Three young girls knocked on the gates of 6, Randall’s Road, Madras one day in the year 1930. Inside the house, Muthulakshmi was rehearsing the speech she would make to bring about a law to abolish the dedication of young girls as devadasis. Her sons Rammohan and Krishnamurthi were playing in the compound and ran up to the gate. The girls were running away from the ritual of pottukattudal, dedicating them as devadasis to a deity, and needed protection. Muthulakshmi took them in and instructed her sons to call them Akka (elder sister). A few days later she tried admitting them to a hostel. The hostels were all caste-based and would not admit them. Neither would schools. She decided to house them and educate them herself. Finally, in 1931, she decided to open Avvai Home, naming it after the ancient Tamil poet who advised kings. She wanted girls to be fearless like Avvaiyyar.
The institute admitted older girls too, who could “work in the hostel and study for three hours.” A nursing institute, teacher training programme, and courses on carpentry, handicrafts, and home science, among others, were taught to make young girls vocationally equipped for jobs, while they pursued dance and music on the sides if they wished to. Thousands of poor women, including many from the Devadasi community, graduated from the institute and thrived in the anonymity granted by the bill. Those who wanted to learn music and dance learned them too.
Muthulakshmi was disturbed that the women who were coming out of the Devadasi system were abused and labeled by society as morally corrupt. But used the same abusive language to describe some of those who opposed her move to legislate against the system. In both her roles as a legislator who appealed to the government to shelter vagrant and destitute children and youthful offenders, and as a busy medical practitioner who spent several hours a day treating them, Muthulakshmi had an intimate knowledge of the deplorable social conditions these seven girls faced.
“How dare you call them fallen sisters. The man falls before the woman falls. The men are always older and know what they are doing. Without male chastity, female chastity is not possible. All laws should be equal to men and women and both should be equally responsible,” Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy — legendary medical practitioner, social reformer and legislator in erstwhile Madras Presidency — thundered, after a highly placed speaker commended her work for her “fallen sisters” or Devadasis, at an event to felicitate here. This followed the passing of the 1930 bill for ‘prevention of dedication of young girls as Devadasis’ by the Madras Presidency on 5 December 1947.
The Devadasi system was nurtured by upper-class men who wanted to have their cake and eat it too. In the system, young women were made to undergo a religious ritual at a pre-pubescent age and subsequently marked as a potential concubine. This ritual and the acceptance of the “concubine” status qualified the girl for learning music and dance and performing in public spaces. A male benefactor would then be granted access to her art, which she would subsequently pass on to her children. However, he would not give her rights to his name or inheritance to the children born of this relationship.
Young Muthulakshmi was heartbroken when a 16-year-old maternal relative she was close to died at childbirth even as Muthulakshmi reached Madras to pursue medical education. She got her mother to bring the little infant named Subbulakshmi to Madras and studied for a medical degree with the baby on her lap. As the daughter of Chandrammal who belonged to the Melakkara community but had chosen to come out of the system, Muthulakshmi became more and more determined to get rid of the system of the dedication of young girls.
She remembered her school days when young boys ran behind the bullock cart she traveled in, screaming that a Devaradial (Devadasi in Tamil) is going to school. When she sought admission to HH Raja’s College for boys for intermediate, all hell broke loose in Pudukkottai. Some parents had threatened to withdraw their sons, stating that the presence of a girl born to a Devadasi would ‘corrupt’ the minds of the boys, even after a curtain was stretched vertically in the classroom between her and the boys. A teacher decided to resign as well. But the Maharaja of Pudukkottai went on to support Muthulakshmi and gave her a handsome scholarship of Rs 150 when she expressed her desire to study medicine in Madras.
She was adamant about choosing the tougher MB and CM (Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery) course (later to be called MBBS) where there was no Indian girl admitted before her. She was offered the easier LM and S (Degree of Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery). Dean of academics Lt Col William James Niblock believed girls might faint at the sight of blood and might not be able to withstand long hours in surgery. But Muthulakshmi proved him wrong by not only getting 100% in surgery and receiving most medals for academic achievement in the convocation and also becoming the first Indian woman house surgeon. She began practice as a gynecologist and began to earn quite a bit of money but was she satisfied? Most certainly not.
As a student in Madras, she was introduced to the nationalist poet Sarojini Naidu who took her to the Theosophical Society to listen to the electrifying speeches of Anne Besant. She offered voluntary medical services to the young Brahmin widows’ home run by Sister Subbalakshmi and girls’ welfare organisations. She began to campaign against the wet nursing system where women from upper-middle-class families hired women to breastfeed their babies. She began to look at women’s health as related to their level of education and campaigned for raising the age of girls at marriage. She collected data to support her campaign.
She was made the first Indian member of the Women’s Indian Association and was subsequently nominated to the Madras Legislative Council. Besides initiating the bill to pass a law against dedicating Devadasis to Hindu temples, — which, according to her, dehumanised young girls and ultimately pushed them into prostitution — she also fought for abolishing the practice of hiring wet nurses for babies born into upper-class families and helped Sister Subbulakshmi in her struggle for widow remarriage and education.
She even rallied for raising the marriageable age for girls to 16, and for the voting rights of women. Expectedly, upper-caste and upper-class men put up stiff resistance to her proposal of increasing the legally marriageable age for women, and the abolition of the Devadasi system. She had to argue with the likes of S Satyamurthy, acclaimed for his rhetoric, and the erudite C Rajagopalachari. After 17 long years of struggle, the bill became an act.
Her husband Dr Sundaram Reddy supported her at home and the story of their marriage also makes for an interesting read. When she saw her younger sister die of cancer, Muthulakshmi decided to specialize in cancer treatment. She flew to London on a limited budget with her sons and came back to establish the Adyar Cancer Institute WIA, which has now gone on to attain iconic status. July 22 marked the 61st death anniversary while July 30 is her 136th birth anniversary.
(VR Devika is the author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer In Surgery And Women’s Rights published by Niyogi Books.)