Monday, September 29, 2008

The 'coin man' we'll always remember

This column is a tribute to a friend of mine, one of Chennai’s most passionate lovers of heritage and one of the most active heritage enthusiasts the city has seen. S. B. Raja Seetharaman died a few weeks ago on the railway tracks in Mambalam. He was only 40. Apparently, he and his friend were about to cross the tracks when a train came whizzing by. Its speed caught Raja off balance and he fell on gravel. The impact of head on gravel must have been great or probably it was the tender part of his head that bore the brunt. Whatever it was, death was instant. A sad end to a life that promised so much.

Some years ago, Seetharaman called me to find out whether I could help edit a document he had written on heritage. It was my first interaction with him. Over the years, I would meet him at several functions and every time he endeared himself to me more with his simplicity, straightforwardness and soft-spoken manner. His visiting card reads ‘numismatist, notaphilist and philatelist’ – his hobby was collecting coins, currencies and stamps. The card has a picture of his home on Iyya Mudali Street in Chintadripet. It was a heritage building and he spent most of his savings restoring and preserving it, after a legal battle for ownership that consumed 20 years. Emblazoned at the bottom of the card is the legend: Let us be proud owners of our heritage. Indeed, there were few to match his passion, dedication and commitment to the cause of heritage.

Seetharaman began collecting coins as a schoolboy, after he once brought home a coin and quizzed his father (Dr A. Srinivasan retired as Addl Director of Public Health & Preventive Medicine) about it. However, he learnt the art of collecting coins, the thematic way, from M. T. Karunakaran, senior research scholar and coin collector who lived in Tambaram. It was through Karunakaran that Seetharaman met D. Hemachandra Rao and forged a close bond with the then president of the Madras Coin Society. Soon, collection of old coins became a family responsibility and whenever someone in the family came across an old coin, it would be deposited in a bowl kept in the drawing room. Gradually, Seethraman’s collection of coins and stamps included those of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Diana.

It was in 1995-96 that Seethraman became a member of the Madras Coin Society. He was eager and enthusiastic and Rao encouraged him to focus on Indian coins and Indian Bank notes. Seetharaman then met V. Kalyanam (secretary to Mahatma Gandhi) and motivated him to exhibit his collection of Gandhi memorabilia. In 2005, Seetharaman took great interest in bringing out the Madras Coin Society Journal. INTACH member Prema Kasturi remembers how he approached her for editing its contents. “He was an excellent researcher and wrote good articles himself,” she says, recalling how Seetharaman had written a beautiful article, approached archaeologists and brought out a wonderful book for HRD Times. “He was genial, loveable and had an enthusiasm for life. He had excellent contact with coin collectors as well,” she adds.

Rao recollects how at the Mylapore Festival one year, Seetharaman handled the coin exhibition at the Lady Sivaswami School, Mylapore. During Madras Day celebrations (2004-06), Seetharaman and Rao organised coin, currency and stamp exhibitions at the Rajaji Hall and Clive Hall. In 2007, he almost single-handedly organised the coin exhibition at the Centenary Hall at the Government Museum. This year, he was elated when authorities at the Rajaji Hall gave their go-ahead for the exhibition during Madras Week.

Seetharaman studied at the Children’s Garden HS School, Mylapore, up to Class 5, moving to Dr Guruswamy Mudaliar TTV HS School in Kondithope for Classes 6-12. He graduated in economics from Vivekananda College in 1988 and went on to obtain diplomas in marketing, PR and computer application from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. His elder sister Lakshmi Srinivasan tells me that Seetharman as a boy was extremely shy and hardly spoke to strangers. He never picked fights with anyone and the only quarrels were with his two sisters. For a decade and more, Seetharaman worked with Take Wing Communications before turning financial consultant. In recent years, he would visit the homes of prospective clients to answer any queries they had about LIC policies, housing loans, general insurance, shares and mutual funds, and Post Office small savings schemes. And he either walked or travelled by bus. Not for him a scooter or two-wheeler.

“The exhibitions need meticulous planning. We used to assist him and he introduced us to a whole new world. We learnt that society is a web of relationships,” Lakshmi says, adding, “His energy was simply amazing. He showed us that if you pursue what you like doing, even if it is a hobby, you can make a mark.”

‘Let’s make things better’ was Seetharaman’s motto. What he treasured most was his meeting with the former President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Kalam, a few months before he became the President, dropped by one late night to see the coin exhibition Seetharaman had organised at Kalyanam’s premises. “So, you are the coin man!” Kalam exclaimed on seeing the youngster. It was a greeting Seetharamn kept recounting with glee to his friends.

Perhaps Seetharaman’s work will inspire others. Let his soul rest in peace.

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