This article appeared in today’s Hindu –

Chennapuri Annadana Samajam

Standing in a corner of Nyniappa Naicken Street is a handsome building from the 1890s. This is the home of the Chennapuri Annadana Samajam.

Famines appeared with alarming regularity in Madras Presidency right through the 18th and 19th centuries, with the worst being that of 1877-78. An estimated 2,00,000 people perished. Moogallur Cunniah Chetty was then just 15, studying at the Pacchayappa’s High School. The horrors he witnessed were never to leave his mind and he determined that when he had the means he would ensure food was made available to all. But he was no rich man’s son. Lack of financial means made him forego all ideas of college education and join the Telegraph Department in 1882 as a clerk. Yet he never gave up his dream of feeding the poor.

In 1890, he founded the Samajam. It began with the feeding on Sundays of eight blind persons at an eatery on Iyyah Pillai Street. By 1893, the owners of Lakshmi Vilasa Nataka Sala (aka the Walltax theatre on the eponymous road) allowed the feeding at their premises and the number of those fed increased to 15. Several businessmen and government officials living in George Town donated generously and soon it was possible to feed people twice a week.

The big break came when Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar, the powerful dubash of Dymes & Co and a great philanthropist in his own right, became a patron of the institution. Higher echelons of society began to interest themselves in the Samajam. The royal families of South India donated liberally and it was a proud day for Cunniah Chetty when thanks to the efforts of leading solicitor JRB Branson, the Gujarati magnate Lodd Krishnadoss Balamukundoss funded the construction of the Samajam’s permanent home. The Governor, Lord Wenlock, inaugurated the building on December 18, 1895. Governor Lord Ampthill became a patron in 1904 and remained so till his death in 1934.

It became possible to feed the poor everyday. Cunniah Chetty’s dream had come true. In 1914, he took premature retirement, so that he could focus on running the Samajam. By then, the institution had pioneered the concept of noon-meal schemes at 13 schools in the city. Food from the Samajam’s central kitchen was taken to all the schools. Cunniah Chetty’s services were recognised by the Government, which awarded him the title of Rao Saheb in 1925. In the 1930s, an orphanage was added to the Samajam. This was thanks to P. Chengalvaraya Chettiar, who succeeded Cunniah Chetty as secretary when the latter passed away in 1933. By the time the Samajam celebrated its diamond jubilee in 1950, it was housing 150 orphans and feeding over 600 people daily.

Today, such requirements have shrunk. But the Samajam continues its work, silently. In an increasingly commercial world, it remains a beacon of humaneness. It is perhaps no coincidence that the building is almost in the shadow of the Kandar Kottam shrine where Ramalinga Swamigal sang of “charitable Chennai”.