History & Culture

A life less ordinary

Rani Kumudini Devi, when she took over as the first Mayor of Hyderabad in 1962  

In the sprawling campus of the Sivananda Rehabilitation Home, Kukatpally, a physiotherapist is concerned that a young lad showing early stages of leprosy is developing patches on his cheeks and doesn't blink often. “Children don't know the seriousness. We've given him a shoe supported by a spring to help him walk without a limp. I keep telling the boy to report to me if he is unable to blink and his eyes start watering,” he says.

The boy is among 500 other inmates at the leprosy rehabilitation home. The boy is among the children identified with symptoms of leprosy, a condition that is considered ‘eliminated'.

“The incidences may have come down, but leprosy is far from being eradicated. It's painful to see children in this condition,” laments the physiotherapist.

The various sections of the hospital, spread across the wilderness of the campus, speak of the initiative and efforts of late Rani Kumudini Devi, the first woman Mayor of Hyderabad. 2011 marks the birth centenary of Kumudini Devi and the family relives the memories of a woman who was among the rare few to enter public domain in her times.

Born to Pingle Venaktaramana Reddy, former Deputy Prime Minister of Hyderabad State, on January 23, 1911, in Wadepally, Warangal district, Kumudini had the advantage of not being confined to stereotypes. Her parents wanted her to be educated and take part in all activities like her brothers — riding bicycles and horses, playing hockey, football and tennis to name a few.

A book brought out by Kamini Reddy, one of her descendants, tells Kumudini's story through a collection of anecdotes she shared before she breathed her last in 2009 at the age of 98.

“My father was self-educated and was keen on educating others, especially women,” Kumudini Devi had shared. She, along with her parents, moved to Hyderabad where her brothers were already living as boarders, in pursuit of better education. Not just them. There were a total of 12 girls and 7 boys, including her cousins, who were brought to Hyderabad for education. In school days, they were not given special privileges. Despite the family having a horse carriage, children were encouraged to use a pony cart or walk to school to learn the value for money.

Kumudini's anecdotes are a window to the societal norms prevalent in those days. She talks of her wedding to Ramdev Rao in 1928, “My engagement ceremony was done in front of everyone; in those women were not allowed in front of men without being covered. So I was wrapped in shawls. This ceremony took over an hour and I fainted because of the heat.”

But make no mistakes. Married life didn't mean having to sacrifice her freedom. Her husband, she recalls, was more than willing to let her pursue her dreams and encouraged her to look beyond the responsibilities of home and hearth.

It took some time for her plans to crystallise and her work shine through in public domain, though. A major milestone was in 1957, when she served as the Chairman of the Health Committee in the MCH and learnt of a leprosy home in Zaheerabad. She was inspired to do something similar in a larger scale and bought 12 acres of land and built the Sivananda Rehabilitation Home in 1958.

In 1962, she was elected the Mayor of Hyderabad. The tidings were far from smooth. The city faced one of its worst floods in 1962, demanding all the time and attention of the civic authorities.

Kumudini's works also changed the way the city would be. The land on which the present GHMC stands was thanks to her efforts. She also got the Nawbhat Pahad and the adjacent hill released by the government to the MCH to be developed as a park, on which the Birla temple and planetarium were later built.

The 1960s presented a myriad of tasks — when the Chinese invaded India in 1962, Kumudini helped organise a Defence Welfare stall at the annual exhibition to collect funds, food and clothing to be sent to the army on the northern border.

Two years later, when refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan fled their homes to India and many of them camped in and around Nagarjuna Sagar, Kumudini's task was cut out: India turned a refugee camp following communal riots, Kumudini was shocked to see the plight of the refugees who could not speak any other language sans Bengali. She roped in Bengali speaking people and interacted with the refugees. Persistent efforts resulted in enabling the refugees to get jobs and eventually land and money to build homes.

Her daughter-in-law Jyothi fondly recalls Kumudini's last years:

“She was active even in her 90s and hated to be idle. She would go to the Secretariat herself to get the funds sanctioned by the government to the SRH. She would utilise the waiting period in those offices to sew or knit. She encouraged me to run a school (Chaitanya Memorial Education Society).”

One of Kumudini's sons, Vikram Dev Rao, remembers how she was an embodiment of all things feminine even while standing abreast with men in her public career. “She was multi-faceted. She dedicated herself to social causes and on the other hand, she was even fond of knitting and sewing,” he shares.

Kumudini Devi is survived by her four children and their families, seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 8:17:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/A-life-less-ordinary/article14957408.ece

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