Kingston, Poonamallee High Road, sketch by V Vijayakumar for the book Historic Residences of Chennai

The Hindu this morning carried a story on the handing over of the Seetha Kingston school to the HR & CE Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu. With that one of the most historic properties of the city has once again changed hands, or I should say it has gone back to its rightful owner.

The Kanchipuram Ekamranatha/Ekambaranatha Swami Temple owns around 141 grounds on Poonamallee High Road. As to who gave it that vast acreage I do not know but around 44 grounds of this has for over a 100 years now been part of a compound where a stately home named Kingston stands.

The Calavala family was well known in business circles in Madras. But it was ‘Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur’ Calavala Cunnan Chetty (1869-1920) who made the name immortal. Having studied in the Pachiappa’s School and the Madras Christian College, Cunnan Chetty joined the firm of King & Co in which his family had shares. He soon became very successful in business. Eventually, he and his brother Ramanujam came to run the company. It was most significantly, one of the first Indian-owned businesses to have an office on First Line Beach. The building still stands, having been the office till recently of Thomas Cook.

Cunnan Chetty and his wife Seetha were of an extremely generous bent of mind and, being childless, decided to spend their money on charitable causes. In 1909, Cunnan Chetty became involved with the affairs of the Tiruvallur Native School (founded in 1887). In gratitude for his financial contributions, the institution changed its name to Rao Bahadur Cunnan Chetty High School. He also began a school in Perambur which still functions. Many years later, yet another school in his name came up in Pattabhiram. Actively involved in welcoming the Prince of Wales on his visit to Madras in 1905, Cunnan Chetty, however, refused the knighthood that was offered as a reward. He felt that he had done his duty and that was all. He had however already been conferred the Rao Bahadur title for his good work. The prefix Dharmamurthi was conferred posthumously on him by Annie Besant.

In his will he had left instructions that all his wealth was to be used for charitable purposes alone. Kingston, which was one of his properties and where he resided, became home for a few years to Dr. S. Rangachari, the eminent surgeon. During World War II, the mansion was requisitioned by the Government. The Charities that administered Cunnan Chetty’s will got the property back and in 1969, which was the birth centenary year of Cunnan Chetty, set up the Seetha Kingston School here.

The 100-year lease that Cunnan Chetty signed with the temple having expired in 1998, the school management and the HR & CE entered into negotiations for renewal which predictably landed in court. The judgement fixed the rent at Rs 20 L a year which it appears was beyond the Cunnan Chetty Charitable Trust’s capacity to pay. The trustees opted to close the school. The Government however, keeping in mind the fate of over 700 students has now stepped in and has taken control of the property and the school, which it will continue to run. Will the Education Department now have to pay the HR & CE Rs 20 L pa? I am not well qualified in law to comment on that. But what is certain is that the name Seetha Kingston will soon vanish and with it a lot of history. The Government of Tamil Nadu has in recent years adopted a practice of not acknowledging any donor in school names, ostensibly to do away with caste references.

Interestingly, Cunnan Chetty’s younger brother, Dewan Bahadur Ramanujam Chetty (1875-1919) was in every way qualified to be the honoured sibling. A dynamic businessman and one of the few Indians to be invited by the Madras Chamber of Commerce to become a member, he predeceased his older brother by a year. He and his wife Ethirajamma were childless too and they bequeathed their wealth to several charities one of which was the Calavala Ramanujam Chetty School in Purasawalkam. In turn that institution was handed over to Sir MCt Muthiah Chettiar to administer and when he died in 1929, it became the MCtM School. It still functions under that name.

I append a sketch of Kingston House, as drawn by artist Vijayakumar for my book 50 Historic Residences of Chennai, published by Kalamkriya in 2008.

This article is part of a series I write on Lost and Barely Surviving Landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here