Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 3, May 16-31, 2023
(Continued from MM, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, April 16, 2023)
Despite the threat of the war reaching the shores of the city looming large, the Andhra Mahila Sabha continued to render its yeoman service to the cause of women’s welfare. Its activities were varied and included Hindi classes, classes for entrance examinations (with hostel facilities), music and dance and an industrial section with a production unit attached. Between 1944 and 1946, its fame spread across the Madras Presidency. Membership had also increased substantially, with around 700 to 800 taking regular part in the activities. It was also during this period that it brought out a monthly magazine, titled Andhra Mahila. It was time for the institution, which had till then moved from place to place, to find a permanent home.
One of its pressing needs was finding land, to build a hostel to accommodate the women coming from outside the city to participate in its programmes. In the Rani of Mirzapur, Lakshmi Venkayamma Rao, Durgabai Deshmukh found a great pillar of support. The Rani had visited the Sabha and on seeing its activities, had been convinced of the need for a permanent home. After a search for about 4 to 5 days, Durgabai zeroed in on a plot around 7 and a half grounds in size adjacent to an old pond on Luz Church Road. A deal was struck for Rs 17,000, which was financed by the Rani of Mirzapur. The pond adjacent to the site belonged to several residents residing around it, most notably the family of noted businessman and nationalist K. Nageswara Rao Pantulu and the famous journalist G.A. Natesan. It was deemed necessary to fill up this pond. Durgabai managed to get the permission of the residents and also put up a proposal that the filled-up space could be converted into a park, to be named after the most senior of all the residents, Nageswara Rao. This was readily agreed to. The Corporation of Madras then diverted garbage cleared from across the city to the site of the pond and filled it up. Thus, was created one of the most prominent landmarks in the city today, the Nageswara Rao Park.
The cost of construction of the entire hostel building – a structure with over two floors, sufficient to accommodate 50 women – came to more than a lakh of rupees. It was fully funded by the Raja and Rani of Bobbili. It was named the Mallamma Devi Hostel, after the historic queen of Bobbili and opened in 1946 by noted social worker Sucheta Kriplani. The foundation stone for a Mahila Vidyalaya was laid the same day, which was blessed by Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari. The construction cost of the Mahila Vidyalaya was met by the Raja of Pithapuram as his gift on the occasion of his 60th birthday and was named after his Queen Chinnamamba.
The construction of these buildings firmly put Andhra Mahila Sabha on the path of further growth. A separate block was put up for the industrial section, the foundation stone for which was laid by Thakkar Bapa. With a growing demand for this section, this was shifted to a site in San Thome, purchased from the family of Puram Prakasa Rao. The Government of Madras sent a batch of war widows to be trained in the industrial institute. With the help of a grant of Rs 75,000 received from the Government of India, a full-fledged building along with a printing press was constructed and inaugurated in 1953. The number of women undergoing training in various activities such as tailoring, embroidery, sewing, book composing and binding soon increased substantially. With a view to consolidating the portfolio of the institution, most of these activities – with the exception of composing and bookbinding, embroidery and a few other sections – were transferred to the Stree Seva Mandir, an organisation with similar objectives that had been started close by. The Nageswara Sisu Vihar, a centre to serve as a creche for children of poor working women was started in 1956 at Nageswarapuram, a short distance behind the institution’s campus on Luz Church Road.
Today, this serves as the AMS Mitra Mandir, a home for males with intellectual disabilities. The next phase of expansion of the institution would take place in Adyar.
With well-developed hostel facilities, the institution attracted queries from women outside the city enquiring if they could be temporarily accommodated on its premises when their children or relatives were undergoing treatment in the hospitals in the city. There were also regular enquiries as to whether the Sabha could provide maternity services and medical relief.
After initially having rejected many requests, the Sabha decided to launch a scheme to provide medical services. The Chief Minister of Madras, O. Ramaswamy Reddiar who had presided at a function of the Sabha had promised whatever support the Sabha wanted to pursue its activities. Durgabai called on this promise and made a request for a site of about 4 to 5 acres in size in Mylapore. It turned out that no land was available in the vicinity of its existing premises. Land was however available in plenty in Adyar, which was still under-developed. One site in particular had multiple suitors vying for it, in the form of the IG of Police and the Music College. The Andhra Mahila Sabha joined the list and made an application as well.
A committee was constituted by the government, which eventually handed over around 21 grounds to the Sabha. The terrain was inhospitable, with the area being used as a public latrine with an unclean fish pond adding to the unsanitary conditions. Durgabai was not to be deterred however, as she went about transforming the place into the vast campus that is seen today at the beginning of Adyar. The support of later Chief Ministers in granting additional pieces of land at various points in time was crucial in this expansion.
Perhaps the most remarkable addition to the Adyar campus was the purchase of a house named Yerolite, which stood near the site granted by the government. The Sabha had taken it on rent to house the trainees of the nurse-midwife course being conducted by it.
There were talks of the house being up for sale and a sum of Rs 1.75 Lakhs being quoted. When Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who had laid the foundation stone for the maternity ward in the campus in 1950 visited the Sabha to inaugurate the children’s ward in 1955, she inspected the house at the request of Durgabai. On learning that an elderly person from the family was living on the first floor, she met him and a discussion ensued, at the end of which he had brought down the offer price to Rs 1 Lakh. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s gentle persuasion that it was for a good cause had done the trick. Her contribution did not end there, for she backed it up by meeting the cost from her own discretionary fund. Over the course of the next few years, the grounds around Yerolite came to house a tourist hostel, an administrative block for the nursing home, kitchen and dining facilities for the nurses, as well as the Silver Jubilee hall.
The stories behind these developments and subsequent additions (each landmark being referred to as a stone), rendered as a first-person narrative by Durgabai Deshmukh make The Stone that Speaketh a fascinating read.