Remembering Muthulakshmi Reddy, pioneer in surgery and women’s rights, on her 136th birthday

New Delhi, July 30: This is the story of a trailblazer creating pathways for women.

Muthulakshmi Reddy (July 30, 1886 – July 22, 1968) was the first female student at Maharaja’s School for Boys, Pudukkottai, the first female Indian surgeon at Madras Medical College, the first Indian member of the Women’s Indian Association, the first female member of the Madras Presidency Legislature, the first female Vice President and the first Alderwoman.

In “Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights” (Niyogi Books/Paper Missile), VR Devika, who has a doctorate in Mahatma Gandhi’s communication strategies, describes the indomitable spirit of a woman who campaigned to get rid of the practice of nannies, fought for girls’ education, remarriage of widows, equal property rights for women, education reform and rural health care for women . She also took the case of abolishing the practice of declaring young girls as Devadasis (Sanskrit: “woman servant of a god”).

Muthulakshmi was first enrolled in a local gate-run school. When she decided to study further, young boys ran behind the bullock cart she was traveling in, shouting that a “Devaradial” (Devadasi in Tamil) was going to school.

Soon after, all hell broke loose in Pudukkottai, which at the time had only an all-boys high school. Some parents have threatened to pull their sons out of school, saying the presence of a Devadasi-born girl will corrupt their minds, even after a curtain was drawn between the three girls and 40 boys in the class . A teacher also decided to resign.

But the Maharaja of Pudukkottai continued to support Muthulakshmi and gave her a handsome scholarship of Rs 150 when she expressed her desire to study medicine in Madras.

She was also the first Indian female surgeon at Madras Medical College. Madras Medical College was shocked when she opted for the surgery as the girls were seen as shy and unable to resist the sight of blood. Muthulakshmi, however, was adamant, and at the end of his four years, the college’s white headmaster was found running down the hallway of the institute, shouting with a piece of paper in his hands: “The first surgery student got 100% in surgery!”

The monograph describes how Muthulakshmi established the Avvai House for poor and destitute girls, where thousands of girls graduated and also found their feet. Thousands of poor women, many from the Devadasi community, have graduated from the institute and thrived in the anonymity afforded by the bill. Those who wanted to learn music and dance did so too.

Predictably, upper-caste and upper-class men put up fierce resistance to his proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women and abolish the Devadasi system. She had to contend with the likes of the activist and politician S. Satyamurthy, who was acclaimed for his rhetoric, and the scholar C Rajagopalachari, India’s last Governor-General and later Chief Minister of Madras State. , and success only came after 17 long years of struggle.

It was she who, after a brilliant career as a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics, founded the Cancer Institute in Adyar, Chennai. It was when she saw her younger sister die of cancer that Muthulakshmi decided to specialize in treating the disease. She flew to London on a limited budget with her sons and returned to establish the Adyar Institute, one of the largest of its kind in India.

The monograph also highlights Muthulakshmi’s many interactions with Mahatma Gandhi (she became the Tamil interpreter of Gandhiji’s speeches and traveled with him in Tamil regions), Sarojini Naidu, K Kamraj, Annie Besant, Kamala Chattopadhyay and many others.

Devika, when asked what inspired her to write the monograph, said: “Working as a volunteer at Avvai Home, talking to several women who wanted their Devadasi lineage hidden and who viewed Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy as goddess, made me want to look at her life a little closer. I deliberately decided to quote available Tamil works on her. I am telling her story from her side of the fence. Her story is fascinating. I want that young girls who don’t read books in public high schools and colleges read it. It’s accessible to them with its simple narration, I believe.