Phenomenal woman


Wing Commander (Retd.) Dr. Vijayalakshmi Ramanan, who passed away recently in Bengaluru, was a true Indian icon. Her niece Prema Viswanathan recounts how the first woman commissioned officer of the Indian Air Force was a woman of substance who excelled in everything she took up – from medicine to music and cooking to knitting.

When Dr Vijayalakshmi Ramanan (or Viji, as she is known in her family) was growing up, her role models were Sarojini Naidu and Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. Not surprising, as both Naidu and Reddy were strongly independent women, much like Viji herself.

Sarojini Naidu, whose poetry earned her the sobriquet, ‘Nightingale of India’, was also a firebrand political activist and a proponent of women’s emancipation. And several decades before Viji became the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Indian Air Force, retiring as Wing Commander, Dr Reddy had broken a glass ceiling of her own by becoming the first woman surgeon to work in a government hospital in Tamil Nadu, braving social stigma. I am not elaborating on Viji’s much-publicised achievements as an Air Force officer and gynaecologist, as they are detailed in the documentary film, The Devi Project.

An inspiration to the family

Viji was something of a legend in our family (she was my mother’s cousin), and we were all inspired by her in one way or another. When her grand-daughter, Prianca Ramanan, decided to join medical school in Boston, Viji was thrilled beyond measure. Says Prianca, “During my childhood visits to Bangalore, Ammamma would tell me stories about her days as an OB/Gyn, and it was those stories that solidified my own ambitions of following in her footsteps. I admired her work ethic, her independence, and most of all, her warmth, qualities I hope to develop in myself some day.”

Wing Commander (retd) Dr. Vijayalakshmi Ramanan

Yet Viji had the prescience to not insist that her own children emulate her career choice and was proud of their accomplishments. Her daughter, Sukanya Narayan, took up counselling, later branching off into social service, while her son, Sukmar Ramanan, became an engineer and a successful professional in the US.

Viji instilled in her children a work ethic, service-mindedness and honesty that sometimes made her unpopular among her colleagues. Says Sukanya, “She didn’t understand the need for diplomacy. She would not brook any mediocrity in patient care and was very blunt and forthright about it. Hence the only people who loved her at her workplace were her patients and their families. And they would do anything for her.”

Sukmar speaks about his mother’s uncompromising work ethic and drive for perfection. “Sleep was never a priority with her. She would have just returned from an emergency case early in the morning. She would promptly shower, get back into her uniform and report back to duty as if it were a normal day.”

The lifestyle was sometimes quite hard on the children. Sukanya recalls how annoyed they would get when during the rare movie outings a message would flash on the screen asking their mum to leave immediately for the hospital…Or when war was declared in 1966 and they had to cut short their summer vacation in Bangalore and rush back to Secunderabad where she was based.

Graduating from Madras Medical College;

Viji was a strict disciplinarian, at home as at work. When she found out that her 14-year-old son was giving the neighbourhood kids in Bangalore rides on his grandfather’s Suvega Moped, she promptly persuaded her father-in-law to sell the vehicle.

Those who had close encounters with Viji during her early years recall the independence of spirit and clarity of mind that made her stand apart. “She was always very precise in her speech and knew what she wanted,” says TM Mahadevan, a geologist and musician and Viji’s nephew, who, at 94, is just two years younger than she was when she died this October. She excelled in everything she took up, whether it was medicine or music, he says. “For a woman from our community (in South India) to take up medicine during that time was not just unusual, it took a lot of courage. There were women doctors who had been ostracized earlier because they chose the profession.”

Viji’s father, TD Narayana Iyer, recognised the aptitude and potential in his daughter and encouraged her to join Madras Medical College, where she was the only woman student in her class. But she took it in her stride and passed out with flying colours. It was at this college that she met her future partner, Dr KV Ramanan, who supported her in everything she did, including her entry in 1955 into the Indian Air Force, where he was also working at the time. Unfortunately, he died very young, in 1971, leaving Viji to take care of her teenage children. However, she received strong support from her father-in-law, a retired doctor himself, and her mother-in-law, with whom she shared, among other things, a passion for board games.

A Renaissance woman

Despite holding her own in a world dominated by male doctors, Viji was very much at home pursuing so-called ‘feminine’ interests such as cooking and knitting. She did not perceive any gender-bias in these pursuits. Sukmar recalls learning to knit from his mum, even as his wife, Chitra, rhapsodises over her mother-in-law’s culinary talents. And Viji’s nephew, CM Venkatachalam, a scientist-turned-musician, talks of how she took him along when he was a child to the local store in Chennai to buy yarn and a pair of needles which he promptly put to use.

Dr. Vijayalakshmi on her 90th birthday

Music was another passion the nephew imbibed from his talented and beautiful aunt. “Viji was a perfect vocalist. Let us not forget she was the grand-daughter of Thodi Doraiswamy Iyer (a renowned lawyer and musician whose piece-de-resistance was his exposition of Thodi raga). I remember as a seven-year-old telling her, ‘Viji, you sing like MS (Subbulakshmi) and NC Vasanthakokilam.’ On Friday evenings, there would be bhajans at the home of Lalithadasar (a well-known composer) and Viji would take me along. So she was in a sense, my first music teacher.” My sister, Radhika Viswanathan, who, along with Sukanya, learnt music from Viji, explains the alchemy behind her teaching style: “She was particular we didn’t write down the lyrics or the swaras of the keerthanams. She was insistent that we memorise them so that we were not distracted but could let the music flow through us. She would bring out the nuance of a raga and embed it within us.”

Viji could easily have pursued music as a career, having been selected as an A-grade artiste at All India Radio – a rare honour for a 15-year-old. She tried hard to juggle her demanding day (and sometimes night) job with music broadcasts, but had to give it up eventually after she became the sole bread-winner for the family. Her younger sister, Bala Narasimhan, a music teacher based in Canada, remembers with awe how Viji would persuade their father to allow her to learn some krithis from acclaimed artistes such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and GN Balasubramaniam (popularly known as GNB) when they would visit their home in Thanjavur. Mahadevan also marvels at Viji’s capacity to sing a composition after just hearing it once or twice.

Viji once mentioned to me the immense joy she experienced when she was invited by Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi to sing patriotic songs whenever they organised a gathering in Chennai.

Viji took vicarious pride in her grandson, Rohan’s decision to pursue music as a career. And he is just as appreciative of the role she played in kickstarting his musical journey, by narrating to him anecdotes from her experiences as a Carnatic vocalist when he was just a child. Viji had a great rapport with not just her four doting grandchildren but even the wives of Sukanya’s two sons. Indeed, when Viji moved in with her daughter and son-in-law Narayan seven years ago because of health issues, their sons were forthcoming with their love and support. ‘They were always more like sons to my mum than grandsons’, says Sukanya. And not to be underestimated is the quiet but immense contribution of Narayan in making Viji’s life comfortable and hassle-free.

It was always open house in Viji’s home, I recall. But Viji’s warmth and generosity extended beyond her near and dear to concerns that were close to her heart. Year after year, she quietly made contributions towards cancer treatment, cataract surgery, education of underprivileged children, e-learning initiatives in villages, among many others.

In a nutshell, Viji was a true Renaissance woman in an age dominated by patriarchy, an epitome of the ideals her idol, Sarojini Naidu, had spelt out: “deeper sincerity of motive, greater courage in speech, and earnestness in action.”

Prema Viswanathan

Prema Viswanathan reported for leading Indian newspapers from Mumbai, Delhi and Singapore in the 80s and 90s, later switching focus from mainstream journalism to market intelligence. She is currently a writer based in Bangalore. Her recent book ‘Badri Narayan: Portrait of the Artist as Storyteller’ has been co-published by Marg Foundation and Pundole Art Gallery.