Tuesday, September 13, 2011

He was better than them!

The Right Honourable The Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay introduced English as a medium of  education in India.  His main objective was to meet the requirement of a cadre of government servants to serve the Crown.  But did anyone in India learn English and excel to an extent better than those whose mother tongue was English?

History is a witness to a number of eminent personalities who learnt foreign languages and were later recognised and honoured as better exponents of the language than the natives of the country in which the language is spoken.

We know of Max Muller, the German Scholar who learnt Sanskrit and also translated Rig Veda to German. He even called himself Mokshamoolara Bhatta.

But was there anyone who exceeded the wildest imagination of The Right Honourable The Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay? Yes...........there was an Indian with similar sounding and ringing name - The Right Honourable Valangaiman Sankaranarayana Srinivasa Sastry, popularly known as Right Honourable V S Srinivasa Sastri. He was an Indian scholar who spoke and wrote English better than the English and was a consultant to the English on the English language.

Rt. Hon. V S Srinivasa Sastri was an administrator, educator, orator, politician and Indian Independence activist. He was born on 22nd September 1869 in Valangaiman village near Kumbakonam in Madras Presidency (present Tamil Nadu). He was born on 22nd September, 1869, 10 days before Mahatma Gandhi (2nd October 1869). Even as a student he had remarkable qualities and a penchant for English language.  He is said to have corrected a few passages in J C Nesfield's "English Grammar", which was a source book for learning English grammar and a book credited with being useful from a novice to professional users! Once he corrected the pronunciation of Prof. Hall, an Englishman and Principal of Teachers College, Saidapet, Madras (now Chennai).  Surprised to find an Indian student correcting his pronunciation of a word in his own mother tongue, Prof. Hall called for dictionaries from the college library for verification and to the Principal's amazement the different dictionaries showed that Sastri was right.

Born in a small village in South India, Srinivasa Sastri achieved recognition at the Global level. He served as a member of Madras Legislative Council (1913-16), Imperial Legislative council of India (1916-19) and council of State (1920-25). He was an Indian delegate to the League of Nations and made invaluable contributions to the deliberations of the world body.  He participated in the First and Second Round Table Conferences and his speeches were heard by the participants with rapt attention, both for the content of the subject as well as quality of delivery. Government of India sent him to Australia, New Zealand and Canada to investigate the conditions of Indians living in those countries. Due to his efforts Australia passed "The Commonwealth Electoral Act", enlarging the franchise to include natives of British India. He was also sent to South Africa and successfully persuaded Government of South Africa to withdraw Section 5 of "The Immigration and Indian Relief (Further Provisions) Bill" which empowered the South African Immigration Officers and Boards to cancel registration certificates of Indians which used to cause them great hardship. 

Srinivasa Sastri had a close association with Mahatma Gandhi and as he was born 10 days before the Mahatma, Gandhi used to call him his Anna - elder brother.  He corrected the manuscript of "The story of My Experiments with Truth", the English translation of Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography. He advised Gandhi against partition of the Country. In one of his letters Gandhi wrote to Sastri: "Your criticism soothes me. Your silence makes me nervous".

Srinivasa Sastri had a musical voice, a voice like silver chimes, mellifluous, slow and clear. Known for his mastery over the English language and oratory, he was often consulted by the experts there over spellings and pronunciations during his visits to UK. Lord Balfour, Prime Minister of Britain during 1902-05, heard a speech of Srinivasa Sastri in a conference in Geneva and rated him as among the best five English language orators of the century. Balfour remarked that listening to Srinivasa Sastri made him realise the heights to which the English language could rise.

Lady Lytton, a campaigner for for prison reforms, votes for women and British suffergate activist  and Winston Churchill admired Sastri's command over English language.  King George V made him a "Companion of Honour" in 1930 in recognition of his services to the English language. Thomas smart conferred upon Sastri the appellation "Silver tongued Orator of the British Empire" and he was so called all over UK.  The Master of Balliol, Arthur Lionel Smith, British historian at the University of Oxford, swore that he had never realised the beauty of English language until he had heard Srinivasa Sastri.

Srinivasa Sastri was conferred "The Freedom of the City of London" in 1921 and "Freedom of the City of Edinburgh" in 1931. This is one of the oldest surviving traditional ceremonies in UK and term means someone who was not the property of the feudal Lord, but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land in the city.  The British government conferred upon him the highest honour with membership of His Majesty's Privy Council carrying with it the title "Right Honourable" for his services to the cause of World Peace and Disarmament.  It may be recalled that the Privy Council is a formal body of advisers to the Crown and is made up of senior politicians who are or have been members of either House of commons or House of Lords, and therefore, a rare honour for an Indian.

Sir Neville Cardus in his "Jamsaheb of Navanagar" essay recorded that K S Ranjitsinghji (well known as Ranji after whom the domestic Cricket Trophy is named) showed the Englishman how his game of Cricket can be played better. Rt. HON. V S Srinivasa Sastri, around the same time,  showed the Englishman how his language could be spoken better.

Above all, Srinivasa Sastri was a great human being. He lived a simple life and was a strict vegetarian despite travelling all over the world on his numerous assignments. His first love was teaching and occupied vice-chancellorship of Annamalai University despite his other pressing assignments. He spent a large part of his earnings for meeting the hostel fee of poor students. Once when his personal funds did not permit him, he kept a dalit  student in his home and supported him till he took his degree.

India and Indians have forgotten a great son of the country. No wonder, we are a country that has forgotten Mahatma Gandhi himself for what he really was.


  1. One of my well wishers has informed me that during second world war Winston Churchill is reported to have said that he would launch a "Triphibian" armour attack on the Germans. Amphibian attack ie. attack from land and sea was done by American forces when they landed on Normandy. Churchill meant attack from land,sea and air. VS Srinivasa Sastry is said to have corrected him and told him that the word should be "Tribian" and not "Triphibian". However, the word Triphibian only is being used, meaning an aircraft equipped to take off from land, water, snow or ice. It is also used to signify skilled in combat equally on land, sea and air. Wrong usage becomes accepted practice when someone big or famous uses it!

  2. Where can I get the works/complete works of this great but forgotten genius? I tried in all places that I know but in vain. Someone please advice me.

    1. I am also looking for his speeches and writings. Unable to find books printed or in online (of course this was a freak possibility given the time when he lived) form. Any response will be much appreciated.

    2. Rt. Srinivasa Sastri is my grand father's uncle. We had many of his letter which were lost over a period of time. Today I am left out with 3 of his letters written to my grand father. I have shared some of his photos also in my facebook. I can send a private mail if you can give email address.

    3. A last commenter... Whoever you are. Srinivasa Sastry is my grandfathers uncle too. My great grandfather is Valangaiman Krishnaswamy Iyer. What is your grandfather's name ? I believe we are related. Please reach out to me corporalshephed@Gmail.com.

    4. I have some photos and personal letters to grand father written by Rt. Hon'ble Srinivasa Sastri. I have scanned them and can share. Any one interested can approach me at ramki61ATyahoo.com

    5. Hello Harish J. and Anonymous from October 13 2014,
      I am a PhD student in Canada doing research on VS Srinivasa Sastri and his work in South Africa. I would like to get in touch with you. Please let me know the best way to contact you.

  3. Mail send to Mr. Harish J have bounced back. He can contact me in the above email ID

  4. Sriniasa Sastri's lectures on Ramayana were in the archives of All India Radio Chennai and one lecture in the series was broadcast once when GNB was the head of Chennai All India Radio. I hope these lectures are still there and someone will pressure the All India Radio to put it on the internet for people like me. Srinivasa Sastry's golden voice will reverberate and people will realize that the article's mention about his voice and mastery of English are no exaggeration. Let us hope we can hear his golden voice again and again. Thanks for this article.

  5. I am also looking for his books and like to hear his voice.

  6. I have downloaded his speeches in PDF format. I would like to share with anyone who is interested. Please mail me at kshivashankar78@gmail.com

  7. Lectures On The Ramayana are now avaialable in amazon..