The Easun Legend
Easwara Iyer and Sundaram Iyer
You know, the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the founders of the Easun group of Chennai or erstwhile Madras, owe a lot to Uncle Bob, the irrepressible Scotsman. Before you wonder if I am off my rockers, let me elucidate my thought process and start from the very beginning.
Robert Greenhill Cochrane (1899-1985) was a renowned British leprologist, fondly called Uncle Bob, and he was largely responsible in bringing the treatment of Leprosy into the mainstream as a treatable condition. Until his time, it was a dark and untreatable disease, where these ‘dirty ill people’ got discarded from society and were consigned to asylums.
Some 40-50 miles south west of Madras is Thirumani in the Chingleput district. From 1935 to 1944, Cochrane was chief medical officer at the Lady Willingdon Leprosarium there. He went on pioneer the use of the chemical sulphone (Dapsone, Diamino Diphenyl Sulphone or DDS) to treat leprosy patients. Later he moved on to become the Principal of CMC Vellore. His work was seminal, and laid the groundwork for leprosy treatments used even today.
But this is not about Uncle Bob, though he must have been the one who decided in 1938 that the Leper settlement at Thirumani required better water supply and perhaps demanded that a bore well be dug. A tender was floated for what is known as a bore-hole pump. I assume more than one company bid the tender. One of them, who thought itself a forerunner and who had prepared the bid carefully, quoting an American Deming model, did not get the contract. Only an engineering company, the management of the leper settlement decided, could be entrusted with this important supply and install contract.
So what and who was this company which lost out? It was an organization headquartered in Madras’s Broadway. The partners, two youngsters with humble beginnings, were truly miffed and their wounded pride was reason enough to create one of Madras’s enduring engineering organizations, executing projects around the world. Though they had opened an engineering wing within either Royal Cycles or Eswaran and Sons, it was not perceived to be an engineering firm!
To trace the path of these two youngsters, we have to travel down south and to the eastern side of the Agastya mala of the Western Ghats, more precisely to a place called Kallidaikurichi in the Tirunelveli district. Bordering Travancore, and situated on the banks of the Thamirabharni River, this was once the capital of a Venad king, Kothai Aditya Varman. The various popular temples occasioned many Brahmin settlements or agraharams in the locality. The town which is more famous for its appalams, these days, was also home to the doyen of South Indian history Nilakanta Sastri.
Kallidaikurichi is a little north of Marthanda Varma’s bastion, Kalakkad and it is said that there is a lot of Kerala culture intermixed in their Tamil Brahmin culture. For example whereas Tamil men inherit land, women inherit gold and household goods. In this area, women are also given a plot to grow rice thus ensuring her economic independence even after marriage. In ancient times, the daughters resided with their parents and visited husbands at specific times (Sita Ananta Raman Women in India).
A Times of India article linked here provides a good summary of the township. The Sri Varahapuram Street in Kallidaikurichi was home to the families of Kulathu Iyer and Sundaram Iyer’s father. Our story covers the saga of two of the offspring’s from these families, namely K Eswaran Iyer and KR Sundaram Iyer.
The great global economic depression which started in 1929, affected South India as well and Tirunelveli too witnessed difficult conditions. This resulted in a general exodus from villages to towns. Bereft of better ideas, these two, the uncle and nephew (after early education at Ambasamudram) decided to seek their fortunes further north and thus they landed up in the great metropolis of Madras in 1936. For some inexplicable reason they arrived at a Guajarati’s cycle shop and found gainful employment there as fitters, assembling and repairing bicycles. It could have been the Best Cycle Importing Co or it could have been BM Davey, I am not sure. Or perhaps it was the English Cycle and motor importing Co which Sundaram Iyer later acquired. English Cycles had been in operation from the turn of the century and dealt with all kinds of cycles (including Royal Enfield), primus stoves, camp cots, prams and even footballs!
Within the next three years, they had started their own company, The Royal Cycle Motors Co, dealing in bicycles, tricycles (Raleigh, Rudge and Humber and the Hercules, Phillips and BSA brands of TI Cycles of India) etc. and did well. Growing pains can be observed, we see that both English Cycles and Royal Cycles and motor Co were involved in labor disputes and the Ft St George Gazette of 1963 mentions a settlement on wage related issues. Not wanting to be stuck with just cycle business (or was it because of labor disputes?), Easwaran started to venture out into the world of EPC - engineer procure construct or turnkey project work (sale and installation of small house-hold and agricultural pumps). I don’t know if the Thirumani bore well was their first attempt, but that rebuff nettled them made them start what was to become their flagship company named Easun Engineering, a few years later (The EA stood for Easwaran and SUN for Sundaram). During the 60’s and through to the 90’s the group was to blaze their name in the Electrical transmission and distribution domain through a number of investments, factories and associations , a brief of which we shall soon see. And for that, I guess you will now agree, they should be thankful to Uncle Bob, for his having raised the EASUN ire.
You can imagine that having started out as cycle sellers, their hearts would remain with them. Yes, it did and here is where you will see their association with motorcycles. I have heard many a myth concerning them, during my time in Madras, of a cycle shortage in Japan, of the two said Iyer’s shipping a consignment of cycles to war torn Tokyo and making a good killing, but these are not verifiable. Nevertheless, through the late 30’s and 40’s Royal Cycle did well, they were agents for a number of brands. Sundaram’s eldest son Shankar joined the team and took over that part of the business. Their cycle marts displayed Gandhiji’s Ten Commandments, as stated in an Industrial economist article.
In order to give a boost to the motorcycle business, they formed an independent retail outlet called Madras Motors in Broadway, Madras (Eswaran and sons also existed as early as 1951, dealing in cycles). Their next burst of success was in creating Enfield India and the association with Enfield UK, a story well known in Madras circles, and among bike aficionados.
As I mentioned earlier, Sundaram and Eswaran established The Madras Motors Pvt Ltd in 1946, to import British motorcycles to India, namely Norton, Matchless and Royal Enfield. In 1949, Madras Motors bagged the first order for the supply of (Enfield) motorcycles to the Indian Army. In 1952, a large order was placed by the Indian Army for 800 numbers of 350cc Bullet Enfield bikes. A condition was incorporated in the order, to produce these locally in India and the Redditch Company formed a local JV with Madras Motors, to make a factory in Thiruvattiyoor for building these bikes.
That was the beginning of Enfield India in 1955. Licensed manufacture commenced in 1956 with CKD units from England. 163 bikes were built and delivered to the Indian army that year and the company continued to grow, as a virtual monopoly supplier to both the armed and police forces in India. By 1957, tooling as also transferred to India. As all this was looking up, the Royal Enfield group in the UK was steadily collapsing and by 1962, nothing was left of the parent company.
Thus came about the famous 350cc, 4 stroke, 18bhp, 5746 rpm Bullet motorcycle, roaring into the Indian market. Its majestic and steady thump ruled the minds of bike enthusiasts as well as the roads and rough terrain in India, ever since. With a range of 500km, top speed of 100kmph, 10 sec pick up (0-60kmph), it stood apart, for decades. By 1980 over 200,000 of them were on the road. Even though competition from Ideal Jawa and Escorts (Rajdoot) dented the share a bit, it was the 80’s which changed the game with the arrival of the Japanese bikes. EIL’s (REML) fortune plunged due to many reasons and by 1990 it had become part of Eicher. So much on the Enfield story.
While all this was going on, Easun diversified into many areas both trading and manufacturing. HHE Hackbridge Hewettic Easun started around 1958 making large power transformers, Easun Ottermill produced switchgear, Easun Reyrolle made relays and Easun continued with turnkey electrification projects and many representations of overseas and Indian manufacturers. The representations were so diverse, ranging from US Westinghouse instrumentation to East German machine tools. Contracts were geographically well distributed all over India and in neighboring Middle Eastern countries, Bangla Desh and Sri Lanka.
It was into the hallowed offices of Easun on the 5th floor of the Bombay Mutual buildings at the Parry’s corner, next door to Parry & Co, that I walked into, as a greenhorn electrical engineer in 1980. Nothing less than a shock awaited me, an office very much Brahmin by culture, with Tamil as the accepted Lingua Franca and me, one of the rare non Tamil Iyer’s on the floor. People ask me even today how I learned to speak reasonably good Tamil, and now you have the answer. I spent just over a year in the Easun Madras offices before moving to their western branch office in Nariman Point Bombay.
Fridays were not be complete without an elaborate Pooja replete with chants followed by prasad distribution. Many of the employees of Easun were in some way or the other connected to the founders. Nevertheless, I got a great bit of training as I rotated between all the Easun companies. REML- EIL was kept separate, though, as an automotive unit. I still recall the days spent at HHE when I read files covering many court cases on penalties, liquidated damages and performance clauses, so also the advice on contractual legalities provided by legendary advocates.
Let’s get back to the stalwarts. Yes, I have seen them. I would get glimpses of K Eswaran as he wafted into the board room now and then, a lanky, gaunt dignitary, clad in pure whites and preceded by Prema, his private secretary as well as Chegavalrayan, his peon or driver (also clad in whites). The misshapen liftman, a regular in Tamil movies, TV and stage would cordon off one of the building’s elevators exclusively for the big man. Chengavalrayan would have with him a wicker basket with Easwaran’s lunch and drinks, and the business secretary Natarajan, I believe that was his name, who had come some minutes earlier (I used to sit next to him) would be seen working the phones and files frantically, as well as welcoming high profile visitors. Once in a blue moon, the equally tall, but portly Sundaram Iyer would saunter in, to join a board meeting.
I was always under the impression that KRS was more connected with EIL and spent his time administering it. What I did not know then, was that KRS or KR Sundaram Iyer was equally busy with the Madras Music academy as its treasurer and later, as its 4th president! Today its library is named after him. To get to know about his time there, I have to quote TT Vasu who took over from him. Vasu states - As a boy I used to stand in awe before him, tall and broad, a mighty block of a man. I then did not understand why his friends called him ‘mighty’. Later on, I came across the phrase 'high and mighty' and then I understood that he was appropriately called 'mighty' amongst his friends. 'Mighty', of course, was a name circulated among a very close circle of his friends. But, generally, he was respectfully called 'Anna'. Sweet in manners and pleasant to talk to, he was as much a rasika of music as of excellent food.
After Independence, many a South Indian entrepreneur burst on the scene with great vigor. During the 40’s and 50’s the Industrial houses that grew to prominence included TVS, Tube Investments, India Cements, Indian Overseas Bank, Indian Bank, United India Insurance, the textile groups of Coimbatore like the Premier Mills, Madura Mills etc. The Easun Group represented the electrical sector, going head to head with an established player in the very same neighborhood, the English Electric company based in Pallavaram.
Vasu provides an interesting anecdote, Soon after Sri K.R Sundaram Iyer settled down in business and started manufacturing transformers, my father wanted to find out how he would react if a rival was allowed to come up in business. My father asked him, "Would you like a rival in your business to be smothered or allowed the same facilities which are now allowed to you? Sri Sundaram Iyer said, "Mama - he always called my father 'Mama' - please allow him to come up. The country needs more such enterprising industries." My father was really touched. Normally any other businessman would have exercised all the pressure he could on the Minister for Industries to stifle the rival. Sri Sundaram Iyer did not do it.
You know, the more I think of it, the more solid is my own pet theory that KRS did not modify the Bullet’s thuk thuk sound because it reminded him of the Mridangam’s ‘Dhi’ beat. Ok, now! don’t snigger….
Easwara Iyer passed away in 1984 and Sundaram Iyer in 1989. Hari Eswaran took over the Easun mantle and Shankar who had already been in charge of EIL had passed it on to S Viswanathan. During their prime, both Easwaran and Sundaram served on many councils and boards and were well connected with philanthropic work. The two of them even hosted Jagadguru Sankaracharya once, taking him on a tour through all their factories! KRS incidentally was a good friend of the great musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and KRS supervised the building of the MMA as you see it, these days.
Some may wonder what really made these gentlemen succeed in that bygone era. A couple of anthropologists studied this question many years ago and in both studies, the Easun duo formed a part of the select group. So it is perhaps a good idea to look at least one of these studies albeit briefly.
American anthropologist Milton Singer who interviewed them for his study infers - The results of that study support the general conclusion that these industrial leaders and their families were able to make the transitions from village and small town to a large city, and from agriculture and commerce to modern education and modern industry, without abandoning their traditional institutions," Singer wrote in a report in 1988. "Far from being major obstacles to their industrial careers, these social institutions, beliefs and rites have often proved adaptive in modern industry”. Milton suggests that industrialists of Madras, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, saw industrial leadership as their mission and a moral duty, and their performance of their duty itself a philanthropic act, especially where it was performed without appropriating all the fruits for themselves. It was considered philanthropic because it provided vital income to the poor and necessary products to the consumer.
In a way, they also went on to prove that Tambraparani (Kalliudaikurichi) Iyers were in no way lesser businessmen and bankers compared to the preeminent Nagarattars, the Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamilakam.
But I cannot leave this story without mentioning the Demonte colony. De Monte (Later Chennai administrators even managed to misspell it as Demandi and Demondi colony!!) colony is named after John De Monte, a wealthy 19-century merchant, who at one point owned large areas there. During my time in Madras, selected senior executives of the Easun group were provided housing at the Demonte colony in Alwarpet. That was the biggest perk you could get in the company. The land belonged to the Catholic Church and Eswara Iyer had leased the entire lot of houses from its trust. Anyway at some point of time, the fortunes of Easun declined and the lease was not renewed. S Muthiah had once written about the Demonte colony and a horror movie was later made about this place, which I understand in the 90’s, was considered a spooky and haunted locale. By late 2015, all the houses had been demolished and the land is being redeveloped.
What a journey those two stalwarts led us through, from a leper settlement to bikes from England, through the disciplines of engineering and music, anthropology and progressive development, court cases, strikes and finally to a haunted locale….Whoever said Iyers were not colorful?
Beyond Tradition and Modernity in Madras - Milton Singer
Competition in Indian industries (the REML story) Ed N Ravichandran
Madras Music Academy Souvenir Vol 63, 1989
My thanks to V Sriram and M Jagdish for sourcing the MMA article
Pics Courtesy - Easwara Iyer (COID1966), Sundaram Iyer (IE1989), English cycles (Southern India – A wright)
While perusing the Ft St George gazette orders relating to the case involving Royal and English Cycles, I was bemused to note the titles of various persons working in the said organizations such as Cartmen, Senior office boy, junior delivery boy, junior office boy and so on. Basic wages varied between Rs 20/- and Rs 28/-!! Can you believe it?