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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 24, April 1-15, 2011
Madras's first Hindu woman graduate
(By Dr. Shantha Sundari)

• Remembering the first Hindu woman, a widow, who 100 years ago this year, received the B.A. degree at the University of Madras.

In order to appreciate the extraordinary achievements of Sister Subbalakshmi in the cause of women and child widows, we have to visualise the background of conservative and orthodox customs of the Brahmins of South India in those days. Widows, often child-widows, led the most pitiable lives in houses where they were treated as unpaid servants and inauspicious outcasts. Their heads were shorn of hair (after puberty in the case of child-widows) and covered tightly with their white sarees. They were forbidden to attend all festivities and forced to subsist on one plain meal a day.

It was in this milieu that Subbalakshmi was born in 1886. Her father, R.V. Subramania Iyer, was a civil engineer and, later, a professor in the Teachers’ College. Her mother, Visalakshi, and her widowed and disfigured aunt, ‘Chitty’, were both remarkably learned, and instilled in the child all that was best of India’s great culture.

Sister Subbalakshmi

Subbalakshmi, when she was nine, passed the fourth class public examination, standing first in Chinglepet District. When she was just eleven, she was forced by custom to marry a boy whom she had never seen before. She did not see him properly even during the wedding ceremony, which meant nothing to her. She was happy and thrilled to possess her beautiful wedding saree, but she was destined never to wear it again. A few weeks later the news of her husband’s death had to be broken to her gently. But her parents and Chitty protected her from the numerous mourners who streamed in to pity her for the terrible fate that was then in store for the little widow. Her parents hid their own grief and did not ever speak of the dead boy again. They decided she should never be allowed to realise the life-long punishment that awaited her.

Her parents and Chitty made the great decision to educate her first at home and later in school, braving the cruel opposition of relatives. For her sake, the family moved to a house just opposite the only girls’ school in Madras at that time, in Egmore. It was a great strain for her father to travel daily from Egmore to his college in Saidapet, on a solid tyred bicycle. But, he was prepared to sacrifice his all for his daughter.

Soon Subbalakshmi passed her Matriculation with honours in every subject. Then she joined the Presentation Convent in Black Town to pass her F.A. She won two gold medals. Though the nuns made her read The Bible, they were not able to convert her to Christianity. She was a staunch Hindu and could recite the whole of the Bhaga­vad Gita and was well-versed in the Hindu scriptures.

Next she joined Presidency College for higher studies. For the first time in her life, she had to study with male students. She felt miserable not only during the journey in a rickshaw, hiding herself with an umbrella from inquisitive and evil-tongued scandal-mongers, but also during class hours when the boys insisted on teasing and tormenting the girl students. Eventually, in spite of such handicaps and against terrific opposition and even risk of excommunication from the community, she passed her B.A. in 1911 with First Class, outshining all the men students of the year. She had made history, as her name appeared in the newspapers as the first Hindu woman, and a widow at that, to pass the B.A. examination.

Many states invited her, offering high salaries, to educate their women and girls. But Sister, as she was thenceforth called by her students and friends, preferred to teach in her old school in Egmore. While teaching she studied for and passed the L.T. examination.

From her days in the Convent, Sister’s ambition had been to save other young widows from their cruel fate and make them independent, self-supporting and useful. Even before she qualified, she took a child widow into her household and started teaching her. Soon, she and her parents persuaded three more child-widows to join them. About that time there was a new Inspectress of Girls’ Schools, Miss Lynch, who was eager to educate young widows and make them teachers. She happened to meet Sister and her father and, so, with her help Sister was able to open a Widows’ Home in Egmore with six widows under her care. Chitty, who cooked and cared for them, was to be a tower of strength to Sister during her next twenty years of selfless sacrifice.

Miss Lynch was able to coax the Madras Government to take over the Widows’ Home and to open a new High School for Girls in Triplicane. The Widows’ Home was shifted to Triplicane. (Miss) M.F. Prager was the Superintendent of the new school and Sister was made the Headmistress of the Training Section.

It was very difficult to get a decent building to house the widows. It was a stroke of luck when the Ice House on the Marina was offered for sale and Miss Lynch got the Govern­ment’s sanction to buy it for the Widows’ Home. Sister and Chitty settled there with thirty widows, who spent all their time getting an education. Sister loved the girls but, at the same time, was a strict disciplinarian, insisting that they follow orthodox and religious principles in their daily lives. Otherwise, the Widows’ Home might have been ruined at that early stage, for the orthodox Brahmins of Triplicane were eagerly waiting to find fault with Sister and to spread ugly rumours about the Widows’ Home. But, Sister was determined to succeed.

The institution grew and there were more than 100 widows staying and studying in the Home. Most of them passed their S.S.L.C. and were trained as teachers and nurses. Many continued their studies in Queen Mary’s College and passed their B.A., M.A. and L.T. degrees and became lecturers, headmistresses and inspectresses of girls’ schools. A few even became doctors and auditors. In every corner of South India, you could meet Sister’s old students, in turn, spreading her gospel and helping their unfortunate sisters to become educated and self-supporting.

In 1920, Sister was astonished when she was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind gold medal in recognition of her service to the women and girls of Madras Presidency.

After the Great War, Government started restricting scholarships for widows. Only widows under 15 years were admitted in the Ice House hostel. But there were older widows, and girls whose husbands had deserted them, who were very keen on studying. So, Sister, with the help of the Sarada Ladies’ Union, which she had founded in 1912 and which had by then become a large and useful organisation, started the Sarada Home and, later, the Sarada Vidyalaya with its own training section and model school. This institution soon became too big for the Ladies’ Union to manage and Sister approached the Rama­krishna Mission authorities who gladly agreed to her suggestion, on the understanding that she would continue to supervise them as Secretary for the rest of her life.

Sister then started the Sarada Ladies’ Club and Reading Room in Mylapore, the Kala Nilayam for older girls and married women to study for the S.S.L.C. course privately, and also schools for fisherfolk in Madras and Cuddalore.

While she was in Government service, Sister was not permitted to join the Women’s Indian Association. But, in her own way, she did much propaganda, using her fluency in Tamil, to abolish child marriage and to encourage girls’ education.

After retirement she took a leading part in the activities of the Women’s Indian Association, becoming a close friend of Dr. Annie Besant and Mrs. Cousins. She became a Member of the Legislative Council in Rajaji’s time. And the Indian Government conferred the Padma Shri on her.

People felt Sister deserved much greater recognition. But she had never cared for recognition or publicity. She continued her service to the poor and helpless women to the day of her death on December 20, 1969.

In this issue

Freebies do not create better cities – or citizens
Do we need white elephants for Metro stations?
Snake worship
100 years of a 'ladies only' club
Madras's first Hindu woman graduate
Other stories

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