I was asked to write an article for the centenary souvenir of the Women’s Indian Association. I could not do a fresh piece but they were kind enough to accept an updated version of an old article, written for Madras Musings in 2004. As this never was featured on the blog, I am updating it here. Sister is of course no stranger to this blog but each time I think of her, I remain spellbound. Much of the material for this article is from Monica Felton’s book, A Child Widow’s Story.

Sister RS Subbalakshmi

In Tamil Nadu, the name Subbulakshmi would invariably bring to mind MSS, that singer supreme. But equally worthy of commemoration is another, who spelt her name as Subbalakshmi and called herself Sister. She was in every way a sister to all women who were widowed early. That was a fate that meant being consigned to a useless existence in the Madras of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sister was born into a family of broadminded men and orthodox women in 1886. Her family comprised her father, Subramania Iyer, working at the Government Agricultural College, then in Saidapet, her mother, Visalakshi, and a widowed aunt (with shaven head), Valambal or Chitthi. Sister was the eldest among four girls all conceived in the hope that at least one would be a boy. Sister’s birth in itself was under pathbreaking circumstances, for it was the first time that a ‘European’ midwife, who used a pair of forceps to extract the infant, was involved in a delivery in the family. The woman who had performed this feat was no ordinary midwife either. This was Mary Dacombe Scharlieb, the first woman gynaecologist of Madras and who had just a year earlier founded the Victoria Caste and Ghosha (now Kasturba Gandhi) Hospital.

Subbalakshmi was married at the age of eleven, but lost her husband within a very short while. The marriage had not been consummated. She was thus destined to be a virgin widow. However, her father, aided and abetted by her Chitthi, had other plans than shaving of the head for her. Despite opposition, he decided to have his daughter educated. Having taught her all he knew by way of English and mathematics, Subramania Iyer decided to enrol her at the Presidency & Secondary Training School (P&T), Egmore. A jutka was hired to take Subbalakshmi and the daughter of another professor of the Agriculture College to Egmore every day. However, Subbalakshmi’s orthodox grandmother would have none of it. But an uncle suggested a house be taken in Egmore for Chittihi and young Subbalakshmi and, thus, Peepal Tree House, opposite the school, was acquired and became the family residence.

Subbalakshmi sat for the matriculation exams in 1905. She was one among two girls and eleven boys. When the results were announced, she had secured honours in every subject, something none of the boys had managed. The Madras Presidency was stunned, no body wanting to accept the fact that a girl had scored over boys.

The question now was what about higher eductation for Subbalakshmi. While many in the family wanted her to stay at home, Subramania Iyer, Chitthi and Subbalakshmi’s mother (who had by then become a convert to women’s education) decided to enroll her for a University degree. At the time, the Presidency College was the only institution of its kind in the city to admit women. But Subbalakshmi could not bring herself to study with so many men, so she sought admission at the Presentation Convent, George Town, to study for the FA exam.

Amidst all this, it was the plight of the Brahmin widows that caught Subbalakshmi’s attention. She would see the numerous shaven-headed women walking around, completely emaciated, with dirty white sarees barely covering their torsos. Most worked as unpaid cooks and servants in the homes of relatives, where they were given some food and certainly no healthcare or love. A visit to Benares further exposed Subbalakshmi to the fate that befell widows, and painfully aware of her own good fortune in having enlightened parents, she made up her mind that widow emancipation would be her life’s goal once she had graduated.

In 1907, Subbalakshmi cleared her FA, winning two gold medals to boot. She then overcame her earlier hesitations and joined Presidency College. But this was to be traumatic. While travelling by rickshaw from Egmore to the College – and this was almost the first time any woman in Madras had travelled alone in such transport – she would shield her face completely with a black umbrella, till she could hardly breathe, but this did not prevent the orthodox elements lining the streets and making rude remarks about the ‘pushy’ widow. The male students in her class also made fun of her, all of which resulted in her failing in her favourite mathematics in the first year at college. She shifted to Botany and continued with her studies.

The Agricultural College having shifted to Coimbatore by 1909, her parents had moved with it. There, they played host to a group of women teachers from Madras. The leader of the group was Miss Christina Lynch, an ardent English feminist. Miss Lynch felt that the education of Indian women lay in the hands of women alone and the more the women teachers the better it would be. She targeted the Brahmin community, amongst whom she estimated there were over 22,000 widows between the age of five and fifteen, all waiting to be educated, and trained as teachers. Subramania Iyer immediately offered his daughter as the first pupil.

You may also want to read:

The pushy First Lady of Madras

From Widows’ Home to Vivekanandar Illam

To be continued