The strong voices from our South


Nivedita Louis holds out a burning torch for the pioneering women of South India, who have contributed so immensely to various fields, from law to engineering, to the civil services and health.

It is time to shatter some myths. Say, for instance something like, “Women of South India are conservative, subdued and submissive”. That is of course the biggest myths of all times. The South has produced some of the most pioneering women that we see today, starting from Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi to Gita Gopinath, the Chief Economist of IMF. How did all this happen? What was the state of women in South a hundred years ago? The research into lives of women a century ago threw up so many surprises that left me spellbound. The country’s first woman engineer, doctor, chartered accountant, veterinary doctor, neuro-surgeon, cardiologist, mayor, ambassador, civil service officer, English novelist, pilot, editor of a woman’s magazine, head of Botanical Society of India, head of Central Social Welfare Board- you name her, South has produced her!

A women’s magazine that inspires

What piqued me was a passing mention of Kamala Sathianathan, the pioneering woman who started, edited and successfully ran the country’s first women’s magazine – The Indian Ladies Magazine. Further research into her story led me to the famed Connemara Library of Chennai where I could lay my hands on the practically unknown magazine! Each page I turned, there popped up a woman. One playing tennis donning a saree, a whole bunch of women holding babies and seated with tennis racquets by their feet, one posing inside a cockpit, and another holding a gun and posing with a slain cheetah. Fascinated would be a misnomer. Awestruck, I started digging deeper, and slowly emerged faces of women who rose above the mundane.

Take for instance India’s first woman engineer A. Lalitha. Married as a 15-year-old and widowed with a child when she was barely 18, the girl needed all the push her father could give to pursue education. Pappu Subba Rao, the father, urged the girl to enter the College of Engineering, Guindy, as its first woman student. He even put up an advertisement in a leading daily to lure more girls into the college! The ploy worked, and Lalitha passed out of engineering college with two other pioneering women. She travelled all over the world and went on to design generators for Bhakra-Nangal Dam! All this because her father believed his daughter would be successful if she took up education as a weapon against the society that tried to oppress her. All this happened in the 1930s, when the society wanted the frail girl to sit at home, enduring the long widowhood.

The pioneering women from South

A botanist, a convict, and other stories

Circumstances were much different for E.K. Janakiammal, the first Director General of Botanical Survey of India. The woman after whom a flower species has been botanically named – Kobus Janakiammal – she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in Botany in the United States! And this was in 1931! Born into an affluent family, the affluence and richness didn’t protect her from the male chauvinism that meddled with her fledgling career that took off in India. Posted to the sugarcane breeding center at Coimbatore, her research papers sat on the table of her superiors, gathering dust for years. The patriarchy shooed her back to England where she continued her research on genetically modified magnolia flowers, to invent a new variety, that was named after her. It was sheer luck that placed her on the same flight with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who invited her back to India to work for the country. The lady who had to take cover from patriarchy, marched back into the country, and how well she did! She reorganised the Botanical Survey of India, built the set-up from scratch, and till she died, she continued her research on medicinal plants.

The story of R. Sivabhogam is equally inspiring. A released convict from prison who was arrested for her involvement in India’s freedom struggle, started for her native place in Kerala for her purported ‘marriage’, in 1930. No one was interested in marrying a convict, and her being slightly handicapped, didn’t help the cause either. A determined Sivabhogam caught a train to Madras, keeping in mind Swami Vivekananda’s teaching – “Keep faith in self!” A few years later when she had doggedly pursued her studies in accountancy and articleship, came the next obstacle, a government ban on practicing chartered accountancy by those who had been convicted. Sivabhogam approached the courts unfazed. After a few more years of struggle, she finally got the nod to practice. The first woman auditor of the country had to file a suit to begin practice!

In 1948, when C.B. Muthamma, the first Indian woman cleared the Indian Civil Services viva, she was asked for options. She readily mouthed her favourite choice – Indian Foreign Service. Despite the low marks awarded to her, she did indeed enter service, and worked with gusto, until road blocks hit her career after three long decades. Muthamma had to file a suit against the Government, charging she was overlooked for promotion because she was a woman. She also argued that this discrimination was evident in the rules that permitted Government to terminate services of married women civil service officers if it feels her marriage will hamper her work. The court finally pulled up the Government against this discrimination and women were then treated at par with men in service, thanks to Muthamma! This happened in 1979. The court chided the Government for practicing gender bias, even after thirty years into Independence.

The ladies with a heart

Padmavati Sivaramakrishnan, the country’s first woman cardiologist’s story is another of grit and determination. Born in a wealthy family in Burma, Padmavati, who was pursuing her medical studies in Rangoon had 24 hours – notice to leave her country, as the Second World War had started. The women folk of the house including Padmavati caught the earliest possible flight and landed up in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. Under tremendous pressure, Padmavati continued to study, her passion for cardiology taking her to England for further studies. This pioneering woman is the back bone of cardiology in India. Her continuous efforts led to opening of dedicated wards for cardiology in leading hospitals of the capital, and Asia’s first foundation for heart disease – All India Heart Foundation, in 1962! It was only her passion that led her to scale such heights!

We know of women who have been awarded Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. But all the three to one woman? Mary Clubwala Jadhav was an industrious Parsi woman of Madras, married to Nogi Clubwala when she turned 18 and widowed ten years later. With a little son to take care of, Mary did something that none of us would dare to – hit the streets with a passion. She moved all over the city, tending to orphaned children, sick adults, convalescing aged ones, and poor women. When World War II tremors hit Madras, Mary plunged into active service through Guild of Service, providing “meals on wheels” to the soldiers, providing moral support to them, tending to the injured in the hospitals. She was rightly called “Darling of the army” by General Kariappa. The philanthropist opened Madras’s first college of social work – the Madras School of Social Work in 1952. Love bloomed again in her life, and Mary married Major Chandrakant Jadhav. Though she lost her only son Phil, she continued to build a hall for the Parsi Anjuman in Madras. Recognising her yeomen service, the Government awarded her all the three Padma awards.

The little girl was a tiny 12-year-old when she attended the first meeting of Gandhi at Waltair. She was so impressed by the Mahatma that she came home, burned her party frocks, and took up the task of educating children around the household. Her “Balika Hindi Patshala” coached and trained children in Hindi, and she remained its Principal, till she was 21 years of age and moved to Madras. Durgabai Deshmukh, the illustrious lady was arrested repeatedly, for participating in India’s freedom struggle, and it was in prison that she decided she would learn law to support the women unjustly arrested and convicted without legal support. She was the oldest woman to sit for Bar exam, and it was her law practice that brought her closer to the women when she started the Andhra Mahila Sabha. The Sabha has now branched out to about 50 institutions now, providing health care and education to women and children.

The women of the past century stand tall and proud as icons of persistence and perseverance showing us the modern women the path to tread on with ease. Their journey is our lesson and our journeys will be for the next generation. Women of those days were not conservative, but they had to fight tougher battles to claim their space as career women in this society. They deserve our attention and of course, respect!

Nivedita Louis

Nivedita Louis is a writer, blogger and social activist by choice. Bitten by the travel bug, and smitten by nature, she loves travelling and cooking. She blogs at