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Gender Benders: A few of India’s first women achievers

They challenged male domination in the careers of their choice. Ahead of Women’s Day (March 8), HT looks back at pioneering Indian women who were the first to break the glass ceiling in their fields

india Updated: Mar 07, 2018 20:10 IST
HT Correspondents
A 1969 photo of India’s first and as yet only, woman Prime Minister, India Gandhi.
A 1969 photo of India’s first and as yet only, woman Prime Minister, India Gandhi. (N Thyagarajan/HT File Photo)

“... She was not a loud feminist, she established herself as a woman WRITER in the male-dominated
world of literature”

Main chup, shant aur adol khadi thi.
Sirf paas behte samundra mein toofan tha,
Phir samundra ko khuda jaane,
Kya khyaal aaya?
Usne toofan ki ek potli-si baandhi.
Mere haathon mein thamaayi,
Aur hans kar kuch door ho gaya”

That’s from Ek Mulakaat, by Amrita Pritam, the first woman to win a Sahitya Akademi award, in 1956.

She wrote novels and verse that ached with the anguish of Partition. It is said her heart never left Lahore. That city gave her her first published book, a collection of poetry called Amrit Lehran. Her first husband, a businessman named Pritam Singh, whom she would divorce 25 years later. And her one true love, the poet Sahir Ludhianvi.

She never had a romantic relationship with Ludhianvi. But she did have one with the artist Imroze. Theirs was a love that would last 41 years, until her death in 2005. She was 86. In Delhi, she built a life and cemented her identity as a rebel. But in all those years, Amrita Pritam never visited Lahore again.

Ashapurna Devi (1909 –1995), the first Indian woman to be awarded the Jnanpith Award for her book Protham Protishruti (The First Commitment) in 1976 belonged to the generation in between two of the greats of Bengali literature – Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. Ashapurna Devi captured an urban milieu whereas Saratchandra mainly portrayed the village world or the semi-urban world; Tarashankar injected romance in the literature of realism. Devi’s prose was modern and in colloquial Bengali which was a new trend for her age. “Ashapurna Devi was not a loud feminist, she eked out the role of a woman writer in the nearly male-dominated world of Bengali literature,” says Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, editor and publisher, Sampark. “She found a warm response among female and male readers. She was a female Saratchandra, and in some ways, even better.”

Separated by many generations and milieu from Ashapurna Devi, Arundhati Roy became the first Indian woman to win the Booker prize in 1996 for her debut novel, The God of Small Things. The multi-generation family story built around twins, Rahel and Estha, captures the many facets of life in Kerala – its politics, caste system and the Syrian Christian way of life. Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, in an article, writes: “She proves remarkably adept at infusing her story with the inexorable momentum of tragedy. She [Roy] writes near the beginning of the novel that in India, personal despair “could never be desperate enough,’’ that “it was never important enough’’ because “worse things had happened’’ and “kept happening.’’”

Most of our women POLITICIANS are second- or third-generation leaders. But there are some who blazed a trail and showed what was possible when courage and ambition met democracy.

She was referred to as the ‘first woman in a man’s world’. The first woman Prime Minister of India (1966 – 77; 1980 – 84), Indira Gandhi, was a bundle of contradictions. Elegant and graceful, she was rumoured to never forget or forgive a grudge. The only PM of India to have used the Emergency to retain absolute power. She went from being compared to the Goddess Durga during the war for the freedom of Bangladesh, to being vilified during the Emergency.

She was 12 when she began her service for the nation, forming a Vanar Sena, inspired by the Ramayana, to participate in the freedom struggle, helping the Congress party make flags, convey messages and put up notices. From there to a legacy of once having been the greatest threat to Indian democracy, she truly was a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

Most of our women politicians are second- or third-generation leaders. But there have been some who have blazed a trail and shown what’s possible when courage and ambition meet democracy. Sarojini Naidu, a freedom fighter and poet, was the first woman governor of an Indian state. She also, in 1929, presided over the East-African Indian Congress in South Africa and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal by the British government for her work during the plague epidemic in India.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, a diplomat and the sister of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post in pre-Independence India. Pandit was 16 when she attended her first political gathering, one arranged by her cousin, Rameshwari Nehru, to protest the inhumane treatment of Indian labourers in South Africa. She also headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations between 1946 and 1968 and in 1953, became the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly.

Sucheta Kripalani, India’s first woman chief minister, served as the head of the Uttar Pradesh government from 1963 to 1967. She was founder of the Congress’ women’s wing in 1940 and is remembered as a fearless leader with nerves of steel. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, a Gandhian and freedom fighter, was the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet rank after 1947 and was India’s first health minister. She helped frame our Constitution and when she passed away in 1964, the New York Times called her “a princess in her nation’s service”. She was Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years, helped found the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS, which she argued should remain autonomous), and a leading campaigner for women’s right to vote.

Our first woman president, Pratibha Patil, served between 2007 and 2012. She started as a lawyer, before moving on to a successful political career.

Meira Kumar, the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha, may have lost the 2017 presidential election to Ram Nath Kovind. But she still ended up setting a record for obtaining the most number of electoral votes by a losing
candidate (3,67,314).

It is said she went door to door requesting parents to send their daughters to her SCHOOL for girls.

Savitribai Phule, along with her husband, Jotiba Phule, played an important role in improving women’s rights in India during the British period and is believed to be India’s first woman teacher in the first school for girls opened by the couple in Pune in 1848. It is said she went door to door requesting parents to send their daughters to the school for which she had to withstand criticism by upper castes mainly because she was a woman and from the backward classes.

She was a loving teacher; students called her ‘Savitri ma.’ Her pedagogy of teaching was participatory, innovative and radically different from the then existing rigid and restrictive mode, says Gowd Kiran Kumar, a research scholar at the department of political science, University of Hyderabad, in an article written for the portal, Round Table India. “She encouraged students to think creatively. The results were interesting. 11-year-old Muktabai, a Dalit student of Savitribai, published an article on the plight of Mangs and Mahars in the newspaper Dyanodaya, in 1855. This may perhaps be one of the earliest of Dalit women’s writings on their issues. She continued to inculcate modern values in students and her followers,” writes Kumar.

In 1882, along with Kadambini Ganguly, Chandramukhi Basu passed the examination of the bachelor’s degree in arts from the University of Calcutta. They were India’s first women graduates. Basu later became the principal of Calcutta’s Bethune College, thus becoming the first female head of an undergraduate academic establishment in South Asia as well.

Kadambini became the first female physician of south Asia to be trained in European medicine. Her father, Brajakishore Basu was an enthusiastic supporter of women’s education. Due to her efforts, Bethune College initially introduced Fine Arts, and then graduation courses. In 1886, she was awarded a Graduate of Bengal Medical College degree, which gave her the right to practise.

In 1888 she was appointed to the Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital, informs lawyer Sumit Kumar Ganguly in his blog. Florence Nightingale, the famous English nurse, is believed to have taken a keen interest in Kadambini’s work.

She became the first woman IAS officer after clearing the civil SERVICES examination in 1950. In an interview in later years she recalled how women in a village had gathered, just to see her.

M Fathima Beevi, the first woman judge of the Supreme Court of India, definitely gave early indications of future greatness, when she became the first woman to top the Bar Council of India’s exam in 1950. She rose from an advocate in Kerala’s lower judiciary to becoming the munsif in the Kerala Subordinate Judicial Services and a judge of the Kerala High Court in 1983, before becoming a judge of the Supreme Court in 1989. After her retirement from the Supreme Court, Beevi first served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission, before being appointed as Governor of Tamil Nadu in 1997. In a magazine interview in 2016, Beevi had pushed for more women to be included in senior judicial positions and said, “There are many women in the field now, both at the bar and in the bench…However, their participation is meagre...”

The daughter of a police officer, Priya Jhingan had always dreamt of donning the uniform. In 1993, she was enrolled as Cadet 001, technically the first woman recruit to join the Indian Army, along with 25 others. Flight Lt Harita Kaur Deol became India’s first woman Air Force pilot to fly solo, in 1994. She was 22. In 1972 Kiran Bedi was the only woman in a batch of 80, but undeterred by the challenges in front of her, went on to become the first woman IPS officer of India. In 1994, Bedi got the Ramon Magasaysay Award. In a magazine interview in later years, Bedi had said, “Even though the global community recognised my work, the police force that I served so diligently has never given me a merit certificate.”

It is said that Kalpana Chawla chose her own name at nursery school because her parents were yet to choose a formal name for her. After graduating from Punjab Engineering College, Kalpana moved to the US and was selected by NASA in December 1994. In 1997, she became the first Indian-born woman to fly in space.

Born in 1927, Anna Rajam Malhotra became the first woman IAS officer in 1951. In a newspaper interview in later years, Malhotra recalled how women in a village had gathered to see her when she visited on horseback. “... an old lady said, ‘she looks just like one of us’,”. CB Muthamma became the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service in 1949. Later, she became the first Indian woman diplomat and the county’s first woman ambassador. When she felt had been overlooked for promotion, Muthamma brought a petition against the government of India at the Supreme Court, which was upheld by the Court.

Born in Lucknow in 1930, Leila Seth worked as a stenographer in Calcutta before moving to London with her husband. It was in London that she took up the study of law and passed the London Bar exam in 1958, and topped it. She returned to India soon after and started practising here and in 1991 became the first woman chief justice of a state high court (Himachal Pradesh). In a newspaper interview later, she had said. “In most cases, male lawyers/judges especially in upper Himachal had a feudal mentality... I would gently ask their opinions first before ‘imposing’ mine on them.”

Homai Vyarawalla was India’s first woman photojournalist. She was introduced to photography by her husband, Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, also a photojournalist. Her images were published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, before she went on to work for the British Information Services. She is remembered for her photographs of the country during its transition from a British colony to a free country, post Partition. In a newspaper interview in later years she said about her work, “There are 15 people taking a photograph at the same time; each has his own style. But there’s only one who gets the right moment and the right angle.” In 2011, Vyarawalla received the Padma Bhushan. Last year in December, on her 104th birth anniversary, Google paid a tribute to her with a Doodle.

She entered FILMS when it was considered immoral for women to come in front of a motion
picture camera.

Patience Cooper, an Anglo-Indian from Calcutta, became the first popular film star in India. Her achievement is all the more incredible as she entered films at a time when it was considered highly immoral for women to come in front of a motion picture camera. In fact, acting was then regarded as the lowliest profession for women, even worse than prostitution. Little wonder that Dadasaheb Phalke had to cast a man, Anna Salunke, as his heroine in India’s first ever feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913).

Said to be born around 1905, Cooper was among the earliest women who broke social barriers and dared to work in films. As cinema gained popularity in India, filmmakers approached girls from the Jewish or the Anglo-Indian community, who were thought to be more forward and open in their thinking, to star in films. Beginning from dancing for a Eurasian troupe, Cooper joined Madan Theatres, then one of India’s biggest filmmaking companies. She would go on to became their foremost billed star in the 1920s and the early 1930s and also the earliest recognizable face among Indian actors.

With her sharp features and fair skin, Cooper was comparable to the Hollywood beauties of the time. In her films, she often played a sexually-troubled woman caught at the centre of moral dilemmas and whose life ended in tragedy. Beginning with silent films, Cooper made the transition to the talkies with comparative ease. Incidentally, she also enacted what are regarded to be the first ever dual roles by an actress in Indian cinema – playing two sisters in Patni Pratap (1923) and a mother and a daughter in Kashmiri Sundari (1925).

Though she acted till well into the 1940s, Cooper migrated to Pakistan along with tea-estate owner MAH Isaphani following the partition of the sub-continent. She took on the name Sabra Begum and adopted and looked after several underprivileged children across the border.

Patience Cooper died in Karachi in 1993.

After he was unable to find a woman to play the female lead in his first film, Dadasaheb Phalke was finally able to convince two women – the mother-daughter duo of Durgabai Kamat and Kamlabai Gokhale to face the camera in his follow up film and another mythological, Mohini Bhasmasur (1913).

Durgabai had separated from her husband and along with her little daughter, Kamlabai, had joined a travelling theatre company when they crossed paths with Phalke. In an interview, Kamlabai recalled staying at Phalke’s house in Nasik, waking up daily at 4.00 am and travelling to reach the location - three hours away - by bullock cart. Filming took place from dawn to dusk in available light with the help of reflectors.

Mohini Bhasmasur is based on the tale of the female avatar of Lord Vishnu, the enchantress Mohini who brings about the destruction of the asura, Bhasmasur. Bhasmasur had got a boon from Lord Shiva that whosoever’s head he laid his hand on, that person would immediately be reduced to ashes.

Durgabai can also be said to be the head of Indian cinema’s first acting family as daughter Kamlabai, grandson Chandrakant Gokhale and great-grandson Vikram Gokhale all became fine actors in their own right

When India’s first Talkie, Alam Ara (1931) was announced by Ardershir Irani’s Imperial Film Company, it was thought naturally that the company’s biggest star, Sulochana, would be the film’s leading lady. However, hailing from the Jewish community and whose actual name was Ruby Myers, Sulochana was not proficient in Hindustani/Urdu and so another actress in Imperial, Zubeida, went on to become the first ever heroine of the Talkies in Indian filmdom. Zubeida, along with sisters Sultana and Shehzadi, all were actress in the silent era while their mother, Fatma Begum, an actress herself, is regarded as the first ever Indian woman director, having helmed Bulbul-e-Paristan (1926) starring Zubeida, followed by other films as well.

KB Sundarambal, a famous vocalist and theatre performer, was paid a whopping Rs 1,00,000, the first ever Indian actor or actress to receive such a sum, to star in the Tamil film, Bhakta Nandanar (1935). She played the title role of a man, the lowly-born devotional saint, Nandanar. It is said Sundarambal had given up performing on the stage following the death of her husband, and in order to put off textile magnate Hassandas, the prospective producer of the film, quoted the then unheard-of amount to put him off only to have him agree! Sadly however, the film did not succeed at the box office.

Exploring a career in SPORTS for her daughters, she became a mountaineer.

Saina Nehwal won a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first Indian badminton player to win a medal at the Olympic Games. And then she began to slip. So much so, that in 2014, after facing successive losses, the thought of quitting badminton crossed her mind. But not only did Saina bounce back, she also attained the World No. 1 ranking in March 2015. That’s what people close to her admire – her grit and mental toughness. “I want to be the Shah Rukh Khan of badminton,” the self-confessed Bollywood fan had said in an interview with HT.

At 1.07 pm on 23 May 1984, Bachendri Pal stood atop Mount Everest, becoming the first Indian woman to do so. What makes her achievement all the more special is that Pal, one of the seven children of Kishan Pal Singh, had a humble background and money was difficult to come by. In May 2013, 28-year-old Arunima Sinha became the first amputee from the country to climb the summit. In the same year, 50-year-old Premlata Agarwal became the first Indian woman to scale seven peaks in seven continents. Agarwal, a housewife from Jamshedpur, met Bachendri Pal to explore a career in adventure sports for her daughters. Such was the effect of the meeting that she herself started mountaineering.

“I have proven that women can achieve as much as men can, and I have shown that boxing can be as engrossing as cricket for Indians,” says five-time World Amateur Boxing champion and Olympics bronze medallist Mary Kom in her autobiography Unbreakable. Having lived a childhood full of hardships in a Manipur village, she went on to win the 1st Women National Boxing Championship in 2001. At the 2016 Olympics, Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal

The year was 1959. Five days after celebrating her 19th birthday, Calcutta-born Arati Saha became the first and fastest Asian woman to swim across the English Channel. The following year, she was awarded the Padma Shri.

Thirty-one-year-old Sania Mirza is the highest ranked female tennis player, both in singles and doubles, India has ever produced. Deepa Malik won a silver medallist in shot put at the 2016 Paralympic Games becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal in Paralympics. Last month, BCCI gave the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for Women to Shantha Rangaswamy. Back in 1976, she was the first captain of the Indian women’s cricket team. She was also Indian women’s cricket’s first international centurion and the first captain to win a Test.

She could have escaped, But, she was not a person to quit. And it was this COURAGE that deserved
to be awarded.

The question, whom do you most admire, living or dead, needs to come with a clause: think of a new name. Because Mother Teresa has been the obvious choice for years. Such is the legend of the first and only Indian woman to have won a Nobel Peace Prize (1979).

A young Catholic nun from Albania, Agnes Bojaxhiu arrived as a missionary in 1929 Calcutta. She was 21. As she walked about her adopted city, the destitution around her was so great that she felt compelled to leave her institution so she could do more. Her mission became an order of its own, The Missionaries of Charity, now working with the poor, sick and abandoned in 160 cities across 87 countries.

In September 2016, Mother Teresa was canonised and declared a saint.

Neerja Bhanot was a model, a career woman, a survivor of an abusive marriage. She was also the youngest person and the first woman to be awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, posthumously. She was all of 23 when she died.

Neerja worked for Pan American Airways and lost her life while saving 359 passengers of a Pan Am flight hijacked by armed men in September 1986 at Karachi. Eyewitnesses said it was Bhanot who alerted the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer so that they could escape, ensuring that the flight could not take off. As soon as she realised that the terrorists were targeting American passengers, she got them to hand over their passports so they couldn’t be singled out. She was shot dead while helping passengers sneak out of the emergency exits. She could have slid down the chute and escaped, her father said later. But, he added, she was not a person to quit. Bhanot has been immortalised in many ways — a coffee table book, The Neerja I Knew, conceptualised by her brother Aneesh; a life-size sculpture in Punjab by artist Manjit Singh Gill. More recently, the 2016 film Neerja dramatised her story.

(Compiled by: HT Weekend team. Women in films by Karan Bali)