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V.O.Chidambaram Pillai – Biography, Contributions, Works

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Prelims Sureshots » Important Personalities of Modern India

V.O.Chidambaram Pillai (Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai), [VOC] (1872-1936), also known as Kappalottiya Tamilan (The Tamil Helmsman) and Sekkizuththa Semmal  [scholarly gentry who suffered at the oil press], was a renowned Indian freedom fighter, lawyer, author, entrepreneur and labour rights activist. He was a firm believer in the idea of Swadeshi. He made sufficient efforts and utilised all available avenues to rouse the people for the nationalistic cause and make India self-dependent. He spent his entire life helping India attain independence and kept fighting for the nationalistic cause until his last breath.

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This topic of “V.O.Chidambaram Pillai – Biography, Contributions, Works” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Early life and education

  • VOC was born on 5th September 1872 to an eminent lawyer Olaganathan Pillai and Paramyee Ammai in Ottapidaram, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.
  • He was the eldest son of his parents and began his early education in Tuticorin.
  • He completed his graduation from Caldwell College, Tuticorin.
  • Pillai worked as a clerk at a taluk office for some time and then began studying law.
  • He passed a pleadership (lawyers were called “pleaders’ then) examination in 1894 and began practising law at the local sub-magistrate’s court. After that in1900, he went to the nearby port town of Tuticorin to do the same.
  • Until 1905, he was engaged in professional and journalistic activities.
  • VOC entered politics in 1905 following the partition of Bengal. It was towards the end of 1905 that VOC visited Madras and was drawn closer to the Swadeshi movement initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai.
  • He supported the militant wing of the Indian National Congress (INC) led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He participated in the Surat Session of the Indian National Congress held in 1907.
  • He was also drawn towards Ramakrishna Mission and came into contact with Subramania Bharati and the Mandayam family.

Contribution to national movement

  • The rise of militancy in India after the partition of Bengal and the initiation of the Swadeshi movement combined with the boycott of foreign goods attracted Pillai towards the freedom struggle.
  • Between 1906-08 during the Swadeshi movement, he dominated the national movement in Tamil Nadu.
  • Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company
    • Tuticorin has been always one of the important ports in Tamil Nadu after Madras and many merchants engaged in active trade with Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the British era.
    • However, during those days passenger shipping as well as cargo services were monopolised by European shipping companies.
    • The British Indian Steam Navigation Company Ltd. (BISNCo) was one such, the only company maintaining a regular steamer service between Tuticorin and Colombo. The BISNCo officials treated their Indian patrons unfairly and offensively.
    • Inspired by the Swadeshi movement, VOC mobilised the support of merchants and industrialists in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli for the idea of establishing a Swadeshi merchant shipping outfit. The result was the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNCo), the first indigenous Indian shipping enterprise.
    • The company was formally established on October 16, 1906. He purchased two steamships, S.S. Gallia and S.S. Lawoe for the company and commenced regular services between Tuticorin and Colombo against the opposition of the British traders and the Imperial Government.
    • The effort earned him the name “Kappalottiya Tamilan” (The Tamil Helmsman).
    • Soon, the company became a huge success but to keep it afloat and combat BISNCo’s infinitely greater resources and imperial backing, wide public support was required.
    • It was the time when Pillai won the active support of another fiery Tamil orator, Subramania Siva. they were aided by several Tirunelveli-based lawyers, who formed an organisation called the Swadeshi Sangam, or ‘National Volunteers’.
  • Tuticorin Coral Mills strike
    • To widen the base of the Swadeshi movement and fight against the poor working conditions of workers at Tuticorin Coral Mills managed by British Tuticorin agents, A. & F. Harvey, Pillai took up the workers’ cause and supported their strike organised on 27 February 1908.
    • The workers’ demands included a reduction in the number of working hours and a pay increase.
    • Pillai had been interested in labour welfare for a long time and thus he easily developed sympathetic feelings for the workers and began supporting them. His support for workers brought him into increasing conflict with the British Raj. 
    • In the first week of March 1908, a series of stirring speeches by VOC, Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar electrified the people of Tuticorin. The nationalist leaders, with strong support from the people of Tuticorin, resolved to take out a mammoth procession on the morning of 9th March 1908 in Tirunelveli to celebrate the release of Bipin Chandra Pal from jail and hoist the flag of Swaraj. 
    • The infuriated Britishers arrested VOC, Subramania, and Iyengar on 12 March 1908. This resulted in unprecedented violence in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin for two days quelled only by the stationing of a punitive police force.
    • VOC was charged with sedition and awarded rigorous imprisonment.
  • Others
    • To encourage swadeshi business and boycott British-made goods he established “Swadeshi Stores” to sell locally-made products.
    • Chidambaram also established many institutions like Swadeshi Prachar Sabha, Dharmasanga Nesavu Salai, National Godown, Madras Agro-Industrial Society Ltd and Desabimana Sangam.

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Prison life and afterwards

  • He was sent to Coimbatore Central Prison and Kannanoor jail where he suffered a lot at the hands of his jailors. He was not treated as a ‘political prisoner’ but as a criminal and had to undergo brutal physical work.
  • At first, he was assigned the task of operating a jute-cleaning machine which had to be operated with one’s bare hands resulting in VOC’s palm skin peeling off and bleeding.
  • To substitute this task, he was then forced to draw and pull an oil press that is normally drawn by oxen.
  • While in prison, V O Chidambaram Pillai continued with his Swadeshi activities through legal petitions.
  • By the time VOC was released in 1912, his shipping company had been taken over by the British.
  • He was also deprived of his title of barrister and reduced to a very impoverished state. He also had to sell all his law books to survive but his poverty did not deter him from pursuing the nationalist cause. 
  • After attending the 1920 meeting of the Indian National Congress (INC) at Calcutta, he turned his attention to literary pursuits and spent his last days in abject poverty.
  • He also withdrew from the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1920, citing ideological differences with Mahatma Gandhi.
  • He focused his efforts on establishing labour unions in Madras. He re-joined the Congress party in 1927 and presided over the third political conference held at Salem noticing a remarkable change in the policies of Congress.
  • However, after the Salem conference, Chidambaram again severed his contact with Congress.
  • In 1929, he moved to Thoothukudi, where he spent his time writing and publishing Tamil books.


VOC breathed his last on 18 November 1936 at the Indian National Congress (INC) office in Tuticorin.

Literary works

  • VOC was an erudite scholar as can be seen in his literary pursuits.
  • After his release from prison in 1912, he completed his autobiography in Tamil verse which he started in prison.
  • He also wrote a commentary on the Thirukural.
  • He compiled ancient works of Tamil grammar, Tholkappiam.
  • He translated James Allen’s books as well which earned him an indisputable reputation.
  • He also authored some novels.
  • Some of his Tamil works include “Meyyaram” and “Meyyarivu”.

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Capt.Parthasarathy Vasanth

On this 77th Indipendence day, it was nice to read about the life history of V.O.C. The congress people that time (Gandhi and Nerhu must not have liked him as they must have thought he would be more popular). He died at the age of 64 years only which is not very old. Sad to see such great freedom fighter die of poverty.

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