Stellar support: This woman defied tradition to build 69 bridges in India
India doesn’t have a president for bridges, but it certainly has a first lady. Shakuntala A Bhagat, who died in 2012, wasn’t just India’s first woman civil engineer, but also helped build close to 200 bridges around the world (including 69 in India), in terrains that stump engineers even today.
Born in Bombay in 1933 to SB Joshi, a master engineer, she was the second of five children and the first daughter. “Her father was the force behind her,” says her younger son, Chintamani Bhagat, 52, who heads a private-equity company in Singapore. “She took to engineering quickly, and he mentored her.”
For a conservative upper-caste Maharashtrian family at the time, this was radical. But Joshi had a fiery streak. He’d participated in the Quit India movement in 1942. His grandchildren say he wore khadi all his life. “He gave my mother all the financial, emotional and logistic support,” says her elder son Rajesh Bhagat, 58, a finance manager in the US. “He was even prepared if my mother chose not to marry to pursue her engineering dreams.”
It didn’t come to that. Shakuntala Joshi graduated from what is now the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, in 1953, becoming India’s first woman civil engineer. She went right to work, as a factory trainee. When she suffered minor injuries in an on-site explosion, her father knew she needed a morale boost. He sent her to Germany to work as a design engineer for two years.
She returned in 1957 to break yet another tradition, by marrying for love. Aniruddha Bhagat wasn’t an engineer; he owned an automobile garage, which raised several eyebrows in the extended Joshi family. The union would change both their lives. “Because my father didn’t earn enough to support a family, she took it upon herself to be the main bread winner,” Rajesh recalls. “She was an assistant professor of civil engineering in IIT-Bombay from 1959 to 1970, taking a two-year sabbatical to complete her Masters from the University of Pennsylvania.”
Chintamani describes his father, Aniruddha, as a polarising figure, a man who took risks, dreamed big. “She was the engine to his flashy car,” he says.
The couple founded their own bridge-building firm, Quadricon, in 1970, developing radical hinge-type connectors that needed less steel, and prefabricated modular parts that could create bridges of different spans and widths at lower costs. They also developed an unusual towable bridge, which could be wheeled under a weaker bridge for support when heavy cargo was passing over it.
It was a time when India was growing too. Bridges, particularly in the Himalayas, were transforming landscapes and communities. Quadricon’s patented systems ended up in some 69 bridges across India’s north and north-east. The company also designed bridges in the UK, US and Germany.
“Both my parents had a spark that comes from having a strong will,” Chintamani says. “At the dining table at home, conversations revolved around risk versus reward.” These were loud, long spirited exchanges. “It would appear as if they were fighting, but once they were done, they’d converse as friends, as if nothing had happened,” says Rajesh.
Her sons say the couple put their souls into bridge-building. They took risks few engineers do today – they mortgaged their apartment and pawned the family jewellery to fund their ideas when governments and private firms seemed reluctant to invest. “When there were accidents on site, there would be a gloom at home as if someone had died,” Rajesh recalls.
Shakuntala Bhagat did it all while raising two sons and a daughter, and retaining a love for Western classical symphonies from her time in Germany. Both sons say they knew their mother was different from other homemakers. But it didn’t dawn on them until much later that she was a co-founder in a field with almost no women. They grew up watching her methodically work the slide rule and fill up notebooks with calculations in an age before computers. They took most of their vacations to bridge sites, and the sons learned from their parents how to examine a mega structure with a critical eye.
“It’s only after I became got into real estate that I realised that bridges are among the most complicated things to build,” Chintamani says. “I think they were born in the right country but at the wrong time. They had a dozen chances to emigrate. There were so many offers from Canada. But like my grandfather they believed in India and wanted to see it through.”