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Vol. XXXIII No. 1, April 16-30, 2023

The Andhra Mahila Sabha

-- by Karthik Bhatt

The Andhra Mahila Sabha is one of the city’s most well-known charitable institutions, with branches spread across South India. Founded by the redoubtable freedom fighter and social worker Durgabai Deshmukh, it has been rendering yeoman service encompassing a wide range of activities – medical, vocational, rehabilitation and educational – primarily for the welfare of women since its inception as the ‘Little Ladies of Brindavan’ in Mylapore in 1937-38. The origins and journey of this remarkable institution in its first five decades of existence were brought out as a book titled The Stone that Speaketh by Durgabai Deshmukh in 1976 and is a fascinating account of its success against tremendous odds and how it came to build several landmarks in the city today.

The origins of Andhra Mahila Sabha can be traced to the Balika Hindi Patashala, an organisation founded by Durgabai in Kakinada in 1922 at the age of 14 ahead of the upcoming session of the Indian National Congress in the town and the first Hindi Sahitya Sammelan that was to be held along with it. Having learnt Hindi at the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, Durgabai with the help of her teacher managed to teach nearly 400 women to write, understand and speak Hindi. Many of them were recruited as volunteers for the Congress Session, while ironically Durgabai was not selected owing to her young age. She instead served as a volunteer at the Hindi conference and also the Exhibition grounds. Given orders not to allow anyone without a ticket inside the Exhibition Hall, Durgabai took her job very seriously, refusing admission to even Jawaharlal Nehru when he landed up without a ticket.

The Balika Hindi Patashala had a successful run of more than a decade and sent several women every year to the Hindi examinations conducted by the Hindi Prachar Sabha. Besides Hindi, the women were also taught to spin the charka. Durgabai’s pillar of support was her family, more specifically her mother who actively conducted classes after appearing in the Hindi examinations herself. The Patashala’s journey however came to a halt by 1932-33 following a series of events in Durgabai’s life. Her father passed away in 1929 and she herself courted arrest and was imprisoned in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930. Her mother followed suit in 1932 and the Patashala broke up. The family moved to Madras in 1937, when Duragabai’s brother Narayana Rao found employment as personal assistant to Bulusu Sambamurthy, the Speaker of the Madras Legislative Assembly. No 14, Dwaraka, a small house in the then newly built Brindavan Gardens, Mylapore would become the starting point for the next phase of Durgabai’s social work.

Durgabai recalls that there were more than 30 houses in the colony, which presented a picturesque scene with hundreds of coconut trees all around it. The entire area was once a coconut grove belonging to an engineer, Srinivasachari who had cut them and developed the place into a housing colony to meet the increasing demand for houses of modest size. Durgabai says that there was a huge demand for the place and that people had to compete to get a house in the colony.

Durgabai was only a visitor to 14, Dwarka for the first 3-4 years after her family moved to Madras as she was in the midst of her BA Honours course in the Andhra University in Waltair. She says that the idea to restart her social activities came from the sight of children of varying ages between four and ten playing near their house. With the help of her mother, she succeeded in getting them to her residence and soon the kids were learning songs, stories and Hindi. They also trained for the children’s feature programmes of the All India Radio. Durgabai recollects that these programmes were very well received and attracted more children to the organisation which was christened the Little Ladies of Brindavan, though a lot of boys were taking part regularly in the activities as well.

With the children came their mothers and Durgabai’s mother wasted no time in starting Hindi classes for them. With the space in their residence proving to be insufficient to meet the growing number, the classes were divided between the house and the residence of Bulusu Sambamurthy (today the Potti Sreeramulu Building, next to Vidya Mandir) who was gracious enough to provide accommodation. The Hindi classes proved highly successful with Durgabai’s mother training several people for the Prathmik and Madhyamik exams.

The expanding activities of the institution brought with it the problem of finances. The need for a bigger accommodation was felt, as was the need to pay some salary to the teachers who were teaching dance, music, etc, free of cost. The monthly revenue in the early years was mainly in the form of the fee of Rs 25 per programme from the AIR, half of which went towards the cost of production. At the suggestion of Bulusu Sambamurthy, it was decided to make the institution the Ladies and Children section of the Chennapuri Andhra Mahasabha, a social, cultural and recreational organisation whose members comprised several legendary personalities such as K Nageswara Rao, Sir Mutha Venkata Subba Rao and T Prakasam. The Chennapuri Andhra Mahasabha was celebrating its Silver Jubilee that year and the Little Ladies of Brindavan played an active part in the celebrations as the newly added wing. The association however was to last only for a short while, as it was felt that the atmosphere was not very congenial for a continued relationship, with the objectives of the two organisations being largely different. It was thus decided to form an independent body named the Andhra Mahila Sabha.

The first challenge faced by the Sabha was finding adequate space to accommodate the classes which had expanded to include a Condensed Course of Education for Women. This would enable them to take up the Admission Examinations conducted by the Banaras Hindu University. A house at No 2, Luz Church Road was taken on a rent of Rs 50 per month. The organisation however soon outgrew this space and in a matter of six months moved to its neighbour at No 1, Luz Church Road, Madhav Bagh the palatial bungalow of Sir T. Madhav Row. Durgabai recalls that this place had huge halls with a number of underground cellars. It was here that several new activities such as sewing, tailoring, spinning and weaving and hand-made paper making were added.

With the problem of space resolved for the time being, Durgabai turned her focus to enrolling life members for the Sabha. The membership fees were fixed at Rs 1,000 for patrons, Rs 500 for donor members and Rs 100 for life members. Within a year, there were more than 300 members on its rolls. The Maharajah of Jeypore, Vikramadeva Varma donated Rs 5,000 which enabled the Sabha to put up a shed and buy equipment to carry out the activities. A fundraiser, organised by way of an exhibition of arts and crafts netted a surplus of Rs 15,000 after expenses. It was held at the premises of Director K Subrahmanyam’s Kalaivani Pictures on Kutchery Road.

The road ahead was to present more challenges, as the World War raged on.

(To be concluded next fortnight)

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