Tamil Nadu

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters

The prolific blogger, economist, and public intellectual Tyler Cowen recently reposted a map on the geography of Indian chess grandmasters (reproduced below). The map was originally posted on X [Twitter] by “The_Equationist” under the heading “This chart speaks for itself.” I am not sure that it does, nor do several of Cowen’s commenters. But for those who understand the basic spatial contours of socio-economic development in India, the map does show a familiar pattern. Almost all Indian grandmasters come from the more economically vibrant and educationally developed states of southern and south-central India. Conversely, few come from the densely populated and economically lagging Ganges Valley, India’s historical core, or indeed from any other northern part of the country. Based on socioeconomic development alone, one might expect a few more grandmasters from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, but the pattern remains unexceptional.

What is especially striking is that three states in particular stand out for producing grandmasters: West Bengal (labeled here simply as “Bengal”), Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. But again, for those familiar with the geography of Indian intellectual life, this pattern is not particularly surprising. West Bengal has long been famed as India’s intellectual center, particularly in fields in the humanities. This feature of Indian geography has occasionally hit home. I few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a search at Stanford University for a new faculty member specializing in the history of modern South Asia. Well into the process, a South Asian member of the search committee asked whether the rest of us had noticed that all the top candidates were Bengali, hailing from West Bengal. I had not noticed.

Tamil Nadu, which really stands out on the map, is also famous for the intellectual achievements of its inhabitants, which veer in a more scientific and technical direction. Such intellectuality is particularly notable among the Tamil Brahmins (or “Tam Brahms”), who have been subjected to some reverse discrimination in their homeland and are thus well represented abroad. Maharashtra does not have the same intellectual reputation as the other two states, but it is, in many regards, India’s economic standout and its center of popular-culture production.

One of Cowen’s commenters, Sathish, mentions that almost all of Tamil Nadu’s grandmasters come from its largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), noting as well that 15 of the 29 studied at the same school. Another commenter, sxb, provides the necessary background information:

It started in the 50s with the first Indian international Master, Manuel Aaron. He started the Tal chess club in Chennai, brought in Soviet chess books and even a Soviet Grandmaster for a month with more visiting and Anand, the Indian prodigy, was his pupil. Basically all the local players worthy of note went through that chess club. It blossomed from there.  Anand was born and lives in Chennai and has been a great role model for chess in India and got many youngsters interested in the game.


As geographers have long noted, place matters. So does personality, as this story so well demonstrates.

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Another Cartoon Controversy Strikes India

Yet another political cartoon controversy has embroiled India in recent weeks. The cartoon in question dates to 1965, when opposition to the planned imposition of the Hindi language across India generated unrest over much of the country and especially the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil activists feared that the imposition of Hindi would reduce non-Hindi speakers to the status of second-class citizens, and thus agitated for the continuing use of English as the country’s unifying, common language. In the end, the government backed down, allowing the perpetuation of English in official communication and granting each Indian state the right to establish its own official language or languages.

The cartoon is currently generating controversy due to the fact that it has been recently included in a political science textbook. Tamil partisans claim that the drawing unfairly represents the student organization that led the anti-Hindi demonstrations in the 1960s, falsifying history in the process. While the cartoon depicts the students leaders as ignorant of the English language, opponent of the textbook argue that, “As far as English is concerned, few could match Tamils in acquiring the skills of the language.” They also claim that the cartoon hides the fact that the government of Tamil Nadu at the time reacted to the anti-Hindi agitation with harsh repression.

Several other cartoon controversies have agitated India in recent months. Many Indians were outraged at the use in another textbook of 1949 sketch that depicts Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip and chasing a snail-riding B. R. Ambedkar in order to speed up work on India’s constitution. Ambedkar, the dalit (“untouchable”) mastermind of the constitution, is a much-idolized figure, especially among lower-caste Indians, and is thus not to be trifled with. Another recent cartoon controversy in the Indian state of West Bengal was analyzed in a separate GeoCurrents post.

A number of Indian advocates of free expression have been outraged at the outrage expressed over these cartoons. Intriguingly, the noted—and aged—Communist stalwart V S Achuthanandan responded with particular force, arguing that “I am a subject of large number of cartoons. I always enjoy them and try to understand the message sought to be conveyed through them. In a democracy, tolerance and readiness to face criticism are vitally important.” (In contemporary India, “communists” generally seek power through the ballot box, whereas “Maoists” advocate—and engage in—revolutionary violence).

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