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How Madras championed enterprise

| Updated on: Apr 06, 2012
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Any book commemorating an institution usually carries paeans of praise to the founders, dwells in detail on events in its life and rounds off with a eulogy to its achievements.

But Championing Enterprise , a book written by historian and musician V. Sriram to fete the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry on its 175th anniversary, is devoid of these flaws.

This beautifully illustrated book is an unvarnished account of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in its many avatars over the years. The chamber started out as an institution that was intended mainly to protect European business interests in Madras. And the book provides quite an objective account of how, initially, it fought tooth and nail to protect just those interests.

But for the Chamber's aggressive lobbying though, Madras may not have built a world-class harbour, established a modern wireless and communication system or pioneered in insurance and banking.

Given its British moorings, the chamber was quite uncomfortable with the notion of an independent India, so much so that it didn't take note of India's Independence Day celebrations on August 15 1947!

But any institution that survives for 175 years must be flexible and the Madras Chamber too made a remarkable transition after Independence, first by including more Indian members and then by representing a more diverse range of businesses and industries in the region.

From mainly looking out for the interests of the interests that British traders controlled- cotton, shipping and leather – it broad-based its membership. Thus, when Madras embraced the first wave of industrial revolution to become an acclaimed manufacturing hub for motorcars, auto ancillaries, railway coaches, steamships, cement and fertilisers, the chamber wrought an internal transformation too to promote these ventures.

The book's subject does not make it any less readable or colourful though. For Sriram does not restrict it to a history of the chamber. Instead, he devotes much of the book to glimpses into the history, evolution and even architecture of the city of Madras. Tracing entrepreneurs such as Parry & Co and Spencer's from their start-up stage, he offers a fair amount of detail about how the city's business, heritage and beautiful buildings evolved around the colonial period.

The first part of the book is an eye-opener on how the ‘conservative' locals of Madras managed to ensure a share of the pie from the fat trading profits made by the Britishers. They did this by functioning as translators and right-hand men for the Europeans looking to strike deals.

Given the extent to which it delves into the business and economic interests of the time, there is plenty of national perspective too. The detailed account of pre-Independence India for instance, throws light on how well private enterprise really thrived during the British rule.

The first set of Indian businessmen who blossomed during the freedom movement ventured in an intrepid manner into the most challenging of manufacturing industries- from automobiles to ancillaries to railway coaches. No matter if Europeans were already entrenched in these businesses.

After reading through this book, one actually marvels at how well India had embraced the spirit of entrepreneurship in the 1800s and 1900s. It raises the question of whether, in adopting the socialist model of state-owned enterprise, newly independent India didn't underestimate the abilities of its businessmen. Maybe the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy — banks, roads, railroads et al — may have stifled young India's entrepreneurial spirit?

Aside from the anecdotes that make it a racy read, a riveting aspect of this book is its collection of rare, sepia-toned photographs. Adorning every page and painstakingly put together from many private collections, these pictures offer a classic counterfoil to the book's narrative. An apt tribute to the city of Madras, the businesses that have made their home here and the role they played in shaping India's history.

Read also Through the ages...

Published on April 10, 2012

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