V Krishnaswami Iyer

This is the first of a two part article I wrote for Madras Musings.
V Krishnaswami Iyer

Early in 1912, the full bench of the High Court of Madras met to pay tribute to one its giants – V Krishnaswami Iyer. On that occasion the Advocate General, (later Sir) PS Sivaswami Iyer spoke of his “extraordinary vigour and quickness of intellect, a sound knowledge of legal principles, a keen insight into human nature, a never failing resourcefulness, a pluck that recognised no difficulties except to overcome them, an exuberant energy, a robust constitution, gifts of speech of a very remarkable order, and last but not least, a high character.” There could have been no better epitaph to a life of less than 50 years, but which left its impress forever in legal circles and in public service.

As 2012 falls exactly between his death centenary (2011) and birth sesquicentennial (2013), I conducted a heritage walk in the Mylapore area, to coincide with the Mylapore festival. On the 8th of January, a small group, which included descendants of V Krishnaswami Iyer, went around the area, reliving his story at the various buildings and institutions that he endowed the locality with.

Krishnaswami Iyer was born on 15th June 1863 at Tiruvidaimarudur, as the second son of Venkatarama Iyer and Sundari. The family came from Arivizhimangalam, a village in the Thanjavur District and the father was making a name for himself in law, becoming first a shirestadar and later a munsiff. Krishnaswami and elder brother Swaminathan were enrolled at the SPG High School in Thanjavur and in 1877, he, following the footsteps of his elder brother, went to Kumbhakonam to complete his matriculation. From his SPG days, his closest friend was PS Sivaswami and it was a bond that was to last through life. In fact, it was through Sivaswami’s good offices that Krishnaswami was married, in 1878, to Balambal, the daughter of Sanskrit scholar Tiruvalangadu Ramaswami Sastrigal.

In 1882, both Sivaswami and Krishnaswami moved to Madras, to enrol themselves at the Presidency College, where law was being taught. The English accent of the professors (Shephard, Mitchell and Shaw) being unintelligible, the friends preferred signing the attendance register and then vanishing to the vast expanse of the Marina. Back at his lodgings however, Sivaswami was to chart out a careful course of study, a characteristic of his in all his activities through life. Consequently he stood first in the law examination while the mercurial Krishnaswami managed to pass only in the second class. Rather than reflect on why he did not fare so well, he was to typically attack the examination system! He is also said to have taken an oath that he would rise to the top, the second class notwithstanding.

The two apprenticed themselves under R Balaji Rao, one of the leaders of the Madras Bar and after whom Balaji Nagar in Royapettah takes its name. The two went about from Court to Court in the Madras High Court which was then located at Bentinck’s Building (later demolished and reconstructed now as the Singaravelar Maligai, serving as the collectorate for Madras) on First Line Beach. If it was known that any top-ranking lawyer was arguing in one of the Courts, they were sure to be found there, their idols in particular being Nugent Grant, Spring Branson and V Bhashyam Iyengar. It was later said of V Krishnaswami Iyer that he modelled himself on the last named – both could intimidate their opponents, spoke at great speed, continuously raised objections during when the other side was presenting its case and above all, could with uncanny ability be able to foresee what the main stance of the opposing party would be. Both were of great intelligence and could in a short while be able to master all aspects of a case.

Krishnaswami Iyer obtained his sanad as a vakil in 1885. The initial years were tough. He and Balambal took up residence at Pelathope in Mylapore. It was here that he was to make another lasting friendship – with PR Sundara Iyer, then practising as a junior under (later Sir) S Subramania Iyer. The two were to be greatly encouraged by Subramania Iyer and it was through his kindness that the first clients came to Krishnaswami Iyer. The big break happened in 1888 when S Ramaswami Iyengar, a vakil at the High Court, was appointed as Munsiff. He handed over his pending cases to Krishnaswami Iyer and thus began a meteoric rise in the profession. The first cases were at the Sub Court in Cuddalore and those who heard him argue were impressed. Clients began coming in and within the year, relative affluence had made him shift to South Mada Street, becoming a neighbour to PR Sundara Iyer. It was at this residence that once demonstrated his physical courage by pinning down a burglar and sitting on his chest till help arrived. It was to result in Bhashyam Iyengar remarking that Krishnaswami Iyer ought to have joined the police force.

The legal circles began taking note of his rise when in 1895, he appeared in Kumbhakonam in connection with a case involving the estate of a Zamindar of Sirkazhi. His opponent was V Bhashyam Iyengar, his idol. He managed to win the case and that established him as a leader of the Madras Bar. When in 1898, V Bhashyam Iyengar decided to bring an action for libel against the Madras Standard, it was Krishnaswami Iyer whom he chose to employ. He won the case and the paper was forced to print an apology and retract what it had published earlier.

By this time, with both Bhashyam Iyengar and Subramani Iyer being elevated to the Bench, Krishnaswami Iyer and PR Sundara Iyer found themselves flooded with cases. Together with CR Pattabhirama Iyer (father of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer), and a few others, they became what was dubbed in the High Court as the Mylapore clique. This group did not naturally see eye to eye with what was known as the Egmore clique which had those of the likes of Sir C Sankaran Nair and T Rangachari . The Mylapore group was to strongly oppose the entry of mofussil lawyers into Madras legal circles. Chief among these was Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, who was to later become the force behind The Hindu. In 1894 he shifted his practice from Kumbhakonam to Madras and the Mylapore lobby shut its doors on him. He shifted allegiance to the Egmore group and that was to colour several of his newspapers pronouncements on V Krishnaswami Iyer, though the two were to collaborate on more than one occasion, chief among these being the Arbuthnot Crash.

In 1906 when the leading business house of Madras declared bankruptcy, it was The Hindu that first raised concerns on the impact this would have on hundreds of families. It was imperative that Sir George Arbuthnot be tried for criminal conduct and not just for insolvency as the initial trends appeared to indicate. Setting aside the consideration that he and Sir George had fought side by side on several issues concerning the public weal in Madras city, V Krishnaswami Iyer took the lead in prosecuting him. The redoubtable Eardley Norton was leading the defence and sitting in judgement was Subramania Iyer. Right in the beginning, Norton raised an objection on Krishnaswami Iyer not having a barrister to lead him. Iyer was to coolly circumvent this by flinging aside his vakil’s gown and stating that he was impleading himself as one of those affected by the collapse of Arbuthnot. There could be no objection to that. Several lawyers and vakils were to appear for both sides and at the end of the trial, Sir George was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment. During the trial, Krishnaswami Iyer was to participate in meetings that debated on what could be done to mitigate the losses suffered by several innocents. Out of this came the Indian Bank, of which he was the prime mover.

By 1906, feelers were being sent from the Government asking him to consider taking up the position of a judge. In those days, the income of a successful lawyer was far higher than what was that of a judge and Krishnaswami Iyer hesitated. However, the sudden death of his wife in 1908 gave him cause to rethink. He had six children and he felt that a busy lawyer’s life would prevent him from spending quality time with them. Moreover, he had been diagnosed with diabetes, an illness for which there were no known medicines then. Thus in 1909 he became a judge of the Madras High Court. His tenure on the Bench was hardly for a year and during that time he focused on bringing down the number of pending cases. In this he was not popular. In the words of his friend Sivaswami Iyer, “he did not care a brass farthing to make the practitioner before him understand whether he had sufficiently grasped the case, or not. He trusted his own reputation for quickness with the Bar, and he thought everybody must give him credit for understanding the case, without much argument or waste of time. In that way he made himself as a Judge very unpleasant to many practitioners before him but otherwise he was a good Judge.”

In 1911, he was invited to join the Governor’s Executive Council. He was to be on it for less than a year too, for death was to bring to a quick end a life that held promise of greater things to come. Throughout this rather short span, he was to follow a parallel set of activities in the social sphere, which we shall see in the concluding part of this feature.

The second part is here – http://sriramv.com/2012/02/07/v-krishnaswami-iyer-the-social-side/






14 responses to “V Krishnaswami Iyer”

  1. mukhilvannan Avatar

    Engrossing life sketch tightly written.

  2. mukhilvannan Avatar

    Dear Sriram,
    I remember to have read that Mr. Krishnaswami Iyer helped Mahakavi Bharathi in getting his “Swadesi Geethangal” published.
    If it is correct, it needs to be recorded for the younger generation to know.

    1. sriramv Avatar


      That is in the second part.


      Sriram V

  3. […] This was the second part of the article that was written on V Krishnaswami Iyer. The first part is here – http://sriramv.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/v-krishnaswami-iyer/ […]

  4. vijayaraghavan Avatar

    Very interesting read and such a great patron of our culture and tradition! nicely written!

  5. […] 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. […]

  6. […] the High Court with Arbuthnot & Co, another First Line Beach major, as its agent. In 1906, Arbuthnots collapsed and Best became the agents for Royal Dutch. In the meanwhile, oil from Burmah arrived in Madras in […]

  7. Ramnarendran Somasundaram Avatar
    Ramnarendran Somasundaram

    Dear Mr. Sriram,
    I have personal queries to be posted to you w.r.t Old Madras and its people @ Suguna Vilas
    Can I have you mail ID sent to me
    Ramnarendran Somasundaram

  8. […] appearing for Sir George. Of the six advocates who appeared on behalf of investor groups, it was V. Krishnaswami Iyer who stood out with his merciless cross-examination. One of the side effects of the crash was the […]

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  10. […] year marks the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the birth of V. Krishnaswami Iyer, the firebrand lawyer, and judge of the Madras High Court. In a brief lifespan of 49 years, he left […]

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