Southern IndiaOne of the most popular reference volumes on the history of Madras, and the Presidency that it was once capital of, turns a hundred this year. A tome of 766 pages, it has a name that is equally ponderous – Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources. And comprising entirely of art paper, with gilt edging to boot, it weighs quite a bit as well.

The book is the creation of Somerset Playne, a tireless traveller, explorer and chronicler of the length and breadth of the British Empire when it was at its zenith. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he began The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Company in 1908 for producing books “giving the history, commerce, industries and resources of each country; to prove what industrial enterprise could attain under new and sometimes hard conditions.” The first work was on British East Africa, which received great praise. This was followed by publications on the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and New Zealand, all between 1908 and 1913, a prodigious output given the times.

Somerset Playne

Playne came to Madras in 1913 and having parked himself at the Madras Club, then located where the Express Avenue Mall now is, set about his task. His assistant in chief was JW Bond though there were clearly several nameless others. While Playne covered over 7000 miles in a motorcar, covering the Nilgiris, the west coast, Coorg and Mysore, Bond and others motorcycled through Madras city, Cochin and Travancore. With macadamised roads being in their infancy, these journeys were fraught with adventure. Tyres had to be replaced frequently. Driving at night meant encounters with cattle or sheep and once a wild elephant that contemplated on “whether to take your car as a personal insult, or to retire into the jungle”. But when compared to the East Africa tour, which was done entirely on mules, this was luxury.

Southern India when released proved to be a lavish production in the Playne tradition. A century later, it is an accurate account in particular of “farmers, merchants and industrial concerns” of the period, all painstakingly collected through personal interviews. The photographs, and there are several to a page, take it to a different level altogether. From them, several streets, buildings, business establishments and most importantly, prominent men (sadly Playne mentions no women) of Madras who would otherwise be mere names, come alive.

Their departure to England delayed thanks to the First World War, Playne and team produced books on Ceylon, the Bombay Presidency, the Princely States of India and a volume on Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa. A preview version of Southern India is available on the Internet and Asian Education Services brought out a faithful reprint in 2004. A couple of collectors have the first edition. The Madras Club library has one, gifted by Playne himself! Mine is a reprint that now looks more like the original thanks to constant usage. When in doubt, consult Playne is my motto.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on February 28, 2015