It was just a few days before the first Madras Day celebrations of August 22, 2004 that I had met Bandla Bakthavatsal, the eighth-generation descendant and then the oldest surviving member of the Beri Thimmappa family. Beri Thimmappa was, of course, the dubash who negotiated a piece of land on the Bay of Bengal waterfront with the local nayaks for the East India Company representatives Francis Day and Andrew Cogan. I had called Bakthavatsal a day or so before meeting him and he, dapper and diminutive, clad in white shirt and trouser, played the gracious host at his Anna Nagar residence.
Bakthavatsal, married to Ketty Sridevi, showed me the family tree he had painstakingly drawn, tracing its roots to Beri Thimmappa. He spent several minutes talking to me about the various members down the generations – now numbering more than a hundred perhaps, many of them in Chennai. I also learnt that Bakthavatsal was a numismatist.
According to Bakthavatsal, it was Thimmappa’s fluency in English and the vernacular that caught the attention of Day and Cogan. Originally from Palacole, near Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, Thimmappa and his grandson traded in indigo and textiles before working for the East India Company. The British gifted extensive lands, north of the Fort St George, to the Thimmappa family. That was where generations of the family lived till the last century.
In 1678, Chinna Venkatadri, Thimmappa’s younger brother, acquired the Guindy Lodge and later sold it to the East India Company. Now we know it as the Raj Bhavan. In 1894, Ketty Bashyam Naidu and Narayanappah Naidu, representing the fourth generation, established Appah & Co., which traded in chilli and spices. The company much later diversified into pharmaceuticals.
No memorials have been erected in Chennai for Day or Cogan; there is none for Beri Thimmappa as well, at least as far as I know. However, there are symbolic references to the family. The Bashyam Naidu Park, off Taylor’s Road in Kilpauk is named after the fourth-generation descendant Thimmappa Bashyam Naidu. There is also a Narayanappah Pharmacy in Anna Nagar named after Ketty Narayanappah, but where exactly it is I do not quite know. Present day descendants include Urmila Satyanarayana, a Bharatanatyam dancer, Dr Praveen Godey (is he with Apollo Hospitals?), and Ketty Bobji who runs Precision Diagnostics, I have heard.
Other than Beri Thimmappa, who more than anything else will always be remembered for brokering the deal between the British and the nayaks, one person who distinguished himself was Ketty Venkataswamy Naidu, Bashyam Naidu’s son. He was Mayor of Madras, the President of the Madras Legislative Council, then Minister for Religious Endowments in C Rajagopalachari’s cabinet. As president of the Madras Cooperative Housing Society, he was instrumental in promoting housing colonies in Gandhi Nagar, Kasturba Nagar and Shenoy Nagar. More about him later…