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Madras miscellany: Three who led the way

The young Dorothy de la Hey, when she helped found Queen Mary’s College. PHOTOS: QMC CENTENARY COMMEMORATION VOLUME  

I wasn’t there for the centenary celebrations, but I’m glad Old Queen Marians Nithya Balaji, Gita Narayanan and S. Anandalakshmi did not forget me and brought me a copy of the pictorially rich commemoration volume they had painstakingly compiled. A brief story of the College’s beginnings, memories of alumnae from old college magazines, and profiles of eminent Queen Marians are supplemented in it by numerous pictures from the past. And it is amongst those pictures that I found what I consider a historical treasure, one of the pictures I feature today. I’m only sorry there are no more details about the three young women in the picture.

The barest details found with the picture state that they are (presumably from left to right), Ammukutty, Lakshmi and Parvathy. They were the first three child widows to graduate from Queen Mary’s which would probably make them the first three child widow graduates from South India, a historic trio indeed. The three of them were residents of Sarada Illam, the Ice House widows’ home, and had joined the College in 1917. Ammukutty went on to become a teacher in Coimbatore, Parvathy in Salem and Lakshmi taught at her alma mater for years.

The other learning I found in the book was information about Dorothy de la Hey, the founder Principal, a rather shadowy figure till now as far as I was concerned. She was 30 years old when she came out to Madras to holiday with her brother who was Vice Principal of the ‘Princes School’ in the city. She had done an Honours degree in Modern History at Oxford, as a member of the Society of Home Students, but it was some years before she was awarded the degree because Oxford at the time did not admit women students. She then did a teachers’ training course at St. Mary’s College, Paddington, but never taught.

When the Director of Public Instruction, Madras, who was in the process of starting Queen Mary’s College, heard she was in town in 1914, he offered her the Principalship. She refused. But her brother suggested she try it “for fun”. His suggestion was backed by a personal request from Governor Lord Pentland for whose cricket team her brother played. So she agreed to try it for a year, teaching History besides administering the College. At the end of the year the Director was going on Home Leave and asked her to stay till he returned with a new Principal. He came back with “a very good Assistant” but confessed he could not find anyone good enough to replace her. So Dorothy de la Hey stayed on for 20 more years, building up the institution, teaching History, Geography and French (nine hours a week), administering the College, and paying special attention to the hostel. Curiously, she was not officially designated Principal till 1918.

It was three years before she needed to retire that she retired in 1936. She had found increasing Government regulations stultifying. She also wanted to spend time working with a community she had become interested in, the Anglo-Indians, some of whom had been amongst her first students. But whether she stayed on and worked with them or not is another area for research.

This information about Dorothy de la Hey, scanty though it is, the compilers were lucky to come by when they chanced upon a solitary moth-eaten copy of Queen Mary’s College — The First Two Decades published in 1935 by the Old Students’ Association, QMC. I hope the Alumnae Association reprint it; we might then get to know a bit more about those first years about which de la Hey wrote: “Mr. (later Sir) Henry Stone, Director of Public Instruction … admitted every girl who applied in order to show the demand for the college. These numbered 37, of whom only 14 were promoted to the Senior Intermediate class. We opened with one class only and added the others each year, till we reached the B.A. Senior class. We had no laboratories and those wishing to take science subjects had to journey to Presidency College in jutkas.”

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The potential the city has

Madras Week got off to an early start this year, with events being organised from the first week of August. One of the first events was the Royal Madras Yacht Club’s walk around the Port. Over a hundred persons turned up for it and particularly noteworthy was the fact that many of them were young persons. Also amongst the group was the Secretary for Tourism and to judge by what he had to say at the end of the walk, he not only had enjoyed his morning but wondered why there were not more events like this one to showcase the city.

The answer to that is easy. First you need a guide like Sriram V., a knowledgeable person who does his homework well before leading a walk. You also need a guide fluent in the language, a good story-teller and a person with a sense of humour. Unfortunately not many of our tourist guides qualify on these counts. It is a matter of pride that Tamil Nadu has the largest number of foreign tourist arrivals in the country (though the actual number who are genuine tourists and not visitors to the ‘home country’ needs to be examined a little more carefully). But with such numbers, surely a better trained guide service is necessary. And such a service means not providing the barest information; it means reading up on every tourist spot, to discover the little stories that keep people interested.

A friend recently returned from a holiday in Sri Lanka with his family and told me that he had ordered a vehicle for a 10-day tour and a guide. What turned up was a new vehicle and a driver immaculately dressed in civvies. Where’s the guide, they asked. “I’m your guide, Sir, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know wherever you go,” the driver had replied in perfect English. And James, as he asked them to call him, was true to his word. On the trip, they discovered that besides being trained as a guide and a driver, he kept regularly reading about all the tourist destinations and their histories. And that had helped him to collect so many stories to make visitors interested in what they saw. When will we ever get such a service?

Many years ago, I had conducted a few lectures for aspiring tourist guides in Madras. At the end of it I gave them a simple exam. One of my questions was what do you know about Elihu Yale. Almost to a person they answered he was a Governor in Fort St. George and founded Yale University in America. I hope a few readers of this column can do better and keep visitors on a Yale Trail interested.

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When they got the vote

Sundari Doss wants to know when women got the right to vote in Tamil Nadu. I’m on dangerous ground here, but if I am not wrong this was another Madras ‘first’. Madras Province was the first province in India to offer women the franchise, limited though it was initially. That was in 1921. Bombay followed suit. But it was to be 1929 before other provinces offered women the right.

The appeal for women’s franchise appears to have been spearheaded by Annie Besant who led a team, which included Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Rukmini Arundale, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Rukmini Lakshmipathy, to meet the Montagu-Chelmsford Commission. The 1919 Act, resulting from the Commission’s recommendations, granted Indian women the right to vote but with restrictions based on age and property. It empowered Provincial legislatures to do the same. And Madras showed the way.

The Madras Legislative Council established in 1921, enacted legislation in 1926, following the lead of the Government of India, to enable women to contest elections and sit in the legislature. The first two women in Madras to stand for election were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Hannah Angelo. Both were defeated quite comfortably, but the Women’s Indian Association called for women’s representation in the House and they succeeded in their appeal. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was nominated by the Governor of Madras to the Legislative Council in 1926. She was the first Indian woman to be a legislator and when she was unanimously elected Vice-President (Deputy Speaker) of the Council she became the first woman in the world to hold such office.

This was just one more achievement in which Madras showed the way to India and it is such pioneering that Madras Day/Week celebrates.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 3:42:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/madras-miscellany/article7546955.ece

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