Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Veera Raghava Bhattar Kesava Perumal Temple

‘Chellapillai’ of Mylapore Passes away after 70 years of Service

It was the Gandhi Jayanthi day in 2013 that I had a long chat with the then 77 year old K Veera Raghava Bhattar at his home adjacent to the Adhi Kesava Perumal Temple in Mylapore. He belonged to the 11th generation of his clan who performed Thiru Aradhanam at the Kesava Perumal Temple. He was an expert in Vaikanasa Agamas and was also initiated into Sanskrit Kaavyams at a very young age. At that time in 2013, he had spent over six decades of continuous service performing Thiru Aradhanam for Lord Adhi Kesavan having joined the temple in Panguni of 1950 as a 14 year old. He had seen many ups and downs during his long service at the temple but he had decided very early on in his life that he would not leave the temple even under trying circumstances. 

His grandma called him as Chellapillai after the Lord of Thiru Narayanapuram, Melkote (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2012/04/vaira-mudi-utsavam-melkote.html?m=0) and that name stuck to him till the very end. 

As I sat down with him at the first floor of his house, his devotion to this Lord and the Saint Poet Pey Azhvaar was immediately visible. It was the week of Pey Azhvaar’s annual trip to Parthasarathy temple in Thiruvallikeni and it was his favourite trip of the year (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/10/pey-azhvaar-parthasarathy-koil-annual.html). He was devotionally attached to Lord Parthasarathy and would often walk to Thiruvallikeni. Another favourite of his was the Avathara Utsavam of Pey Azhvaar. 

He went on to explain the special powers of Mayuravalli Thayar and how seeking her blessings on Friday would fulfill one’s wishes. Over the last decade or so, devotees have swarmed the Thayar Sannidhi on Friday evenings at this temple much to his delight. 

Recognition for his Service
As he turned 80, he was anointed with the ‘Kainkarya Sriman’ crown by Velukudi Krishnan of Kinchitkaram Trust. 

Service even during Lockdown
And past 80, he was one of the oldest priests in the state to perform service. Even when others were away, he was always seen at the temple performing Thiru Aradhanam. To all in the temple circles, he was their favourite ‘Chellapillai’ of Mylapore. Right till the end, he remained an integral part of the grand Brahmotsavam celebrations at the temple.

Even during the lockdown this year when the devotees have been kept away from the temple, Veera Raghava ‘Chellapillai’ Bhattachar continued to perform Thiru Aradhanam and was present every day at the temple. 

When the lockdown seemed to extend beyond the initial period, his relatives suggested to him to spend the period of the lockdown in a remote village near Chengalpet where their relatives lived. But he rejected the idea reasoning out that he could not stay away from performing service at the Adhi Kesava Perumal temple and thus he was seen at the temple even this month at the age of 84. 
Pey Azhvaar in 2013

However, the death of his nephew the 64 year old Kumar Bhattar, just under a fortnight ago left him in a shocked state. It was an event that was difficult for him to digest. 

He was admitted at the Ramachandra Medical College Hospital last week. On Saturday evening, he spoke to his grandson Srinivasa Raghavan in a cheerful tone and chanted slokas of Lord Rama. Since the age of 19, he has been reciting the entire Ramayana and he completed one such reading of the entire Ramayana last year as well. 

He had been a diabetic for a while and during the early hours of Sunday, the pulse gave away and much to the shock of the entire family, he passed away on Sunday (June 28) morning aged 84 after having performed service at the Adhi Kesava Perumal Temple for seven decades.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

TVS Ram S The Cricketer

Impressed with his swing bowling, Legendary Indian Cricketer Lala Amarnath saw him as a great prospect 

The Prodigious in-swing bowler gave up an opportunity to be coached at the Alf Gower Academy in the UK in the 1950s to focus on academics and a brewing Corporate Career

Ram was the most accomplished cricketer of the TVS Family - VV Kumar

“If you are taking up cricket with an eye on playing for the State and higher, you may have to start from scratch in the industry after your cricketing days and the possibility of your success in the industry will be delayed to that extent” - Legendary Industrialist TS Santhanam told his son Ram in the 1950s
For a few years in the 1950s, this young boy looked like he would be the next fast bowling prospect for Tamil Nadu. After spending the early years of his life in Madurai - World War II had taken the legendary industrialist and his father TS Santhanam back to Madurai (from Madras), the boy came back to Madras in 1947 and enjoyed the best phase of his sporting life. But his father’s strong message and a shoulder injury put paid to his sporting interests and he went on to lead a global auto components firm. Here’s the cricketing story of the 80 year old S Ram, Chairman, Wheels India Ltd., and Director, Sundaram Finance Ltd.

Playing alongside Nasser Hussain’s Father 
After returning from Madurai a couple of years after the Second World War ended, Ram joined MCC High School in Chetput. Along with PS High School, MCC was in the forefront of cricket in the city largely driven by the Headmaster, Kuruvilla Jacob, who believed that Sports was just as important as Studies in building and shaping one’s personality. He encouraged the students to indulge themselves in sporting activity and laid the basic foundation for many budding cricketers. Jawad Hussain, father of former England Captain and now a renowned commentator Nasser Hussain, was the school captain when Ram joined the school (Jawad went on to play one Ranji Trophy match for TN). PK Belliappa who too went on to play for Tamil Nadu was also Ram’s team mate at MCC High School (It was only from the 1970s and 80s that schools such as St. Bedes, Santhome and Don Bosco took over cricket domination in the city that has continued to this day). 

Practicing on Mud Wicket at D’Silva Road home 
It was on the mud wicket at Santhanam’s house on D’Silva Road in Mylapore (now it’s renowned for a tennis court where Ramanathan Krishnan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2015/03/ramanathan-krishnan.html) and his son Ramesh coach the TVS family) that Ram’s emergence as a fast bowler began. He would practice there with his new ball bowling partner KP Geethakrishnan (He opened the bowling for Presidency College, where he did Statistics Hons and later became an IAS officer of prominence). 
Santhanam was a sporting enthusiast and as early as the 1940s, he ran a football team in Madurai called the ‘Madurai Greens’ that gave the best in the business a run for their money in domestic football league. And his interest in Tennis is well known. He was excited about a Tirunelveli districts boy doing well and encouraged Ramanathan Krishnan (from Tenkasi) all the way to his success at Wimbledon. 
Ramanathan Krishnan remembers those moments “Santhanam would always cheer me from the stands and that boosted my confidence and my performance at Wimbledon. He also supported me financially and helped build my career in Tennis.” 

Cricket probably was a distant third in Santhanam’s sporting interests but he did not dissuade this talented fast bowler from taking to cricket. Ram and his other brother Rangarajan took to cricket in a serious way. Santhanam also handed Ram a season ticket for the test match in Madras against the West Indies soon after they had returned to Madras. 

His brother Viji in TNCA League Cricket
Much later in the 1960s and early 70s, Ram’s younger brother S Viji (Chairman of Sundaram Finance Ltd.,) played TNCA league cricket for many years till after he graduated and was also the vice captain of Netaji CC, a third division league team. Rocko Sundar, who played first division cricket for IOB for many years in the 1970s and and 80s and opened alongside State Cricketer NP Madhavan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/05/np-madhavan.html), remembers Viji as a solid middle order batsman from the years  they  played together for Netaji CC "I was a school boy in class XI in 1970 and had just signed up to play in the third division. He was already an established player and a very decent middle order batman."
In-Swingers/Leg Cutters a nightmare for Openers 
In the hot and humid conditions in Madras, the curd rice eating Ram surprisingly turned out to be a big in-swing bowler. Often he spearheaded the MCC school to victory with this difficult to trace inswingers that either bowled the batsmen or trapped them LBW. He was not one of those run of the mill fast bowlers who would be used to just remove the shine of the ball. He also bowled leg cutters. In his very first match for the school, Ram took 6 wickets for three runs that catapulted him into instant limelight and everyone took notice of this swing bowler in Madras. 
80 year old former State Selector SVS Mani (TN won the Ranji Trophy in 1988 when he was a selector) played many matches for PS High School against Ram in those school days in the 1950s and has everlasting memories of those years especially the two finals played in front of a big crowd “MCC school had a strong team in cricket in those years and Ram was the opening bowler, whose in-swing the opposition openers feared. He had a very different action (bowling around the head) similar to that of Surendranath (he played for Services and alongside Ramakant 'Tiny' Desai for India) and could not be easily found out by the batsmen. Most often in those years, MCC and PS High School would feature in the inter schools final. In the first year, they beat us with Ram doing well with the ball. The next year we had our revenge beating a strong MCC at the RKM ground in T Nagar. Difficult it may be for the new generation to believe, a huge crowd watched us contest the competitive final at RKM and it was a great experience for all of us to play in front of such of a big crowd.” 

TNCA League
Into his early teens, he began playing in the TNCA league for VAP's Jai Hind, a team now sponsored and managed in the 6th division by Sundaram Finance.

Impresses Lala Amarnath 
Ram also captained MCC in his last year at school. Buoyed by his performance at school, he began bowling at the BS Nets (at the North end of Chepauk). It was there during one of his bowling sessions that Ram encountered one of his biggest moments in Cricket. The legendary Lala Amarnath who was coaching at that time in Madras was mightily impressed with the swing that this teenager produced and taught him some of the nuances of swing to build on his inherent talent. He saw Ram as a good fast bowling prospect “I count those moments of praise and receiving fast bowling tips from this legend of Indian Cricket as one of my greatest in my cricketing life.” 
In those years at school, one of the greats of TN cricket V Pattabhiraman (for decades, in both Ranji and Test Matches played at Chepauk, commentators referred to bowlers coming to bowl from the North end as running from the ‘Pattabhiraman’ Gate End) watched him bowl against Mysore and Hyderabad and was impressed. He spotted the ‘swinging’ talent in Ram and motivated him to work hard in cricket. 

 Against Kundaren for the South Zone Schools Team
After sterling performances in school cricket, Ram was chosen alongside SVS Mani and JR Maruthi as the three cricketers from Madras to represent the South Zone schools in the all India Tournament in 1956 and they made their way to Pune to play in the tournament. SVS Mani recounts memories from that trip “We were excited to be selected for an all India tournament. After winning the first match, we came up against B Kundaren (West Zone- he later went on to play for India) in the second. He scored a century against us. Ram was an exciting prospect that year and could have easily gone on to a higher level but he decided to focus on education and went into his father’s business later on. His exit was a loss for TN cricket.” 

Two decades later Barath Reddy captained the Indian Schools to the UK. (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2019/11/bharath-reddy-players-man.html?m=1)

A Prestigious Opportunity - Fast Bowling Training in the UK 
Pattabhiraman was keen to tap into Ram’s talent and suggested his name for being coached at the Alfred Gower fast bowling coaching in the UK, a MRF Pace Foundation (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/08/ta-sekar-architect-behind-worlds-best.html?m=1) equivalent from those days. It would have been a life transforming stint in the UK and could have pushed Ram into the next grade in cricket, possibly a move up into the state level. Those in South Zone schools were the ones who were monitored closely and their performances tracked for consideration at the next level. 

A strong message from his Father 
He was 16 at that time. The academic space was quite competitive and getting into the best engineering college was not a given thing.It was at that crucial moment as a teenager when he was on the verge of entering college that Ram encountered this strong message, almost as a warning, from the Auto Legend of Indian Industry ‘Cricket is a serious matter. I am not saying NO. You are going to get into college soon. If you are taking up cricket with an eye on playing for the State and higher, you may have to start from scratch in the industry after your cricketing days and the possibility of your success in the industry will be delayed to that extent” Santhanam told his son Ram at his house in Mylapore. 
A Shoulder Injury -D'Silva Road Tennis Court
Like all youngsters who face this predicament, Ram had to choose between Cricket and a prospective career in the Auto Industry. And he decided on the latter. This phase also coincided with Ram encountering a serious shoulder injury. While playing Tennis with his brother Rangarajan on that court on D’Silva Road next to Alladi Krishnamurthy’s house, he banged his shoulder against the wall in an attempt to return a volley. That along with his father’s message put paid to the prospective cricketing career of Ram. 
It was a difficult decision to make at that time to give up a sport that he had enjoyed so much in the previous few years and at a time when he was on the top of his game. The young boy gathered all the courage that he could muster and went up to the great Pattabhiraman to inform him of his inability to make it to the UK and about his decision to give up cricket. It was a decision that Pattabhiraman could not easily digest for he was of the view that Ram had it in him to make it big in cricket, especially since swing bowlers were a rarity in state cricket (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2020/05/promodh-sharma-cricketer-turned.html). 

Banana In-swingers baffled batsmen- VV Kumar
84 year old Legendary leg spinner VV Kumar (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/07/cricket-tales-exclusive-with-vv-kumar.html) lived next door to Ram on D'Silva. He  remembers the days from the 1950s when he saw Ram bowl in many matches "Unassuming the ever smiling Ram was one with commendable manners. His Banana In swing baffled many batsmen of our Era. He was perhaps the most accomplished cricketer of the TVS family. It is anybody's guess what Ram would have done had he continued with Cricket."
Prodigious Swing in Birmingham 
Ram joined Guindy Engineering College and played cricket for fun for three years at college. But he gave up on TNCA league cricket. In the early 1960s, he went to the Birmingham University, a few kms from that beautiful Test Ground at Edgbaston, to do his Masters in Production Engineering. In the two years that he was there, he played summer cricket in the beautiful green grounds in Birmingham and he relived cricket once again in much more favourable bowling conditions “I was able to swing the ball prodigiously and most of the players were surprised that this bowler from India could swing the ball so much. But my cricket stint there in the UK was more as a social gathering for I had given up serious cricketing interest long back.”

Looking back on that decision of Ram, SVS Mani is disappointed that the swing bowler gave up cricket very early in his life but is pragmatic about it being the right decision “He was in good form and the fact that he was a natural swing bowler gave him an edge. But there was a business to take care of in the future and Ram decided against cricket.” 

In his later years, he played a few matches for Sundaram Motors in the Sports and Pastime Tourney alongside NV Seshadri, M Subramaniam and the late Sridhar. 

His father Santhanam told him very early on in his school days, a message that he remember almost seven decades later ‘Sports teaches you to work closely with others and helps you win as a team.”  The few years in cricket taught Ram a great deal and helped build his personality that has held him in good stead all through his life. For starters, he made a lot of friends through cricket “One can win a few matches on his own but for the large part one has to play as a team to win the Trophy. The same philosophy of building a strong team holds good in the corporate world as well” says Ram looking back at the learning from those cricketing years. 

The soft spoken Ram used his early cricketing experience in building a strong team spirit and bonding among the workers and colleagues over the last five decades at the Padi, Madras headquartered auto components firm Wheels India (Revenues of over Rs. 3000 cr in 2019), where he was the Managing Director for almost three decades from the mid 1970s before handing it to his son Srivats, who has been running the firm over the last decade or so. Had he taken a cricketing call in the late 1950s, Ram may have gone on to play for the State and carved a name for himself in the state’s cricketing history. But he decided otherwise leaving us to ponder on what might have been!!! 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Thanjavur Palace Babaji Rajah Bhonsle

The Torch Bearer of Devotees’ Faith in close to 100 Temples has revived the Thanjavur Palace to its historical glory
'Our foremost role is to take care of the people and serve them'- Babaji Bhonsle
1984 and 85 were two tragic years for the Thanjavur Palace. The current Prince S. Babaji Rajah Bhonsle was then in his teens. He first lost his father, and then the very next year his grandfather Rajaram Rajah Saheb, who had been the Prince for over five decades throwing the teenager into the deep end and with the onerous task of managing 88 temples under the Palace’s fold. Unfortunately, for the new Prince, this takeover came during terrible phase for temples in TN, one when original inhabitants of agraharams in various temple towns had begun leaving their hereditary locations seeking greener pastures in cities. The situation at the 88 temples for which he was the hereditary trustee was grim. This story explores as to how a young prince orchestrated a positive turnaround in these temples in and around Thanjavur. 

The Grim Scenario in the 1980s
When he took over the reins, the overall mood among the priests and service personnel was extremely negative. They had not been paid their salary for 14 months. Padithurai (contribution for Neivedyam) too was pending for a similar period. The devotee crowd at the temples had come down drastically. The overall financial situation at all the temples was poor. The total assessable income of the 88 temples put together was only Rs. 6Lakhs while the outflow far exceeded that. The man at the helm who was to manage all of these temples had just turned 18. 

A feeling of 'Tsunami hit temples'
Unbelievable it may seem now there was a time in the history of the Thanjavur Palace when the temple staff used to get salary 15 months ahead of time. There was also a period when there was no place to store rice, the availability was in such abundance. And then, in the mid 1980s, the scenario had turned so bad that the Palace had to take provisions on loan from local shops but found it difficult to repay. Musical instruments had become a thing of the past. Both age and finances were against him when he took over the Palace after the sudden passing away of his father and grandfather in successive years “When I took over, it felt like I had taken charge immediately after a Tsunami. Everything seemed so bleak. For a long time, I spent money from my pocket to keep the temples active” says Babaji Rajah Bhonsle looking at those initial years in the 1980s. 
The Big Temple- Bats Aplenty 
The now world renowned Big Temple was dark and inhabited by bats. There was no ghee available to light the lamps in the Sannidhis. Thus in the decades leading to the 1980s, situation at the temples had turned grim. Given the financial scenario of the biggest temples under his management, it had become almost impossible to manage the large number of temples. There was severe pressure from the archakas to pay their salaries. So frustrated were the priests that they asked their children to focus on academics as against the traditional agamas and vedic learning. Many in the new gen moved away from the traditional service. With the existing priests at the Big Temple finding it financially challenging, no new priests were ready to join and there emerged a shortage of service personnel. Following the protests of priests on non-payment of salary, the Big Temple had to even close for a few hours. 
Rajaram Saheb at the Thiru Mandangudi Samprokshanam, 1960

75 of the 88 temples were in financial deficit. The physical infrastructure too was in a dilapidated state in most temples. Consecration had not taken place in the 20th Century in most of these temples. Babaji Bhonsle vividly remembers the day when an archaka from Thanjai Maa Mani Koil (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2019/08/thanjai-maa-mani-divya-desam.html) came on the eve of Vaikunta Ekadasi and placed the key in the palace announcing his decision to not open the temple on that most important day in the year without the settlement of the pending salary. Such were the challenges he had to encounter in his first few years at the helm.

Despite the financially challenging situation, there were those who continued to serve the Lord with great devotion. 85 year old TK Ramanadha Gurukal was one such. He performed pooja at the Big Temple for over four decades in the most challenging of phases. He recounts the years when there was little income “Very few devotees visited the temple. There was minimal Thattu Kaasu. Our salary was in the hundreds. In the 1970s, we were only three of us to manage the pooja in all the sannidhis. But the Palace always stood by us. They were keen on our welfare and tried their best to support us in every possible way. Not once did it cross my mind to go away from the temple.” 
Erudite Scholar and Teacher of Saiva Siddhantha, Octogenarian, 86 year old, T.N. Ramachandran went to the Big Temple quite frequently through the 1940s making the trip across the Cauvery from Thiruvayaru.He settled down in Thanjavur after his graduation and has been there since the 1960s. He delightfully recalls the contented mindset of the Gurukals of the Big Temple in the 1960s and 70s “Despite the low salary, the Gurukals were a totally contented and devoted lot. They saw it as a great blessing to be able to perform daily pooja at such a historic temple and dutifully undertook this service. At no point, did the financial challenges swerve them away from the service to the Lord.”
The 1800s - Managed to hold on to temples 
Just under two centuries ago, the Marathas had established supremacy in the region that led to the British targeting them “We were so dominant that the British targeted us aggressively and seized power from us. We managed to retain the religious properties that included the 88 temples and the lands belonging to these temples” says Babaji Rajah Bhonsle looking back at how they found against the British Tyranny and held on the temple properties  in the Thanjavur region.

It was possibly that personality trait of the Maratha Warriors that held Babaji Rajah Bhonsle in good stead in his early years. He was fearlessness from a very young age and despite the financial challenges, he was confident of a revival and positive turnaround. Not once did frustration get to him. He believed that being surrounded by devotional and energetic people was important. He led a contended life and his wife was a source of great strength for she adapted very well to the challenging times at the Palace. 
Refuses TN CM’s offer in the 1950s 
After independence, the then CM of Madras C Rajagopalachari offered a top Government post to Rajaram Rajah Saheb. Given the unfavourable financial situation at the Palace, an acceptance at that time may have led to a turnaround in the Palace's fortunes. Maha Periyava, the Raja Guru of the Palace, directed the Prince to not move away from the princely status to a Government job. The Palace followed Periyava’s instructions and rejected the TN CM’s offer. Soon, with the land ceiling act coming into force, the Palace faced even more of a financial struggle in the 1960s and 70s. Income from temple lands reduced drastically leading to more financial strain on the Palace. 

Scenario Then in the mid 1980s 
14 months pending salary to priests
75 of the 88 temples were in deficit
Most temples in dilapidated state
Total Assessable income of all the temples was far less than the dues payable
Padithurai (provisions to Madaipalli) was pending for 15months

Orchestrating a Dramatic Turnaround 
What one has seen in the last three decades has been one of the most dramatic turnarounds of temples in Tamil Nadu. So how did the new Prince achieve this? 

As a young boy, Babaji Bhonsle had watched closely the conduct of his grandfather, who was a great influence on him, both in administration as well in human relationships “32 of us lived together in the Palace as a joint family. We knew of no competition either within our family or outside. My grandfather often said that we were seen by the People as Dharma Raja and our foremost role was to take care of the people and serve them.” 

Chalking out a Vision 
Soon after taking charge, he began chalking out the vision for each of these temples and was personally involved in overseeing the operations work. As a first step, he made a detailed analysis of the financial status of all the temples. He constructed a model that would help the temples regain their lost glory. He wanted to ensure that the people connect was back in the temples and thus solicited the active involvement of the Society at Large. Right from the beginning he was clear that he wanted to be surrounded by devotional people He held the view that for temples to survive it had to have support from the local community and hence actively engaged with them to help revive the historical festivals. 

In his typically modest way, Babaji Bhonsle credits the success of restoration of the temples to the community “I only sowed the seeds but it was the people who helped it sprout and grow." 

Same Fixed Salary for Priests in all 88 temples 
One of the most revolutionary steps he took was to pay equal salary to priests at all the 88 temples irrespective of their size and income. This delighted the priests and madaipalli personnel in the smaller temples. Cleanliness at temples was given utmost importance. He forged a strong relationship with the HR & CE and worked in close partnership with them by creating an open and transparent channel of communication. 

As the devotional wave began hitting the TN temples, he performed Consecration in all the 88 temples with the support of the community, something that had been unthinkable at the time he took over in the mid 1980s. When the first set of temples were consecrated, he took the prasadam and personally presented it to the patients in the Government hospital and prayed for their recovery. This decade he has successfully completed a 2nd round of Consecration in most of the temples under his management. 

Health Insurance Cover for Priests 
Over the last decade, he also launched a one of its kind comprehensive health insurance cover for the service personnel in all the 88 temples that has been a great confidence booster especially for the priests’ families. Financial and Health Security measures initiated in these temples have been truly inspirational.

Unchanged Conduct in Good and Bad Times 
88 year old Ramnarayanan, who was in Revenue Department in Thanjavur, has had a close association with the Prince’s family for over six decades. He is full of praise for the way the Palace has managed the temples both in good and bad times “Rajaram Rajah Saheb moved well with the common man on the street and that has been the greatest quality of this Princely family. Babaji Bhonsle is an unassuming personality and has been very efficient in managing these temples. Not once in the last 80 years have I seen anyone in the family misplace the trust of the people especially of the temple service personnel. Many times you would not be able to differentiate the family in a crowd, such has been their simplicity.” 
Pichai Bhattar served at the Thanjai Maa Mani Divya Desam for over 50 years from the 1960s till his death a couple of years back, while Sampath Paricharakar served for four decades at the Madaipalli. Have seen them selflessly serve the Lord, their sons are now continuing the service. 25 year old Sridhar Paricharakar graduated in Commerce and could have taken up a corporate job but he resisted the temptation to move away from temple service and joined the Madaipalli at the Thanjai Maa Mani temple “The Prince takes care of us really well with the salaries across the temples being a fair reward for our service. The overall welfare of our families is also taken care of by the Prince.” 
From Crisis Management to Now, Crowd Management 
These days huge crowd throngs the Big Temple and Punnai Nallur Mariamman temple (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2012/03/punnai-nallur-mariamman-temple.html) that from his early days of focusing his efforts on getting devotees into the temple, Babaji Bhonsle now  has turned his focus on crowd management. There is a devotional wave that has hit temples in TN in the recent past but the Prince strikes a note of caution reminding us that temples are not to be seen just from an architectural view point “We need to remember that this is a place of worship and one of surrendering ourselves to the Lord. It is important to ensure that some of the basic rules of worship are not violated inside the sannidhis.” 

Ramnarayanan finds a mega turnaround from the challenges witnessed ahead of the 1980 Kumbabhisekam “Back then, there was a struggle to put together the requisite finances for the Kumbabhisekam. There was uncertainty all around. People were generally anxious about the successful completion of the event. 40 years on, devotees competed with each other to support this year’s consecration of The Big Temple, a testimony to the tireless work of Prince Babaji Bhonsle.” 

From an Architectural wonder to a Devotional destination 
For a long time, the Big Temple was seen just as an architectural wonder. Prince Babaji Bhonsle has ensured the revival of the devotional flavor at the temple. Every month, Pradhosham attracts tens of thousands of devotees. Decades ago, it was with the income from the Punnai Nallur Mariamman temple that salaries to the Gurukals at the Big Temple were paid. Today, with the efforts of the Prince, the Big Temple has become hugely self sufficient. Ramanadhan Gurukal is delighted at this financial transformation of the Gurukals ‘They are paid reasonably well by the Palace and are now a happy lot and stand financially transformed.’ 

The outcome 
The temples that were in a dilapidated state not so long ago are now thriving under his management. With a renaissance of sorts in the bhakthi movement, the total assessable income of these temples has risen to over Rs. 6 crores from around Rs. 5 Lakhs in the mid 1980s. Historical festivals have been revived in most of all the temples under the Palace’s management. One of the features of his model has been that there have been no ticket sales in any of these temples and there are no special entrances as well. 

It is largely due to the three decades efforts of the Prince to bring the community together that one witnessed such spontaneous response from devotees in terms of voluntary service during the mega event at the Big Temple this year. Round the year, Babaji Rajah Bhonsle involves them actively in every way possible including in Hundial counting and credits them for their support. He always moves around with them and is seen by everyone as being one among them. He has received unconditional support from the society at large. And that’s been one of the key reasons for his success in managing and turning around close to 100 temples. The Prince continues his efforts to secure income from the temple lands that has dwindled in recent decades and he is hopeful that the income will start accruing sooner than later. With the temples now in a happy state, his vision is to bring state of the art administration in these temples using technology. 

He is of the view that it is important to get the next gen to see it as their duty to protect these heritage and historical structures and that one needs to continuously instill this mindset into them.
Transformed Scenario 3 decades later 

Revolutionary step of equal salary for priests in all temples irrespective of size and income 
Consecration done for all the temples – twice in most cases 
Most of the historical utsavams revived 
First of its kind Health Insurance Cover for all Service Personnel including priests 
Active participation from the local community 
Looking to implement state of the art technology to administer 

Even during the period of the lockdown, Prince Babaji Bhonsle has ensured the payment of the salary to the service personnel in all the 88 temples thus taking care of their financial security. 

Prince Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, the real man behind the success of the turnaround, has remained behind the scene, orchestrating the success story without any limelight whatsoever on himself. His demeanour has always been self effacing. His forefathers had undertaken Dharmic activities encouraging and spreading music, art and culture, building chatrams from Grand Anaicut to Rameswaram and taking care of the health of the people in the region through the setting up of hospitals. 

He continues that legacy and has brought back the role of the Thanjavur Palace to its historical glory. When he took over the reigns as a teenager, he saw it as a long rally. Three and a half decades later, he continues to see it as his duty to safeguard, protect and develop these 88 temples. This year’s Kumbabhishekam of The Big Temple, one of the grandest the state has seen, was the culmination of over three decades of hard work by the Prince in bringing the community together in Thanjavur in preserving the rich heritage of the temples.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Vasudevan TN Ranji Trophy Retirement

The most graceful retirement in the State’s cricket history 
We are in the year of the Pandemic, and over the last three months UNPRECEDENTED has been the most oft used word in all walks of life. Way back in March 1988, a Tamil Nadu Ranji cricketer made an UNPRECEDENTED announcement within minutes of lifting the Ranji Trophy. At the presentation ceremony, left arm spinner S Vasudevan announced that he had played his last Ranji Trophy match. He had just picked up seven wickets in the Railways’ innings and had led TN to a Ranji Triumph that had come after three decades. It took everyone by surprise, most did not seem to take it seriously at that time with Doordarshan that telecast the finals editing his retirement comment. Probably, they had a justification. He was just 33 years then and the legendary TN spinners who preceded him had played on for a long time. Exactly a decade ago, VV Kumar (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/07/cricket-tales-exclusive-with-vv-kumar.html) then past 40 had heard the news of his non selection in the Ranji Squad from a newspaper report. His state spin partner for almost close to a decade S Venkataraghavan too played for TN till he was close to 40. In the form that he was in and as the Ranji Trophy winning captain, Vasudevan could easily have gone on for at least another 5 years. 

His First and Only year as TN Captain 
His appointment in 1987-88 to the TN captaincy itself came as a surprise to him for he was not even captaining his club side at that time (SPIC was captained by V Sivaramakrishnan). It was his first knock at captaincy. It was a young side that year and jelled well under Vasudevan. Sivaramakrishnan had announced his Ranji retirement at the start of the 87-88 Season but came out of it later that season and played a critical role for TN in the knock outs. Off spinner M Venkataramana (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2017/06/venkatramana-m_97.html) had just had a fabulous year in 87-88 that earned him an immediate test cap. The Golden leggie of the decade L Sivaramakrishnan(https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/04/l-sivaramakrishnan.html) was trying to make a comeback after having been on top of the world in March 1985 with his performance in WCC and Aashish Kapoor too was knocking on the doors. VB Chadrasekar and Robin Singh had big years with the bat that earned them a national call over the next 12 months.

At the start of that season, Vasudevan did not have any inclination to hang up his boots and not in his wildest dream did he visualize quitting Ranji cricket at the end of the season for he was enjoying his cricket and the responsibility deposed on him by the TNCA to lead and mentor a bunch of young upcoming cricketers the likes of Robin Singh, VB Chandrasekar (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/01/vb-chandrasekar.html), PC Prakash, K Arun Kumar, D Girish and Venkatramana was something he looked forward to. 

Cricket had been his passion since the time he started playing at the age of 8 and like all cricketers from that generation the general expectation was that he would continue to play till the time he contributed in good measure to the team's fortunes. 

Into Software at LUCAS TVS 
Exactly ten years ago, he had joined LUCAS TVS, a firm headed at that time by cricket enthusiast R Ratnam. Vasudevan's close friend Crazy Mohan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2015/08/crazy-mohan.html), who passed away last year had joined Brakes India, another TVS Firm in Padi. As one in his early 20s who had made his Ranji entry just then, he was asked what he wanted to do at the corporate. His childhood friend Raghu (who later became a CEO) had asked him to explore software that was still very much in its infancy in India. When Vasudevan expressed his interest in software, he was put through a rigorous training programme in IBM in 1977 and took up software as a career in the software world. He found the software job both exciting and challenging and he thoroughly enjoyed his corporate stint at Lucas TVS. 
Rejects a Stable Bank Job 
During that period, he also received a lucrative offer from former TN Opener V Krishnaswamy (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/08/krishnaswamy-v.html) to join IOB that would have provided him with a stable job for the next four decades but Vasudevan’s interest in Software had gathered steam and he rejected Kicha’s offer. When he joined SPIC in the early 1980s, they bought Main Frame Computers and he continued to pursue software as an area of interest. Through the 1980s, his interest in software moved up alongside his great passion for cricket. 

Winning the Ranji Trophy 
Vasudevan lifted the Prestigious Ranji Trophy in the first and what turned out to be his only year of his state captaincy. It had been a long over three decades wait for TN and Vasudevan played a great role both as a captain and a spinner in TN’s title triumph. He has happy memories from that season ‘Cricket had been my passion for a large part of my life till that point. For any Ranji Cricketer, it is always a great honour to captain the state. It was a great first year as captain for me. I felt contended at the end of the campaign. It was a fulfilling experience. You play for the state to try and win the Ranji Trophy. And I managed to do that in my very first year. I thought it would be good to go out on a high.” 

Rejects teammate’s request 
Among all the cricketers who heard of his decision, SPIC captain and his team mate from the late 1970s V Sivaramakrishnan was the most vocal. Vasudevan remembers that morning when Shiv came to him and tried to persuade him to continue “Shiv himself had come back from his retirement and he was keen that I play for the next couple of years given my rich vein of form in 87-88. He was upset that I stuck to my decision and did not listen to him. He simply could not digest my refusal to accept his request.” 

Venkat’s Order – Play a couple of matches more 
Venkataraghavan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2020/04/venkataraghavan75.html), his state spin partner for over 5 years, was the Secretary of the TNCA that year and he too was not happy with Vasudevan’s decision. Venkataraghavan expressed his displeasure at this unexpected decision when he was in prime form with the ball and at a time when he was playing the role of a mentor for many youngsters in the TN team. In his typical ‘orderly’ direction, Venkataraghavan asked him to play the Irani Trophy and make the trip to Australia with the TN team for the match against Western Australia, hoping that Vasudevan would change his mind as his association with his young team members grew. As per Venkat’s orders, Vasudevan captained the Irani Trophy match and he picked up another 7 wicket haul in the innings endorsing the former captain’s view that he was in great form. Even without the form as a bowler, Vasudevan would have been an automatic choice for at least another two years on the back of him having led the state to the Ranji Trophy. 

Shocks his Father 
Vasudevan’s father Santhanaraman (who passed away in February this year at the age of 90) was a spinner of repute in the local league and also ran a couple of clubs in the city. He had been Vasudevan’s Acharya and his cricket mentor and spent a lot of time at the city grounds watching his son play through his early cricketing career. At their independent house on Sundararajan Street in Abhiramapuram, his father initiated him into cricket guiding him on spin bowling. Thus Vasudevan looked up to this father all through his life. But that day in 1988, Vasudevan sprung a surprise even on his father by announcing his retirement even without consulting /informing him. Angered at this sudden decision, his father shouted at him, one of the very few times that he had argued with his father. Vasudevan did not discuss about his early retirement from state cricket with his wife (Radha) as well.

Makes way for Sunil Subramaniam 
Vasudevan was clear that he wanted to leave cricket on a high and the decision had been made. If Vasudevan had gone on like the legendary VVK or Venkat, it is likely that Sunil Subramaniam’s entry into TN cricket would have been delayed by a year or two. Sunil Subramaniam held great potential and he spent a good number of hours each day at Vasudevan’s home discussing the art of spin bowling (this writer too bowled alongside Sunil at the SPIC nets. Often the lanky Sunil would ask this writer if he saw (Ravi) Shastri in him. That’s how Sunil saw himself as a left arm spinner). In the long sessions at home, Vasudevan found him to be a good listener and an intelligent bowler and credits him for using the opportunity to become a great bowler for Tamil Nadu. 

Lets go the prospects of a Zonal Debut 
Vasudevan had played 61 matches for Tamil Nadu at that time and in the next few years could have easily played another 20 or so. A phenomenal performance in the Ranji Final and the Irani Trophy should have brought him into contention for the Duleep Trophy the next season even though he was in his 30s at that time (He had played one season of Deodhar but was largely over looked for Duleep in his 20s). He let go that possibility as well. But really he was not a man for the records and neither did the statistical highlights inspire him to play more. Right from his childhood, he played for the love of the game and records and statistics were merely an outcome of that passion. 

In the decades since his retirement from Ranji Cricket, his fortunes have swung to extremes. In the 1990s, SPIC took care of him financially as he made his mark in the Software Arena. . He was a State Selector for a full term in the 1990s. In the mid 2000s, he started his own IT firm and forayed into Oracle ERP that was well received by overseas customers. 

Tragedy Strikes 
Four years after the launch of his firm, he had to enounter the biggest tragedy of his life. His 17 year old son passed away within months of completing his Class XII exam (and after he had secured admission in Venkateswara Engineering College) struck by a sudden illness that sealed his life in a matter of months. 
Just after completing his board exam, his son made a trip with the family to Oppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam where he specifically asked for Nilai Maalai for the Lord. In the two decades since his retirement, Vasudevan had straddled between Cricket and Software, not focusing fully on either of these areas. In those final moments, his son held his father’s hand and took a promise that he would continue to engage with the passion of his life- CRICKET- for the rest of his life. That seemed to have finally given Vasudevan clarity on what he should stick to in the next phase of his life. During the last 24 hours of his life, a big eagle stayed inside his home complex almost as if watching over him. As soon as his life departed, the eagle too died!!! 

Daughter's Inspiration keeps him going
Soon after the passing away of his son, Vasudevan shut down his Oracle firm and has since been coaching at the Gandhi Nagar Sports Club academy (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2020/02/gandhi-nagar-sports-club-cricket-ground.html). While he went through the process of shutting down his firm, he experienced a downturn financially for a few years earlier this decade. But as per the final wish of his son, he has associated himself solely with cricket over the last ten years focusing his energy on coaching youngsters. A few of them have been making steady progress with a spinner playing for the state last year at  the U16 level.
In the turbulent times following the death of his son, one of his biggest inspirations to continue life cheerfully and to be associated with Cricket has come from his daughter Preethi from faraway US. It is her motivation that has spurred him on to coach at Gandhi Nagar Academy as well as carry out a few other cricketing engagements including being associated with a school on the outskirts of the city.

The role of the wife
Often unspoken, as in the case of Venkataraghavan as well, has been the role of his wife, such a critical element to a cricketer's on the field. As he looks back on his life over the last three decades, he points to the magnetic effect his wife Radha has had on him during his cricketing years, his days in the software world and most importantly during the years after the passing away of their son 'I owe a lot to my wife Radha for being the pillar of strength during the challenging phases in my life and supporting me through the ups and downs. '

A Companion plays a major role in the career especially of successful sportspersons. Vasudevan credits his wife for all his success in life 'I am What I am today because of my better half.'

Late last year, the hat trick man of TN cricket B Kalynasundaram (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/08/kalli-b-kalyanasundaram.html?m=1) as the Chairman of Cricket Development Committee invited and offered Vasudevan the post of the Talent Hunting Head of Tamil Nadu, a paid engagement that was to have started this new season, one that COVID 19 has ensured would take some more time to fructify. 

Contended with No Regrets in Life 
Just over three decades later, he has no regrets whatsoever on his sudden and surprising decision to retire at the peak of his cricketing career, one that paved the way for Sunil Subramaniam’s entry into Tamil Nadu. Had he played over 75 matches, he would have been eligible for the One Time Financial Benefit and a higher pension as well. Even during the times of financial difficulty that he encountered earlier this decade, he had no second thoughts even in hindsight, on his decision to quit Ranji Cricket. 

He continued to play local league cricket for almost another two decades (this writer umpired the final TNCA league match that Vasudevan played just under 15 years ago). 

For a man who lifted the Ranji Trophy in 1988, the three decades since have been one of ups and downs as he went back and forth between cricket and software. But unmindful of the challenges, he has led a contended life and without regrets. Finally, this decade, he has decided to let go of his software interest and taken a call to be associated with ‘Cricket’, his first and biggest passion of his life as per his son’s wish. Vasudevan had form, passion and age on his side and these two combined with the Ranji Trophy triumph could have ensured that he continued to play till he was 40. This story is a reminder of the UNPRECEDENTED decision of the unassuming Vasudevan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/12/vasudevan-hats-off-to-you.html) quitting cricket on that Ranji Trophy Winning day at the peak of his career and with age still on his side, giving way his space to another left arm spinner, who much to the delight of Vasudevan (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/10/s-vasudevan-tn-ranji-winning-captain.html) made a thumping mark on TN cricket over the next decade. 

He took the call when people asked ‘Why now’ when historically in TN players had continued till the time the question of ‘Why not’ was asked of them. To date, his retirement remains as the most graceful in Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy history.

Friday, June 19, 2020

TSR Legendary Entrepreneur

Just into his teens, TSR spotted a business opportunity in the Devotional Space and launched a range of products that soon became a household name                            
TS Rajagopalan Iyengar hailed from Thittai ((https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/02/thittai-navaneetha-krishnan-temple.html), a small hamlet about five kms from the renowned Thanjai Maa Mani Divya Desam (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2019/08/thanjai-maa-mani-divya-desam.html) on the outskirts of Thanjavur. Born in 1894, he was a child prodigy. Driven by entrepreneurial instincts, he made his way to Kumbakonam and began his family’s diversification into manufacturing.

The Thanjavur – Kumbakonam belt either side of the Cauvery was home to a large number of temples – Vaishnavite Divya Desams and Saivite Paadal Petra Sthalams. While agriculture was the main occupation, devotion was integral to the daily lives of people in the region. Not a day passed without them invoking the blessings of the Lord. 

Devotional Products
Set against this backdrop of devotion, the enterprising Rajagopalan Iyengar just into his teens began working on products that would cater to this devotional audience. He was just 15 years old when he rolled out his offerings in 1909. He started out in Moorthy Chetty Street and then moved to a shop on Bazaar Street, West of Sarngapani Koil(https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2017/06/sarangapani-koil-thiru-kudanthai.html). Once the business came to scale, he built a factory on Nageswaran Thirumanjanam Veethi from where a range of products that included Chandan (used for Thirumanjanam and Abhisekam), Panneer, Agarbathi, scented Chunnam, Gulkand and Thailam were manufactured. 
He launched the products under the brand name of TSR & Co and soon TSR, as he came to be lovingly called by the residents of Kumbakonam, became a household name. Everlasting fragrance was a hall mark of his pooja items. He also created the trademark ‘Aalilai Kannan’ logo of child Krishna on plantain leaf.  
Personally, he was deft in making sweet paan and had this special knack of finding the right mix. The customers simply loved it from his hands and they would queue up to pick up the tasty paan. He later sold the betel nuts products business and focused on pooja products. 

87 year old Kalyani Krishnaswamy, a distant relative of TSR who has lived the last 40 years in a remote village near Therazhundur(https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/10/therazhundur-divya-desam.html), stayed in TSR's house in Kumbakonam for a whole year during her childhood. She remembers sandalwood being brought from Mysore, and physically well built workers ground these into Chandan powder by hand. She says that by the 1930s, the products were much sought after by the people in the region. One could sense the fragrance even as one entered the street such was the quality of the product. He always told his workers that the product had to be of the highest class. She also recalls the presence of TSR at her wedding in the mid 1940s “He brought a huge box of TSR products and presented it to me as his gift.” 

Promotion of products at Temple Festivals
In addition to his entrepreneurial skills in creating products, he was also deft at marketing. He promoted the pooja products at the famous Chitrai Festival in Madurai (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2017/07/azhagar-koil-thiru-maliruncholai.html) and would display his range of products at the festival. He also promoted it at the popular Brahmotsavam in Mannargudi (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/05/mannargudi-rajagopalaswamy-temple.html).

The Next Big Product – Talcum Powder 
Late VK Rajagopalan (VKR) Iyengar, a Central Bank auditor and first cousin of TSR was to play a part role in the roll out of the next big product. His son 74 year old R Sampath says that the elder of TSR’s two sons TR Kannan was inclined towards expanding the product range and began to do some early experiments and that it was his father VKR Iyengar who gave Kannan the space and freedom in his house on Pachaiappa Street in Kumbakonam and motivated him to carry out the experiments.
“Kannan came to my father’s house to conduct his experiments. Each day, he would sit on the terrace of our house and try out different combinations. It was a very tedious process and required a lot of patience and perseverance but Kannan was relentless in his pursuit” remembers Sampath. 

The elder son Kannan moved to Madras and opened the talcum powder factory in Ramapuram in 1965. And thus TSR & Co diversified into two separate firms – TSR & Co Home Needs manufacturing pooja products in Kumbakonam (headed by his 2nd son TR Raghavan) and TSR & Co Madras ( launched by his 1st son TR Kannan - he passed away in 1970) that is into Gokul Santol talcum powder and soap, among other cosmetic products. 
TSR – A Household Name 
The products had become so popular that there was a time when the demand for agarbathis outshot the supply. There were several 100s of workers at the factory in Gokul Gardens and the business had grown manifold. 84 year old Chartered Accountant G. Kunchithapatham worked in the firm that audited the accounts of TSR & Co and remembers him from his childhood days “TSR & Co had started small but by the time I was growing up in Kumbakonam, TSR had already built a brand. The factory had been mechanized and the shop had become much bigger. TSR was top of mind recall for anyone interested in Panneer, Chandan and other pooja products.”

He says that the big growth of TSR could also be seen from the fact that he and his firm had become big income tax assessees “They had already started exporting the products. TSR would often go to Ceylon on business trips.”

His devotional association with temples 
TSR was also an ardent devotee and would often be seen at the temples in Thiru Kudanthai. He was also the trustee at Sarngapani and Chakrapani  temples. He was also on the board of the renowned Banadurai School in Kumbakonam, one where the famous Tamil Nadu fast bowler B Kalyanasundaram (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/08/kalli-b-kalyanasundaram.html?m=1) studied in the 1950s. 
81 year old Seshadri Bhattar of Parthanpalli Divya Desam, who spent his entire childhood in Kumbakonam and performed archaka service at Thiru Kudanthai temples for several decades, remembers the mega arrangements made by TSR ahead of Mysore Maharaja’s trip to the Sarngapani Koil. “’Pushpa Pandhal’ - a grand flower decoration was organised along the entire path from Moolavar to Desikar Sannidhi. And the King of Mysore was accorded a grand welcome into the temple.” 

Till his death in 1961, TSR’s ubayam on Desikar Satrumurai at the Sarngapani temple was one that everyone looked forward to as it was one of the biggest festival days at the temple with a vibrant Prabhandham Ghosti. The entire temple wore a grand festive look that day. 

Exquisite Attire 
TSR was also known for his exquisite attire and was always seen in a Panchakacham and a white shirt with a bright Thiruman on his forehead. Everyone at the Sarngapani temple would line up as he made an impressive entry into the temple in his majestic walk on the Desikar Satrumurai day. 
Till his final days, he provided Dasankam, Santhanathi Thailam and other pooja items in sufficient quantities to the Thiru Kudanthai temples. At the Chakrapani temple(https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2009/02/kudanthai-chakrapani-koil.html), his was the Ubayam on the third day of the Brahmotsavam, when the Lord goes around the streets on a Sesha Vahanam, one that continues to this day. 

Significant contribution to temples 
Just prior to his death, he made a significant contribution to the renovation exercise at the Sarngapani temple and was an integral part of the committee that planned the renovation. At the over 1000 years old Varadaraja Perumal temple on the banks of the Cauvery, TSR restored the temple by contributing in big measure. 100 years ago, he began supporting the Navarathri Utsavam at the temple that has continued to this day. He also supported the grand conduct of the Vaikasi Utsavam. 

85 year old V Seshadri, an adyapaka at the Therazhudur Divya Desam for over three decades remembers TSR participating in and supporting the Brahmotsavam at this temple “He would present the temple with large quantities of pooja items that were required for the daily poojas. The entire temple would be transformed with beautiful fragrance emanating from his products. His very presence brought positive energy among the service personnel at the temple.” 
Municipality Chairman and Underground Drainage System 
In light of the background of him having built a trusted brand as well as him having become a well respected personality in Kumbakonam, VK Rajagopalan Iyengar suggested to TSR to contest the election and try for the Municipal Chairman’s post in Kumbakonam. VKR Iyengar was confident that as the Municipal Chairman TSR could do a lot of good to the temple town. Though initially reluctant, TSR heeded to the advice of his cousin brother and became the Municipal Chairman in 1958. In the period that he was at the helm, he created a modern underground drainage system in Kumbakonam. 

89 year old former District Revenue Officer (Thanjavur), K Ramanarayanan has seen TSR from close quarters “From small beginnings, he built a brand that has stood the test of time. A stout man with a tuft, he was one with progressive views. At a time when we were still reeling under the British rule, he brought a name for indigenous products and created a brand that remained entrenched in the minds of the people. TSR Panneer and Agarbathi were unmatched at that time. To him goes the credit for creating an identity for Kumbakonam. He was also a big philanthropist and did a lot for the society.” 
Soon after TSR’s death, it was VKR Iyengar who was instrumental in getting TSR’s second son TR Raghavan to talk to the officials at the Municipality to have the Big Street in Kumbakonam named after the legendary manufacturer and philanthropist. And soon, the street was named as the ‘TSR’ Big Street. 

Since then, his sons, grandsons and now the great grandsons have been taking forward the great legacy of TSR. Over the last six decades, his birthday has been celebrated with the TSR family feeding 2000 people at the factory in Gokul Gardens, Kumbakonam which was also his home till his death. 

Genius at work 
It was a truly pioneering initiative for a young teenager to get into manufacturing by creating a labour pool and to run a business away from the family’s stronghold in agriculture. More interesting was the way he spotted an enterprise opportunity in the devotional space. To roll out pooja products catering to the devotees was out of the box thinking for one not yet 15. 

TSR was truly a child genius who broke away from the shackles of centuries old tradition of being an agricultural family. By the time he passed away at the age of 67, having handed the baton to his two sons, Quality and Trust in Pooja Products had become synonymous with TSR. And he had left behind a great legacy of a remote village boy having built an enduring and a trusted indigenous brand.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Centenarian VR Sivaraman Wheels India

The FIRST non-family Managing Director of a TVS Group Firm 
Sundaram Finance and Wheels India Founder TS Santhanam looked up to his Sethupathi High School classmate to manage Madras Auto Service in the 1940s and later on to drive the growth of Auto Components Firm Wheels India Ltd
World War II had arrived and was taking its toll. With TS Santhanam planning to move to Madurai, he was looking for someone to take care of Madras Auto Service (MAS), the subsidiary of TVS Group. And he went up to his Sethupathi High School classmate of the 1920s and asked him to take up an important accounting role at his Madras Trading firm. The 28year old could not refuse his childhood friend’s offer. The year 1942 marked the beginning of Valliyur Ramakrishnan Sivaraman’s long and fruitful association with the TVS Group. Decades later, Sivaraman’s elder son, a banker, was ‘asked’ to quit his bank job and join the TVS Group, an instruction that he quietly followed!!! 

This writer met Sivaraman (known to friends and colleagues as VRS) at his Parthasarathy Street residence shortly after he turned 100 in March 2014. It had been a long and glorious journey. In the year leading up to his Centenary, his health condition had dipped a bit and he had become a little immobile but his memory, that he was so renowned for during his hey days, still remained razor sharp. He was able to easily recount in a flash events from his childhood days and the pleasant memories of competing with Santhanam at Sethupathi High School in Madurai. 

Santhanam and Sivaraman lived in the same street in Madurai and were close friends. Interestingly, Santhanam’s mother (Lakshmi Ammal) and Sivaraman’s mother were neighbours in Nagercoil until the untimely death of Sivaraman’s mother when he was just nine years old. It was Lakshmi Ammal who provided motherly care to Sivaraman during those pressing times. 

The Numbers Man - Gold Medalist in Maths 
He was a gold medalist in Maths at College (he graduated from the American College, Madurai) and always has had a special liking for numbers. His family does not remember a single occasion when he used a calculator in his life (though one of his life’s regrets is of not doing medicine). Till well into his 90s, he spent time going through Balance Sheet of several of the Madras based companies and would immediately call the CFO with interesting insights. 

In the days of saving phone numbers on the mobile, VRS remembered almost till the very end phone numbers of all his friends and relatives (he never saved the numbers on the mobile!!). 

He moved to Madras in the mid 1930s taking up an accounting and audit role with Indian Postal Audit. During World War II, he shifted briefly to Coimbatore when there was large scale evacuation in Madras. Shortly after his stint in Coimbatore came the call from Santhanam. 

Forging strong relationship with global manufacturers 
Between 1942 and 47, it was Sivaraman who managed Madras Auto Service along with Govindachari and Panchapakesan while Santhanam was away in Madurai (Santhanam would only make fortnightly/monthly trips to Madras to oversee operations). VRS was assigned the important task of ‘cost control’ and managing profitability. 
After Govindachari’s retirement, Sivaraman took over as the GM of Madras Auto Service (Vice President and President in the Indian Corporate world is a very recent phenomenon. For decades after independence GM was the most coveted position - next only to the MD). While Santhanam continued as the MD of the company, Sivaraman independently handled Madras Auto Service during the 1950s when it was a major importer of spare parts from Germany, UK and the US. His stint at MAS helped him forge strong relationships with major component manufacturers. 

Glorious Years at Wheels India 
Later that decade, TVS Group decided to set up a plant to manufacture wheels for Commercial Vehicles (Production commenced in 1962). Wheels India became the first manufacturing company of the TVS Group and marked the move of the group from trading to manufacturing. (Subsequently, TVS Group firms set up several manufacturing plants in the Padi area) 

Sivaraman was the first one to be nominated from the Trading Company of the TVS Group to the manufacturing firm. Santhanam, who had roped him into MAS just under two decades ago, now asked him to join Wheels India to help drive growth in the initial phase. 

S Ram, son of TS Santhanam and the current Chairman of Wheels India Ltd., took over as the MD from Sivaraman in October 1975 reminisces the entry of VRS into Wheels India and his role in that first decade and a half  “Sivaraman had already spent close to two decades at Madras Auto Service and was an integral part of the management team. He had gathered a huge deal of experience in the auto sector during this period. My father called him one day and asked him to move to the new company that was being set up in Padi.'

‘I will find another replacement for you at MAS. You are needed at Wheels India’ Santhanam told VRS.
And thus Sivaraman moved from General Patters Road (his base at MAS) to the Western part of the city to the Padi headquarters of Wheels India. During the first 10years of Wheels India, Sivaraman, as the GM, anchored the acquisition of and building relationship with key customers. 

Ram tracks the growth in customer base during those initial years to Sivarman’s strong customer relationship management ‘It was a very competitive phase. We were new entrants in the area of truck wheels. While we were one of the multiple suppliers to Telco and competing with other big players including European manufacturers, Sivaraman’s customer management skills helped us acquire a sizeable business from the truck major. Very quickly, we were able to improve our market share and Sivaraman had a significant role to play in that.’ 
     VRS seen with S Ram and Japanese Delegates

There was a general reluctance on the part of Germans to try new Indian manufacturers but VRS helped build confidence amongst customers that the company was in for the long haul and that, from our base in Madras, we could compete with the best in the world. ‘He also had good relationship with other component manufacturers from South and North alike. During that initial 15year period, it was VRS who drove Wheels India’s growth.’ 

1st non family MD 
Just over three decades after joining Santhanam at the TVS Group came the big moment of his corporate life. Just a few days short of his 60th birthday, Sivaraman was appointed as the Managing Director of Wheels India in February 1974, thus becoming the FIRST non family Managing Director of a TVS Group company. This was truly a significant achievement for a man who had by then established himself as an authority in the auto component sector. 

By the end of his stint as the MD of Wheels India a year and a half later, the company had clocked a turnover of over Rs. 10 crores and had established a strong long term customer base that include the biggest of names such as Telco, Mahindra, TAFE and Premier Automobiles, among others, and an employee strength of 250. During his association with the TVS Group, he travelled extensively around the world on business to almost all countries except China and Russia. He also served as the president of ACMA (Auto Component Manufacturers Association) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry). 

He paid a lot of attention to physical and mental fitness. For three decades from the 1970s, Sivaraman walked an hour every day, many times up to Thanithurai Market (on RK Mutt Road) and walked back (with vegetables in hand) to his home on Parthasarathy Street, off Kasturi Rangan Road. 

Interest in IPL even in his 90s
His interest in cricket (he was a left hand opening batsman during his college days) did not recede one bit and he was avid follower of the IPL. He also served as the President of Madras Hockey Association. All his life, he had been a voracious reader with a special liking for fiction especially detective stories. He kept track of the global developments especially in the auto sector and would read six newspapers every morning!!! After his retirement from Wheels India, VRS was involved with a number of start ups in Madras in an advisory role helping them see through the tough initial phase of growth. And he went out of the way to help truly deserving candidates with employment in Madras based companies. 

It was on the strong foundation laid by Sivaraman in the 1960s and early 70s that Wheels India grew into one of the world’s leading steel wheel manufacturers and now finds itself topping revenues of Rs. 2000 crores with a global customer base and multiple plants across the country. 

(Sivaraman passed away in 2015 aged 101)

This story is a version of the Magazine story this writer had written on the occasion of VRS' Centenary in 2014