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Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi: A Powerful Face of Nationalist Feminism

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi: A Powerful Face of Nationalist Feminism

She has a visible presence in Chennai; her statue stands in the premises of the Cancer Institute at Adyar, a leading centre for oncology in the country. The road leading to Besant Nagar from Adyar bridge is named after her. Yesterday, the Tamil Nadu government announced that her birthday would be celebrated every year as ‘Hospital Day’.

For the millennials and post-millennials in the city, however, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi is a hazy, hearsay figure of the nationalist era – feisty and articulate, but as to what exactly about, they would have to scratch their heads and think. On the other hand, the older generation of politically aware denizens of Tamil Nadu know about her accomplishments, but mostly as a chronological narrative of positions held and organisations established.

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From the vantage point of hindsight, I think there is no doubt that Muthulakshmi was a powerful face of nationalist feminism in the first half of the 20th century, with all the complexities that this entailed. Her voluminous speeches and writings are indeed ideologically driven, with elements from the discourses of social reform and nationalism combined with empathy for the issues espoused by the Justice Party and a bent towards international feminism.

But it is in her concrete actions, specifically in establishing the Avvai Home in 1932 for destitute and abandoned girls and women, and the Cancer Institute under the aegis of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in 1952 that we see the unique nature of her contribution. The protocols and ethos she created in these institutions are exemplars of an ethic of care, inspired both by feminism and Gandhian nationalism. But more on this later.

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Born in Pudukkottai to Chandramma, a former devadasi and Narayanaswami Iyer, principal of the Maharaja college, Muthulakshmi had to surmount huge obstacles created by her gender and caste, and struggle to get an education. 

In 1912, she became the first woman medical graduate from the Madras Presidency; she went on to become an obstetrician.

Muthulakshmi Reddi (holding file) with parents and siblings. Photo: Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai

In an interview in 2010, Sarojini Varadappan, a renowned social worker who worked closely with Muthulakshmi, remembers her as an impressive, even formidable, personality. Immaculately dressed in heavy Kanjeevaram saris pinned with a brooch, and shining diamond earrings, Muthulakshmi had a flourishing practice delivering the babies of all the rich Mylapore professionals.

Influenced by the women’s movement and the national movement, Muthulakshmi turned her attention to politics and public life. From 1926 to 1930, she was a member of the legislative council in British India, the first woman to be so nominated. She became the first woman in the world to become the Deputy President of a legislative council.

As a legislator she was an indefatigable campaigner and lobbyist for women’s rights on a range of issues, including medical inspection in girls’ schools, exemption from school fees for poor girls, maternity and child welfare, and reservation for women in various structures of civic administration. She was closely associated with the All India Women’s Conference and the Women’s India Association. She edited the multilingual quarterly journal, Stree Dharma, started in 1918.

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Most notably, Muthulakshmi brought in legislation to abolish the devadasi system and child marriage. This campaign triggered stiff opposition from Congress stalwarts like Rajaji and S. Satyamurthi. When Satyamurthi argued in the Legislative Council that the devadasi system was an ancient religious custom, with devadasis being the custodians of the traditional arts, she famously retorted that if such a caste was indeed necessary and since the devadasis had done it for so long, why did the Brahmin women not take over?

Muthulakshmi would not have imagined that decades later she would be criticised by contemporary feminists and her campaign would be seen as a patronising gesture. Sociologist Amrit Srinivasan’s 1985 article, ‘Reform and Revival: The devadasi and her dance’, was followed by much writing on the devadasis, their original putative respected social status and their later ‘fall’, and the loss for the classical performing arts traditions of South India. 

In particular, Muthulakshmi’s campaign was criticised as it was perceived as disenfranchising devadasis from traditional privileges and denying them subjecthood and agency. Historian S. Anandi, while lauding her undeniable commitment to women’s rights, sees her as ‘othering’ devadasis and moralising on their liberation from the clutches of the system as the only way out. 

But look at it from Muthulakshmi’s perspective. Given the humiliations she underwent, unsurprisingly she saw the devadasi system as a social evil. In fact, one could infer that to a large extent, her personal anger was what gave her campaign its sharp edge.

Modern education was, for her, the answer – again understandable given her own achievements in her profession and in public service. The sincerity of her efforts to improve the situation of devadasi women is undeniable. Her tone inevitably echoed that of the entire social reform movement in that era, warts and all; it did not eclipse the basic drive for emancipation and equality.

In fact, Avvai Home and Orphanage, that venerable institution established by Muthulakshmi in 1931, started spontaneously when three girls from Namakkal, from devadasi families, arrived unannounced at her doorstep one night. They had run away from home with nowhere to go.

Immediately she took them into her own home and that became Avvai Home, later shifting to its own premises. It has since expanded to include a school and also a teacher’s training school, and is one of the early and enduring examples of formalising the ethic of care in a public voluntary institution.

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The other institution, the Cancer Institute, is an even brighter testimony to Muthulakshmi’s qualities of head and heart. I experienced this personally in 2005, long after she had passed on. The institute was like no other medical institution I knew – without the feel of either a government or private hospital. 

As I went through my own treatment, the institute’s underlying approach gradually unfolded: accord priority to saving life at all costs, cutting out the frills, advanced technology for core treatment alone, no differentiation between different classes of patients in medical treatment.

Much has been written about the Cancer Institute as a pioneering oncology centre in the country – its outstanding accomplishments in acquiring cutting edge technology, developing stringent protocols and yet giving affordable care; its challenges and limitations. 

What struck me, above all, is how Dr. V. Shanta, at its helm for many decades, has kept patient care – medical, psychological and social – at the centre. She verily embodies an ethic of care over and above medical protocols. Shanta, however, attributes these features of the Institute to the inspiration and efforts of its founder, Dr. Muthulakshmi, whom she refers to as Mother, and her son Dr. S. Krishnamurthi who was the force behind the institute in Muthulakshmi’s final days and after her passing. Krishnamurthi was a mentor to Shanta, she was his loyal colleague and together they steered the institute to reflect the values and ethos of Muthulakshmi, while striving for excellence.

Muthulakshmi herself was inspired to start the institute as a result of a personal bereavement. She lost her sister to undiagnosed cancer in1923. She had nursed her through her last painful days. Amidst her grief, she vowed to establish a specialised hospital for the treatment of cancer. She was inspired by the emerging advances in cancer treatment in the West and in 1925 spent a year at Royal Marsden Hospital, in London, to specialise in the subject. She got the Women’s Indian Association involved in her mission. It was an unusual issue for a women’s organisation to take up but the sheer force and dynamism of her personality made this a major activity of WIA for many years, says Sarojini Varadappan.

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Muthulakshmi went about her mission with, well, missionary zeal. Her son Krishnamurthi, then a doctor in the Royal Cancer Hospital in London, was not keen to get involved. In an interview with me in 2010, weeks before his death, he remembered with a smile, “I got a telegram, ‘Mother serious. Start immediately’. I came back to find her hale and hearty and what else, I joined her mission.” 

No one – doctors, funders or the government – would take Muthulakshmi seriously. They thought it was a waste of time. There was a complete lack of public awareness about cancer as an illness curable with specialised treatment. Among the various documents of the institute is a printed appeal in 1935 to the King George V Fund Committee from five women’s organisations in the city, mobilised by Muthulakshmi.

Tireless campaigner: In 1935, Muthulakshmi mobilised five women’s organisations in the city to collectively issue an appeal for funds for building a specialised centre for cancer treatment. Photo: Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai

She was tireless in her crusade and it was through the force of her individual convictions and the mobilisation of her social and political connections that Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1952 for the first specialised hospital for cancer in South India.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, laying the foundation stone of the Cancer Institute in 1952. Photo: Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai
The drive to raise funds under the aegis of the Women’s India Association. Photo: Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai

The character and thrust of the institute thus become comprehensible only through the personal lives of its three protagonists and their inter-relations. The micro worlds of family and friendship and of ideology and emotion fuelled the dynamism of the macro arena of advanced oncology.

And behind the technological and organisational strengths of the institution lies an ethic of care that has evolved through the personal concerns of Dr. Muthulakshmi.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi (second from right) at the National Cancer Conference in 1964. Photo: Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai

While the larger social and historical contexts no doubt impacted upon Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s life trajectory, in many ways, her story exemplifies the idea of ultimately the personal being the political.

Kamala Ganesh is a sociologist based in Mumbai.

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