Madurai city, TN and forgotten Gandhiji

Mohandas K. Gandhi. Freedom fighter

If there is one south Indian  city  that attracted Gandhiji, father of our nation, more than the others, it is Madurai, Tamil Nadu  which is famous for the sprawling  Meenakshi - Sundareswarar  temple and the annual summer Chitrai Thiruvizha (festival) - Kalazagar (Perumal) getting into the Vaigai river.  Gandhiji visited Madurai city as many as five times  during his life time, each time he stayed in the house of his well-wishers and freedom fighters. One particular visit to Madurai in 1921 assumed much importance because on this visit he emerged with a new, but different attire - his famous loin cloth after discarding his traditional Gujarati attire. It is no exaggeration to say that Madurai played a crucial role in Gandhiji's tirade against the oppressive British rule. Gandhiji said about his new dress, “All the alterations I have made in my course of life have been affected by momentous occasions, and they have been made after such a deep deliberation that I have hardly had to regret them.”

Gandhiji, change of attire, West Masi St. house.Madurai

The house at 251, West Masi street  where Gandhi stayed is a historical one. On 22 September 1921 Mohan Das K. Gandhi emerged from the house wearing loin cloth in order to be identified with the Indian  poor mass and this unexpected change of attire effected by him during the thick of freedom struggle grabbed the attention of Indian people, Indian media as well a foreign media.  The visit made  Gandhiji  more spiritually rejuvenated with better and focused vision to carry on his struggle to free India from the British yoke.  It became a symbol of India's common man and personally his spiritual prowess. This invigorated him politically and mentally to challenge the colonial rule, then a hard nut to crack. This is the attire that irritated Churchill, British conservative politician and India baiter who uttered the famous remark in a moment of rage. Gandhiji refused to change his dress to go to London to attend the Round Table Conference on the simple notion the Indian poor are naked because of Britain's oppressive colonial policy and their continued exploitation of Indian resources. Ever since  Gandhiji witnessed   poverty around him  way back  during the Champaran satyagraha days of 1917 in Bihar

Champaran Satyagraha. Bihar.

 he had been stoically annoyed over the pathetic condition of our people. But on his trip to South India his anger and frustration became more pronounced  and the sight of poor peasants in the rural areas toiling in the fields in their loin clothes and their struggle for food and  decent livelihood had a deep impact on his  mind. The three Round Table Conferences of 1930–32 were a series of peace conferences in London  organized by the British Government and the main participant was the Indian national congress to discuss constitutional reforms in India. They started in November 1930 and ended in December 1932. Gandhiji attended the second Round table conference (September -December 1931) being the sole representative of Indian National Congress.  It was a wonderful chance for him to speak mind and tell the British audience/public under what conditions Indian natives were living under the oppressive British rule. The adoption of a dhoti and a shawl in the place of an elaborate Gujarati attire is a symbolic external manifestation of an internal revolution. M P Gurusamy, secretary, Gandhi Museum told 'The Hindu',

 Gandhiji early images. Wikimedia Commons(L); Hardeep Singh Puri/Facebook (R)

''The dress of liberty turned into the Mahatma’s identity.
II round table conference, London 1931, Gandhiji.

Churchill on

Gandhi Museum, Madurai, TN Wikipedia

Tomorrow the country will be celebrating  his 149th birth anniversary.  What about the houses in Madurai that hosted him long ago during the colonial period?  Are they in good condition, not withstanding their  age of construction?  Several media reports appeared in the past about the poor conditions of those houses and urged the Central and State governments to repair and restore them. Neither the state government nor the Central government has taken steps to preserve them so far. The congress leaders in Tamil Nadu are busy with their internal squabbles  over the control of  the party in the state and have no time time to save the houses from ruin. The two houses have already disappeared and their places are taken over by modern buildings.  Of the remaining three, two are in bad condition. In 1919, Gandhi came to Madurai for the first time to canvas  support against the Rowlatt Act. He stayed in the house of advocate and trade unionist George Joseph near Kalpalam. The house is gone; the other one at Krishnarayar Teppam  street, the same story continues. A tractor workshop stands in the spot at the above address. However, the house where Gandhiji stayed in 1934 is being  maintained by the descendants of N M R Venkatesan, elder brother of Subburaman who hosted Gandhiji.  The house of Raja of Sivaganga, is on the premises of Sri Meenakshi Government College for Women. The room where Gandhiji stayed houses a small museum. This building is too crumbling due to poor maintenance. Here, the Raja of Sivaganga was Gandhiji's host.

As for the West Masi street house, it was once owned by a Gujarati business man Ramji Kalyanji and presently a Khadi Bhavan is functioning there, selling honey, soap, etc; the first floor has some pictures of Gandhiji and his bust image. The upkeep of the Khadi shop and the green colored  building is pretty bad. Because of sheer negligence, the walls and shutter doors are shabby and the first floor portion where Gandhiji stayed is under lock and key most of the time. The stairway and first floor Veranda overlooking the ever busy West Masi street are thickly coated with dust and it shows years of neglect, poor upkeep and lack of maintenance. Part of building in the backyard collapsed years ago.  The workers in the Khadi shop clean up the place only on important occasions like Gandhi Jayanthi day, etc., that may attract higher ups from the Collector office. Workers in the Khadi shop can take turn and clean the building, but they don't  do it. They are much worse than the famous sloth.

People here have no idea about the history behind this building. They will blink  or give a good stare when you tell them about Gandhiji's visit to this building. Many old timers, in particular, Gandhians in the city expressed their anguish and resentment over the poor condition of the houses associated with Gandhi. They could not contain their anger over the lethargic attitude of the government officials in particular those lazy people in the Khadi shop. Through out India countless monuments are either rotting or being maintained poorly, reason: utter disregard for vintage buildings, etc steeped in history.  Many of them fall prey to vandalism and abuse by unwanted  anti-social people in the society. The Government should take serious steps to preserve such historical monument that may attract lots of tourists, besides, they will be beneficial to the future generation. Such monuments need to be barricaded first to avoid trespassing by useless people.

National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi,  Gandhi Museum, Madurai and the Madurai District Administration are working hard to make the house on West Masi Street  a National Monument by 2018. Till such time, there is no stopping of dust gathering on the structure that saw the change of attire of Gandhiji and his attitude towards the repressive British rule. This is the avatar taken by Gandhiji right here  that caused high irritation to Churchill who tagged him as half-naked fakir

His five visits to the city was  commemorated by the organization on his 150 the birth  anniversary in October, 2019 and as part of it a bronze statue was installed on Gandhi Pottal (maidan), the place from where he addressed the people in his new avatar, symbolizing he was one among the common men of India.  As a matter of fact, he visited Tamil Nadu 20 - 22 times between 1896 and 1946, the last being before India's independence. During his visit to Madurai  in 1934, the Harijans had already been entering the temple since 8th August, 1939 when first temple entry took place here under Vaidhyanatha Aiyar, an eminent advocate and a close friend of Rajaji and Sri Muthuramalinga Thevar. 
                                                         (revised 2nd January, 2020)