This is an account of courage and perseverance, where an 18-year-old widow of pre-Independent India engineered a change – a change that inspired many other women.
It was the year 1937. A young girl of 18, A Lalitha, a mother to a four-month-old girl child, lost her husband. Those were the times when women followed the code of behaviour laid down by society. They were wives and mothers who submitted to roles cut out for them with some amount of passivity. However, that was not to be with Lalitha.
She went on to become India’s first woman engineer, graduating in 1943!
Today, it may not seem out of the ordinary for an Indian woman to become a full-fledged engineer, but one can imagine the stir she must have caused as the first woman engineer – seven decades ago!
Born on 27 August 1919 into a middle class Telugu family in Madras (now Chennai), Lalitha was the fifth of eight children. According to the norms of the time, she was married off at the age of 14. She continued with her schooling after getting married, but stopped when she completed her Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC or Class X), as it was thought that she had had sufficient education. Not long after, she was left widowed with a child of four months. Her parents took the bold decision of educating her further against serious objections from their relatives.
She completed her Intermediate (Class XII) and was ready for college. Her father, Professor Pappu Subba Rao, a professor of electrical engineering at College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), wondered why women should not pursue engineering. Determined to make her an engineer, he approached the principal Dr K C Chackko and the director of public instruction, Sir R M Statham for her admission. Lalitha secured a seat and joined electrical engineering at CEG.
Being the lone woman on campus, clearly she would have been an object of much interest and curiosity: there wasn't anyone who did not wonder how long she would last there. She didn’t think she could continue either! The students would watch with interest to see if she would persevere, and that is when her father decided to invite women students to CEG. He advertised in The Hindu newspaper inviting women to become engineers. This brought in two women to CEG – Teresa and Leelamma George; both of them joined civil engineering.
Life on campus definitely became a lot easier for Lalitha after she stopped being the lone female on campus. Lalitha finished her engineering with flying colours and passed with honours in September 1943.
Lalitha worked at Associated Electrical Industries* (AEI) in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for most of her working life. She was sent on commissioning projects around the country. She worked on the electrical generators for the Bhakra dam, grid substations for various state government and industrial units.
Council of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London honoured her with a status of an associate member, qualifying her as a chartered electrical engineer. She went on to become a full member of the IEE.
Lalitha was invited to the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists in New York in 1964. She represented India as the only woman engineer. At the conference, the participants resolved to encourage women in their respective countries to increase their participation in professional societies and to improve their qualifications not only during their student days, but throughout their professional life. Participating in the conference made Lalitha all the more determined to encourage women in India to take up engineering as a career. She became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London, acted as their representative in India for the second conference, and enabled a larger participation of women engineers from India.
Lalitha was supported in multiple ways by her family. When she joined college, her sister took charge of taking care of her daughter, Syamala. Her sister’s son and Syamala were of the same age. When Lalitha started working in Kolkata, she lived with her brother's family. She and her sister-in-law were the greatest of friends and lived amicably for almost 35 years! Lalitha’s parents supported her by raising Syamala, who was with them in Chennai till she completed schooling.
Lalitha was a strong woman who never made her daughter feel the loss of a father. Her daughter, Syamala Chenulu, says:
“I wish I had my mother’s strength of mind. I never felt the need to have a father to take care of me. She encouraged me to study, play tennis, swim and never worried about society pointing a finger at her.”
Lalitha encouraged other widows in the community to remarry though she herself never considered remarrying. Syamala says:
“I came to know from my uncle that there were some young men who had come forward with proposals to marry my mother, but she was worried about my welfare. It was a great sacrifice considering she was only 18 when she was widowed and I was only four months old.”
Lalitha passed away on 12 October 1979. She was just 60 and had retired just two years earlier. Leelamma George and Teresa are no more as well. Leelamma too blazed a trail; she was the first woman designated chief engineer in Kerala.
Lalitha’s commitment and tenacity to pursue engineering all her life are commendable. Even in this day and age, women who go to college intending to become engineers stay in the profession less often than men. While women are graduating as engineers at an increasing rate, not many, unfortunately, continue in the field. If such is the situation now, one can only imagine what it must have been for Lalitha in those times!
She was firmly of the view that more Indian women must become engineers and scientists. Lalitha encouraged her daughter to pursue science as well. Syamala earned two degrees in science and education and has primarily been a teacher. Syamala credits her mother for the qualities of a scientist and an educator she possesses. She is married to a scientist. Not surprisingly, Syamala’s grown-up children are scientists too. It is heartening to see that the act of educating Lalitha has had a domino effect – when you educate a woman, you do educate a family.
*AEI was a British holding company formed in 1928 through the merger of the British Thomson-Houston Company (BTH) and Metropolitan-Vickers electrical engineering companies. In 1967, AEI was acquired by GEC, to create the UK's largest electrical group.