V. Nagappan, director of the Madras Stock Exchange, recounts how his father Vellaippan Chettiar, a trader, reacted when he asked him for Rs 25,000—this was in the 1980s—for enrolling in an MBA course. “A course?” his father had said, collapsing with laughter. “Why do you need to enrol in a course to learn business administration?” Nagappan, nevertheless, got himself an MBA. What his father had meant, in all seriousness, was: why a business course for you when business courses through you?
The decades before 1950 were when the Chettiars—also known as the Nagarathars or Nattukottai Chettiars—were at their flourishing peak. They rode risk to Burma, Ceylon, Malaya and other South Asian and African countries to return rich from investments in plantations and estates; the ivory, teak, timber and gemstone trades; and, above all, banking and finance. “Much of their capital was parlayed outside the country. They owned vast tracts of land in Burma and other countries,” says Prof Raman Mahadevan of the Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai, who has written a book on the Chettiars. Prosperous Chettiar families turned their 70-odd villages near Karaikudi into opulent clusters of mansions, colonnaded with pillars of teak, windowed with stained glass, ornamented with carved-wood roof trimmings. Marble from Italy and foreign objets d’art were common.
Besides Chettinadu architecture and cuisine, the community has contributed by bringing quiet elegance to doing business. Tradition holds strong. Every Chettiar wedding is held in the family house and is registered at a village temple. In many households, girls are still named after their grandmothers and boys after their grandfathers. Names and initials repeat themselves: Ashwin Chidambaram Muthiah, for instance, heads the global operations of a business founded by his grandfather, Dr M.A. Chidambaram and inherited by his father A.C. Muthiah. His daughters are called Devaki and Alagu—after his and his wife’s mothers.
The years in which the British and other Europeans left the colonies saw Chettiars returning to India from 58 countries. Many businesses collapsed or were lost to new laws. Some families returned with nothing but the clothes on their backs, some had to foot it to Bengal before getting home. “Since then, it has been a decline of sorts...except in small and medium business ventures, the community yielded space to the Gounders, Naidus, Nadars and even Brahmins, who are a force in the IT sector,” says Prof Raman.
But Chettiars are still an influential presence in business—textiles, pharmaceuticals, films, plantations. AVM Productions, one of the oldest film production houses, started by A.V. Meiyyappan, still remains a family enterprise. Many tea and coffee estates in Kerala, Ooty, Coorg and Chikmagalur are owned by Chettiars. There are Chettiar real estate businesses, and the community has a lot of holdings in the upscale Kotturpuram area of Chennai.
Young Chettiars now hone their business skills at B-schools rather than learn at their father’s work table. But Nagappan recalls how his business instinct sprang up on an opportunity when he was still a teenager without an MBA: his father offered to pay Rs 2 lakh for an MBBS seat in Manipal; Nagappan chose to do BCom but took the Rs 2 lakh to start a cement agency, his first business venture.
These days, it’s not unusual for Chettiar family businesses to be driven by theory and practices learnt at the best B-schools. A. Vellayan, chairman of the Murugappa Group and a fourth-generation Murugappa Chettiar, heads a company run by family members and professionals. It was former chairman M.V. Subbiah who first brought in professionals. Now, the group has 29 businesses—finance, abrasives, fertilisers, bicycles, engineering goods—most of them acquired rather than inherited. Families that tarried in modernising have not fared as well.
A veteran journalist says, “The story of the Chettiars is the story of how a business community completely lost the plot.” But the mansions in Devakottai and Kanadukathan near Karaikudi are testimony to how some are moving with the times and embracing new businesses—many of the sprawling houses are now being run as heritage hotels, bringing in the money for the upkeep of the edifices and bringing worldwide fame to Chettiar cuisine and culture.
Being tradition-bound, the community hasn’t been very encouraging of women working or tending business. Says Vellayan, “At the moment, our women are not working in the Murugappa Group—for a good reason: we believe girls, when they marry into another family, will do better to be part of the husband’s family than take pride in the family they came from.” But Chettiar women are prominent in cultural and philanthropic activities, which the community is known well for. There are many educational institutions run by the community and the Tamil Isai Sangham, to promote ancient Tamil music, was founded in 1943 by Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar.
“We can call ourselves a community of MNCs,” says Nagappan, referring to the travels undertaken by their ancestors to set up money-lending businesses. It was this that gave them the expertise to move into banking and finance—the Indian Overseas Bank, Indian Bank and Bank of Madura were started by Chettiars. There’s an apocryphal story about M.C. Muthiah, whose grandfather founded the Indian Overseas Bank. He employed a British architect to design the staff quarters, in the middle of which was a four-bedroom bungalow for himself. But when banks were nationalised, he had to give up the bungalow—much in the way the community has had to gradually withdraw from banking, its metier.
I liked the article on the Chettiar community (Chettiar Band, AVM to FM). No other community in south India lost so much of their assets (built through enterprise and hard work) as the Chettiars. A lot of their properties and businesses were targeted by the Nehru-era Congress government in the name of socialism and nationalisation. That explains why the community’s entrepreneurs are so secretive.
The Nattukottai Chettiar community was a moneylending community. This changed when the avm group made the shift to industry in the 1940s. Everyone in the community is well settled now; much of the credit for that should go to the Murugappa Group, who run their business with ethics and have supported the community financially. When Chettiars would do business in Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon, Vietnam, etc, my great-grandfather A.M. Arunachalam of Pallatur tried his hand at business in India. He had salt pans in Nava (Mumbai), and traded with the Cochin state circa 1910 (and made a profit of three lakh rupees in 1914!). He had a moneylending business in Pollachi and tile-making units in Puthukkadu (Trichur district), among other businesses. He was also a personal friend of the Cochin maharaja. And do you know how Nattukottai Chettiars managed to construct huge houses in their villages using teak? They transported teak from Burma by setting them at sea when they knew the currents bore them down to Poondi Harbour (Ramnad district). Individual names were carved on the trunks!
It was quite refreshing to see an article about my community. As a Chettiar, I feel proud that the world hasn’t forgotten our story. By the way, R.K. Shanmugham Chetti was not really a Nagarathar, he was from Coimbatore and from a different community.
On The Chettiar Band: AVM to FM, after a certain point, collective interests started waning and individual interests rose, affecting the basic character of the Chettiars. Now, it’s difficult to maintain a distinct ethnic identity. Present-day Nagarathars show a disturbing change. We, the present generation, are assembling our professional knowledge to find answers for building kinship and conserving Nagarathar heritage. We also encourage teaching children overseas Chettiar values.
Research carried out by the social science community depicts the following facts.
Collective interests started waning and individual interests accelerated. This has affected the basic character of the community. With most of the people moving out of the Chettinad region and establishing lives in other cities and even countries, the basic characteristics of the caste has undergone a tremendous change. It's no longer possible to maintain a distinct ethnic identity especially when urban lives and employment have merged them with the rest of the population.
The present day Ledger of Nagarathars shows the disturbing change in the entire wealth and culture. Many of them migrated to various places for professional interests. We, the present generation of Nagarathars, are assembling our professional knowledge to find technology answers for building kinship and conserving our wealth and heritage in Nagarathars way. We teach the values of Chettiar culture and tradition to our Children living in the overseas. We encourage our children to establish interaction with the native members of our community. This helps us in refurbishing social networking pattern established by our ancestors for philanthropy rich activities to conserve our heritage and provide basic needs of people. More information on Nagarathar value Education can be had from http://nagaratharknowledge.wordpress.com/. We use the social networking tools to reach our community members and establish collaboration.
How could Natukottai Chettiars manage to construct huge buildings , in each villages with teakwood work?
They tansported teekwoods from Burma without any transportaion charges using their brain! They put the teakwood trunks into the sea in a particular month in which the sea waves direction was towards Poondi harbour(Ramnad Dt) and collected them by bulla-cart. The names were carverd on the trunks , nobody will stel it except the owner! this I could not believe until 1971, thinking it may be a story!
When I was involved in Offshore exploration , at Gulf of Cambay, at Bhavanagar (Gujart), our crew (60 persons) were sailing on a barge with sweat water in it and towed to Offshore platform in 1971. Unfortunately the boat was sent before monsoon theat is over (oneday eariler). During sailing the barge ropes were cut and the entire crew were missing. Helicopeters were sent to trace the barge and also boats! to save 60 peoples life!TThe barge was drifted to mid sea and after two days of sailing withour mooring, the wind direction suddenly changed towards Aankleshwer(Gujarat! All of them were landed there and returned safely. This incident confrmed that teak woods from Burma were transported through sea to India by Nattukotai Chettiars in 1900's!
Natucottai Chettiar community was basically depended on Money lending business. This was changed by AMM group in 1940's to industries instead of opening banks in India. Initially the boys were hesitating to get jobs in Industries but accepted it because there was no other go for the community. The boys to their surprise, now are well off , the credit goes to Murugappa Group who run the busines with ethicks, and supported the community to come up finnatially and education wise.
My great grand father AM.Arunachalam of Pallatur, when our comunity people went to Burma, Malasia, Colombo, Vietnam etc to seek their fortune in banking , he tried in India.He had salt pans in Nava( Mumbai) and traded it for entire Cochin state in 1910. He had money lending business in Pollachi, Tile works in Puthukkadu(Trichur Dt.), a diamond consultant in Chettinad, above all a personal friend of Cochin Maharaja.
He gained 3 Lacks profit in salt trade in 1914!. He constructed a huge home at Pallatur for one lack, gave dowry one lack for his daughter Parathi for whose marriage Cochin Maharaja came to Pallatur,. As a protocol 38 elephants came from cochin! He kept jwels for one lack for his only son as a property.
Under the orders of the Govt. of Madras, a certficate was granted to him in recognition of the support accorded by him to the Second Indian War Loan, 1918
Refreshing to see an article about my community. As a Chettiyar, I feel proud that the World is not lost upon us and our stories .
p.s. R.K.Shanmugham Chetti was not a Nagarathar, he hailed from Coimbatore and was from a different community.
As a feminist leader, Puspha is bound to blame the community for its 'suppressing its women' ( as usual the womens rant )
However, she should understand that males and females play an equally important but different roles in a community and this should not be used to rant about women taking the 'back-seat'. That too in a powerful media with the ability to brain wash its readers.
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