Women’s History Roundtable November 2019: “Grandmother, Mother, Daughter: Writing Women’s Lives” by Dr. K. Kalpana


K. Kalpana is Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Her research area is development studies with a focus on the interfaces between gender and the development experience. Her academic publications are in the intersecting domains of gender, poverty, microcredit, women’s work in the informal sector and collective action in solidarity economies. Her book ‘Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

This post is extracted from a story written by KV Navya for The New Indian Express titled ‘Paati’s story across five decades’ (published 12 November 2019). You can view the original story here.

‘When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.

“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.

Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.

“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.

Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”

Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.

Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.

When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”

The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.’

Revived! Women’s History Roundtable Series: Post-colonial India’s Women Doctors


On Saturday, October 14th, 2017, we revived our Women’s History Roundtable Series which had fallen by the wayside because of our struggles finding a venue. We decided to go back to our original ways–to find a cafe and we picked Writer’s Cafe to try.  Archana Venkatesh, veteran volunteer, doctoral candidate at Ohio State University and Saakshi Fellow, opened the fourth series and will coordinate for a year.

Women's History Roundtable Series (2)

Private Lives, Public Work:
Women Doctors at work and home in Post-Colonial India

Archana Venkatesh


Women doctors in post-colonial India were an integral part of the developmental regime envisaged by policy makers in the field of public health, especially in efforts to control overpopulation and regulate maternal and infant health in a newly independent nation. In this paper, I examine the life and work of women doctors in post-colonial India using data from twenty oral history interviews conducted with women doctors aged 75-95 years, active in the medical profession from 1950 to 1990 collectively. Oral history interviews provide a counter narrative to the ‘official discourse’. I demonstrate that while the state encouraged women to embrace the medical profession by deploying tools such as affirmative action and scholarships, this attitude did not always permeate the home and the workplace. Many women doctors note that medical colleges and hospitals were highly gendered spaces, something that was particularly apparent during the process of selecting specializations – many were shepherded into the ‘feminine’ fields of obstetrics and gynecology, or pediatrics. However, any expression of dissatisfaction was deemed to undercut their goal of ‘serving the new nation’ by participating in the medical profession. This paper examines how women doctors negotiated competing demands, between national service and individual goals, and between professional responsibilities and domestic expectations. Using oral history as a method, this paper sheds light on the ways in which everyday practitioners, i.e. women doctors, negotiated their participation in the creation and evolution of the developmental state in post-colonial India.

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Women’s History Roundtable: Anitha S.: “Be our voice” (March 9, 2013)


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Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Ms Anitha S. has spent a considerable amount of time in Idinthakarai, the village which plays home to the struggle against the establishment of the nuclear power plant in Koodankulam. She told us that even though the media only picked up the struggle against ‘KK’ recently, the protest has been ongoing since 1988. The movement was started by the National Fishworkers’ Federation, as the proposed site for KK was a violation of an integral part of the coastal zone.

On September 9th and 10th, 2012, the police lathi charged a group of peaceful protesters from Idinthakarai, after which the village came into the news. The villagers had undertaken a sathyagraha march from their village to the power plant. In addition to lathi charges, the police resorted to outdated methods of suppressions including tear gas. Even after this incident, no official representative of the government visited Idinthakarai to explain the situation to the community.

Ms Anitha herself came into contact with the movement through Mr SP Udayakumar. She is a marine biologist, and noted that the Gulf of Mannar (100 km away from KK) is a bioreserve.

Ms Anitha told us that the bulk of the protesters are women, as are a number of the leaders. These women are able to lead the movement effectively, and Ms Anitha feels that this is a consequence of their extraordinary ability to communicate and listen actively.

These women leaders of the movement have five basic concerns:

  1. What would be the impact of the power plant on the health of women and children?
  2. What would be the impact of KK on the ocean, soil and air?
  3. How would it affect the livelihoods of the local community (mostly fisherfolk)?
  4. In geological terms, how safe is the area from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc?
  5. What are the inter-governmental agreements signed by India with Russia? Especially since Russia has refused to ratify the liability clause of the agreement.

Studies by private groups have shown that there is likely to be a negative impact on all these areas.

The protesters have also demanded that the government provides written assurance that the energy produced by KK will be used exclusively for civilian power needs. The government of India has refused to provide this assurance, as these documents are ‘secret’ and under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The struggle took on a new phase after the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, with more media coverage. Post-Fukushima, various international bodies have imposed more stringent guidelines to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. There are 17 conditions, and KK currently fulfills 6 of them. The Government has announced that in 2 years, all 17 will be fulfilled. However, they don’t seem to have a plan for the interim period.

There have been a number of disturbing incidents during the testing phase in KK. In March 2012, trial runs held in the plant produced sounds loud enough to be heard by the surrounding villages.

As per national standards, there should be a radius of 16 km around a nuclear power plant within which no habitation is permitted. However, at KK, the nearest house in 500 metres away from the walls of the power plant. These houses were a part of the rehabilitation settlements built after the tsunami in 2004 – which raises the issue of the seismological safety of the area.

The Atomic Energy Minister has predicted that by 2025, 25% of the country’s energy needs can be met by nuclear power. However, in order for this to be achieved, there needs to be a power plant at 25 km intervals along the coastline.

Ms Anithapointed out that if the government accedes to the protesters’ demands to shut down KK, they might have to do the same in other nuclear power plants across the country. Additionally, India stands to lose an enormous amount of money if we pull out of various deals to import Uranium from other countries.

Currently, Idinthakarai is in a state of constant and systematic protests involving hunger strikes, dharnas, awareness-raising meetings around the country, etc.

Ms Anitha emphasized the social change which has come about as a result of the protest. Women have emerged as leaders in the area, caste barriers are broken, conflict between the Church and the Temple no longer exists; all this has contributed to create a homogenized society in Idinthakarai.

Introducing… The History Room, a new series


As part of our interest in documenting women’s work in the public sphere, we are starting a series of email interviews that we will carry in our blog. The series will feature senior scholars working on women’s history, senior women historians, biographers of women, women biographers and some other social scientists and humanities scholars.

A short, more or less standard, list of questions will be used for the interviews, answers to which could provide insights into the following concerns: professional choices and challenges; the evolution of research interests; current research and its significance; research wishlist (what the scholar would like to work on); emerging questions/issues. Our idea is to showcase scholarship in a format that is accessible even to the casual reader, who is more likely to read a conversation than a journal article, but who will still benefit from learning some of the issues and insights in that scholarship. And whose interest might well be piqued to make them look for more.

These blog interviews are essentially glimpses of women in the public sphere, mostly academic women. With these “snippet” interviews, what we’re trying to do is trace the evolution behind their interest in history, and what draws them (or does not) to a gendered approach or feminist perspective.

We aim to blog one interview a month as of now; depending on when the responses come in!

This month, we feature Dr. Anupama Rao.

Introducing: A new review series, Niharika’s Bookshelf


Niharika M., a student of literature at Stella Maris College, Chennai, will be writing a regular book review series for The PSW Weblog, starting this week. “Niharika’s Bookshelf” holds biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and fiction by women that tells life-stories or historical stories.

At Prajnya, we believe that stories–historical or fictional–hold the key to understanding the lives and work of women across the centuries. This series brings to light stories we may or may not have heard of,  and lives worthy of remembering. The first book featured says exactly what we want to:  They are all lives less ordinary, and all extraordinary journeys, and that is why women’s stories are worth documenting and remembering.

Niharika will be the anchor-reviewer of this series, but we invite you to submit reviews as well and to engage with her reviews on a regular basis. As long as the reviews are thematically relevant to our interests and well-written, we will gladly publish them on the blog.

By a Prajnya Friend: Durgabai Deshmukh


Prema Kasturi who spoke at the Roundtable series a couple of months ago, writes with Prema Srinivasan on Durgabai Deshmukh.

Durgabai Deshmukh:A pioneer and a transformative leader, The Hindu, July 15, 2009.

A pioneer and a transformative leader

Prema Kasturi and Prema Srinivasan

DURGABAI DESHMUKH: Her legacy lies in the unseen and intangible spirit of sacrifice, dedicated work, leadership qualities, and stern discipline.

The nationalist spirit that led to India’s Independence engendered many unique personalities. At a time when women were considered mere commodities, a few pioneering women gained true empowerment by means of education, aided by their own courage and selflessness. Durgabai Deshmukh’s life is an illustration of what determination and dedication could achieve even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She revolutionised the concept of social work, building on the diverse foundations laid by statesmen such as Ramabai Ranade, Mahatma Gandhi and Kakasahib Kalelkar. She laid the foundations of organised voluntary efforts and lobbied for state recognition and support to these institutions.

Durgabai was born in Rajahmundry on July 15, 1909, into a family that was dedicated to social service and that practised religious tolerance. She displayed leadership qualities even during her youthful interaction with other young people, and could teach in a palatable manner. Durgabai passed her matriculation examination privately in 1934 from Banaras Hindu University. She passed the intermediate examination and later B.A. Honours in Political Science. She continued her education into her late-20s and became a lawyer. In 1953, she married C.D. Deshmukh, who was the Union Finance Minister. He later became Chairman of the University Grants Commission and served as Vice Chancellor of Delhi University. Both were dedicated to public service.

Seeds of social reform were sown early in her mind and she became conscious of the injustice suffered by women in all strata. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the social reformer Kandukuri Veeresalingam was a close friend of her grandfather.

An important episode in young Durgabai’s life was her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. As a 12-year-old she had collected money for the nationalist movement along with a few volunteers, and when she came face to face with the Mahatma she gave her gold bangles as well, on his request. It was a turning point, which further kindled her spirit of selfless service and patriotism.

Durgabai fought against the system of child marriage and dowry, and the harassment of widows in the name of custom, although she herself was married at the age of eight. She gradually became involved with the nationalist movement and understood the need for women to be educated. She was a forceful, persuasive public speaker and was imprisoned during the Salt Satyagraha. She came to understand the pitiable conditions of woman criminals and wished to arrange free legal aid for them. This gave the impetus to the free legal aid centre of the Andhra Mahila Sabha in Hyderabad, particularly to help unlettered women of all classes.

On the basis of her experience and observations, Durgabai realised that lack of education impeded women’s progress. Education would provide them economic independence and create social awareness. This impelled her to lay the foundation for adult education programmes, which were taken up by the government of independent India.

In 1922, she started Hindi classes in the Balika Hindi Pathashala. The mini-school was to be the nucleus of the future Andhra Mahila Sabha, the mammoth social welfare organisation which eventually had service centres in Madras, Hyderabad and several districts of Andhra Pradesh. The Madras institution, started in 1937, organised many programmes such as condensed courses of education for adult women, nursery schools and crèches for working mothers, milk distribution for poor children, training of auxiliary nurse midwives and maternity centres.

When her family settled down in Madras, the centre at Dwaraka, known as “the Little Ladies Club,” was formed. In 1939, Durgabai joined the Madras Law College and simultaneously started her work in the women and children’s wing of Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha. The celebration of the silver jubilee of the Andhra Maha Sabha led to the emergence of the Andhra Mahila Sabha. In 1946, Mahatma Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the first building of the Andhra Mahila Sabha. That marked the beginning of the establishment of numerous educational institutions at the primary, secondary, professional and tertiary levels.

Durgabai’s name is integrally linked with the Andhra Mahila Sabha. This grand institution has completed 100 years of useful service in the field of social welfare. The services organised by it are in the fields of health, medical care, nursing and education. The Sabha has contributed to the cause of adult education and literacy including functional literacy and non-formal education for rural women. Durgabai has been the inspiration for many dedicated, spirited, selfless and able voluntary workers, both men and women.

Durgabai was a member of the Constituent Assembly. By the time India attained Independence, she had established herself as a criminal lawyer and played an active role in drafting and enacting the Hindu Code Bill. Her efforts to elevate the status of women were evident in her involvement with parliamentary Bills. In 1952, she was appointed a member of the Planning Commission but relinquished the post as her husband was also a member. In 1953, she became the chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board. In 1959, the government appointed her chairperson of the National Committee on Education.

Her autobiographies, Chintamani and I and The Course of My Life, were dedicated to Nehru. Her encyclopaedia, Social Welfare in India, is a valuable reference work for researchers even today. In 1979, Stone that Speaketh, her history of the Andhra Mahila Sabha, was released. It gives an account of the corner-stones of the institution laid by leading personalities over a period of 57 years, from 1921 to 1977.

Many awards and accolades came her way. She received the UNESCO Peace award for her work in spreading literacy. She received the Padma Vibhushan. The Paul G. Hoffman Award for bringing about social change in India and contribution to economic growth was conferred on her. She received the Nehru Literacy Award for services in the field of adult education.

She is perhaps best known for her work with the Andhra Mahila Sabha. But beyond that structure, her legacy lies in the unseen and intangible spirit of sacrifice, dedicated work, leadership qualities, and stern discipline.

 (Dr. Prema Kasturi was Professor and Head of the Department of History, Women’s Christian College, Chennai. Dr. Prema Srinivasan is a freelance journalist.)

Engendering History: Roundtable featuring Dr. S. Anandhi


The July 11th edition of our Women’s History Roundtable Series featured Dr. S. Anandhi from the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The title of her talk was ‘Engendering History: Experiences of Writing Nonbrahmin Women’s History.’


Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was absorbing and thought-provoking. It served as a wonderful, brief introduction to historiography and the various debates and perspectives that have shaped it over time. Yet, it was not pedantic or jargon-loaded and we were all able to follow along easily.


Anandhi said even archives were now far more democratic in what they included. She introduced us to the evolution of ‘oral history’ as a practice and its emergence as an important historical source. She pointed out that conventional history does not bypass archives as its primary source.

The question of people’s agency is a core one that has prompted this exploration of new tools, borrowed from elsewhere. Historians relied on archives which maintained official documents, but they do not map individual or community agency. For that, oral history and life-stories are the main resource. Historians have to figure out how to use them, how to find a teleological narrative in stories that may not be recalled in a linear fashion. Moreover, life-stories tend to be located in the domestic sphere, which while important, may not offer much help in terms of making a connection to public events.

She pointed out from her own research experience that women’s experiences–private and public, good and bad–did find a place in some old newspapers but not in others. Literature, diaries and newspaper contributions were alternative resources she used.

In the course of her talk, Anandhi mentioned work by a number of leading historians, expanding Prajnya’s reading list manifold. (FYI: We maintain an Amazon wishlist dedicated to this Initiative, and if you are a resident Indian citizen, you can make a contribution to our library!) 

The discussion centered around the limits of oral history and interdisciplinarity. How can you use oral history for periods where nobody is alive any more? How can oral history fill in all perspectives? We also pondered the balance between borrowing tools from other disciplines and adopting a vague research design that met no discipline’s rigourous standards. Anandhi stressed the importance of casting the research question, based on disciplinary knowledge and from within the interests of a discipline.

This was an excellent presentation and the post here does not begin to do it justice. The talk was so interesting, our notes are sketchy! We hope that Dr. Anandhi will find Prajnya’s projects interesting enough to take a leading role in shaping them and holding their outcomes to the highest professional standards.

Kindred spirits.. 2!


And this article by Meghnad Desai in the Daily News and Analysis: Time to give women their due, May 11, 2008.

PS: Mr. Desai has drawn my attention to this edition of We, The People that debates the necessity for reserving seats for women. You can watch it at the NDTV website, by clicking on the following links: video-prime shows-and then going to the second page which lists We, The People shows.