A man of many parts


Aravind Adiga, the author of “The White Tiger” has been awarded the Booker Prize and has been much in the news. As is now well-known, he belongs to an old Chennai based family whose fortunes were founded by his great-grandfather, Dr U Rama Rau. He not only made his mark as a medical man but also left his impress on the social and administrative fabric of Madras city in more ways than one.


U Rama Rau was born at Kudur near Udipi in the South Canara district. His father, U Vyasa Rao was an employee of the Palimar Mutt of Udupi, one of the eight monasteries that in succession govern the famed Krishna temple in that town. Family Tradition has it that clan’s ancestors had extensive lands which were all lost during the Fourth Mysore War and by the time Rama Rau appeared on the scene, the family was leading a hand to mouth existence. Rama Rau was given in adoption to U Krishna Rau, a kinsman and had his early schooling in Udupi. While in his teens he came to Madras where he first studied at the Madras Christian College and later at the Madras Medical College where he enrolled for the LIM course.


Graduating from the MMC, he set up practice in No 323 (this was the door no. then), Thambu Chetty Street in the busy George Town area of the city. Married by then to Kamala, who was in every way a helpmeet, he also set up home in Thambu Chetty Street, opposite his clinic.  He soon made a name for himself as an excellent physician, his speciality being the treatment of malaria patients, in which activity he was helped by his wife who helped him pack the borax mixtures and quinine thereby enabling their ready availability and quick distribution. Yet another winning strategy was to treat all rickshaw pullers and tonga drivers free of cost and they in turn brought in patients from all over the city! In 1899, he began a pharmacy in the same premises as his clinic. Sri Krishnan Bros, chemists and druggists and also scientific opticians frequently advertised in various journals of the time. His success was also attributed to his being in possession of a gold coin – the Ram Tanka Varaha, probably one of a series minted by the last ruler of Golconda, Abul Hassan Tana Shah, in the 17th century, in honour of his minister and the great devotee of Rama – Bhadrachala Ramadasa. This coin was given to Dr Rau by the pontiff of the Udupi Mutt and it occupied pride of place in his daily worship.


His professional success thus assured, Dr Rama Rau turned his attention to other matters, concerning Madras society and politics. He enrolled as a member of the Congress party and was to remain one all his life. Irked at the fact that despite many Indians in the field it was the English doctors who hogged the limelight, he founded the Indian Medical Association and along with Dr TM Nair, another well-known doctor and one of the leading lights of the Dravidian movement, began “The Antiseptic”, a journal for Indian doctors. Dr Nair was its editor till his passing in 1919 and given the wide-ranging interests of its promoters, the magazine had plenty of articles of general interest including pieces that supported the nationalist cause. After Dr Nair, Dr Rama Rau himself brought out the journal for many years. He also brought out a second journal “Health” for some time. Dr Rau was also President of the Indian Medical Association.


Dr Rau, along with Lt. Col. Dr Pandalai, former dean of the Madras Medical College, founded the St John’s Ambulance Association in Madras and was also its Superintendent for some time. When the Indian Red Cross was set up following an Act of the Imperial Legislature in 1920, Dr Rau worked towards getting the South Indian branch set up.


In the 1920s, Dr Rama Rau moved home to the upmarket Puraswalkam area where he acquired Hawarden, a sprawling garden house. Here he celebrated Rama Navami, the birth anniversary of Lord Rama with fanfare. The house was to see a steady stream of visitors all through the day and well into the night and soon became a landmark. For some reason it was referred to as Egmore House by the locals.


Dr Rama Rau became was a Councillor of the Madras Corporation contemporaneously with Sir Pitty Thyagaraya Chetty.  He was elected as member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. While there, he participated in the debates concerning the Anti Nautch Legislation proposed by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy with whom he sided. Like her, he was a practitioner of medicine and was well aware of the health issues faced by girls who were dedicated to temples. In the initial stages of the debate he was all for complete abolishing of the system but by the end of the year his opinion regarding the art practised by the women was to change, thanks to the All India Music Conference that was held in Egmore in December 1927. This was held in conjunction with the All India Congress Session and Dr Rama Rau was President of the committee that organised the music conference. As is well known, the Music Academy was set up in 1928 following a resolution to that effect in the Music Conference.


Dr Rama Rau became the first President of the Music Academy and held that post till 1935. He helped it steer many a financial crisis in its early days, giving ‘Gana Mandir’, his erstwhile residence on Thambu Chetty Street to the Academy free of rent for it to conduct its music performances. The official address of the Academy was that of his clinic. It was at Gana Mandir that Dr Rama Rau came to appreciate the necessity of saving the dance practised by the Devadasis, thanks to a series of performances organised in 1932 by E Krishna Iyer, that indefatigable champion of the arts. Thus while the legislation against the Devadasi system was passed in 1928, Dr Rau and his team at the Music Academy quietly worked on getting the public to appreciate the importance of saving the dance form. In 1933, the traditional art of Sadir was renamed Bharata Natyam and it became more popular. In 1931, the Music Academy had also established its Teachers College of Music and this again functioned from Gana Mandir. Dr Rau donated money for scholarships and prizes to be given out by the Teachers College, though he did not allow his name to be publicised. He also kept the fledgling journal of the Music Academy alive by releasing advertisements of his pharmacy in it and paying for the publication. In later years Dr Rau was not very active in Music Academy affairs, though he did rejoice at its moving from strength to strength. In 1946, when the Music Academy observed Tyagaraja’s death centenary, Dr Rau inaugurated its annual conference. Music however, was very important to Dr Rau and he ensured that all his children and grandchildren learnt it from Lakshmi Das Rao (also known as Dadda), who was a disciple of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, the famed music personality. 


An interesting aside in his life was the small but key role he played in getting the composer Purandara Dasa’s songs well known in Madras. Among his patients was Madras Lalithangi, a famed singer of the city. Lalithangi and her husband were facing hard times and Dr Rau assisted them by getting them tuition engagements. Once while visiting his house, Lalithangi heard a Dasa from Mysore, who was lodged at Dr Rau’s residence, sing. She was so enamoured of the songs of Purandara Dasa he sang that she learnt them all and in 1941 published them in Tamil at her own expense.


During his tenure at the Legislative Council, Dr Rau was nominated to the Council of States in Delhi. A grand celebration in his honour was held in Bombay by the residents who had migrated there from the South Kanara area. As a member of the Council he participated in several important committees including the Road Development Committee of 1927 which first mooted the idea of a grid of roads divided into National and Provincial Highways, the format of which is still followed. In 1930, following the directive of the Congress Party, he along with other party members resigned from the Legislature and participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement.


From 1930 to 32 Dr Rau ran what was called the Congress Hospital in Madras city. This was meant primarily to treat those who were injured in lathi charges while participating in the protests organised by the Congress. In 1937 he once again became a member of the Madras Legislative Council once again. He served as its Chairman till 1943, a post that he accepted at the instance of Rukmini Lakshmipathy. He was a member of the Madras University’s Senate and also on the Madras Medical Council. He was one of the founders of the South Kanara Dravida Brahmin Association and its first President. Later this became the Karnataka Sangha which runs schools in the city even today.


Retirement did not exist in Dr Rau’s lexicon and he remained active till his sudden death on 12th May 1952. His wife survived him by many years, passing away in 1973. Two of his sons Krishna Rau and Mohan Rau  became doctors with extensive practice. Dr Rama Rau had two pieces of advice to give them – 1. Keep plenty of rickshawwallahs around your clinic so that people with associate you with an extensive practice. 2. In the beginning stages of your career take on simple cases and make a success out of them. If you take on something complicated and the patient dies, then everyone will associate you with the death and that is the end of your career. A third son, Sanjeeva Rau died young. His son Vasudeva Rau took over the running of “The Antiseptic” from his grandfather.

Krishna Rau was to follow his father in his political interests, becoming successively Corporation Councillor and Mayor of Madras. He also represented the Harbour Constituency in the Madras Legislative Assembly. In the Rajaji Government between 1952 and 54 he was Minister for Industry, Labour and Public Transport and between 1957 and 61 he was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His life was cut short by cancer in 1961.


Dr Mohan Rau shone in the medical field and his Surgical Clinic on Poonamallee High Road was a landmark for many years. The clinic closed after his death in 1985 and today, the Dr U Mohan Rau Hospital functions at the same place with his descendants carrying on the medical tradition. It is of interest to note that in his time he was the youngest to qualify for the FRCS. Aravind Adiga is Dr Mohan Rau’s grandson, born of his daughter. Another daughter of Dr Mohan Rau is Thara Mohan Rau who is a well-known columnist in Chennai.


Dr Rama Rau too is remembered. The building where his clinic stood is named after him, though Gana Mandir has vanished. Hawarden too is gone, but the Rama Rau Kala Mandap, belonging to the Karnataka Sangha and standing on Habibullah Road, is a much sought after venue for music concerts and is the venue for the Nungambakkam Cultural Academy’s annual music series in December. His portrait presides over the goings on in the Committee Room of the Music Academy. “The Antiseptic” continues as the Indian Medical Association’s journal, now being published in Madurai. The gold coin he worshipped in now in the Raghavendra Swami Mutt, T Nagar. Perhaps the best memorial to him is from his family, which has achieved so much in various walks of life.