Sarojini Varadappan, veteran social activist and daughter of Tamil Nadu’s last Congress Chief Minister M. Bakthavatsalam, passed away at a private hospital here on Thursday after a brief illness. She was 92.
Jayanthi Natarajan, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, is her niece. As Ms. Varadappan had no children, her nephew Sridhar performed the last rites.
Associated with a number of organisations, especially those working in the areas of women’s welfare and empowerment, Ms. Varadappan belonged to those genre of activists who would prefer silent and undaunted work.
Born in September 1921, she was initiated into public life early in her life. She joined the Women’s India Association (WIA) in 1941.
When Mahatma Gandhi came to Chennai in 1946 to participate in the silver jubilee celebrations of the Hindi Prachar Sabha, she was one of the volunteers posted on duty. In her interview to this paper several years later, Ms. Varadappan recalled how Gandhiji, after the prayer meeting, sat along with the volunteers, who would have to count meticulously the day’s collections of money from the public. “I learnt that social service was not easy, and that accountability was important right down to the last paisa,” she had said.
As she went on to associate herself closely with the WIA, eminent women public figures including Muthulakshmi Reddy, Durgabai Deshmukh, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Lakshmi Menon inspired and guided her. Later, she became the president of the WIA, All India Women’s Conference, All India Women’s Central Food Council, Indian Red Cross Society (Tamil Nadu branch) and many other bodies. In the early 1950s, her role in the establishment of Annapoorna Cafeterias (no-profit cafeterias) in many parts of the city is still remembered by many old residents of Chennai.
When Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Chennai in 1963 to collect gold for the defence fund, she, as the chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board, collected 2,000 sovereigns. She set an example by gifting her 22 sovereign waist-band (‘oddiyanam’). Ten years later, she headed the Central Social Welfare Board and held the post for four years.
For a person who had to discontinue SSLC because elders in the family would not like a girl to go to school on attaining puberty, Ms. Varadappan went on to pursue her studies as a private student. At the age of 60, she got a postgraduate degree in political science and another PG degree in Vaishnavism. When she got Ph.D. in Vaishnavism, she was 80.
A recipient of several honours and awards, she was conferred Padma Shri in 1973 and Padma Bhushan in 2009. In 1983, she became Sheriff of Madras, the post which no longer exists.
Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president B.S. Gnanadesikan and Indian Union Muslim League State unit chief K.M. Khader Mohideen condoled her death.