Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire

As a student, he corrected passages in JC Nesfield’s “English Grammar” (the standard grammar textbooks used in India in those days). He was often consulted over spellings and pronunciations by the English. His mastery over the English language was recognized by King George V, Churchill, Lady Lytton and Lord Balfour. Many rated him among the five best English-language orators of the century. He is the man of whom the Master of Balliol declared, ‘I never knew that the English Language was so beautiful till I heard Sastri speak it.’ He is the man who found 27 mistakes when Gandhiji sent him the first copy of his newspaper “Harijan” for review. He is the man to listen to whom the British Prime Minister Lloyd George postponed a cabinet meeting.  He is the man conferred with the title of ‘Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire’.

This was Srinivasa Sastri, born to a poor priest in 1869 in the small village of Valangaiman in Tamilnadu. He was a brilliant student who did his education in Kumbakonam. He graduated in Sanskrit and English, and went on to become a teacher, and later the Principal of the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras.  Though he went on to be many things—freedom fighter, politician, diplomat, administrator—he probably remained at heart an educator.

His foray into public life began from academic roots—he founded the Madras Teachers’ Guild when he was Headmaster of the Triplicane School. He was also a pioneer of the co-operative movement in the country, and started India’s first co-operative society, the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society (TUCS) in 1904.

He is said to have been so influenced by a pamphlet written by Gopala Krishna Gokhale that he gave up his job and joined the Servants of India Society, going on to become its President. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1908, and was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913. He was later also a member of the Privy Council.

He was a part of delegation which visited England in 1919, a delegate to the Imperial Conference and the Second session of the League of Nations in 1921. He played a key role in getting the Government of South Africa to drop legislation which would have led to the segregation of Indians there. In 1927 he was appointed India’s first Agent to South Africa.

Gandhiji and Sastri were lifelong friends, and respected each other deeply. The Mahatma always referred to him as ‘Anna’ , never letting him forget that he was 10 days older! However, Sastri’s views and stands were often controversial. He was seen as too accommodative of British actions. He opposed the Non-cooperation Movement on the grounds that it was subversive of the law and would set a wrong precedent. This and other similar stances brought him in conflict with Nehru and others in the Congress, and he resigned from the Party in 1922, and subsequently founded the Indian Liberal Party.

Late in life, he returned to his first love, academia, serving as Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He was a legendary teacher. Far ahead of his time, he believed that students were ‘comrades engaged in a common task and whom one should meet with a smiling face not only in the school room but on playfields ..’. He persuaded Mahadeva Iyengar, then Head of the Tamil Research Department of Annamalai, to translate Kalidasan’s epic poem Abhignana Sakuntalam in Tamil. His lectures at the Annamalai University packed the halls, with faculty competing with students for seats.

He headed a Committee set up in 1940 to frame a set of general principles for coining words for scientific and technical terms in vernacular languages. The report of this Committee was controversial, since it recommended the continuation of Sanskrit loan-words in Tamil technical language and this was violently opposed by Tamil adherents.

It was his tenure in Annamalai University that has special meaning for me. At this time, my grandfather Shri Anantavaidhyanathan was Head of the Dept. of Chemistry there, and the Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri became a family friend, and mentor to my father A. Nagaratnam who was a student there.

Our family dictionary was a Cambridge Dictionary gifted by him to my father with the inscription ‘To Nagaratnam, with a grandfather’s blessings’, and signed. Alas, when my mother closed up her house, the dictionary (still in decent shape, if in two pieces, disappeared).

What a loss of a family heirloom! But still, I like to think that the pages my grubby childhood hands touched, had been touched by the legendary Silver-tongued Orator!

–Meena

He passed away on 17 April 1946. This week marks his death anniversary.