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Saturday, September 5, 2020

remembering Kappal Ottiya Thamizhan VO Chidambaram Pillai

The poignant history of a man who was so passionate in founding a new enterprise – but passed away broken –  was born this day, 148 years ago. 

Vandanam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai  (VOC)  was born on 5th Sept 1872.  His father was the eminent lawyer Ulaganathan Pillai in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin Dist.  Like his father, he also became an advocate and often pleaded for the poor.  He was attracted by the Swadeshi movement by the Bal Lal Pal,  a time when Gandhi was not at the National scene.  The fight was against the Imperial policies of British which were threatening the very existence of trade, commerce and the communities that were dependent on them.  In Madras Presidency this was championed by the likes of Subramanya Siva, Subrahmanya Bharathi, Aurobindo Ghosh.  VOC also presided the Salem Congress Session.

He was a great patriot and fought the British tooth and nail ~ while some freedom fighters were arrested and spent time in Jail writing books and letters – the hardcore unfortunate were subjected to harsh punishments, were cruelly treated, lost their health, mental balance eventually leading to untimely deaths.  This man’s imprisonment was a sequel to the  speech at Thai Poosa Mantapam in the bed of river Thamirabarani at Tirunelveli [on the night of 9th March 1907];  was convicted under sections 124A & 153A of Indian Penal Code by the Bench consisting of CA White & Miller.   In that famous speech, he had thundered “"As soon as the English people set foot in India, poverty also made its appearance in the country. So long as the foreign Government exists we shall not prosper. So long as we continue to be the servants and slaves of foreigners we shall have to endure hardships.”

Not many of us now know that Tuticorin was known as Thirumandiranagar, meaning a city of holy chants.  Those days, it reverberated with the mantra of ‘Vande Mataram’ .. ..  Indian history has not properly recorded those pains and sufferings of innumerable patriots who fought the British.  Vascoda gama’s ship San Gabrial touched the shores in 1498 – showing the way for Western mariners and that pain continued till 1947 when Indian National flag was unfurled at the ramparts of Red Fort ~ a period of 450 years that gruelled India and its citizens.

Sea-faring is not new – thousands of years ago, Sangam literature speaks of adventurous voyages, wars and trade from South Indian ports, some of which are extinct now.  Perhaps, commercial shipping was new – towards the end of 19th century, some sprang and to us the most important was   “Swadeshi Steam Ship Company”, that challenged the monopoly of enjoyed by the British India Steam Navigation Company, formed in 1856, especially in passenger transportation between Tuticorin and Colombo.  The British India Steam Navigation Company  had earlier been  formed in 1856 as the ‘Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company’. The company had been formed out of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, a trading partnership of the Scots William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon. Years later this was  entirely absorbed into P&O. As one of the largest shipowners of all time, the company owned more than 500 ships and managed 150 more for other owners. At its height in 1922, BI had more than 160 ships in the fleet, many built on Clydeside, Scotland.

                   The man who dared to create this enterprise  said, “This Company is not merely commercial in its motive. These ships will help the British leave the country with their bags and baggages.” Subrahmanya Siva another stormy petrel of the South and a right-hand man of Chidambaram who was sitting next to him interrupted and said: “They cannot take the bags and baggages as the contents in them belong to India” !

His exemplary fighting qualities made him establish the “Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company” during Nov 1906 by purchasing two steamships ‘S.S.Gaelia’ and ‘S.S.Lawoe’. On 16 October 1906 a new Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was registered under the Indian Companies Act of 1882. The details found regarding the Company were: The Capital was to be ten lakh rupees raised by the issue of 40,000 shares at Rs. 25 each. Individuals belonging to Asian Continent were eligible to become shareholders—Pandi Thurai Thevar the Zamindar of Palavanatham and the President of Madurai Tamil Sangam was its President and Chidambaram Pillai became an Assistant Secretary of the new company. The company had 15 Directors.   The wily British reportedly slashed the fare per trip to Re.1 (16 annas) per head.  Later the  British company went further by offering a free trip to the passengers plus a free umbrella, which had ‘S.S.Gaelia’ and ‘S.S.Lawoe’ running nearly empty.  The restrictive trade practices coupled by the political actions taken against  the pioneer and other freedom fighters pushed the company towards bankruptcy is the sad history.  

Sea is rough and the life of VOC was tormented at land too.. ..  In Tuticorin the English were running a cotton mill by name “The Tuticorin Coral Cotton Mills”. The Management was fleecing the labourers, and was enjoying enormous profits.  Those who advocate human rights and call British kind, need to know that the Factory Act of 1911 for cotton mill workers prescribed 12 hour work schedule through the week.  In the Coral Mills, even small mistakes by the labourer was magnified by giving cane punishment. Racial arrogance was evident in their behaviour and attitude towards the labourers. Chidambaram Pillai and Siva arranged for meetings of the workers of the Mill and addressed them to bring an awareness. In that task, Padmanabha Ayyangar another social worker and an admirer of Chidambaram also took part. At all the meetings held at Tuticorin during the months of February and March of 1908, all the three were present invariably.  This irked the Britishers, particularly the Collector of Tirunelveli Mr. Winch and the joint Magistrate of Tuticorin, Mr. Ashe.


After that speech in Tirunelveli in  1908, VOC was arrested on charges of sedition. Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Subramanya Siva appeared in the Court in the case and VOC was sentenced to double life imprisonment. He was treated badly as a convict and subjected to inhuman torture.  Chidambaram Pillai was sentenced to 40 years of exile and transportation for life on two counts. Twenty years for seditious speech and 20 years for abetting Siva for his fiery lectures—the sentences to run one after another. Siva was transported for 10 years for seditious speech. 

He was sent to the Central Jail at Coimbatore on 9 July 1908. Without any concern for his social status, professional equipment or hereditary weightage, Chidambaram was interned along with diehard and cut-throat criminals. But little did he deflect from his steadfast principles, forebearance and fortitude which earned for him the regard and respect from fellow-prisoners tending to become affection and love. He was asked to spin jute-yarn by hand-rotating machine by which act his palms got blisters with burning sensation and occasionally blood oozed out of the palms.  He was. made to drag the country-oil-expeller (chekku) round and round in the open air to crush the seeds for oil instead of bullocks or any other draught animal.

As if the afflictions—external—are not sufficient, Chidambaram had the share of mental agonies too. The news that the ships belonging to the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company were sold to the very same British Company against which he fought valiantly and relentlessly, pained him terribly.  When Bharati heard about it, he expressed his disapproval and anger when he met Chidambaram in person later at Pondicherry thus: “Honour is great and important. For a few chips the ships were sold to the very enemies by the cut-throats. They could have smashed the ships into smithereens and thrown them into the sea. Will India sink if a few chips were lost?” Not stopping with the sale of the ships to the enemies, the members of the management of the Swadeshi Company demanded compensation from Chidambaram. They contended that due to the political interference of Chidambaram alone the Company had to lose business and hence had to be closed.

The man who underwent all pains for the Nation VOC was  later released in Dec 1912 convicted in  judgement known as ‘King Emperor versus Subramania Siva and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai’  is a piece of  history. Here are some snippets – mostly picked from a heart-rending book titled ‘VO Chidambaram Pillai’ written by RN Sampath & Pe Su Mani, with foreword of Ma Po Si.

·       Kappalottiya Thamizhan, a 1961 film – the story of VOC based on bio written by Ma. Po. Si.(M.P.Sivagnanam); directed by B. R. Panthulu, featured Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan in the lead roles. The film reportedly failed at box office.

·       VOC’s birth place Ottapidaram village is proximate to Ettayapuram of Barathiyar and Panchalam kurichi of Veerapandia kattabomman.

·       Ulaganatham Pillai, father of  Kappal Ottiya thamizhan Chidambaram, was related to Lieutenant Thanapathi Pillai who served Katta Bomman as minister.

·       In  1906, VOC met Swami Ramakrishnananda—the Chief of Ramakrishna Mission at Madras.  This meeting changed the life of pious Saivaite

·       Chidambaram was a great orator, great writer in Tamil, having published some books.  His fiery article ‘Swadesabhimanam’ appeared in Vivekabhanu Feb 1906 issue of  a monthly journal from Madurai.

·       This literary magazine ws started in 1902 and was at one point of time ran by Pulavar MR Kandaswami Kavirayar, zealous Nationalist.  VOC was contributing a donation of Rs.12/-  every month !

·       In May 1907, Bipin Chandra Pal visited Madras and gave six lectures on the Triplicane Beach every day evening from 3 to 8. These lectures brought out a perceptible change in the attitude of the people. Bharathiyar wrote in his India on 11 May 1907, that the visit and speeches of Pal had cast a miraculous effect on the otherwise slumbering people of Madras. After the visit in every street and in every place the talk was only about Nationalism and the first utterance was Vande Mataram.

·       On the day of release of Bipin Chandra Pal on 9.3.1908, VOC & Subramanya Siva organised celebrations at Tuticorin. 

·       The Madras Jana Sangh was founded in Triplicane at a meeting held in Gangai Kondan  Mantap on 11 Jan 1908. [our Ganganna mantap at Triplicane market]

·       Sadly, (though British had made elaborate arrangements) at the time of his release on 24.12.1912, Swami Vallinayagam, V.O.C.’s wife, sons, brother-in-law and friend Ganapathi  only were present at the gate.  Siva who himself had been released a month earlier was   there as a sole representative of public persons who toiled with Chidambaram for the freedom, fully afflicted with leprosy. What a travesty!

·       Chidambaram Pillai upon his release from Cannanore jail,  neither went to his native village Ottappidaram nor to his erstwhile field of political activity, Tuticofin, but went to Madras and set up his family.

·       With his Sannad to practice being confiscated he could not restart his legal profession. Wherewithal to maintain a family became a big question mark before him. He tried at opening a grocery and general store but failed in that. He ventured into kerosene mandy but lost money.   Mandayam Srinivasachari of Thiruvallikkeni, who had employed Mahakavi Barathiyar  alone was the financial prop for all indigent patriots and he helped Chidambaram considerably.

·       While Subrahmanya Bharati and Subrahmanya Siva translated the works of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Chidambaram took the works of James Allen for his handiwork.

·       He appealed against the revocation of his advocate license and years later was restored by the orders of Judge EH Wallace – reportedly he named his son,, Valleswaran ! in gratitude. However, he struggled in his profession due to lack of support from the public and from the Congress party with whom he became quite disillusioned.

·       He also joined hands with Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai and published Tholkappiyam with the notes of Ilampooranar in 1922. He also wrote commentary for the Arathupal part of Thirukkural.

·       One of his sons, Arumugam Pillai contested in Ottapidaram Assembly elections in1967 but lost badly.

On 18 November 1936 at 11.30 in the night the great patriot and the valiant fighter of freedom joined his political mentors in their heavenly abode.

With profound sadness – S. Sampathkumar

5th Sept 2020



  1. Very very touching.. வ.வு.சி வாழ்க்கை வரலாறு தொடர்பான அனைத்து விஷயங்களும் மனதை நெகிழ வைத்தது.. நம் தேசத்தில் உழைத்த தியாகிகளின் சரித்திரஙகள் அவ்வப்போது எழுதி வணக்கம் செலுத்துவது பாராட்டப் பட வேண்டும். Very nice

  2. Very Touching. Though knew many things, liked the reading for the way it was written. Had the privilege of studying in the college named after Him. Also participated, in the Gaurd of Honour, given to late PM Smt. Indra Gandhi, who came to Tuticorin in celebrations of 100th Anniversary. She released a commemorative postal stamp.

  3. vandonam அல்ல valliyappan. திருத்துக