Documenting a doctor’s daring deeds
The road leading to the Theosophical Society has several heritage buildings that tell stories of several trailblazers, especially women.
CHENNAI: The road leading to the Theosophical Society has several heritage buildings that tell stories of several trailblazers, especially women. Among these buildings is the Avvai Home, started by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, which provided shelter to abandoned girls. But the dilapidated condition of the Home holds several accomplishments of Dr Reddy the first woman to study in a men’s college, the first and only female student in the Medical College in 1907, the first female surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, the first female legislator in British India, the first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation, the first chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board, the first female vice-president of the Legislative Council, and the main proponent of the law that abolished the Devadasi system. While these stories may have been long forgotten, Dr VR Devika is refreshing the memories of Chennaiites with her biography, Muthulakshmi Reddy - A trailblazer in surgery and women’s rights. It was not the list of her accomplishments but rather the ignorance of many individuals that motivated Dr Devika to pen this book.
Dr Devika began researching about Dr Muthulakshmi in 1985 and started giving lectures about her. It was a matter of time before she noticed that the academicians of North America had viewed Dr Muthulakshmi as someone who took away dance from the Devadasis. “Initially, I also believed the cherry-picked details which were there to support their hypothesis but working as a volunteer in Avvai Home changed me,” shares the author. After talking to several women from the community, she realised that many wanted their Devadasi lineage to be hidden, and considered Dr Muthulakshmi a Goddess.
Four years ago in Chennai, Dr Devika heard a senior art critic speak against Dr Muthulakshmi. She recalls, “He declared that Muthulakshmi, herself a Devadasi, became ashamed of the system when she went abroad and with a stroke of a pen made all these women illegal. He also went on to say that it was on the bodies of these women that freedom was obtained.” These kind of misconceptions is what Dr Devika aims to quash through her book, which will also be a tribute to Dr V Shanta, the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute (also started by Dr Muthulakshmi), who passed away in 2021.
The biography quotes Tamil works available on Dr Muthulakshmi rather than the academic tenure-driven studies on the theme. She cut short the 70,000-word manuscript to 40,000 words to fit into the pioneers of the modern India monograph series format.
The book launch is expected to be a culturally enriching experience including a Bharatanatyam performance, ‘A-kkarai’ by the Katradi Kalavai Koot Road Village, with girls from Bengaluru City Group, and ‘Rajatamadhuram’, the silver jubilee of Rukminidevi Natyakshetra. “We see the Bharatanatyam performance as a skill-building initiative for the empowerment of women. Dr Muthulakshmi worked to make dance and art accessible to everyone. I wanted to pay homage to that and make this a multi-pronged occasion,” says Dr Devika.