Vasantha Vilas
Vasantha Vilas

The house in the picture is Vasantha Vilas in Mylapore’s South Mada Street. It is associated with the Vembakkam clan, which dominated the legal profession in Madras like no other for almost a century.

The brothers V Sadagopacharlu and V Rajagopalacharlu practised at the Sudder and Supreme Courts of Madras, before the High Court came into existence in 1862. Sadagopacharlu was appointed a member of the Madras Legislative Council. Considered an authority on Mohammedan law, he died when just 35. Rajagopalacharlu was besides being a lawyer, an active member of the Brahmo Samaj, a patron of music and a composer. He built Vasantha Vilas as part of the food-for-work programme that was implemented as a relief measure during the great famine of 1876/77. He was not to enjoy it for long. Shooting his brother-in-law accidentally dead while demonstrating a rifle, he was to die of a broken heart despite being exonerated by the law.

Rajagopalacharlu’s sons Sir VC Desikachariar and VC Seshachariar shone in law. The former, born in 1861 was to be active in many fields. A councillor of the Corporation and later a member of the Madras Legislative Council, he was knighted in 1905 for successfully overseeing the arrangements for the visit of the Prince of Wales (later King George V). A treasurer of the Indian National Congress, he invested the funds in Arbuthnot’s Bank. Getting wind of the bank’s impending crash in 1906, he managed to withdraw all of the party’s Rs 60,000. None knew that he had overlooked withdrawing his own savings. He became a judge of the Small Causes Court, retired in 1918 and died the next year.

His brother VC Seshachariar, born in 1863, trained under Sir V Bhashyam and rose quickly in the legal field. A trained veena player, he founded the Sarada Sangeetha Sabha, the first music organisation in Mylapore. In 1914, Seshachariar began the Law Weekly at Vasantha Vilas and now in its 100th year, it still comes out from the same address. Seshachariar died in 1936.

Both Desikachariar and Seshachariar trained under kinsman Sir V Bhashyam Iyengar, the first Indian to be appointed acting Advocate-General and later to become a Judge. His statue stands in the High Court compound. Sir Bhashyam’s son-in-law was S Srinivasa Iyengar, leading lawyer and later Advocate General. He presided over the Congress in its 1926 session. His daughter was the patriot Ambujammal.

Desikachariar’s son was VC Gopalaratnam, a leading lawyer, writer and theatre personality who penned the history of the Madras High Court (A Century Completed) in 1962, shortly before his death. Gopalaratnam was the son-in-law of another Vembakkam luminary – VV Srinivasa Iyengar who became judge in 1924 and resigned four years later to resume practice, on the plea that a judge’s income was nowhere near a top-ranking lawyer’s! Desikachariar’s son-in-law was K Bhashyam, freedom fighter, lawyer and Minister in the Prakasam Cabinet of 1946/47.

That captures a large chunk of Madras’ legal history, all connected with Vasantha Vilas!

This article appeared under the Hidden Histories column in The Hindu