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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Ever heard of Ethnomusicology ? or Rao Bahadur SA Saminatha Iyer

Ever heard of Ethnomusicology ?  or have heard of Rao Bahadur SA Saminatha Iyer and his contribution to the society ?

A pinch of it adds taste to what we eat – in our younger days, rock salt used to be kept outside the neighbourhood grocery shop in gunnies, now we have free-flowing, iodised salts !!

Common salt is a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl), a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of salts; salt in its natural form as a crystalline mineral is known as rock salt or halite. Salt is present in vast quantities in the seawater.  Salt is essential for animal life, and saltiness is one of the basic human tastes. Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous of food seasonings, and salting is an important method of food preservation.

90 years ago!, on this day – the Dandi March, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, began and was a direct action campaign of tax resistance triggering the wider Civil Disobedience Movement. Gandhi himself led the Dandi march from his base, Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad, to the coastal village of Dandi, located at a small town called Navsari, in the state of Gujarat. As he continued on this 24-day, 240-mile (390 km) march to Dandi to produce salt without paying the tax, growing numbers of Indians joined him along the way.

Rao Bahadur S. A. Saminatha Iyer  also known as Thanjavur Saminatha Iyer, was a  lawyer, landlord, politician and theosophist who served as Chairman of the Tanjore municipality and a delegate to the 1885, 1886, 1887, 1889 and 1894 sessions of the Indian National Congress. He was a part of a 32-member team that wrote the constitution of the Congress. Christopher Baker and D. A. Washbrook describe him as the "most celebrated spokesman of the Tanjore gentry".

Salt has been produced all along the Rann of Kutch on the west coast of India for the past thousands of years.  The Rann of Kutch is an extensive marshland that is cut off from the rest of the Indian subcontinent during monsoons when the seas inundate the low-lying areas. However, when the seawater evaporates during summer, it leaves behind a crust of salt which accumulates as salt pans.  Salt panning is done in the coasts of Orissa, at Marakkanam  on way to Pondy as also in Tuticorin.    When the British took over the administration of Bengal, they too felt its need and traded for salt. Gradually they monopolized Orissa salt all over Bengal. To check smuggling and illegal transportation, they sent armies into Orissa, resulting in the conquest of Orissa in 1803.

Taxation of salt has occurred in India since the earliest times. However, this tax was greatly increased when the British East India Company began to establish its rule over provinces in India. In 1835, special taxes were imposed on Indian salt to facilitate its import. This paid huge dividends for the traders of the British East India Company. When the Crown took over the administration of India from the Company in 1858, the taxes were not replaced.  According to some accounts,  British India derived 10% of its revenues from its monopoly of salt.

The salt tax was criticized at a public meeting at Cuttack in Feb 1888. In the first session of the Indian National Congress held in 1885 in Bombay, a prominent Congress member, S. A. Saminatha Iyer forcibly spoke against levy of tax on salt, used by common man.    There were further protests throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminating in Mahatma Gandhi's Salt Satyagraha in 1930. This sathyagraha was followed by other sathyagrahas in other parts of the country.  After the arrest of Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu led the sathyagrahis to Dharasana Salt works in Gujarat and was arrested by the police officers. C. Rajagopalachari broke the Salt Laws at Vedaranyam, in Madras Province in the same year. Thousands courted arrest and were imprisoned in large numbers. The administration eventually relented and invited Mahatma Gandhi to England to attend the Second Round Table Conference. Gandhi's Dandi March got wide news coverage and proved to be a turning point in the history of India's independence movement. The salt tax, however, continued to remain in effect and was repealed only when Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister of the interim government in 1946, but later re-introduced via the Salt Cess Act, 1953.

Saminatha Iyer who was among the first to fight against salt,  took an interest in politics during his practise as a pleader in Negapatam. During the early 1880s, he was elected to the Negapatam municipality and served as a member. He also set up a Negapatam branch of the Theosophical Society in 1883 and served as its Secretary. When the Madras Mahajana Sabha was formed in 1884, Saminatha Iyer became a corresponding member. In September 1885, Saminatha Iyer moved to Kumbakonam and succeeded Sir A. Seshayya Sastri as President of the Tanjore People's Association.  He was the association's sole delegate to the first session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay in Dec  1885.  During the third session of the Indian National Congress held at Madras in 1887, S. A. Swaminatha Iyer was appointed member of the 35-member committee which framed the constitution of the Indian National Congress. He also participated in the 1886, 1889 and 1894 sessions, in the last along with his younger brother, S. A. Ananthanarayanan, a High Court vakil.

Dr. S. A. Kumari Durga  was a musicologist and ethnomusicologist.  Ethnomusicology   is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it.  from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was the founder of the Centre for Ethnomusicology based in Chennai.  She was the grand daughter of  Swaminatha Iyer.

Interesting ! ~ and our history books never had these details, though we did study of all Viceroys and Governor Generals who took away all our wealth to their land.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
12th Mar 2020.


  1. Such nice and thought-provoking article which many of us are unaware
    like you rightly pointed out in the last paragraph we should be studying inspirational stories of people like swaminatha Iyer not only about those who looted us

  2. Sir, I wish to convey my appreciation of this well-written article of yours. Rao Bahadur S. A. Saminatha Iyer was my great-great-uncle. Here is a list of delegates from the Tamil-speaking part of the Madras Presidency who attended the first session of the Indian National Congress ( Many of them were stalwarts during the early years of the freedom movement. Sadly, the Congress party, today, is too centred on the Nehru-Gandhi family and these pre-1920 leaders are either ignored or completely forgotten.