Adding the her in his-tory: Five pioneering women from Madras

At DakshinaChitra’s Utsavam author-historian Nivedita Louis describes the personal and political empowerment of five trailblazing women of erstwhile Madras

Published: 12th March 2022 06:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th March 2022 02:37 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: I have been waiting to tell this story all my life. What took you so long to find me?” — a question from Sulochana, the daughter-in-law of Annai Meenambal Sivaraj, Madras’ first Dalit woman mayor and India’s first woman Dalit leader, to historian Nivedita Louis. Nivedita noted that with the exception of a few busts and a street named after her by former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, there was little else documenting Meenambal’s achievements. The author, who delivered a talk at DakshinaChitra Museum’s Utsavam recently, revealed that her quest to record lesser-heard ‘women firsts’ started when she found copies of the Indian Ladies Magazine, India’s first women’s English magazine, started by Kamala Sathianathan, Madras’ first female graduate, in 1901, at Connemara Library.

“The magazine is remarkable — it had short stories, columns by Sarojini Naidu and the like, pictures of sari-clad women from the 19th and 20th centuries playing tennis while holding their babies... The story of Kamala who had published many editions despite several tragedies was truly inspiring. I wanted to bring these now-forgotten women to life and started a series for Aval Vikatan,” said Nivedita, who has also compiled her findings in the book Muthal Pengal (First Women).

Meet the women

The personal is truly political — when English-educated women in Madras could change their status quo in their private spheres, it led to not just their upliftment but also of society as a whole. Speaking of five such pioneers, Nivedita expressed admiration for their tenacity in the face of personal setbacks. “Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, India’s first female engineer, was a widowed mother at 18. She could have remarried and lead a comfortable life. Instead, she went on to study at the then all-male College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). More women were enrolled afterwards. Did you know she worked on the Bhakra-Nangal Dam? I was particularly struck by what Lalitha said once — ‘If I was born 150 years ago, I would have been burnt on my husband’s pyre’,” exclaimed Nivedita, while sharing a picture of the engineer’s college certificate where an ‘s’ was hurriedly added before all the ‘he’s on it.

A Christian woman from a Most Backward Class (MBC) community being elected fisheries minister is an exceptional feat. Talking about Lourdammal Simon, born in 1912 in Colachel, Kanniyakumari, Nivedita said, “Her courage also speaks of the fisher community’s tireless fight for their rights. Impressed with her intellect, former chief minister K Kamaraj inducted her into his second cabinet. He was a true ally of Lourdammal.” The historian shared a tidbit about Tilapia fillets (jalebi fish) being colloquially titled ‘Lourdamma meen’ as it was the politician who had introduced the successful invasive species from Japan.

Nivedita also recounted how Meenambal Sivaraj’s family moved from Madras to Rangoon to cast off the shackles of the caste system, leading to financial and social wellbeing. Meenambal, whose father and grandfather were Adi Dravidar leaders, returned with a fine arts degree from Rangoon. Meenambal was also an important personality in the Hindi agitation and self-respect movements. It was she who gave EV Ramaswamy the title ‘Periyar’, and was called ‘my sister Meena’ by BR Ambedkar, the historian said.

From around the world

Expounding on the role expat women played in politics, Nivedita spoke of Khadija, the daughter of Ahmed Atoula, the Consul-General for Turkey- Constantinople, who was married to Yakub Hasan Sait, the public works minister in former CM Rajaji’s cabinet. She used to wear western clothes, highlighting the reformist attitude of then-Atatürk-ruled Turkey. A key leader in the 1919 Khilafat movement led by Indian Muslims, Khadija was also Madras’ first Muslim woman MLA and honorary presidency magistrate, Nivedita shared.

In her talk, the historian also brought to the fore the contribution of the men in the lives of the women. In addition to urging his wife Kamala to pursue her degree, educationist Samuel Sathianathan, also encouraged his first wife Krupabai (first Indian woman to write an English novel) to write. Lourdammal’s husband and politician Alexander Manuel Simon used to run a printing press in Nagercoil which fueled her intellectualism and career. Pappu Subba Rao fostered a safe atmosphere for his daughter Lalitha at College of Engineering where he was an engineering professor.

Noting that men often did not understand the significance of a woman’s daily decisions, however minor, Nivedita said, “History is like a boy’s club — male historians write about themselves. Our stories are usually recorded by women historians. I urge men to write about women.”


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