More than four decades ago, when a young Nalini Kailasam set out to join Mohan Kumaramangalam’s law firm, she was sent back. The reason: The office was full of bachelors. “Well, he did not know that I was already in love with Mr. Chidambaram and was waiting for him to return from Harvard,” she smiled. It was only after marriage that she finally found placement. Today, she’s a senior advocate who regularly appears in the Supreme Court.
Dancer Anita Ratnam, who has traversed the boundaries of traditional dance, still has to deal with relatives who ask her if she manages to keep busy. “It’s as if my life is just about keeping busy.”
Dancer-actor-activist Amala Akkineni saw first-hand the sacrifices her Irish mother made after she moved out of a bad marriage. “I had to take a decision. Do I pursue dance, my passion, or help my mother out? The movies beckoned.”
Nalini, Anita and Amala were part of a panel discussion ‘Women in Leadership: Breaking the Glass Ceiling’, organised by FLO, Coimbatore, as part of its 20th year celebrations. The session was moderated by paediatrician and social activist Kezevino Aram of Shanti Ashram.
Dr. Aram said the topic was as much about empowered women as their suppressed sisters elsewhere for whom every day was a struggle. She asked the panelists about the footprints they had left in their respective professions. Amala said she learnt from failure. Cinema also gave her a platform to make her voice heard when she discussed “uncomfortable” things such as: ‘Do you allow your domestic help to use the restroom?’ and ‘What’s your attitude about widows?’
Anita spoke about the challenges of being a first-generation artist in her family. “You have to be excellent in what you do. Be your own person and own your space. And, you have to be rooted. I’ve noticed that when your geography is your history, people respect you. And, I have to thank New York for asking me: ‘Who are you ?’ ‘What do you do?’
Nalini said the topic under discussion was passé. She said: “We’ve moved on, and I hope this is the last year we discuss the subject.”
Speaking about their struggles and opportunities in their fields, Amala agreed that families still had reservations about their daughters making a career in the movies. “But, there’s always a dearth of talent here. If you are seeking fame without the requisite talent, you might wander. Not otherwise. I won’t say it is an equal world, but you can choose your battles here.”
Who calls the shots?
Anita stated that despite conquering many milestones and storming several male bastions, the gatekeepers were still men. “In the creative space, it gets difficult for someone like me who questions things. We have to break out of our regular spaces and create new ones.”
Next up was the issue of powerfulness versus powerlessness. Anita said that for today’s generation, economics played a vital part. Young people think about the money before they decide to follow their passion. “Be in the situation, but beat it and emerge successful,” advised Nalini. “Move on and do not let your family bog you down,” she said. Amala recommended a withdrawing into the self. “When the situation demands, women tap their inner ability.”
Aram wrapped up the discussion by stating that, in India, the question of women’s development called for quantum leaps, and not infinitesimal adjustments. “Because only they can help you achieve big dreams. We have to keep at it, because even influential women can be brought back into the vicious cycle of powerlessness.”
RECOGNISING THE ACHIEVERS
An awards ceremony, Sadhana 2012, was also held as part of the event at The Residency. The awardees were power lifting champion B. Chellamani; founder and CEO of Ampere Vehicles, Hemalatha Annamalai; educationist and pioneer of integrated education S.S. Jayalakshmi; Dr. R. Karpagam of Oli Awareness Movement; and entrepreneurs Shakuntala and Vijayalakshmi Nachiyar (Ethicus).
Earlier, FLO Coimbatore also gave away Rs. 27,000 to Avinashilingam Jan Shikshan Sansthan to help fund the education of six girl students.