The story of S.N.V. Sadanam hostel and one of its founders, Tapaswini Amma, deserves a place in the history of women’s empowerment in Kerala

Many young women have found a second home in the halls of the S.N.V. Sadanam working women’s hostel and girls’ hostel on Chittoor Road in Kochi.

The hostel’s long history of providing a safe environment for young women who arrived in the city in search of education and employment has made it an integral part of the city.

The story behind the setting up of this 92-year-old institution, however, is one that deserves a place in the history of women’s empowerment in the State.

The hostel, which began functioning on June 6, 1921, with just five women, was the first such home in the city that opened its doors for women from all castes. “Women from far off places who wished to come to Ernakulam for studies had no place to stay in those days. Those from upper castes could find some way out. But no one would take in girls from the lower castes. The Sree Narayana Vidyarthini Sadanam was started to help such girls,” says Sumitra Rammohan, secretary of the Sadanam trust.

The hostel first operated out of a small rented house near the present St. Teresa’s College. Four of the five girls who were the first inmates of the hostel were from the Ezhava community. Later, girls from other castes and religions found their way to Sadanam. In 1921, Maharaja’s College was the only option for students aspiring higher education. But school girls from Paravur, Cherai and areas surrounding Ernakulam who studied in the city too came to Sadanam.

K.R. Gouri, who was a minister in the State’s first Cabinet, stayed at Sadanam when she was a student at Maharaja’s College. So did Justice Fathima Rahman, one of the few women judges of her time.

Ammu Nandana Menon, who passed away last month, was also a former resident of the hostel. Daughter of Chettur Karunakaran Nair, who was IG of police of the former Madras State, she was married to Justice Nandana Menon of the High Court of Kerala.

The key force behind the setting up of the hostel was Sister Tapaswini Amma, a social worker with a mission to help women in need. The hostel was started by Tapaswini Amma, Mannanthara Parvathi Amma, Panavalli Krishnan Vaidyar, and Azheekkal Krishnan Vaidyar.

“Tapaswini Amma completely devoted herself to the cause of supporting women,” says Professor M.K. Sanoo. She first started Abalasharanam, which is now an industrial school for women, for training poor girls.

“She had no religion, no caste. She saw everyone as just human beings. If she saw a woman on the street who needed help, she would take her in, give her food, and protect her,” says Prof. Sanoo, who has been involved with the activities of the trust for several years.

Tapaswini Amma’s efforts made her a well-known figure in the city. Those who knew Amma paint a vivid image of her from memory – white mundu, long white hair, methiyadi slippers and an umbrella made of dried palm leaf. “She is the only person I have seen who carried around an olakkuda. It was cumbersome. But she and her umbrella were everywhere,” says Prof. Sanoo.

In the early days of Sadanam, Tapaswini Amma went from door to door collecting money or food so she could keep the hostel running. “Any money she got she would stuff between the spokes of her umbrella,” says Sherly Chandran, former principal of Maharaja’s College.

The trust’s efforts at protecting women were recognized when the High Court decided to send young women involved in habeas corpus cases to the Sadanam hostels. Women who had gone missing from home were entrusted to the care of the hostel, where they would be protected and taken care of.

The efforts of Tapaswini Amma and others at collecting funds for Sadanam kept the institution alive in times of great financial distress. “It wasn’t just Tapaswini Amma. Many like-minded people contributed to building up Sadanam to the stature it has today,” says Prof. Chandran.

Women like Parvathy Ayyappan, wife of Sahodaran Ayyappan, Bhavani Krishnan, well-wishers such as Prof. P.S. Velayudhan, K.K. Madhavan, K.S. Raghavan and many others contributed to making Sadanam the self-sufficient institution it has become today.

Today, the trust runs Abalasharanam, two hostels for over 500 girls, and an old-age home near Vaduthala that accommodates seniors in about 30 rooms.

For someone who spent a lifetime for the emancipation of women, little has been written about Tapaswini Amma. Her life story is not known to many outside the trust. Her good work, however, finds echoes even today.

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