They’ve single-handedly planted entire forests, driven ambulances in WWII, and helped mothers bring healthy babies into the world. They’ve banded women farmers together and taught them how to increase their yield and market their products. They’ve aided and taught life skills to the visually impaired. They’ve plunged into the jazz scene and Hollywood with their dulcet voices and aced law at Oxford, came out proud and fought for what they believed was right. They took up traditional male professions like photojournalism without batting an eyelid and brought into focus the taboos, stigma and ultimately the misogyny that surrounds menstruation – a most natural phenomenon. They are the ‘Women We Salute’
She was all of 20, when as a midwife, she helped deliver a baby. This was in 1940.
For seven decades, she continued to deliver babies, more than 15,000 at that. Moreover, she did this without taking a penny. It was truly service above self for this grand old lady. For this, she earned the title Sulagatti, which in Kannada, means ‘delivery work’. She passed away on December 25th, 2018.
This Republic Day, the mother of trees, Saalumarada Thimmakka was awarded the Padma Shree for her reforestation efforts. A crusader against deforestation, she has single-handedly planted over 400 trees along a 4-km stretch in Karnataka. At a time when the environment needs our undivided attention, these remarkable acts need to be spread as far as possible. Because, one person can make a difference.
Indira Devi, born to Kapurhala’s royal family. Unlike most princesses from her time, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England, and harboured the desire of becoming a movie star. Unfortunately, she did not get her big break in movies. Instead, with the outbreak of World War II, she drove motor ambulances during air raids, and worked as a postal censor. She joined the BBC and hosted a program in Hindustani for the Indian forces deployed in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. She continued to work for BBC throughout her life, and came to be popularly known as the Radio Princess. Personally, we always love stories of grit and determination, and you?
India’s first female legislator, Muthulakshmi Reddi. A staunch feminist, she was a social activist and a reformer. A path breaker, she was the first woman to be admitted to the Mahraraja’s College, and became the house surgeon at the Government Hospital for Women and Children in Chennai.
She gave up her medical practice to enter the Madras Legislative Council, and eventually became the first woman to become the Vice President of any legislative council in the world.
She was very close to her mother who was a Devadasi, and she worked hard to move a legislation that abolished the Devadasi system and raised the minimum age of marriage for girls. She started a cancer relief fund, and also opened an orphanage, the Avvai Home in Chennai.
With so many firsts attached to her name and work, one can hardly do justice to her numerous achievements.
Dutee Chand, Indian sprinter and Asian Games medalist has time and again proven her mettle as an athlete and as an advocate for her rights. At age 18, she faced scrutiny for high levels of testosterone in her body, a condition known as hyperandrogenism. Her gender was questioned and she was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth games. She took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and in a landmark victory, the court suspended the hyperandrogenism regulation. Recently, she came out and revealed that she was in a same-sex relationship. She received immense backlash from her own family and community, but continues to stand by her right to choose and to love. With the very recent strike down of the colonial era law against homosexuality, we need more role models like Dutee Chand, who despite their conventional upbringing, family expectations, and immense pressure to fit into the box, have defied norms and stood up for their right to be who they are and love who they want. We salute Dutee for her relentless courage, and incredible talent.
Lucy Wills, an English hematologist. Her crucial research on anemia in pregnant women in India led to the development of folic acid, a prenatal vitamin that helps prevent birth defects. Her research truly revised the state of pre-natal care of women across the world. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, we felt it was only fitting to salute those who dedicated their lives to bettering women’s health.
Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to graduate from Bombay University. Her academic achievements were not just restricted to merely graduating, as she also holds the honor of being the first woman to study law at the University of Oxford, making her the first Indian woman to study at a British University. However, due to her gender, she never recieved a formal degree from Oxford- this luxury was only affored to women 30 years later.
She became the first woman to practice law in India and England. Her grit and the service to the judiciary and social centres were remarkable.
India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla. She began working in the 1930’s, at the onset of World War II for The Illustrated Weekly Of India in Bombay. Since she was a woman, her earliest photographs were published under her husband’s name. She eventually joined the British Information Services and as a press photographer captured many political and national leaders through her lens. One of her iconic photographs is of the Dalai Lama entering India from Sikkim for Life Magazine. Her indomitable spirit is commendable with which she broke the shackles of prevailing gender norms.
The ace Badminton player, winner of the World Championships and the first Indian to win gold, the twenty-four-year-old has won five medals at the World Championships, as well as a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, and at the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games.
Born to professional volleyball player parents, she started playing badminton at the age of 8, under the guidance of Mehboob Ali. She later joined Pullela Gopichand’s Badminton Academy. Sindhu’s dedication to her game, her hard work, and her sheer skill at badminton are admirable.
During the famine in Bombay in 1896, she joined a team that provided aid to the afflicted, but during her services, she contracted plague. She was sent to London for medical care, where she met Shyamji Krishna Verma, a fiery nationalist, who introduced her to Dadabhai Naoroji. She later served as his private secretary. She relocated to Paris, as she was unable to go back to India and stay in Britain, since she refused to sign a statement that promised that she wouldn’t participate in any nationalist activity. She co-founded the Paris India Society and became the first person to unfurl the Indian flag abroad. She was a fierce feminist who believed that post-independence, women be treated equally as men, and be given an equal vote.
In the 1970s, Asha Puthli took her jazz talents and moved to New York City. In 1973, she released her first self-titled album, followed by a second album “The Devil Is Loose” in 1978, which the New York Times declared “an instant classic.”
She soon became the darling of the music world, courted by top designers, celebrities, and even photographed by Andy Warhol. Her singing career propelled her into Hollywood and her movie debut, “Savages,” while popular, was banned in India for its racy outfits.
Not one to be relegated to the annals of history, her music and especially her song “Space Talk” has also been sampled by the likes of The Notorious B.I.G, P. Diddy, 50 Cent, and Redman.
Kamala Pujari who was recently felicitated with the Padma Shri for her agricultural activism. She campaigned for organic farming in the villages around Koraput and for farmers to shun chemical fertilizers. She understood the importance of indigenous varieties of seeds and preserved hundreds of local varieties of paddy. For her groundbreaking work, she was made a member of the State Planning Board of Orissa. She is the first tribal woman to be a part of such a board. At a time when matters of food security and sustainable practices are of incredible concern, we are so grateful for game-changers like her.
Muktaben Pankajkumar Dagli
A selfless social worker, Muktaben Pankajkumar Dagli was recently awarded the Padma Shri for her work with visually impaired women. She is the founder of an organisation and an educational institution which provides vocational training for the visually impaired. About 200 people are currently enrolled in such programmes that are run by her organisation. We salute her iron-willed courage and dedication to bring a change in the society.
Rajkumari Devi who was recently felicitated with the Padma Shri. Fondly known as ‘Kisan Chachi,’ she has successfully organised over 300 women to form Self Help Groups and become financially independent. A successful farmer, she creates awareness about the cropping patterns and best practices among fellow farmers. That’s not all, she also runs an e-commerce website which sells numerous types of pickles (www.kisanchachi.com), made by women trained under her!
While most grandmothers are content letting the next generation take over, there’s one who is leading them. Chandro Tomar, or ‘Revolver Dadi’ as she’s better known. At 84, she’s the oldest sharpshooter in the world, as well as an incredible influence on the other women of her village (some, who’ve won big, internationally).
Gauhar Jaan, a courtesan of Armenian descent was a gifted singer and dancer, and one of the first to record music on 78 rpm records. A prolific singer, she produced over 600 records in several languages, including French, Persian, and English. More than a performer, she also played an interesting role in India’s struggle for independence.While raising funds for the ‘Swaraj Andolan’, Gandhi requested Gauhar Jaan to contribute funds as well. She agreed on the condition that he would come and see her performance, and then she would donate the earnings from the show. Failing to keep his word, on the day of the show, Gandhi deputed Maulana Shaukat Ali, instead. Not one to be taken for granted, Gauhar Jaan promptly gave away only half her earnings.
In the 1920s, with western education and Victorian morality becoming popular amongst the elite, there was a move to ban the profession of the tawaifs. An outspoken woman, she told the Viceroy, when he was approached to sanction the ban, to mind his own business, since he could never equal her and his monthly salary was equal to her earnings from a single mujra performance. A talented, feisty, and somewhat eccentric woman, who would throw marriage parties for her cats, Gauhar Jaan, was truly a legendary figure of India’s performing arts scene.
MS Subbulakshmi and T Balasaraswathi
Although the Carnatic singer, MS Subbulakshmi and Bharatnatyam dancer, T Balasaraswathi built their reputation on traditional Indian art forms, they were also well known for their rebellious streak. The portrait of them in western styles and pretend cigarettes from 1937, was an expression of teenage rebellion, since both of them came from strict, conservative households. These incredible women effortlessly bridged tradition and modernity. Subbulakshmi’s musical career started when she was just ten years old, and included highlights such as performing at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. She also dabbled in cinema as an actress, and was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, as well as the Bharat Ratna.
T Balasaraswathi became the first person to perform her traditional style of Bharatnatyam outside South India, in Calcutta, in 1934. She became a global performer and captured the collective imagination of people all across the world. She received many accolades, including the President’s Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Vibhushan.
These are just a few of the women we’ve celebrated through our weekly series, and we’re excited to share even more stories with you. In the meantime, if there’s someone you think should be included in our series, tell us!