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The nuts and bolts of a superachiever

Rajeshwari Chatterjee is the first woman engineer of Karnataka. Though several world bodies have recognised her contributions in the field science, the State has ignored them.

She had to make her own path for others to follow. - Photo by K She had to make her own path for others to follow.

IT IS sheer modesty which precludes Prof. Rajeshwari Chatterjee from calling herself the first woman engineer produced by Karnataka or the Old Mysore part of it.

She might not be the engineer as perceived in the conventional sense, who secured a B.E. degree from an engineering college and worked in an industry. Prof. Chatterjee can, however, be acclaimed as the first woman professor of engineering in the State, and also the first woman member of the teaching faculty of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science.

Prof. Chatterjee is certainly a role model and an inspiration for the large number of girls joining engineering colleges and taking up the profession, though she prefers to call herself an "engineer-scientist". It is a pity that when the media is focussing much attention on high achievers among women (a good part of it repetitive and on the prominent rather than the eminent), hardly anything has been written about Prof. Chatterjee. The only time the media took note of her was some years ago, when two Kannada magazines featured her. This correspondent was the first from a newspaper to interview her.

Prof. Chatterjee, who has turned 80 (born on January 24, 1922), is a retired professor and Chairperson of the Department of Electro-Communication Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She took her honours degree in Mathematics from the University of Mysore (Central College) in 1942 and an M.Sc degree the next year. Proceeding to the United States in 1947, she took an M.Sc degree in Electrical Engineering and Ph.D (1952) in the same subject from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She entered the faculty of the Indian Institute of Science in 1953 and served there till her retirement in 1982. Her husband, the late S.K. Chatterjee, too was a professor and a highly regarded researcher in the same department at the IISc.

Ms. Chatterjee, who has specialised in the field of microwave engineering and antennae engineering, has 100 research papers and six books to her credit. She has guided 20 Ph.D. scholars. Her seventh book, which she is working on, will be dealt with presently.

Prof. Chatterjee belongs to a well-known family of Old Mysore. Her father, B.M. Shivaramaiah, who was an advocate in Nanjangud, was the younger brother of the Kannada literary giant, Prof. B.M. Srikantaiah. Her maternal grandmother, Kamalamma Dasappa, was the pioneer liberator of women in that dark age when ante-deluvian ideas and practices had forced women and girls, especially in Brahmin families, into child marriages and condemned widows to servitude. Kamalamma Dasappa was herself widowed at an early age. Her husband Hadya Dasappa, who was an amaldar at Nanjangud, was drowned in the Kapila in 1904 when he was in his mid-twenties. Kamalamma later became a graduate and built up the Mahila Seva Samaja at Basavangudi, which had been founded by Parvathamma Chandrashekara Iyer, wife of Justice K.S. Chandrashekara Iyer, who was Chief Judge of Mysore in the early Twenties. Kamalamma was one of the first two women to be nominated to the erstwhile Mysore Representative Assembly in 1928. The other was the leading coffee planter of Kodagu, D. Sakamma (of Sakamma's Coffee fame).

Such being her family background, it is no wonder Ms. Chatterjee took to higher education. Girls joining colleges, not to speak of pursuing higher education and taking up a career, were still a rarity in the late Thirties. The only women from the upper castes who worked for a living those days were widows and destitutes, she notes. Her family encouraged her.

But Ms. Chatterjee had to encounter problems of other kinds when she wanted to pursue higher education or take up a job after obtaining her M.Sc. degree. The Second World War had created problems for aspiring youngsters. Despite her excellent academic record, she had to face the problem of casteism in public life, which had taken a virulent form in the princely Mysore in the Forties. The then British Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mysore, Prof. E.G. McAlpine, expressed his helplessness in her case. She was simply denied the Government of Mysore scholarship to study in foreign universities. She joined the Indian Institute of Science.

However, in 1947, she obtained a Government of India scholarship and proceeded to the United States. On her return, she joined the teaching faculty of the IISc. and remained its only woman member for a good number of years, until another was appointed to the Department of Mathematics.

Prof. Chatterjee is an inspiration to generations of women.

What is her advice to girls who take up the engineering course? She finds it disconcerting that both boys and girls studying engineering in the State aim only at taking up well-paid jobs. Few of them are interested in higher studies, and much less, research. It is with regret that she says: "The Indian Institute of Science is not being made use of by boys and girls in Karnataka." In terms of admission from the Southern States, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh scored over Karnataka. West Bengal topped among the States in the rest of the country. The IISc. was laying greater emphasis on science than engineering and on research than on conducting courses. It had abolished graduate courses.

Prof. Chatterjee also notes that private companies which appoint young engineers make them overwork. Many young engineers had developed physical and mental problems caused by overwork, stress, and prolonged exposure to computer monitors.

Karnataka, and even the Government of India, have been remiss in not going out to honour this pioneer woman educator in the field of higher studies. In the first place, she had not sought them. However, academic and professional bodies have recognised her contributions. Prof. Chatterjee is the recipient of the Mountbatten Award instituted by the British Institute of Radio Engineers (now called Institute of Electronic and Radio Engineers), the Meghnad Saha and the Ramlal Wadhwa awards of the Institution of Electronics and Telecommunication, India, and that of the Institution of Engineers (Karnataka). She has been on the board of examiners of various universities and academic institutions of the country. But never once have the universities in Karnataka invited her. It is enough comment on the recognition accorded to her by her home State. It is also noteworthy that there is no mention of her name, nor that of her husband's, in the History of the Indian Institute of Science.

The seventh book she is now engaged in writing is far removed from engineering. Probably it has much to do with social engineering and the plight of women. The book will be in English. Prof. Chatterjee is of the view that though a number of women from the middle-class are taking up careers, they have turned out to be "money spinning machines" for their husbands and families. The social change is for the worse in many cases. The book will take a peep into history, perhaps circa 1850. In many families, women are not allowed to keep the money they earn for themselves. In lower middle-class families, most men idle away, while their wives work. They squander the hard earned money on drink. Industries and business establishments exploit women from lower middle-class families. They are paid low salaries and are forced to work for long. Even today, women are looked down upon if they approach courts seeking justice.

The professor has avidly followed the public affairs of the State and the country. She notes that it was the redoubtable Sir Brajendranath Seal, second Vice- Chancellor of the University of Mysore (1920-29), who had urged her uncle, B.M.Srikantaiah, who was the Registrar of the University, to develop the Department of Kannada. However, the litterateur continued as professor of English even as he took keen interest in Kannada.

She does not hide her socialist or communist sympathies and admiration for the Marxists in West Bengal. Kolkata still remains the cheapest metropolis in the country, and the State is a success story in agriculture. A visit to her husband's hometown, Tamluk, showed that Communist rule has not made the people cheerless.


Photo by K Gopinathan

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