History & Culture

Scholar extraordinaire

“She was personally the greatest woman scholar that India has yet produced,” wrote William Willetts, a well known scholar of Asian art, in 1962. These words in praise of C. Minakshi were not exaggerated. Minakshi was an authority on Pallava history, a respected archaeologist and the first woman to get a doctorate from the University of Madras in 1936. Her scholarship was profound and her accomplishments astonishing. If only death had not come cruelly quick, when she was just 34 years old, Minakshi would have uncovered more of the precious past and be as well remembered as her teacher Prof. Nilakanta Sastri, the doyen of South Indian history.

Cadambi Minakshi was born on September 12, 1905 and died on March 3, 1940. Her professional career as a historian and archaeologist spanned only four years. By then she had published more than 30 articles, written four books; one published during her time and three posthumously and given countless lectures on South Indian history.


After completing her B.A at the Women's Christian College in Madras in 1929, she wanted to do M.A in History at the Madras Christian College (MCC). But MCC was out of bounds for women (it was so till 1939). She persisted. Her eldest brother C. Lakshminarayanan, a professor in the college, gave an undertaking to take care of her. On that guarantee, Minakshi joined the college. Her crowning moment was in 1936, when she got her doctorate.

“Cadambi Balakrishnan, her father, was a bench clerk in the Madras High Court and he died when Minakshi was very young. Her mother Mangalammal was a determined woman and wisely used the income from agricultural land and family savings. The two older brothers also got to work quickly and supported Minakshi's education,” recalled Rajammal Dharmarajan, the 89-year-old wife of Minakshi's nephew.

Minakshi maintained a calico covered scrapbook with ‘made in England' inscribed on it. “Mother and daughter collected every piece of paper that had anything to do with the latter; newspaper clippings, letters, manuscripts and invitations,” explained Mahalakshmi Gourishankar, a 75-year-old relative of Minakshi, who generously shared the book.

The scrapbook is like a trail. Reading that, one senses Minakshi's enthusiasm, energy and ambition. She often travelled to historic sites: Mannargudi, Pudukottai, Villuppuram and other places in South India. Either she was discovering new things as she did at Mannargudi (a Buddhist centre) or at Kanchipuram (a palace site) or she was touring to lecture.

Minakshi's first book was published in 1938 to critical acclaim. Her doctoral thesis on “The Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas” was published by the University of Madras as a part of the history series edited by Nilakanta Sastri. A review published in The Hindu then described it as ‘the eminently successful piece of research and is one of the best of a valuable series.'

In the same year, the Archaeological Survey of India commissioned her to write on the historical sculptures at the Vaikuntaperumal temple, Kanchipuram. Posthumously published, it remains an authoritative work on Pallava sculptures. She never hesitated to join issue with her peers. For instance, she debated with Jouveau Dubreuil, the well known French archaeologist who wrote the seminal book on Dravidian Architecture, on the origins of Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram.

Job hunt

Despite her impressive credentials, it was not easy for her to get a job. She did not hesitate to try different options. When there was a vacancy in the All India Radio, Tiruchi, for the station director's post, she applied. She probably thought that her music skills and her performances on radio would help, but it did not. Though her application was shortlisted and she was interviewed, she did not get the job.

“While men are encouraged to move freely, women are always questioned. But for physical strength, men are not stronger than women in any respect. Whenever women come forward to pursue studies or career, they are discouraged.” When Minakshi wrote this passage in 1939 in Kalaimagal, a Tamil magazine, she may not have referred to her struggle in particular, but she was certainly reflecting on her own experience, that of her mother's and other women around her. While her three sisters married young, Minakshi remained single.

“Minakshi was named after her grandmother, who had worked hard for the welfare of widows along with Lady Madhavan Nair; even founded a Widow's Home in Madras. The elder Minakshi refused to see her own daughter who, much to her dislike, shaved her head after she became a widow (but materially supported her). Minakshi resembled her grandmother in her determination and courage,” reflected Rajammal.

She continued her job hunt and sent copies of her book to everyone she knew; friends, peers and to all the gentlemen whom she thought would matter including C. Rajagopalachari, chief minister of the then Madras Presidency. Minakshi possibly thought her book was the best letter of introduction and a convincing testimonial in her favour. This approach seems to have paid off. In 1939, after receiving a copy of her book, Mirza Ismail, the Dewan of Mysore, sent a brief note of thanks and followed it with a letter of restrained appreciation. Months later, he offered her a job at the Maharani College at Bangalore as an Assistant Professor.

In August 1939, Minakshi and her mother shifted to Bangalore. She was set to pursue what could have become a spectacular academic career. But a few months later she fell ill. After three months, on March 3, 1940, Minakshi died at her residence in Nungambakkam. “It is cruel she died young. Whenever I think about it, pain engulfs me” wrote Nilakanta Sastri to Minakshi's mother in July 1941.

S. Kuppuswami Sastri, the Sanskrit scholar who founded the Department of Oriental Studies in the University of Madras, once compared Minakshi to Gargi, the ancient philosopher. Legend has it that Gargi was the only woman scholar in the court of King Janaka to seriously challenge Yajnavalkya, the high priest. Their sharp exchanges are recorded in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. Minakshi may not have picked anyone in particular to challenge as Gargi did, but she pushed the barriers of her times to pursue a life of her choice.

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