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Vol. XXV No. 9, August 16-31, 2015

The City’s second widows’ home

K.R.A. Narasiah

The first shelter for destitute women in Madras was a home for Brahmin widows started by Sister Subbalakshmi. There was also in the city a hostel for non-Brahmin women and an orphanage for girls run by Christian missionaries.

On an evening in June 1930, three young girls from Namakkal turned up in Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy’s house seeking shelter as they had nowhere to go and their relatives would not help them either.

They belonged to the Devadasi community and had refused dedication, whereupon they had to leave their home. At the time, Dr. Muthulakshmi was living in Vepery. As she thought it was the right thing to do, she sent them to the non-Brahmin women’s hostel, known to her as she was its medical officer. She thought the girls would be welcomed there. On the contrary, the warden of the hostel not only refused admission to them but also ill-treated the girls because of their background. Traumatised, they returned to Dr. Muthulakshmi.

Seeing their plight, Muthulakshmi and her husband Dr. Sundar Reddy took the girls in. But this made Muthulakshmi want to do something on a more permanent basis. It was then that she decided to start a home for the destitute as they needed not only protection but also a future. As, slowly but steadily, more girls trickled in from near Namakkal and Salem, a bigger place was required. She registered Avvai Home under the Society’s Registration Act. Her sister C.N. Nallamuthu, a lecturer in Queen Mary’s College (later its Principal), was made the Warden with a mandate to set up the home. Dr. Muthulakshmi rented a house (No. 1, Kutchery Road, Mylapore) where the girls could be housed. But soon something bigger was necessary. Dr. Muthulakshmi started looking for vacant land to build a new home.

Three child widow graduates

This historic picture goes back to the start of the first widows’ home in Madras. Sister Subbalakshmi started the Ice House widows’ home, Sarada Illam, for Brahmin widows. In this picture are seen its first three child widow graduates from Queen Mary’s College, now celebrating its centenary. Ammukutty, Lakshmi and Parvathy (from left to right) – all came from Sarada Illam – joined QMC in 1917. Ammukutty and Parvathy took up teaching jobs in Coimbatore and Salem. Lakshmi Ammal taught in QMC. Not long afterwards Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy started the second widows’ home in the city for non-Brahmin widows, Avvai Home, the subject of this feature.

Adjacent to the Theosophical Society, on its west, there was a vacant site that belonged to the Tiruvannamalai Sri Arunachaleswarar Devasthanam. The Devasthanam, when approached, agreed to help her with the land, but the rules did not permit sale of land gifted to a temple. Therefore, a lease was agreed upon at an unbelievably low cost: For a period of 50 years, 50 grounds at Rs. 10 a month! She also took another 27 grounds for her use at a slightly higher rate for 50 years. The lease included a clause by which it could be renewed after 50 years for a further period of 50 years.

Construction started in 1934 with artisans supervised by the contractor himself, a patient of hers. By the end of 1936, the girls were able to move into the orphanage.

Of the three girls who took asylum in Dr. Muthulakshmi’s house and later shifted to Avvai Home, one became a doctor, another a nurse and the third a school teacher!

As you walk into a sprawling area of lush green, Avvai Home premises, through a not very impressive gate that belies the space within, you feel as though you are travelling back in a Time Machine. Dr. Muthulakshmi lived there. A dilapidated old house to the far left was once her home. On the right is a temple to Goddess Saraswathi. When the campus was developed in 1936, next to the Theosophical Society, there were hardly any buildings in the vicinity.

The Home shifted to the present premises, where many girls were brought in by their widowed mothers who could not support them and where women and girl children discarded by society for various social reasons took refuge.
C.N. Nallamuthu, a sister of Dr. Muthulakshmi, was the first warden of the Home. When the home was in Kutcheri Road in Mylapore, Dr. Muthulakshmi, with the help of one Sesha Iyengar, got the girls admitted in the National Girls’ High School. She was very particular that her girls should get quality education.

At the new Home in Adyar, she made arrangements with the Olcott Memorial School and Besant Theosophical School (now The School, KFI) to educate the girls.

Dr. Muthulakshmi stated often enough that her aim in founding the Home was to provide orphan girls a safe place to live in, and education and, later, a training leading to a worthy profession in life. Then, ideally, the Home would assist them in getting married to suitable persons. With such aims, the number of people wishing to seek a roof in the Home only kept increasing.

The need to have its own school was acutely felt and an elementary school was started in 1950 within the Avvai Home premises. Then, in 1952, a teachers’ training institute was established. The Teachers’ Training Institute (TTI) had to close in June 2011 when it was found that it did not meet the infrastructure norms specified by the National Council for Teachers’ Education, Research and Training (NCTERT) though almost all who passed out till its closure have done well for themselves. Many teachers appointed in the Avvai Home School were trained in this Institute and one such person became the headmistress of Avvai Home’s primary school.

The next step was a high school and, with a handsome donation from Mrs. Nallamuthu, this became a reality and, in 1969, as a natural progression the school was upgraded as a higher secondary school in 1978.

The school owes its growth to the untiring efforts of Mandakini Krishnamurthi, daughter-in-law of Dr. Muthulakshmi.

Mandakini Krishnamurthi, a member of the Madras Legislative Council from 1977 to 1983, was born in Madhya Pradesh (nee Mandakini Dattatreya Deshpande) and migrated to Tamil Nadu where she married S. Krishnamurthi, son of Dr. Muthulaksmi, in 1945. On the passing away of her mother-in-law in 1965, she took charge of the Home, its orphanage and associated institutions and built them up to the present stature. She passed away in 1980 – (Courtesy: Adyar Times).

Comments

  1. R. Suganthalakshmi , W/o M V S Ranganathan, Plot No.29, Door No.5/51, Sai Nagar, Kaspapuram, Chennai - 600 126 says:

    Thanks to Avvai Home for its help.

    I want to select a girl to marry (Legaly) my son aged 31. I wish to meet the responsible person. I want an appointment for the same. Kindly do the needful.

  2. trisanku says:

    **Of the three girls who took asylum in Dr. Muthulakshmi’s house and later shifted to Avvai Home, one became a doctor, another a nurse and the third a school teacher!** This is such a cool story. I wish there were more details of these women.

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