This 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 an indelible impress on the social fabric of the city as well, establishing several landmark institutions that still endure.

V Krishnaswami Aiyer's statue outside Senate House
V Krishnaswami Aiyer’s statue outside Senate House

As was mentioned in this column (April 3, 2012), his was the first statue to be put up on the Marina, inside the Senate House Park. Next week, on September 23, the statue, all cleaned and spruced up, will be re-unveiled by Justice V. Ramasubramaniam. Most importantly, the plants that had hitherto hidden the statue’s view of the Marina would have been neatly parted, so that V. Krishnaswami Aiyar can once again see the beach he saved.

It was in the 1890s that the South Indian Railway (SIR) began working on a loop line that would connect Mylapore with Guindy and the Fort Stations. Two alternatives routes were suggested, the first running along the Buckingham Canal and the second on the Marina. The former idea was abandoned after it was discovered that the railway line would swallow “half a mile of the Guindy race course” and that a “train thundering overhead would frighten the horses in the paddocks”. And so the Marina line was agreed upon in 1889. The Corporation of Madras gave its blessings shortly thereafter.

Work was all set to begin when on April 1, 1903, Iyer organised a massive public meeting to protest the idea. He pointed out that a railway line running along what was one of the vital lungs of the city would be disastrous as it would cut off all access to the sea.

The size of the meeting shook the administration. The Madras Chamber of Commerce and Madras Trades Association were quick to withdraw support to the scheme, with H. Scott, chairman of the Chamber writing that the construction would “irretrievably ruin this public and popular pleasure ground. While possibly contributing to the convenience of a few, it would be an abiding nuisance and eyesore to the very large number of people who daily frequent the Marina.”

The Corporation too, developed cold feet and wrote a letter of protest.

It was in vain that the SIR responded with the assurance that the railway line would be well out-of-sight, concealed by a hedge and that the stations would be built in a “good style of architecture so as to not be eyesores.” But Iyer and his group of protestors proved implacable. The Government abandoned the idea. The Marina was saved.

Interestingly, Iyer was not averse to the railway line running along the Buckingham Canal, which he presciently predicted would end up as a glorified gutter anyway. Seventy years later, the Buckingham Canal’s bed became the route for a railway line – the MRTS, which today links Mylapore with the southern and northern suburbs.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on 17th September 2013