India does not have a proud record when it comes to treatment of women and its handling of widows is perhaps one of the blackest chapters in human history. Among the various social reformers who fought this was Sister RS Subbalakshmi Her revolution turns a 100 in July 2012, and the Ice House was the venue for her triumph.
Subbalakshmi, born on 18th August 1886, was widowed at the age of twelve. Her parents, in the teeth of social opposition continued with her education. In 1911, she graduated from the Presidency College. She resolved to be a sister to all widows and made that word a prefix to her name. In 1912, well-to-do women of Egmore formed the Sarada Ladies Union to set up a home for Brahmin widows and Sister, on being approached for help, readily agreed. By July, a house was, a reading room well stocked with books was put in.
Sister joined the Government’s Education Service and was asked to handle the Triplicane Government Secondary and Training School (TGSTS). The widows home therefore moved from Egmore to TP Koil Street, Triplicane and the inmates were educated at the TGSTS. Their number kept increasing and soon a new home had to be found. The Ice House, by then its association with refrigeration long over, was empty. It had hosted Swami Vivekananda briefly in 1897, and had changed hands several times. In 1915, the Government purchased it for Rs 80,000 and handed it over to Sister. It became the Widows Home.
In her work, Sister was not alone. Her widowed aunt Valambal was to be of immense help as were women members of the Education Service – Miss Christina Lynch (Mrs Drysdale) and Miss Mildred Prager. In 1920, Sister set up a school for the children of the fisherfolk who lived near the beach. The Kuppam School as it was called began in Ice House. It was renamed the Lady Willingdon High School after the then Governor’s wife and in 1922 it moved into premises next door where it still functions from. Sister, in 1927, established the Sarada Vidyalaya in neighbouring Venkatarangam Pillai Street. In 1938, this was handed over to the Ramakrishna Mission, which shifted the school to Mambalam and later T Nagar. Sister was to found several educational institutions all over Madras Presidency. Her last creation was Vidya Mandir School, Mylapore, in 1956. She also served as a member of the Legislative Council from 1952 to 1956.
By the time Sister died in 1969, widows did not need special homes. Those whom she had uplifted had become teachers, nurses and doctors and carried the message forward. More and more widows joined the mainstream. The Widows Home became a hostel for TGSTS, which had metamorphosed into the Lady Willingdon Institute for Higher Education. By the late 1980s, Ice House was empty once more. In 1999, the building was handed over to the Ramakrishna Mutt, which converted it into a memorial for Swami Vivekananda.
This article appeared in The Hindu today in the Hidden Histories Column