Mr S Muthiah, with whom I worked very closely for over 20 years, passed away on Saturday, April 20, 2019. Over this week and the next, there is going to be a lot of writing on him by me. To many of you all of this may be repetitive but I request that you all bear with me. Writing on him is to me a therapeutic exercise and brings a sense of closure. It is also a small guru dakshina to him, a man who taught and gave me much, but took next to nothing in return.


Madras Loses its Chronicler

In the passing of S Muthiah on 20thApril, the city has lost its best-known chronicler. In the past several decades he made it his mission to bring to light the past of Madras (yes, to him it was always so) and document the achievements of men and women of the city. It was a matter of never-failing pride for him to list the number of firsts that the city could lay claim to in various aspects of life. Today, these are commonplace facts circulated on social media but had it not been for him, they would have been forgotten. Madras that is Chennai, as he referred to it in more recent times, was according to him sadly wanting in its respect for its past. At his prodding, it did improve to an extent.


Born on April 13, 1930 to VVrNM Subbiah Chettiar and Chittal Acchi at Pallathur, Muthiah had his education in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the United States of America. Returning to Colombo with a master’s degree in International Relations, he took to journalism, joining the Times of Ceylon, which he served for 17 years. In 1968, he moved to India, making Madras his home and working at TT Maps.


Passionate about the history of the city and appalled at the indifference with which it was treated, he wrote his first book, Madras Discovered, in 1981. Prepared essentially for tourist guides, it became a bestseller and as Madras Rediscovered, grew in size and information, going into several editions, the most recent of which came out late last year. Muthiah also documented the histories of numerous corporate houses and personalities of the city.


In 1991, Muthiah, along with Lokavani-Hallmark Press began Madras Musings, a fortnightly dedicated to the history, culture and heritage of the city. By 1996, the magazine, though popular, was financially unviable. This was when N Sankar of the Sanmar Group stepped in, and together with several other corporate houses of the city, ensured that the periodical continued without break. In 2016, Madras Musings, now owned by Chennai Heritage, a not-for-profit company, celebrated its silver jubilee.


In 1999, Muthiah began Madras Miscellany, his weekly column for The Hindu. Appearing each Monday, it had many readers hooked; its stories on the city being their staple read that morning. Numerous letters would come each week and these were duly published under the caption When the Postman knocked. It would be no exaggeration to state that Madras Miscellanywas closest to Muthiah’s heart and he delighted in the popularity it achieved. Miscellany completed ten years in 2009 and what was written till then was compiled into a book. Even then it established a record of sorts, being more or less the longest running column in the paper. At the time of his passing, Madras Miscellanyhad appeared 970 times.


Muthiah, along with others began the Madras Day celebrations in August 2004. This, over a period of time became Madras Week, and then Madras Fortnight and is now more or less Madras Month. Over 100 different organisations participate in this spontaneous celebration of the city. Another of his creations was the Madras Book Club, where booklovers meet each fortnight to discuss some work or the other.


It was a very fulfilling life, engaged as he was in what he loved most. He encouraged numerous people to write and played a key role in making the city a thriving cultural space. His last year saw him bravely battle an illness, which ultimately took him away. His wife having predeceased him, Muthiah is survived by two daughters, sons in law, grandchildren and an extended family of writers, heritage activists and cultural enthusiasts.

This obituary appeared in The Hindu dated April 21, 2019 and can be read here