Women of steel

On Independence Day, Akila Kannadasan turns the pages of history and talks to two Chennai-ites who have vivid memories of women involved in the struggle…

August 14, 2013 07:59 pm | Updated 07:59 pm IST - CHENNAI



They fought against the British, went to prison, instilled new energy in the nation through their songs and words… Sadly, the women who participated in the Freedom Movement are not well-known. Engammal from Tirunelveli, Kaliammal from Madurai, Kuppammal from Tiruchi, Kuttiammal from Coimbatore…the list is endless.


Sri Ambujam,

“I was delighted to read your letter. After a length of time, the sight of your letter gave me the joy experienced by a father on seeing his daughter….why is your mind troubled. Write to me.”

Bapu’s blessings

Ambujammal was 36 years old when she received this letter. As the daughter of advocate Srinivasa Iyengar, Ambujammal led a privileged life. But she gave up all material comforts because of one man — Gandhiji. Born in 1898, Ambujammal became his follower ever since she met him when he came to Madras in the 1920s. “She gave away her diamonds and silks for the Harijan Welfare Fund when she visited Sevagram,” recalls Sarojini Varadappan, for whom Ambujammal was a ‘mentor’. Over 90 years old, the ailing social worker recalls how she, along with Ambujammal, gave free Hindi classes in a tiny room off Royapettah High Road before Independence.

Ambujammal actively participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement and boycotted foreign goods and clothes — she was even imprisoned twice for six months in 1932. She dedicated her life to the cause of India’s freedom and inspired several women to do the same. Women’s welfare was at the top of her agenda. She set up the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam in 1948 at Teynampet where free milk, medicines and kanji (gruel) were given to the needy. Ambujammal was known for her simplicity. Akkamma, as she was lovingly called, dressed in khadi and wore nothing but a strand of beads around her neck.


There was something terrible in store for Sornathammal on the night of October 2, 1942. She, along with fellow freedom fighter Lakshmi Bai Ammal, organised a women’s march in Madurai shouting the ‘Vellaiyane Veliyeru’ (Quit India) slogan. The women were arrested by the police and beaten. They were stripped and left outside in the dead of night near Alagarkoil. But Sornathammal was a woman with a heart of steel — the episode failed to shake her resolve to fight for the nation. She participated in Individual Satyagraha and was jailed for three months in 1942. Ever the patriot, the book Madurai Mavatta Sudhanthira Poratta Varalaru by S. N. Somayajulu mentions that Sornathammal spent long hours at the charka spinning khadi.

Padmavathy Asher

Whenever Gandhiji visited Tirupur, he stayed at the Asher household. Padmavathy Asher, the woman of the house, was a genial host. According to Viduthalai Velviyil Thamizhagam , during his first visit to Tirupur in 1925, Gandhiji invited Padmavathy to join the Congress. Thus began her journey with the Freedom Movement. She went on to become an All India Congress Committee member and the treasurer of the All India Mahila Congress. Padmavathy first courted arrest in 1930 for participating in the Salt Satyagraha Movement. She was later jailed for a year for taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement. Padmavathy fought against untouchability and alcoholism, and spread Gandhiji’s message and helped propagate the Khadi Movement among the people in Tirupur.

Padmasani Ammal

Padmasani Ammal delivered a baby girl in the village of Papparapatti, Dharmapuri District, when she was participating in a Cauvery yatra. But the baby didn’t survive. Again she was three months pregnant when she was imprisoned for speaking against the police at a campaign in Madurai, which resulted in a miscarriage. But nothing, not even the death of her two sons, came in the way of her fighting against the British. Known for her fiery speeches, Padmasani sent off her husband with a garland and tilak when he went to prison for picketing toddy shops. She offered her jewellery to youngsters led by S. N. Somayajulu who wanted to bring down British colonel James Neil’s statue on Mount Road in 1927 — the agitation was known as ‘Neil Statue Satyagraha’. Viduthalai Velviyil Thamizhagam mentions that she set up a school at Manamadurai for the less-privileged in 1935, on the insistence of Gandhiji.


Manjubhashini fell in love with Gandhiji’s principles as a young girl. She shook off the comforts of a wealthy life to join his fight for freedom. She burned foreign goods on Thambu Chetty Street in the city with Durgabai Deshmukh, rehabilitated Indians forced out of Burma in a camp in Madras in the early 1940s…Courting arrest for the country was nothing new for her. N. Gandhimathi, who knew her from the time she was eight, recalls how ‘Manjuma’ was like Gandhiji to her. “She was responsible for all the arrangements for Gandhiji’s prayer meeting held at Hindi Prachar Sabha during 1942-43,” she says. Manjubhashini worked meticulously to create a home for abandoned children in the city. Called Bala Mandir, she got it registered with the encouragement of K. Kamaraj in 1949. Even today, the home runs successfully in T. Nagar. The bust of Manjubashini can be seen on the premises of Bala Mandir.

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