought out for HR specialists. He also teamed up with noted archaeologist and historian Dr Suresh. Raja contributed a piece for the Gazetteer on Madras brought out by the Association of British Scholars. The release of the first volume of the Gazetteer was the last public function in which he participated.
Raja was a magpie collector of sorts. He collected not just coins and stamps, but also wedding invitation cards and copies of the neighbourhood journals that come out in Madras. His name was regularly featured in the “Things People Keep” column of The Hindu. He was also very proud of his house and was very happy when I included it in my itinerary during the Chindadripet Walk I did on 24th August this year.
The way Raja and his family regained possession of their ancestral home on Iyah Mudali Street, Chindadripet would fill a book. Legal battles stretched over twenty years before the squatters could be evicted and Raja’s mother gained possession of the place. When they moved in, the 140 year old building was a mere skeleton, the previous occupants having stripped it of many of its doors and windows. Even the spiral staircase was to be sold to someone. Raja and his sisters along with their mother decided that since the house was structurally strong, they would restore it and live in it. Today it is a building that stands out and locals always point it out to those who come searching for old, architecturally significant buildings in the area. And the staircase was the apple of Raja’s eye. Raja’s visiting card had the motto “Lets be proud owners of our heritage” and carried a photo of his house.
His line of activity- investment consulting took him all over the city and he covered the entire area by public transport and walking. He felt that this was the best way to observe the city! Perhaps if he had owned a vehicle and used it instead of trying to board a train on that fateful night, we would not have lost a true heritage enthusiast.
Raja’s sister consoles herself by stating that perhaps the role which he was to fulfil on this earth was over. But the heritage movement is poorer by his passing. His cheerful attitude and his “can do” spirit will be hard to match.