Women from history who helped shape nascent city of madras

Throughout history, the crucial role of women in society has ensured the stability, advancement and long-term progress of nations and cities. With roughly half the population of a nascent city, its true feminine contributions to politics, art and religion in the city of Madras were only in the last century or so. But in a way, women have helped shape the city even in its initial stages.
Captain Lakshmi Sehgal
Captain Lakshmi Sehgal


That the location for the city was chosen because Francis had a girlfriend in adjacent Santhome is proof enough. Also, the speculation that the wife of the French Governor-General, who had Mylapore connections through her mother, insisted that her husband capture Madras did the rounds for long.
While the world saw a slow and gradual process of expanding female rights, Madras was slightly faster. Madras recognised that gender equality is important in bringing about and sustaining long-term social change.
Much before Europe or America, Madras had admitted women in its medical colleges. At least two of the exclusive women colleges in Madras are more than a century old. Madras women had voted as early as in 1921 on a par with the most advanced democracies in the world.
Women of Madras have been doctors, politicians, engineers, scientists, religious personalities, freedom fighters and littérateurs and have had a fair share of their scandals too. No history of the city is complete without a mention of its women.
Captain Lakshmi Sehgal: INA’s Rani of Jhansi
In the early forties, a divorced 26-year-old gynaecologist, Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sehgal) from Harrington Road, Madras, hoped to set up a practice in Singapore. But it was the Second World War and the Japanese had taken Singapore. Subhash Chandra Bose dreamt of liberating his motherland with the help of the Japanese.
“I want a unit of brave Indian women to wield the sword of Rani of Jhansi…” spoke Subhash in Padang in 1943. Lakshmi obtained a mandate to set up a women’s unit — the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, an identity that would stay with her for life. She marched with the INA in the ‘Delhi Chalo’ march through Burma beginning in December 1944 but months later facing an overwhelming defeat, Captain Lakshmi was arrested by the British army in May 1945 and remained under house arrest in the jungles of Burma until March 1946, when she was sent to India.
Her incarceration and trial got immense publicity and may have aided in speeding up the Independence date. Lakshmi remained politically active for the rest of her life and was a  candidate for Presidency of Indian union in her eighties.
Rani Sita Devi of Alwarpet: India’s Wallis Simpson
The Madras racing season of 1943 had just begun. And the biggest scandal in Madras of the ’40s was about to break.
The eight richest man in the world Pratapsinh Gaekwad of Baroda had also come to race his horses in Guindy. More than the equine sprints he saw a beautiful girl who lived in Alwarpet. Though a mother of three by the time she was 25, maternity had left very little vestiges on Sita’s comeliness. Both of them forgot their marital status and fell in love. 
First Sita converted herself to a Muslim. That made divorce easy with her husband. And once unfettered, using an Arya Samaj method she became a Hindu again and married the Gaekwad. The best legal brains in the country huddled to beat the bigamy laws of the Presidency and Baroda state. The British would not accept the marriage and the Madrasi prime minister of Baroda resigned in protest.
Tired of all this snubbing, the couple chose Monaco — which was untouched by the World War II — bought a mansion, and settled there.
Freedom for India and subsequent annexation of princely states with the Indian union were soon inevitable. Sita shrewdly had all the precious stones in the most well-stocked treasury in India taken away to Europe. 
Indian auditors found very little to match the inventory in the palace. These included the Star of the South diamond (128.80 carat) and the English Dresden (78.53) carat. And wearing them all, Sita, whom the western media was already calling India’s Wallis Simpson, attended the social blitz in post-war Europe.
Tanjore Balasaraswati: Abhinaya colossus amongst dancers
Tanjore Balasaraswati was a colossus amongst the early hereditary Bharatanatyam dancers. It was a time when the anti-Devadasi movement was being spearheaded and the eyes of the upper caste culture groups fell on the dance of sadhir – performed by devadasis in temples and courts – as a potential art form which could be appropriated for upper castes.
She was the seventh generation of a traditional matrilineal family of devadasis who held the key to the nuances of temple-court dancing. She was trained rigorously in both singing and dance from the age of four.
Facing tough competition from the Kalakshetra and Rukmini Devi, Bala managed to keep her talent sparkling on stage and attracted international critical attention. Bala became known for her abhinaya facial expressions and was called Abhinaya Saraswati. She was a major reason Madras became capital of Bharatanatyam as it emerged.
She won many awards both national and international but perhaps her greatest recognition was when film genius Satyajit Ray made a documentary on her.
KB Sundarambal: India’s 1st film artiste-legislator
KB Sundarambal, a person gifted with a phenomenal voice, had to struggle to make it to the top. There was a version that Sundarambal was identified by a talent scout, Natesa Iyer, who saw her singing to seeking alms on a train.
Sundarambal made her debut on the Tamil stage as a member of a travelling theatre troupe and performed small roles on stage and keeping audiences entertained between acts. Soon enough, she graduated to playing leading roles on stage. Her biggest turning point was when she co-starred with the numero uno on the Tamil stage, SG Kittappa.
The couple together became very popular and a lovelorn Sundarambal was shaken when SG Kittappa died in 1933. She refused to act thereafter and decided to pursue a career as a concert artiste. 
The talkies had arrived and producers made desperate attempts to bring her on board. Hassandas, a textile magnate from Chellaram business family had to convince her with a Rs 1 lakh fee (the hero was paid Rs 3,000) to cross-dress and act as a male in Bhakta Nandanar. She was possibly the first Indian film actor to touch a six-digit fee.
Later, Gemini would make her the face of Avvaiyar, the famous Tamil poetess. Sundarambal continued to champion the freedom movement, recording several gramophone discs, extolling the struggle and became the first film artist to enter the Indian legislature.
Baby Saroja: Child star titled Shirley Temple of India
Baby Saroja acted in just three Tamil films and that too as a child star. But then she became the rage of the cinema field. With postcards and calendars and even matchbox covers carrying her picture, she became a poster girl in her own right.  Even clay dolls made in her likeliness were displayed in Tambram Navaratri Golus.
Her lullaby addressed to a doll in the film Balayogini was carried to the nook and corner of the presidency by the gramophone. Suddenly, the name Saroja became very popular for newborn girls and frocks like what she wore moved into the wardrobes of the average Indian girls Perhaps the first Bharatanatyam dance seen in Tamil movies was by Saroja for which she had to be trained by the last Devadasi of the Mylapore Kapaleeswara temple, Gowri Ammal.
She acted in Kalki’s Thyagabhoomi that was banned by the British for nationalist sentiments. Her last film was Kamadhenu in which her parents were in the lead roles. Retiring from the tinsel world at the age of 10 over 80 years ago, she is still today remembered as the ‘Shirley Temple of India’.
Story of Poompavai: Mylapore’s miracle girl who rose from ashes
The Thevaram denotes the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Saivite devotional poetry, written mostly in the 7th century. There are 796 of these songs with a total of more than 8,200 stanzas. Celestials are freely cited in these prayers and it is a rare honour for a mortal to be mentioned.
But Madras girl Poompavai is mentioned 10 times which is a record. Though technically Madras did not come about till another 1,000 years, Poompavai belonged to the village of Mylapore within the geographical limits of later Madras.
Poompavai was bitten by a snake and succumbed. But her father Sivanesan preserved her ashes hoping for a miracle. When poet-saint Gnanasambandar arrived in Mylapore he was offered the pot of ashes to revive.
The saint, in his song, mentions the various festivals of the lord Kapaleeshwara temple of Mylapore and Poompavai, while tempting her to arise from the ashes and witness the celebrations.
At the end of the tenth stanza, the miracle happened and Poompavai arose from the dead. The event is commemorated in a separate shrine in Mylapore temple.
Thavamani Devi: ‘Vamp’ behind early MeToo movement
To her credit, she acted in the first Tamil movie to be censored for an excessive show of skin. But then Thavamani Devi not only wore the skimpy costumes but had also designed them, and in the introductory press meet, she distributed photos of her in a bikini. All this at a time when it was even tough to get a heroine in the forties and most local women refused to be sullied by the eye of unknown audiences.
Jungle movies with a young man or woman surviving alone in the forest had caught the cinema’s fancy. Vana Mohini with Jaffna-born Thavamani was a massive hit, but the censor board wasn’t enamoured of her revealing Hawaiian-style sarong costume. Thavamani’s roles were thereafter set. She played the vamp in most of her movies. Except once when she played Sita in the film Vedavathi.
To add some spice to a then-unknown MGR’s first movie as a hero, Thavamani was added in Rajakumari which launched the Puratchi Thalaivar.
Outspoken Thavamani was also the first Tamil heroine to start the MeToo movement and talk openly about the existing casting couch situations and was sidelined. The glamour girl married a priest from Rameshwaram and spent the rest of her life quietly.
Margaret Elizabeth Cousins: Musician whom city adopted
Irish-born Margaret Elizabeth Cousins, a musician, moved to Madras in 1915. It was almost an exile for her because the British wanted her out for her continuous tirade against the government in support of the vote for women. (The final straw was when she threw stones at the residence of the Liberal prime minister.) In 1915, she taught English in the new theosophical Madanapalle College. During Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to the Madanapalle College, he recited his poem, then known as Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata. The song enthralled the college students and Margaret asked Tagore to clarify the connotation of each line and using his tune as the base rewrote the music to extract the best modulation to the accompaniment of some unpretentious musical instruments. Margaret then rendered the song to the new tune she had composed in the presence of Tagore. This happened long before the song was chosen as the anthem or even before there was any surety that India would ever become free. The tune was changed later to a more martial tone at the request of Nehru. Margaret, hit by paralysis, spent her last years in Adyar with support from a grateful Indian government.
— The author is a historian

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