V. O. Chidambaram Pillai
(1872 - 1936)

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai

Our college has been named after the great patriot V. O. Chidambaram. He was affectionately called 'Swadeshi Pillai' or 'Vande Mataram Pillai' by ordinary folk. He was the chief organizer of the Swadeshi movement. He was a practicing lawyer at Thoothukudi and was successful in his profession.

Early Life

Vallinayagam Olaganthan Chidambaram Pillai, (1872-1936) (Tamil: வ. உ. சிதம்பரம் பிள்ளை),was a Tamil political leader popularly known by his initials, V.O.C. (spelt Vaa. Oo. Ce in Tamil), also known as Kappalottiya Tamilan (கப்பலோட்டிய தமிழன், "The Tamil Helmsman").

V. O. Chidambaram was born on 5 September 1872 in Therkku Vandanam in his mother's home near Kadambur, Ottapidaram, Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu State, India. He was the eldest son of lawyer Olaganathan Pillai and Paramayee Ammal. When Chidambaram was six years old he learnt Tamil from the teacher Veeraperumal Annavi. He learnt English from a taluk officer named Krishnan in the evenings. At fourteen, Chidambaram went to Thoothukudi to continue his studies. He studied at St. Xavier's High School and Caldwell High School, Thoothukudi and Hindu College High School, Thirunelveli.

Chidambaram worked as taluk office clerk for some time before his father sent him to Thiruchirapalli to study Law. He passed his Pleadership exam in 1894, returning to Ottapidaram to become a Pleader in 1895. In Chennai, Chidambaram met Ramakrishnananthar, a saint who belonged to Swami Vivekananda Ashram, who advised him to "do something for the nation". Here he met the Tamil poet Bharathiyar who shared his political ideology. The two men became close friends.

Political life

In the 1890s and 1900s India’s independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak. From 1892 Chidambaram was influenced by Tilak Maharaj, and became his disciple. Along with Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi, he became a prominent spokesperson for the cause in Madras Presidency. Following the partition of Bengal in 1905 Chidambaram entered politics, joining the Indian National Congress and taking a hardliner stance. He also presided at the Salem District Congress session.

Companies and institutions

Chidambaram established many institutions like Swadeshi Prachar Sabha, Dharmasanga Nesavu Salai, National Godown, Madras Agro-Industrial Society Ltd and Desabimana Sangam. In response to the British India Steam Navigation Company's trade monopoly, Chidambaram started an Indian-owned shipping company. He registered the Swadeshi Shipping Company in October 1906. The capital of the company was ten lakhs. The number of shares was 40,000 and the face value of each share was Rs.25/-. Any Asian could become a share holder. The Director of the Company was Mr.Pandi Thurai Thevar, a Zamindar and the President of “Madurai Tamil Sangam”. Janab Haji Mohammed Bakir Seit paid Rs.2 lakhs for 8000 shares, which was the first capital for the Company.

In the beginning, the Company did not own any ships, instead it leased them from Shawline Steamers Company. The B.I.S.N.C. pressured Shawline Steamers to cancel the lease; in response, Chidambaram leased a single large freighter from Sri Lanka. Realizing the need for the Swadeshi Shipping Company to own its own vessels, Chidambaram travelled around India selling shares in the company to raise capital. He vowed, “I will come back with Ships. Otherwise I will perish in the sea”. He managed to secure sufficient funds to purchase the company's first ship, the S.S. Galia; shortly afterwards they were able to acquire the S.S. Lavo from France.

In response to the new competition, the B.I.S.N.C reduced the fare per trip to Re.1 (16 annas) per head. Swadeshi company responded by offering a fare of Re.0.5 (8 Annas). The British company went further by offering a free trip to the passengers plus a free umbrella; however, nationalist sentiment meant that the free service was under used. The B.I.S.N.C. attempted to buy out Chidambaram, but he refused the deal.

The ships commenced regular service between Tuticorin and Colombo (Srilanka), against opposition from British traders and the Imperial Government.

Arrest and imprisonment

By 1908, Chidambaram's political involvement drew the attention of the British. Hearing of his intention to speak at a rally celebrating the release of Bengali leader Bipin Chandra Pal, Mr Winch, a British official invited Chidambaram to meet him in Thirunelveli with his political comrade Subramanya Siva. At the meeting, Winch expressed concern at Chidambaram's activities and asked him to give assurances that he would not participate in any political revolt. Chidambaram refused to accept his conditions, and so he and Siva were arrested on March 12, 1908.

The arrest met with widespread protest. In Thirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest, and rioting broke out. Tirunelveli municipal office, post offices, police stations and municipal courts were attacked. A general strike was declared in Thoothukudi, which was the first political strike in India. Public meetings and processions were held, and four people were killed by the police.

Although his supporters were able to raise sufficient funds for bail, Chidambaram refused to leave the jail without the release of Siva and his other comrades. Subramanya Bharathi and Subramanya Siva also appeared in the court for questioning for the case instituted against Chidambaram. He was charged under sections 123-A and 153-A of the Indian Penal Code for speaking against the British and giving shelter to Siva. Chidambaram refused to take part in the proceedings.

He was charged with sedition and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years) was imposed. He was confined in the Central Prison, Coimbatore (from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910).

The judgement was widely condemned in the popular press, with even the British Statesmen magazine claiming that it was unjust. Chidambaram appealed the sentence in High Court, gaining a reduced punishment of 4 years imprisonment and 6 years in exile. An appeal to the Privy Council led to a further reduction in sentence.

Chidambaram was interred in Coimbatore and Kannanoor jail. He was not treated as a 'political prisoner’, nor was the sentence 'simple imprisonment’, he was rather treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour, which caused his health to suffer. The historian and Tamil scholar, R. A. Padmanabhan, would later note in his works that Chidambaram was "yoked (in place of bulls) to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun....” From prison Chidambaram continued correspondence, maintaining a steady stream of legal petitions. He was finally released on December 12, 1912. To his dismay, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had already been liquidated in 1911, and the ships auctioned to their competitors. The company's first ship, the S.S. Gallio was sold to the British Shipping Company.

Later life

Upon Chidambaram’s release he was not permitted to return to his Tirunelveli district. With his law license stripped from him he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons. There he ran a provisions store and a kerosene store.

In 1920, Chidambaram withdrew from the Indian National Congress, citing ideological differences with Mahatma Gandhi. He focussed his efforts on establishing Labor Unions in Madras and writing.

After moving to Coimbatore Chidambaram worked as a bank manager. Dissatisfied with the income, he petitioned the court seeking permission to practise law again. Judge E.H. Wallace gave permission to restore Chidambaram's pleadership license; to show his gratitude Chidambaram named his last son Valacewaran.

Chidambaram moved to Kovilpatti and practised as a lawyer. He rejoined the Congress party in 1927 and presided over the third political conference held at Salem. He said that he wanted to join Congress again because he noticed a remarkable change in the policies of Congress and he was happy to note that the policies which he did not approve of were withdrawn one by one. However, after the Salem conference Chidambaram again severed his contact with Congress.


In 1932 he moved to Thoothukudi, where he spent his time writing and publishing Tamil books.

  • Meyyaram 1914.
  • Meyyarivu 1915
  • Anthology 1915
  • Thirukural with literary notes of Manakudavar 1917
  • Tolkappiam with literary notes of Ilampooranar 1928
  • Autobiography 1946

Post-independence honours

Posthumously, Chidambaram is known by the titles "Kappal’ottiya Thamizlan" ("the Thamizhan who drove the ship") and "Chekkiluththa Chemmal" ("a great man who pulled the oil press in jail for the sake of his people"). The Indian Posts and Telegraphs department of India issued a special postage stamp on 5 September 1972, on the occasion of his birth centenary.

Statues of Chidambaram

Many statues of Chidambaram have been commissioned, some of the more notable are located:

  • At the entrance of the Congress committee office, Rayapettai, Chennai (1939).
  • At the arch of Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli At Marina beach, Chennai. (unveiled at the time of the World Tamil Conference).
  • At the port, Thoothukudi. (unveiled by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister).
  • At Simmakkal, Madurai (unveiled by Mr. M.G.Ramachandran, the former Chief Minister).
  • At the commemorative building of V.O.C., Tirunelveli (unveiled by Miss. Jayalalitha, the former Chief Minister).

Film portrayal

In 1961 Kannada film director B.R Panthalu made a film of Chidambaram's life titled Kappalottiya Thamizhan. Chidambaram was portrayed by Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan, Subramanya Siva by T.K Shanmugam and Subramanya Barathi by S.V Subbiah.

source: Wikipedia

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