The building sports a deserted look. It has no doors, and the walls and floors are covered with layers of dust. The campus is surrounded by overgrown bushes and cattle can be seen grazing around it. If it not for a rusted signboard which says ‘Parali Su Nellaiyappar Municipal Primary School’, the structure will be mistaken for an abandoned cattle shed. The 40-year-old school, which has remained closed for the last 20 years, is located on Nellaiyappar street, Chromepet in Chennai. Bearing a rich legacy linked to the region’s contribution to the freedom struggle, the dilapidated structure symbolises the collective apathy towards native history.
The school was built on the land located in Bharathipuram in Chromepet and was owned by the late freedom fighter Parali Su Nellaiyappar, who was closely associated with Tamil poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharathi and V O Chidambaram Pillai, the first lndian to launch indigenous shipping services between India and Colombo. Born on September 18, 1889, in Tirunelveli district, Nellaiyappar was a poet and a journalist. He was actively involved in India’s freedom struggle.
“He was the first to publish the poems of Bharathiyar,” says Chennai-based historian Rengaiah Murugan. When Bharathi died, he was one among the few who took the bier to the graveyard, he adds. “Nellaiyappar was also close to V O Chidambaram Pillai. He worked as an accountant in VOC’s shipping company. When Chidambaram was in jail, it was Nellaiyappar who filed an appeal for the former’s release, since his family was in object poverty. After seeing VOC suffer in the jail like yoking in the oil press and engaging in hard labour like breaking stones, Nellaiyappar wrote on his struggles in ‘India’ magazine, brought out by poet Bharathi, under the pseudonym ‘Thunbam Sagiyan’. It was due to his constant prodding that VOC brought out his autobiography,” says Rengaiah Murugan.
When Bharathiyar spent the days as a fugitive in Puducherry, living in poverty, he wrote to Nellaiyappar asking for his help, says Kadarkarai Mathavilasa Angatham, a poet-journalist, who brought a book on Bharathiyar.
“Bharathi wrote the letter to Nellaiyappar with a salutation ‘Thambi, yedhu seivenadaa’ (Oh Brother… What can I do..?) and that was how Nellaiyappar is considered as a brother to Bharathi. He was his patron and whenever Bharathi was in need of money, it was Nellaiyappar who helped him. It was an irony that in his last years, he received just ₹100 as a pension from then C Rajagopalachari’s government, much lower than the amount disbursed to other pensioners by the state,” he says.
After K Kamaraj took over as the CM, he had a female visitor one day. She requested Kamaraj, to help the freedom fighter with financial support.
“The woman was none other than Sakunthala, daughter of Bharathiyar. Hearing about his sufferings, Kamaraj allotted five acres of land in Chromepet to him. Nellaiyappar sold a part of the land for money. He gave a portion of the remaining land to dalits. He wrote a will saying that after his death, a school should be built on the remaining land. Established in the mid-70s, the school was then under the control of Pallavaram municipality. Later, teachers of the school, went on strike, demanding that the school should be taken over by the Tamil Nadu government, so that they get a regular and better pay. From the mid-90s, the Municipality deliberately decreased the admissions and finally in 1998, the school with a strength of 880 students was closed down,” says Kadarkarai, who has been fighting for the re-opening of the school for the last two decades.
It was Bharathi, who sang ‘veethi thorum irandoru palli’ (Build one or two schools in every street) and Nellaiyappar made his contribution to realise his dream. But it is painful to see that the school built in memory of Nellaiyappar, in the land he donated, has been in a shambles, Kadarkari adds.
In order to reopen the school, the people from the area came together again on Wednesday to meet the Municipality Commissioner. Former Congress MP Kumari Ananthan also extended his support.
Speaking to The Federal, Kumari Ananthan said that he took up the issue with the municipality commissioner earlier. “When asked why the school was closed, the Municipality cited decrease in admissions and the emergence of private schools in the area,” he said. Sigaram Senthilnathan, a lawyer representing the residents of Pallavaram calls the municipality’s reaction predictable “This is a 5000-square feet land that Nellaiyappar gave away because he wanted poor children to get free education. If the school is kept closed, the ultimate wish of the martyr will go in vain. People here are ready to send their children to this school, if it is re-opened,” he says. The municipality officials were not available for comment.