Meet the wonder women of Madras

Historian Nivedita Louis took Chennaiites through the journeys of women from the city who made it to the pages of history

We are clueless about the women of Madras who, a hundred years ago, fought societal norms to live a life of choice. They broke barriers of tradition and opinion so they could sing in public, do plant and weather research, run magazines, make movies, pass progressive laws.

They enriched their own lives and empowered those of others. When historian Nivedita Louis retold the riveting chronicles of ‘Wonder Women of Madras’ with pictures, songs and clippings at the Arkay auditorium, the stunned audience asked: how come we didn’t know?

Meet the wonder women of Madras

A mother of invention

Picking names was tough, said Louis. For instance, Anna Modayil Mani, born in Peermede in 1918, was eight when she refused diamond earrings as a wedding gift and asked for a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. At 13, she met Gandhi during the Vaikom agitation and switched to khadi. Graduated in Physics from Presidency College, joined Sir CV Raman at IISc and wrote a PhD dissertation on luminescence.

In 1948, she joined IMD Pune, fashioned the rain gauge, thermograph, barometer, anemometer to suit Indian weather conditions, taught design, construction, calibration, maintenance, and headed the Instrumentation Department. In 1969, she became the Deputy Director-General of IMD (Indian Ocean experiments), worked in solar radiation measurement and wind energy, developed the pyranometer, pyrgeometer, safe-landing equipment for four airports, and wrote two books!

Flowers and cytogenetics

EK Janaki Ammal, born in 1897, refused marriage to a cousin, left for Michigan University in 1925, and became the first Indian woman to earn a doctorate in Botany in the US. She pursued cytogenetics, cross-bred Janaki brengal (brinjal), a variety with three pairs of chromosomes.

She stayed at John Innes Institute, London a year, met researcher CD Darlington and had an affair with him. In a letter to him, she wrote, “I am a born wanderer.”

Meet the wonder women of Madras

Between 1932 and 1940, she moved to Coimbatore and cross-bred Indian and Papuan species of sugarcane, to make co-cane. She told Darlington that TS Venkatraman, head of the institute, stopped it from being published in Nature due to caste/gender bias.

Disgusted, she returned to England in 1940, lived on war rations, co-authored Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with Darlington and developed a new magnolia species (Kobus Janaki Ammal) which can be seen in Wisley Park.

When she took up the post of Director-General of Botanical Survey of India in 1952, she was the first woman to head a science organisation in India. She led a protest against the establishment of Kunthipuzha station in Silent Valley, worked at the atomic station, Trombay, and was Professor Emeritus in Madras University Field Station at Maduravoyal. Before passing away in 1984, she had established a herbarium in Jammu housing 25,000 plants.

Medical history and more

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s achievements are hard to beat. Born on July 30, 1886, in Pudukkottai, she was academically brilliant as a child. When she applied for an undergraduate course in Maharaja College, Pudukkottai, a stunned principal informed her that they didn’t enroll women. The Raja of Pudukkottai, Martanda Bhairava Thondaman, stepped in and got her admission. The first woman in Pudukottai to pursue a college education (in a men’s college), she had to come in first, sit in a curtained area, and leave last.

She became the first woman doctor of India in 1912, and the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity Hospital, Madras. She co-founded the Women’s Indian Association in 1918, and as the first woman member (and vice president) of the Madras Legislative Council, she helped raise the minimum age for marriage for girls, and pushed the Council to pass the Immoral Traffic Control Act, and the devadasi system abolishment bill.

She resigned from the Council to support the salt satyagraha. When in 1930, three young devadasi girls knocked on her door, she established the Avvai Home to shelter and educate girls like them.

She made health check-ups for girls in Government schools compulsory, canvassed for a woman wing in the police force, grants to women’s institutes, and free education for girls upto Class VIII.

In 1954, she opened the Cancer Institute, a first for South India. In 1956, Dr Muthulakshmi was awarded the Padma Bhushan. She passed away in 1968 at the age of 81.

(This is the first of a two-part series on women pioneers of Chennai.)

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 6:55:41 PM |

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