Posted on: 30 March 2013

The earliest Indologists?
By S. Muthiah
The Hindu - 2009

Curiously, Mackenzie, who came out to Madras in 1763 as an Ensign in the Madras Engineers and died in 1821 when serving as the first Surveyor-General of India, neither spoke nor read any Indian language. His interest in inscriptions and ancient manuscripts had him using several interpreters and translators to bring to his ken his host of Telugu and Tamil finds. Of all his assistants, the one most referred to is Borraiah. But, a magnificent little monograph, written by Prof. C.V. Ramachandra Rao and sent to me by him recently, indicates that as significant as Borraiah’s contribution was that of his brothers’ Lakshmaiah and Ramaswami, who continued what he had been devoting himself to till his death as a 26-year-old in 1803.

I don’t know about others, but not only were the two younger brothers a revelation to me but so were many other facets of Borraiah himself. Readers must pardon me if, during the next few weeks, I come back to these brothers who helped Mackenzie gain the following recognition by N.S. Ramaswami, the Madras columnist of the 1950s and 60s, who wrote so much about the history of South India: “(It is to) Col. Colin Mackenzie more than any other individual that we owe the recovery of the South Indian past.”

The Kavali brothers, five in number, were the sons of Kavali Venkata Subbaiah of Eluru, West Godavari district. Borraiah, Lakshmaiah and Ramaswami were the three middle brothers, but it was the eldest in the family, Narayanappa, who introduced the scholarly Borraiah to Mackenzie — and then, there began a tale that deserves a much longer telling than Rao’s fascinating monograph. Of Borraiah, it has been said that he was the father of Indian Paleography and Epigraphy. I would certainly say he was the first in those fields in South India. But what I found even more fascinating is the description of him as the “first Indo-Anglian writer — the first Indian author to write in English”. The First Indian Author in English is the title of an OUP book, and it gives that honour to a Dean Mahomed, a Subedar in the Bengal Army, who migrated to Ireland in 1784, married an Anglo-Irish girl and then settled in England. His The Travels of Dean Mohamet was published in England in 1784. But this was a series of letters written to a friend — and with this one publication his literary career came to an end. So, others credit Rajah Rammohan Roy with being the first Indian author in English. His Abridgement of Vedanta was published in 1816 —and several other books in English by him followed.

Borraiah, for his part, was known to have kept a journal in English of his travels with Mackenzie in the 1790s. Better documented are tracts that he wrote in English and which were published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and similar publications. These tracts included On the Manners and Customs of the Jains (written in 1803, published in 1810), The Political Conditions of the Carnatic during Mughal Times, Athayana Vyavaharatantramu (an English translation in 1802) on the revenue and village administration in the Deccan, Historical Collection of Mysore and An Account of Srirangapatnam of Mysore. The best was yet to come, but for his untimely death. It was left to his brothers to carry the torch — and well they did as I will record anon.

Read more:

Colonel Colin MacKenzie (1754–1821) with the Kavali Brothers(?)
By Thomas Hickey
Date painted: 1816
Oil on canvas, 58.5 x 38 cm

In the distance is the colossal Jain statue of Gomateswara at Karkala in Mysore.

Collection: British Library

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Amazing indeed!

I remember sitting in the office of the Director of the Andhra Pradesh State Archives in Hyderabad. He had a copy of this painting on the wall. Noticing me looking at it, he laughed, and said, "Do you know what this is?" Before I could answer, he said, "Three Telugu Brahmins and their Scottish assistant, Colin Mackenzie." :-)

NCERT Books are awesome.

Hello Mr. Hoover. Assuming the three natives in the painting are the Kavali brothers, which hasn't been conclusively established, the Director wasn't perverting the truth too much. They were Niyogi Brahmins, thus making them Telugu. By the time this was painted, MacKenzie had long since given up interpreting the materials he collected, and left it to the translators in his employ to do so. The brothers find frequent mention in his correspondence, and were cherished enough to be among the beneficiaries of his estate. Therefore, from the perspective of the natives, MacKenzie did assist them, with his official powers, in the procurement and study of local documents. But, it is of course absurd to suggest that MacKenzie was in any way subordinate to them.

@Shashi... exactly. That in fact is what the Director was getting at. And he was, I suppose, implying that Mackenzie was dependent on the Kavali brothers rather than subordinate to them. I have myself worked with Telugu kaifiyats, and they are reproduced (often without attribution) word-for-word in both the Mackenzie MSS and in the Imperial Gazetteers. (Note: the original Mackenzie MSS attributes authorship)

It is said that MacKenzie was generally more liberal than European Orientalists, and "let his translators sign their work and assigned their names as the authors of published works...". Therefore, it comes as a surprise that some aren't thus attributed.

An interesting aspect of this painting is that the statue of Gomateswara in the background has been widely misrepresented as that of Shravanabelagola (in John Keay's "India Discovered", for example). Also, the survey pole shown behind the statue still stands.

In the late 18th century, Calcutta based orientalists relied on Indian scholars as well, but they went unnamed. Mackenzie acknowledged them as individuals. Ramaswami continued interpreting data from the Mysore Survey for at least 10 years after Mackenzie's death. All were dudes. You can like Colin Mackenzie (and his assistants) on FB! Ps: typo in Muthiah's article: Mackenzie arrived in India in 1783, not 1763.

Matriarchal structures, personal laws, rights of succession that women enjoyed in many parts of India -especially in Kerala that -thrived till that time, were dealt a final blow by these 'dubashis' who intrepreted/translated 'Indian' laws and customs -to the new law-giver -the Englishman..the patriarchal -'male-dominant -vision 'was present ed -to suit the tastes of the victor..the European ..

Mackenzie acknowledged his informants and assistants in his private papers, and their names sometimes appear with local histories collected for the Mackenzie MSS, but the kaifiyats reproduced in the Imperial Gazetteers generally are not attributed to their original authors or collectors. I remember, after reading several Guntur kaifiyats, and then reading village and district entries in the Gazetteers, "Wait, I've read this before, but in Telugu...." And sure enough, I could correlate the two texts almost word-for-word.

@Shashi... I'm mistaken about the Mackenzie MSS. Consulting my notes (and being reminded by Jennifer up there), I must note that Mackenzie DID give his sources credit. This was in keeping with the general tradition of the Madras Presidency at that time. When we get to the late 19th century, to the period when the Gazetteers were compiled, then you see lots of material (often from the early 19th and late 18th century) being recycled without attribution. Some of the material was taken from the Mackenzie MSS, but some was taken from local kaifiyats that District Collectors had access to. They generally assigned the writing of the Gazetteer entries to their Indian assistants, although (in keeping with the formatting of the Gazetteers) the Collector's name was put down as author.

While we are on the Mackenzies, was this one any relation of his later namesake who played so prominent a part in the First Afghan War (1842)?

sounds like Mohan Rao from 'Raga and Josh ' by Sheila Dhar (Hachette 2011Delhi)

In the 18th &19 Cs,the english seemed to have a monopoly on the Printing Presses,(Gunpowder and Opium, among others)..only the church and the Govt could own printing presses and print books pamphlets and notices -for a long also needed Collector's clearance-before something got printed..that is the picture i have in mind after reading Sir C.P.Brown and Yenugula Veeraswamy.'s Travelogue-Kasi Yatra...will someone please throw more light on this.. when were the printing presses liberalised..

Thanks Mr. Hoover for the clarification.

Learnt much from this thread of discussion. Thanks to Shashi Kolar and James W Hoover.

Gotta Love Mohan Rao :). He fed bisibele bhaath to Richard Attenborough!

a cent per cent Gandhian , who almost upstaged Gandhi .