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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > V.O. Chidambaram Pillai - வ.உ. சிதம்பரம் பிள்ளை, கப்பலோட்டிய தமிழன்


Pillai, V.O. Chidambaram
V.O. Chidambaram Pillai

V.O.C. in Central Prison, Coimbatore

வி.ஒ.சி கண்ட பாரதி - Kappal Otiya Thamizhan V.O.Chidamarampillai on Bharathy
A. R. Venkatachalapathy
on the Exchange of Letters between V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and M.K.Gandhi
, Hindu 26 January 2003

ம.பொ.சி. வளர்த்த வ.உ.சி. புகழ்: செக்கிழுத்தவருக்கு சிலையமைத்தவர்

V.O. Chidambaram College
VOC - the Doyen of Swadeshi Shipping - S.Dorairaj, 2001
Remembering VOC - 132 Birth Anniversary, 2003
V.O. Chidambaram Pillai - Freedom Fighters
V.O. Chidambaram Pillai - Heroes of the South


**V. O. Chidambaram Pillai by R.N.Sampath & Be. Su. Mani
**V. O. Chidambaram Pillai by R.A.Padmanabha, 1977
The Great Patriot V. O. Chidambaram Pillai
- Ma Po Civañānam; Soundara Mahadevan
Va. U. Citamparam Piḷḷai -Nāka Caṇmukam
Va. u. ci.Kaṭaicik kālattil taṭam mārinārā? -Aruṇan:வ. உ. சி.கடைசிக் காலத்தில் தடம் மாறினாரா? - அருணன்
Architects and Builders of Modern India, eds. V. Sivaramakrishnan and Dr. P. Jayaraman, (New York: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1997)
Indira Ananthakrishnan, "V.O. Chidambaram Pillai," in Remembering Our Leaders, ed. Bhavana Nair, (New Delhi: Children's Book Trust, 1995), vol. 3.

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (VOC)
வ. உ. சிதம்பரம் பிள்ளை
(வ. உ.சி)
Kappalottiya Tamilan:
கப்பலோட்டிய தமிழன்
1872 - 1936

[see also Kappal Oddiya Thamilan:
The Overseas Exploits of the Thamils & the Tragedy of Sri Lanka

"V.O.C. showed the way for organized effort and sacrifice. He finished his major political work by 1908, but died in late 1936, the passion for freedom still raging in his mind till the last moment. He was known as "Chekkiluththa Chemmal" - a great man who pulled the oil press in jail for the sake of his people. He was an erudite scholar in Tamil, a prolific writer, a fiery speaker a trade union leader of unique calibre and a dauntless freedom fighter. His life is a story of resistance, strife, struggle, suffering and sacrifice for the cause to which he was committed.."

[Please also see discussion re 'what do the initials V.O.C. stand for?]

V.O.Chidambarampillai (VOC) was born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu (the same District which a hundred years earlier given birth to Veerapandiya Kattabomman).

Chidambarampillai was the eldest son of Ulaganathan Pillai and Paramayi Ammai. His early education was in Tuticorin. He passed a pleadership examination in 1894 and this enabled him to practise law at the local sub-magistrate's court. He then went on to practise at the nearby port town of Tuticorin.

The partition of Bengal in 1905, the rise of militancy evidenced by Swadeshi (boycott of foreign goods) movement, saw Chidambarampillai taking a direct interest in the political struggle. These were the years before the arrival of Gandhi on the Indian political landscape.

Chidambarapillai supported Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the militant wing of the Indian National Congress. He participated in the 1907 Surat Congress together with Subramania Bharati. He was one of the earliest to start the 'Dharmasangha Nesavuchalai' for hand-loom industry and the 'Swadeshi Stores' for the sale of India made things to the people. He played a lead role in many institutions, like the "National Godown," "Madras Agro-Industrial Society Ltd.," and "The Desabimana Sangam".

Commerce between Tuticorin and Colombo was the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISN) and its Tuticorin agents, A. & F. Harvey.

Inspired by the Swadeshi movement, V.O.C. mobilised the support of local merchants, and launched the first indigenous Indian shipping enterprise, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, thus earning for himself the name - "Kappalottiya Tamilan கப்பலோட்டிய தமிழன்".

The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was registered on the 12th of November 1906. He purchased two steamships, S.S. Gallia and S.S. Lawoe for the company and commenced regular services between Tuticorin and Colombo against the opposition of the British traders and the Imperial Government.

His efforts to widen the base of the Swadeshi movement, by mobilising the workers of the Coral Mills (also managed by A. & F. Harvey) brought him into increasing conflict with the British Raj. On 12 March1908, he was arrested on charges of sedition and for two days, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin witnessed unprecedented violence, quelled only by the stationing of a punitive police force. But newspapers had taken note of VOC. Aurobindo Ghosh, acclaimed him in Bande Mataram (March 27, 1908) -

" Well Done, Chidambaram! A true feeling of comradeship is the salt of political life; it binds men together and is the cement of all associated action. When a political leader is prepared to suffer for the sake of his followers, when a man, famous and adored by the public, is ready to remain in jail rather than leave his friends and fellow-workers behind, it is a. sign that political life in India is becoming a reality. Srijut Chidambaram Pillai has shown throughout the Tuticorin affair a loftiness of character, a practical energy united with high moral idealism which show that he is a true Nationalist. His refusal to accept release on bail if his fellow-workers were left behind, is one more count in the reckoning. Nationalism is or ought to be not merely a political creed but a religious aspiration and a moral attitude. Its business is to build up Indian character by educating it to heroic self-sacrifice and magnificent ambitions, to restore the tone of nobility which it has lost and bring back the ideals of the ancient Aryan gentleman. The qualities of courage, frankness, love and justice are the stuff of which a Nationalist should be made. All honour to Chidambaram Pillai for having shown us the first complete example of an Aryan reborn, and all honour to Madras which has produced such a man."

Apart from the Madras press, even the Amrita Bazaar Patrika from Kolkata (Calcutta) carried reports of his prosecution every day. Funds were raised for his defence not only in India but also by the Tamils in South Africa. Bharathy gave evidence in the case which had been instituted against him. V.O.C. was confined in the Central Prison, Coimabtore from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910.

The Court imposed a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years). The sentence was perhaps a reflection of the fear that the British had for VOC and the need to contain the rebellion and secure that others would not follow in Chidambarampillai's footsteps.

In 1911, Tirunelveli District Collector Ashe was assasinated by Vanchinathan, a youth trained by V.V.S.Aiyar who had at that time had sought refuge in French Pondicherry. The British response was brutal and a witch hunt followed. And the Swadeshi movement petered out with many of its activists languishing in jail.

VOC in prison, was left to fend for himself. His wife, Meenakshi Ammal, followed him from the Tirunelveli sub jail to the Coimbatore and Kannur central jails, where he spent his term and almost single-handedly organised his appeals.

Sivaji Ganesan as VOC in prison
in the film Kappalottiya Thamizhan

Chidambarampillai was not treated as a 'political prisoner'. The sentence that was imposed on him was not 'simple imprisonment'. He was treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour. He was "yoked to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun..." writes, historian and Tamil scholar, R. A. Padmanabhan. Sivaji Ganesan's portrayal of VOC in the film Kappalottiya Thamizhan reflected that agony and that pain.

"Among the 300 films which was Sivaji's favourite? Pat came the answer from Sivaji, 'Kappalottiya Thamizhan''. Enacting a doctor, an engineer and others are not very difficult. But to portray a person, a revered freedom fighter, whom people had met, seen and moved with, is a different proposition. So when the late Panthulu asked me to enact the role, I first hesitated. Then I decided to meet the challenge. I got all the material on V. O. Chidambaram Pillai and studied it. 'On seeing the film, I cried, not because my performance was moving but because it hit me with new impact - the sacrifice VOC and others had made for the country. When VOC's son Subramaniam said that he saw his father come alive on the screen, I considered it the highest award.'' Sivaji Ganesan on his Role in Kappalottiya Tamilan

Subramania Bharati was moved to write his வ.உ.சி.க்கு வாழ்த்து.

வேளாளன் சிறைபுகுந்தான் தமிழகத்தார்
மன்னனென மீண்டான் என்றே
கேளாத கதைவிரைவிற் கேட்பாய் நீ
வருந்தலைஎன் கேண்மைக்கோவே!
தாளாண்மை சிறினுகொலோ யாம்புரிவேம்
நீஇறைக்குத் தவங்கள் ஆற்றி,
வேளாண்மை நின் துணைவர் பெறுகெனவே
வாழ்த்துதிநீ வாழ்தி! வாழ்தி!

The Prison Cell that V.O.C. occupied in Central Prison Coimbatore

"yoked to the oil press like an animal.."

In prison VOC continued a clandestine correspondence, maintaining a stream of petitions going into legal niceties. When he stepped out of prison in late December 1912, after a high court appeal had reduced his prison sentence, the huge crowds present on his arrest were conspicuously absent. His feelings may have been similar to those of Aurobindo in 1909 - feelings which Aurobindo expressed in in the famous Uttarpara speech, soon after his own release from prison:

"It is I, this time who have spent one year in seclusion, and now that I come out I find all changed. One who always sat by my side (Tilak) and was associated in my work is a prisoner in Burma; another is in the north rotting in detention... I looked around for those to whom I had been accustomed to look for counsel and inspiration. I did not find them. There was more than that. When I went to jail the whole country was alive with the cry of Bande Mataram... when I came out of jail I listened for that cry, but there was instead a silence. a hush had fallen on the country and men seemed bewildered... No man seemed to know which way to move, and from all sides came the question, 'What shall we do next? What is there that we can do?' I too did not know which way to move, I too did not know what was next to be done."

VOC was not permitted to remain in his native Tirunelveli district and he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons. Having been convicted for sedition, he had lost his pleadership status and he was unable to earn his livelihood by practising the law. The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had collapsed. It was liquidated in 1911. He and his family had lost all their wealth and property in his legal defence.

After his release in 1912 he completed his autobiography which he had started writing in prison. It was in Tamil in a verse form. He wrote a commentary on Thirukural and edited the Tamil work of grammar, Tolkappiam. He authored a few novels in Tamil. His translation of some of James Allen's books earned him an indisputable reputation of being an erudite Tamil scholar. His Tamil works like "Meyyaram" and "Meyyarivu" reflect a creative mind, restless for uninhibited expression. V.O.C. attended the Calcutta Congress in 1920.V.O.C. showed the way for organized effort and sacrifice. Today when anybody utters the name of VOC, immediately comes to mind is his achievement as the first Indian to launch a ship service.

"The moment anybody utters the name of VOC, immediately comes to mind is his achievement as the first Indian to launch a ship service between Tuticorin and Colombo through Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in the interest of the Nation's economy, and that too, against the British Rule. His main aim was to serve the country for attaining Independence from the British and he had all the leadership qualities in him that require achieving things in macro level. He gained the patronage from leading merchants and industrialists in Tirunelveli for establishing a Swadeshi Merchant Shipping Organization, which was unveiled on 16th October 1906. From then on, the company developed from strength to strength and laid its name strongly in the minds of everyone in Indian and foreign countries as well." Chennai School of Ship Management

"The nation will always remember V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, whose 130th birth anniversary was on 5 September 2001, principally for the pioneering role he played in building India's swadeshi shipping industry." VOC - the Doyen of Swadeshi Shipping - S.Dorairaj, 2001

On the 5th September, 1972, on the occasion of VOC's birth centenary the Indian Posts & Telegraphs department issued a special postage stamp. The citation read

V. O. CHIDAMBARAM PILLAI Indian Post"...His courage and determination to run the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company against the stern opposition of the British traders and the Imperial Governmentwon the proud acclaim of one and all..."

VOC finished his major political work by 1908, but died in late 1936, the passion for freedom still raging in his mind till the last moment. He was known as "Chekkiluththa Chemmal" - a great man who pulled the oil press in jail for the sake of his people. He was an erudite scholar in Tamil, a prolific writer, a fiery speaker a trade union leader of unique calibre and a dauntless freedom fighter. His life is a story of resistance, strife, struggle, suffering and sacrifice for the cause to which he was committed. In accordance with his wishes, VOC was taken to the Congress Office at Tuticorin, where he died on the 18th November, 1936.

.A. R. Venkatachalapathy in the Hindu 26 January 2003
on the Exchange of Letters between V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and M.K.Gandhi

Between the middle of 1915 and early 1916, Gandhi exchanged a series of letters with a personality whose name does not occur even once in the 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The person in question is V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (or VOC), who between 1906-08 during the Swadeshi movement, dominated the national movement in Tamil Nadu.

Gandhi was not yet the Mahatma then. Fresh from decades-long political activity in South Africa, Gandhi was still finding his feet, politically. He had arrived in Chennai on April 17, 1915, along with his wife, Kasturba. The couple stayed at 60, Thambu Chetty Street (George Town), the residence of G.A. Natesan, the nationalist publisher. He was to stay in Chennai (Madras) for three weeks before setting out for Ahmedabad on May 8....

.... A correspondence which began at this juncture between VOC and Gandhi continued for about six months, which is our present concern. We do not know what happened to the enormous mail Gandhi received. But VOC seems to have preserved all these letters, and for good measure, had written his draft replies on Gandhi's letters. So we have his side too. The lines he had scribbled out in his draft letters add to our knowledge - amply rewarding for the task of decipherment.

The first letter, drafted probably a day after Gandhi arrived, addressed Gandhi as "Dear Brother": "I have had the fortune of seeing you and my respected Mrs Gandhi when you came out of the Railway compound the other evening", it said and added, "I want to have a private interview with you at any time convenient to you before you leave this place". Gandhi replied promptly with a single line on April 20, 1915: "If you kindly call at ... 6 A.M. next Friday, I could give you a few minutes".

Switching over to a more formal "Dear Sir", VOC replied the next day: Underlining the words "a few minutes", he said, "As I am afraid that my conversation with you will take more than the allotted `a few minutes', I need not trouble you with my presence". He excused himself "for having intruded upon your precious time".

It was now Gandhi's turn to take mild offence: "If you do not want to see me I would like to see you myself. Will you kindly call on Friday or Saturday at 6 A.M. and [sic?] give me a few minutes?" He then went on to explain: "Of course you can call any day between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. when I am open to be seen by anybody. But as you wanted a private interview I suggested Friday morning as I suggest some morning or the other for private interviews". (April 21, 1915)

Here came the first poignant moment in the exchange. VOC agreed to meet Gandhi early in the morning but said, "I cannot reach your place before 6:30 a.m." Reason: "the tram car, the only vehicle by which I can now afford to go to your place, leaves Mylapore after 5:30 in the morning". A man who had bought up two steamships a few years earlier was now unable to take anything more than a tram! Yet VOC went on to add, "I can spend not `a few minutes' but, the whole of my lifetime with the patriots of my country if they wish me to do so. All my time is intended for the services of my country and of its patriots. Only after these two, God is attended to by me".

Gandhi and VOC did indeed meet. But whether VOC took only a tram or whether they met only for "a few minutes" we will never know. But the correspondence did not end here. It followed the issue Gandhi himself raised in his letter of April 21, 1915.

"I would like to know from you whether you received some moneys from me which were collected on your behalf some years ago in South Africa. I was trying to trace some orders which I had thought were sent, but I did not find them. I therefore would like to know from you whether you received the moneys that were handed to me."

VOC replied (April 22, 1915) that neither he nor his wife had received any money. The reference to his wife and the indication by Gandhi to money collected "some years ago" suggest that it may have had to do with the fund raised in South Africa for VOC's defence.

(In two waves of migration from India, 1860-1866 and 1874-1911, Tamils had reached South Africa most often as indentured labourers. Even in 1980, Tamils constituted 37 per cent of the population, the largest group among people of Indian origin. (A collection of Bharati's poems, "Matha Manivachagam", had been published in Durban in 1914. Gandhi's links with this segment of the diaspora needs no recounting.) However, despite his impecunious situation, he reassured Gandhi: "But, if you will pardon me, I will say that you need not trouble yourself ... for I am sure that it would have gone to a better purpose".

Gandhi would of course have none of it. "I don't know the names of those who subscribed for you but the money was given to me by a friend on their behalf and I have been always under the impression that it was sent to you".

Now comes the most poignant letter. VOC replied saying that he had presumed from Gandhi's earlier letter that the fund had been spent towards Passive Resistance in South Africa and, therefore, he had asked him not to bother to remit the money especially if it was to be from his funds. But now that Gandhi had made it clear that it was not so:

"I will, in my present condition, be only glad to receive that money ... I have already told you in person that my family and I are supported for the past two years or so by some South African Indians ... Such being the case, there is no reason why I should say that the money intended for me and that is ready to be given to me is not wanted by me. Under the present circumstances if I refuse that amount I will be committing a wrong to myself and my family".

Now that the issue was settled - that Gandhi indeed owed money, and VOC was not averse to receiving it - a series of letters were exchanged from late May 1915 until January 1916. To VOC's apparently long letters, Gandhi replied on cryptic post cards.

On May 28, 1915 Gandhi assured VOC: "I shall now send for the book subscribed in Natal. I don't know the amount nor the names. But I hope to get them". VOC seems to have been in desperate need of money. "Don't you know at least approximately the total amount given to you by your friend? If you know it, can you not send me that amount or a major portion of it now, so that it may be useful to me in my present difficult circumstances? The remainder you may send to me after you get the books", VOC pleaded (May 31, 1915). He also asked for the names of benefactors. In letter after letter he asked for these details.

It is understandable, given VOC's penchant for remembering benefactors by naming his children for them: Vedavalli was named for T. Vedia Pillai who supported him and Subramaniam for C.K. Subramania Mudaliar, who helped him during his prosecution. Even the Englishman E.H. Wallace, who first committed his case to the session's court but was instrumental in getting his sanad back, was remembered in the name of his last son, Wallacewaran!

But Gandhi would only say, "If you will kindly wait a while, you will have both the money and the particulars. If I knew the name of the friend, I should certainly let you know", and asked VOC to write to Mr. Patak at Johannesburg for more details.

Probably to another reminder from VOC, asking if he had heard from South Africa, Gandhi wrote a rather curt "Not yet, yours M.K. Gandhi" without even a formal word of address (July 23, 1915). But within a month, most certainly to another reminder from VOC, Gandhi wrote with his own hand, in Tamil, saying he had not yet heard from South Africa. (This particular post card is in tatters.)

Gandhi writing in Tamil seems to have completely floored VOC. Dropping the question of money VOC started off right away, "Your card written in Tamil reached me on the due date. I am glad to see that you have written the language without any mistake whatever. If you are able to read and understand Tamil prose and poetical works of ordinary style, I will be glad to send you all my publications" (September 28, 1915).

However, even in December 1915 and January 1916, Gandhi was only writing one-line letters like "I am still awaiting instructions from Natal" to VOC's increasingly desperate and beseeching letters. VOC's ordeal came to an end at last when, on January 20, 1916, Gandhi wrote from Ahmedabad, "I have now heard from Natal", and that Rs. 347-12-0 was to be remitted to him soon.

The correspondence ends here. VOC was no doubt relieved and delighted. On February 4, 1916, he wrote to a friend, in Tamil, "Rs. 347-12-0 has come from Sriman Gandhi. I have given Rs. 100 to the pressman for casting new types. With the remaining money I have settled all my debts except one of Rs.50. I will need further money only to buy paper".

Of course, VOC had heaved a sigh of relief too early. Never really recovering from the penury caused by his prison life - he tried his hand at selling provisions, worked as a clerk in Coimbatore and for a few years after regaining his pleadership sanad, practised in the Kovilpatti court which by his own admission was only enough to meet his "betel leaves and areca nut expenses". This however did not come much in the way of his public life. As a die-hard supporter of Tilak, he could never countenance Gandhi's leadership. Yet, until his death in 1936, he continued to be active in the labour movement, the national movement and the non Brahmin movement. That, however, is a different story.

Kappalottiya Tamilan - The Film

A movie review by Balaji Balasubramaniam

Cast: Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Savitri, S.V.Subbaiya, Rangarao, Asokan, Balaji - Direction: B.R.Bandulu

Actors rarely identify any one of their movies as their favorite, instead detouring around the delicate question by saying that all the movies they acted in had their strengths. Considering the sheer number of movies he has acted in, picking a favorite had to be an even tougher task for 'Sivaji' Ganesan than for most actors. But he had repeatedly declared Kappalottiya Thamizhan to be his favorite, stating the difficulty of playing a famous leader, the research that went into the movie and its realism as his reasons.

The movie effectively portrays the hardships undergone by V.O.Chidambaram Pillai, who was responsible for launching the first Indian ship on Indian waters.

V.O.Chidambaram Pillai (Sivaji) is a lawyer and also the owner of a large salt factory. He is a true patriot, leading the movement to burn all foreign goods. Noticing that there was no Indian ship plying in the Indian waters, he collects the money needed to buy a ship and launches the ship. He, along with Subramaniam Siva, is arrested for leading a strike of workers at a mill run by the English and suffers untold hardship in prison.

Sivaji brings Chidambaram Pillai before our eyes with his portrayal of the freedom fighter. He is majestic during the initial portions, as he strides with confidence, collecting money for buying the ship and sure of its success in propagating the freedom movement. He delivers his dialogs forcefully and with passion and the accompanying expressions and gestures complement the effect (the single shot when the collector imagines Sivaji as Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman is quite exhilarating). The makeup is flawless in his old age and his slow, uncertain walk and sad face leave us with little doubt that we are actually seeing an old man on screen. It is an underplayed performance but grandiose nevertheless.

The movie effectively shows us the hardships undergone by the people in order to gain independence and makes us admire the patriotic fervor in the few characters it focusses on. Chidambaram Pillai's selfless acts are ofcourse the highlight and the way he sells his business or his wife's jewels without a moment's thought speaks of his greatness. There is passion in his voice as he dreams of an Indian ship. His wealthy lifestyle makes the hardships he undergoes in jail even more tragic. The scenes in jail have been picturised well with even one of the convicts making an impression with his respect for V.O.C.

But the movie does not focus on him solely with the effect of making the other characters insignificant. Bharatiyar's eccentricity and Subramaniam Siva's forcefulness are well brought out during their segments. Ofcourse these characters have their best scenes when seen with VOC. Subramaniam Siva has his best lines during his visit to the Collector's office with VOC while Bharatiyar shines when asked about his association with VOC in court. Individuals like Gemini Ganesan's Madasami get substantial screen time and Vanchinathan manages to impress us in the little time he is on screen.

Maybe because VOC could not accomplish much after he came out of jail or because there are no records of that segment of his life, the portions of the movie dealing with that part seem rather rushed. His transformation to an aged man seems abrupt with only newspaper reports about the death of his fellow freedom fighters being used to indicate the passing of time. The last scene is suitably touching with Bharatiyar's Endru Thaniyum....

S.V.Subbaiya is perfect as Bharatiyar and his expressions, gestures and dialog delivery are superb. Among all the actors who have portrayed the poet in cinema, no one comes as close as S.V.Subbaiya. Gemini Ganesan and Savitri have a few cute lines as the lovebirds. S.V.Rangarao, who usually plays a benevolent old man, appears as the British collector here. Asokan too has a role as the assistant collector. Songs like Velli Paniyin... and Vande Maataram... are very memorable.

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