STANDING TALL-The man behind the Ashoka Pillar

On a wind torn evening, a group of worried men huddled around an imposing column in the middle of a crossroad near Lalbagh. They had been given the task of constructing it only ten days ago. The column was to mark the inauguration of a new suburb in South Bangalore and C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor-General of India was to unveil the historic stone name plate at its base the next day.

Though time was short, they responded to the challenge. The honour of the company and the city administration was at stake. But now, just a few hours before the event, news had arrived that the sculptor working on the final flourishes had run away!

Unperturbed, PS Ranganatha Char of Messrs Ranganatha Char&Co, Engineers, ordered for tarpaulin to shield the men from Bangalore’s temperamental weather. Work commenced by moonlight with a handy Petromax. Arunachalam, the mason, stepped in for the missing sculptor. By early morning, the inaugural Ashoka Pillar with four fierce lions was completed in time to commemorate the birth of Jayanagar on 20th August, 1948.

While the pillars were being readied, photographs had been taken. They show rolling fields in the background. Jayanagar as we know it today, with swish retail outlets, fast food joints, spas and shopping centres was yet to come. PS Ranganatha Char says he decided to present these in a casket to C.Rajagopalachari. In his memoirs, he records that when he offered his `humble present of a moulded casket with the display of photographs of the pillars of Jayanagar and Rajajinagar with tube lamp in it for display at night’, C.Rajagopalachari was `reticent’ about autographing the set of duplicates. He finally agreed to do so only if six `pertinent’ questions were answered:

a.Time of snapping. b.Type of filter used.c.How I got the natural cloud effect.d.Camera used. e.Voltage of the tube fixed in it.f.Where the plastic mould was cast and finally, whether the current for the tube was AC or DC! He accepted the casket and autographed the duplicates only after being satisfied with the answer!

Jayanagar went on to unfurl itself over nine blocks and many villages. PS Ranganatha Char went on to build a now forgotten pillar with dressed granite stones (and another tight deadline of two weeks) in north Bangalore near the Kirloskar Electric Company. It was for the inauguration of a new `Industrial Suburb’  called Rajajinagar by the Maharaja of Mysore, HRH Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Bahadur on 3rd July 1949.  The stone dressing, he says, could not be carried out on site. It was worked on in VV Puram and transported across town. He was a man who knew how to get the job done.

The casket with photographs.Pic courtesy: P Ramaswamy.

The casket with photographs.Pic courtesy: P Ramaswamy.

PS Ranganatha Char, Civil Engineer, belonging to the Tamil speaking Prativadi Bayankaram community, was born in Chitradurga in 1913 to P. Shamiengar, District and Sessions Judge in the late 30’s. His early childhood was spent on the move with his father and then life whisked him through engineering college in Lucknow, an internship with his famous engineer uncle PS Char in Bombay and a job in Goa as surveyor on the Panjim-Bombay road before propelling him towards Bangalore where he married the daughter of M. Sheshadri, Revenue Minister to the Nizam (also DGP, Excise Commissioner and elder brother of M.Chinnaswamy, a famous name in Indian cricket). He was mentored here by Sri Sajjan Rao and in partnership with his son-in-law, Manaji Rao, built bunkers during WW II for an airstrip in Kolar constructed by Tarapore&Co. Major civil works for the Vijaya College, residences across Bangalore, Kengeri, HMT and hangar floors in HAL were also undertaken. In Yelahanka, he built a mission and an air force runway that his son, P Ramaswamy (Hon.Joint Secretary, KSLTA) says was tested by the Sub-Area Commander who insisted on driving the length of it at over 60 mph!

But this master of the built environment was also a champion of the outdoors. He was an ace shooter, the Founder-Secretary of the Mysore State Rifle Association and a keen tennis player who financed a Tennis Tournament and brought the Jack Kramer Professional Group to Bangalore in 1961. John (Jack) Albert Kramer (1921– 2009) was a famous American tennis player during the 1940’s-50’s and led many promotional tennis tours right up to the 60’s.

“Sports and education were priorities for him” says PS Ramaswamy. “He would tell us to be active.To go out and play till 6pm. I would get pocket money only if he saw me on the Bowring Club tennis court at 3.30 pm everyday!”  He believed in travelling to broaden one’s mind and encouraged his children to go on school educational tours. Much to my delight, I learnt that he also filed a PIL in the High Court to protest against the heavy bags children had to lug to school!

The sportsman was also a drama enthusiast who built the AV Varadachar Memorial Theatre behind Natraj Theatre. He was a versatile photographer- film maker who left behind several 16 mm films and a shikari who hunted his way through Shimoga and Ramanagaram, only to sell all his weapons in the late 60’s and turn into a wildlife conservationist. He was a multi-dimensional man whose memoirs contribute significantly towards the spatial narratives of this city.

The trust placed in him by Mr. C. Narasinga Rao, Chairman, City Improvement Trust Board, Bangalore, and R. Madhavan, Chief Engineer that rainy August night was justified. The Ashoka Pillar still stands at the crossroads of Kanakanapalya, near what was once the south end corner of Bangalore. Stop and take a closer look at it.


This post was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on June 22nd, 2014.Read it here. It is part of a personal project” Bangalore-A remembered city’ that seeks to map the city through the narratives of its people.


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