Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Shrimati Parvati Chandrasekhara

Parvati Ammal


Shrimati PARVATI AMMAL was born in April 1875. She was the last child, by a younger wife, of Subbuswami Aiyar, a well-to-do mirasdar of Manakkal village, Trichinopoly district. Her father died when she was only five years of age, leaving to her mother Doraiyammal–a pious and estimable lady greatly beloved by her children–the care of the young family and the anxieties of a subsequent litigation with the sons by a prior marriage. Parvati was only a girl of nine when she was married to the second son of the late A. Sankariah, then Dewan Peshkar and District Magistrate in the Cochin State. A year afterwards the widowed mother also passed a way. The circumstances of her girlhood, particularly the loss so early of both her parents, helped no doubt to develop those qualities of self-reliance, sense of responsibility, and consideration for others, which marked her adolescence.

Parvati Ammal joined her husband when he was a student in the Law College at Madras, and made for him an ideal wife. In the family of her marriage, she won the respect and affection of the other members, who invariably placed the greatest reliance on her judgment and capacity. As mistress, later, of her own home, she proved an admirable housewife and manager; herself a pattern of thoroughness, neatness, and energy, she enforced a high standard of domestic efficiency in these respects; generous, and even lavish, in the scale of household arrangements, –food, vessels, clothes, hospitality, –she nevertheless discountenanced all wastefulness and unnecessary display.

The fact is well known that her persuasion it was which decided her youthful husband, soon after taking his B.L. degree and while contemplating a career at the bar, to appear at short notice for the first competitive examination for the Mysore Civil Service. Winning the first place therein, he was appointed an Assistant Commissioner, and rose in the course of his service to the highest offices in the State, finally retiring in August 1924 as Chief Judge of the Chief Court of Mysore. Having for the partner of his joys and sorrows "a perfect woman, nobly planned, to warn, to comfort, and command," it goes without saying that his career was in no small measure helped, strengthened and adorned by his wife's inspiring influence and nobility of character. And so far as the inner life of the two was concerned, it will suffice to add that it was a perfect blending, in happy harmony, of distinctive qualities and temperaments, so as to make one deep current of devoted love and of earnest aspiration for worthy ends.

Having no issue alive of her own, Parvati Ammal's affections were wide, and included within their maternal scope, not only young relations of her own and her husband's families, but children generally as a class. Want and suffering ever found ready response from her warm heart; and her hand helped freely and generously all objects and movements which appealed to her sympathy.

Growing up from her earliest years in an atmosphere of orthodoxy, it was not till later in life, when she came under the broadening influence of Theosophy, that she transcended the need for outer forms and ceremonies for herself. But at no time was religion, as such, a matter of form with her; her faith in the essential spiritual truths was a part and parcel of her nature, colouring her life and inspiring its every action. For the great teachers and the saints and heroes of the race, she had a reverence and devotion born of close study and deep contemplation.

At the same time she realised more and more strongly, as the years passed, the evils and injurious excrescences which have grown around and upon the social system of the Hindu community, particularly with respect to marriage customs the position of women, and the treatment of widows and out-castes. She was not one of those whose feelings begin and end with the verbal expression of their sympathy: if she felt that a thing was cruel, unjust or injurious, the feeling acted on her as an urge to help in its rectification. Thus it was that she was driven to become a strenuous champion of practical education and social reform in the later years of her life.

In this sphere of her work, which could only be effectively carried on by influencing public opinion, she was greatly aided by the circumstance that "besides her many and varied qualities, she possessed the rare gift of eloquence which was a happy combination of wit and practical common sense."1 Of the innumerable appreciations of her remarkable gift of speech, the following (by a European clergyman) will serve as an example: "She was a wonderful woman, full of power and love and seriousness of purpose; one of the finest speakers I ever heard; always carrying conviction because she herself was convinced." She rarely felt nervous on the platform, where she stood calm and motionless, using few gestures or none. Since she spoke only of things about which she had thought as well as felt deeply, she did not as a rule require elaborate preparation, nor did she have to rely on notes. Her ideas, often original and always suggestive, (–"there is no one like her", writes one who has heard her speak at meetings, "who could produce new ideas when the whole matter relating to a subject had been fully discussed,"–) issued well-arranged and without effort from a full and orderly mind, clothed in language homely yet clear, and enforced by apt illustration or happy quotation. Unmoved by hostile interruption or criticism, which merely brought down effective retort, she was yet keenly sensitive and responsive to the tone and temper of her audience. It was a sight to watch the faces of men and women, bored and jaded perhaps by the lengthy harangues of previous speakers, take on an expression of sudden interestedness as soon as Parvati Ammal had uttered her first few words, and then follow her, point after point, with keen appreciation, delighted laughter, or hearty applause. The ring of sincerity and earnestness in her voice carried conviction. She never spoke an instant longer than necessary: as soon as she had said what she had to say, without needless elaboration, she brought her remarks to an effective close.

No one who was present at the Civic and Social Conference at the Rangacharlu Hall, Mysore, in June 1917, which was presided over by His Highness the Yuvaraja, will forget the sensation caused by an orthodox Hindu lady in high position speaking for several minutes, in flowing accents of restrained strength but irresistible eloquence, on the necessity for raising the marriageable age for girls and boys. It was indeed a memorable speech, one which made a strong impression on a crowded and distinguished audience. The Mysore Panchama Conference of 1920, which was presided over by her husband, evoked many noteworthy utterances; but by universal consent, Parvati Ammal's unpremeditated speech on the occasion was adjudged the best of all. Again, at the Indian Social Conference at Madras in December 1927, and likewise at the Women's Day meetings held about the same time, her talks in support of various resolutions were an outstanding feature, and made the strongest appeal to the vernacular-knowing part of the audience, especially the women. Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddi, M.L.C., one of the organisers, testifies that, when Mrs. Chandrasekhara Aiyar spoke at the last Indian Social Conference, "the audience listened with rapt attention and admiration how she, with her keen perception of facts, rare intellect, and wide experience of our social conditions, was able to grasp the situation. She possessed the rare art of so modifying her speech as not only to suit the audience's mind, but also to win her point. I remember she spoke on the inheritance rights of women and the eradication of the Devadasi system. She spoke so convincingly, in her own humorous, persuasive, homely Tamil, with familiar illustrations, that she carried the audience with her, and the motion was passed without a single opposition. Her speech was short, sharp, telling and to the point, at the same time impressive and eloquent."2.

Parvati Ammal, naturally, was in constant request as a speaker at meetings and discussions; but, unfortunately, few of her utterances have been reported at any length. This is particularly to be regretted in the case of the fighting speeches, full of relevant fact, spicy humour and telling argument, with which, at the public debates held last year in the Central College and again at the Collegiate High School, Bangalore, she supported, almost single- handed, the propositions for raising the age of marriage by legislation and for extending the full rights of citizenship to women. A summary in English has, however, been published of the Kannada address on "Women's Advancement, –Some Present Needs," delivered at the request of the Mysore University on 8th April 1927. The summary, imperfect as it is, gives a fairly good idea of her deep insight into social conditions, past and present, her mastery of the influences at work and the needs of the immediate future, and her breadth of vision generally.

One word or two may be in place here with reference to the speaker's deprecatory remarks, in the opening passages of the University Extension lecture, as to her not having had "any education worth speaking of;" "I have never been to school," she went on to say "or sat for an examination. The only schooling I have had has been received in the school of life; and the varied experiences of some fifty years are the lessons I have tried to learn." The true significance of such an admission will doubtless be realised by those who know that education consists, not in the mind being stuffed with information, however useful, by a teacher, but rather in the steady unfoldment of latent powers and qualities by inner effort aided by outer stimulus. Apart from this, Parvati Ammal as a matter of fact, though she may not have received any systematic schooling, had read much; she was well grounded in the Tamil classics, and had an extensive and intimate knowledge of Puranic literature; and through association with her husband, her own readings, and otherwise, she possessed a sufficient acquaintance with the conditions and trend of modern civilization and progress to serve the purposes of a life of practical work and culture. She commenced the study of the English language rather late in life; but, though she did not attain sufficient command of it to be able to employ it with anything like the facility With which she could speak in Tamil or Kanarese (or, in earlier years, in Malayalam), she knew enough of English to understand what was said to her, and, in the case of a clear, good speaker like Dr. Besant or Mahatma Gandhi, to follow the remarks closely, and even on occasions to interpret the same sequentially to others. In this, doubtless, she must have been helped by an intuition which was more than ordinarily keen.

Various and important as were the movements of social service and public utility to which her energy, talents and material resources were freely accorded, the name of Parvati Ammal will ever remain closely and prominently associated with the Mahila Seva Samaja, Bangalore. It is the concrete embodiment of her life-work in the cause of women's education. Founded by her in 1913 with the aid of a few sympathetic friends, it has grown under her fostering care, wise management and enthusiastic self-sacrifice, from its small and humble beginnings to its present unique position as a leading institution for Women's Advancement, carrying on as its principal activity a model school for the training of girls for the duties of the home and of the world. Parvati Ammal felt very keenly her responsibility for the work, especially of instruction, in the Samaja, which it was her aim to carryon as far as possible under homelike influences and conditions. With this view, she attended the school every day during working hours; and conducted some of the classes herself, particularly those for domestic economy and religious and moral instruction. Judged by the results of examinations and the reports of inspecting officers, the institution has uniformly maintained a high standard of educational efficiency; and the remarks recorded by visitors, European and Indian, ladies and gentlemen, bear abundant and eloquent testimony to the efficiency of the organization, the order, method, neatness and discipline which reign everywhere, the distinctly national tone of the educational scheme in force, the attention paid to healthy open-air games, and, above all, the pervading atmosphere of happiness and the bright and cheerful faces of the pupils which struck everyone including Lady Irwin (Her Excellency observing that "it is a privilege to see an institution which is inspired by such high ideals of self -sacrifice and service.") In the course of an Address of congratulation presented to Parvati Ammal by the members of the Mahila Seva Samaja in March 1927, it was emphasized that "no small part of its success as an educational institution was due to the motherly care bestowed by her on the hundreds of pupils who had passed out of it or were now studying in its classes, as well as to the inspiring force of her character and example." It is a well-known fact that she took a real personal interest in everyone of the girls, who indeed habitually spoke of her with affection and reverence as "Mother," and that she was the guide, protector and helper of many a young or helpless widow. She was, besides, instrumental in assisting a number of grown-up women with scholarships from the funds of the Mahila Seva Samaja as well as from her private purse, to enable them to undergo professional training as teachers, midwives; nurses, etc.

She was for many years a leading member, and latterly the President, of the local Child Welfare and Maternity Association, and interested herself greatly in the various activities (such as baby homes, milk centers, social welfare centers, and the like) promoted by it, by the Civic and Social Progress Association, and by kindred bodies. She took particular interest in the ante-natal and baby clinics held under competent medical agency regularly every week at the Mahila Seva Samaja, which she was instrumental in making one of the principal welfare centers for the City of Bangalore. It was also one of her customary self-imposed duties to go round and visit the patients in hospitals, enquiring after their wants and helping them with gifts in money and kind.

The Women's Indian Association, the Mysore Girl Guides' Association, the Mysore Ladies' Conference, in fact almost every movement connected with social service or reform, within the Mysore State or outside, benefited by her participation, guidance and active sympathy.

During the Great War, Mrs. Chandrasekhara with some of her friends took regular part in the work parties organised at the British Residency in aid of the St. John's Ambulance Association, utilising the services of her Samaja pupils for the stitching, etc., of articles of various kinds required for the Association. She helped, besides, to raise a substantial sum (through the Mahila Seva Samaja) for the Mysore Silver Wedding Fund, as also funds in aid of the Mysore Imperial Service Troops at the front. Her work in connection with the War was duly acknowledged at the time by the Government of India, by the Order of St. John and British Red Cross, and by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir C. C. Monro.

The conspicuous but unostentatious work of public service done by Parvati Ammal in all these and other directions was recognized by His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore by the presentation of valuable khillats in 1917, and later by His Majesty the King-Emperor in January 1927 by the award of the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal of the highest class. (Among the numerous letters of congratulation received on the latter occasion was one from the Rt. Hon'ble V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, in which he observed that "the recognition of Government for her most unselfish and enthusiastic work" was an occasion for sincere rejoicing because "it is not often that Government honours and public honours coincide.")

Shortly afterwards, in February 1927, Mrs. Chandrasekhara was offered a place on the District Board of Bangalore by His Highness’ Government. In accepting the nomination, she acted on the view, "that the appointment was not simply a compliment to herself, but was a formal recognition of women's eligibility for public service as citizens and of the desirability in general interests of making available to them every reasonable opportunity for such service." She regularly attended the meetings of the District Board, and took a useful part in the discussions, helping the business of the Board and of its Committees with her shrewd common sense and practical knowledge of the wants of the people. A fellow-member of the District Board writes (in a local paper) that she did not talk much at the meetings, but that, when she did, she spoke forcibly and to some purpose; and he gives instances of her effective intervention.

The wonder and admiration evoked by even a cursory survey of a life of such varied and strenuous activity must needs be enhanced by the knowledge that the subject of it was the victim of continued ill-health for a number of years, an originally strong constitution having been seriously undermined by recurrent uterine troubles and latterly by diabetic complications. But a sense of dedication gave the spirit strength to triumph over physical weakness and suffering.

As Mrs. Margaret E. Cousins has truly observed, (in that affecting message which was the first intimation to the world at large of the passing away of Shrimati Parvati Ammal at Delhi), "the spirit of self-sacrifice which ruled her entire life had its climax in the circumstances which led to her death." "She was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Mysore Constituent Conference for the All-India Women's Conference on Educational Reform, and was chosen last November as one of the delegates to Delhi. She was undecided about going, but the possibility of the occasion being used to secure a deputation to His Excellency the Viceroy about the prohibition of the marriage of girls under sixteen and the service she could render that deputation, decided her to undertake the hardships of the journey. Her husband accompanied her, and they arranged to stay with friends in Delhi," where they arrived on the night of the 5th February 1928. "The morning after her arrival, she fainted while taking an oil bath and fell against the stove" or rather the water-boiler sustaining severe scalds on the fore-arm and knee. "She narrowly escaped being asphyxiated (by the gas generated by the carbon fuel). Qualified medical aid was secured at once, and although she was unable to attend any of the Conference functions, we phoned her daily accounts of all that was happening, and she took the greatest interest in the work." Unfortunately, the scalds proved to be septic, and, in spite of the best available medical attention, the condition of the patient, aggravated by diabetic trouble, became serious and necessitated her removal to the Nursing Hospital at Hindurao House. There she passed away at 2 o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday the 19th February 1928, the sacred day of Sivaratri. The flowing waters of the Jamuna received the ashes.

The news of Parvati Ammal's death, as unexpected as it was untimely, and so far away from home and friends, came to everyone as a shock. A wave of grief swept over the hearts of thousands, and sympathy came from all sides for the one whose heart was riven by the sudden breaking of a life's ties. Many there were–the younger ones in particular–who mourned for "a loved and revered mother;" many for "a dear friend and elder sister," for "a counselor in difficulty," for "a true friend and helper to the poor and needy," for one whose "greeting was a blessing," whose presence, "a source of inspiration," "a centre of radiant joy." All who knew her or watched her work mourned for "a great leader and champion of the Woman's Cause" snatched away in the midst of "her untiring and self-sacrificing efforts in social reform," for a daughter of India "whose heart, whose eloquence, whose untiring energy, whose great intelligence were consecrated to the upliftment of her sex and country." All joined in rendering tribute to the memory of "one of India's great Souls," "a pioneer who showed how a perfect Hindu Lady could achieve great work for her people," "a shining example of the noble ancient ideals of true Indian Womanhood adapted to wholesome conditions in modern life."

The expressions quoted above (which have been taken from letters, articles, speeches, resolutions, etc.,) will serve to typify the universal feeling of regard for the departed lady. Interesting sidelights on her personality are afforded in the following extracts from communications to the press3 by various well-known personages.

Dr. Annie Besant, P. T .S. writes: "I had the honor and pleasure, for many past years, of knowing the late Sou: Parvati Ammal, for she was an earnest Theosophist, and I used to stay with her and her husband whenever I visited Bangalore. She was the heart of the Woman's Movement, in that town, and the founder, and guide of the Mahila Seva Samaja. A fine speaker in Kanarese and Tamil, as well as versed in English, she was one of the ablest woman leaders in India. And she was also the Devi in her home, its Light and its ruler. She was snatched away by a tragic ‘accident’ after forty years of happy wedded life, in which husband and wife carried on their own lines of work in perfect harmony and mutual helpfulness. She has passed into the Light, and dwells in the Peace."

Mr. N. S. Rama Rao, Adyar: . . . "I happened to be one of her guests a few months ago. It was then that I learnt that a great worker like her, honored and looked up to by every one in the State, . . .could also be an admirable hostess. She made us feel–for we were a large party,–that her home was ours. . . .She was selfless to the core."

Sir M. Visvesvaraya, retired Dewan of Mysore : . . . "I greatly deplore the premature death of Shrimati Parvati Ammal. Her services to the cause of women's education, particularly to the institution known as the Mahila Seva Samaja, of which I believe she was the founder, were magnificent. I know how eloquently she pleaded for the uplift of women in this country. She was a devoted worker and a clear-sighted reformer. Her untimely death has deprived South India, and particularly Mysore of the services of a gifted and noble personality who had dedicated her talents to the service of her country."

Dr. G. S. Arundale, M.A., L.L.B., furnishes a somewhat more detailed appreciation: "I hasten to take advantage of the opportunity kindly afforded me . . .to pay my respectful and loving homage at the feet of that noble Indian woman, Parvati Ammal. I have had the privilege of knowing her and her great husband for many years and of being a guest in their beautiful Indian home, and I know well the nature of her priceless services in the uplift of Indian women. From one point of view, it seems strange that so great and so rare a worker should have been withdrawn from active service on the physical plane where woman of her type are far too few. India could do with many less of the so-called leaders among the men, but from the point of view of the outer world, she can ill spare from among her leaders women ready to stand forth to guide Indian womanhood along that pathway by the treading of which it shall lead India to the future that a waits her.

India's future depends infinitely more upon her women than upon her men. Her men matter little, denationalised as so many of them are, indeed as most of them are, owing to the kind of education that prevails today. Her women matter infinitely. The past of India owes its greatness in no small measure to those wonderful Indian women who have adorned the pages of India's history. The future of India will owe its greatness in no small measure to women like Parvati Ammal who have come forward at this critical juncture in their Nation's history to free Indian womanhood from the fetters which hold it from the glorious service it is destined to render, not merely to India but to the whole world. There are a few Indian women today whose names will go down the ages as heralds of the great renaissance at which we are assisting in this twentieth century. One name is that of Parvati Ammal. Her record of service is magnificent. Her devotion was unparalleled. And it is but the bare simple truth to say that she passed away in the service of the Motherland she loved and for which she counted no sacrifice too great.

From the point of view of the outer world, one cannot help wondering why in the midst of the great need she was taken away. But she has not really been taken away. She is not dead. She lives even more abundantly than she lived while in possession of a physical body. She serves India today, India the land of her heartfelt love, as ardently as she served her before. She is with us to guide and to inspire. There has been no loss save to those whose eyes are too blind to perceive the gain. Pioneer as Parvati Ammal is, gallant hero as she is and must ever be, leader of men as she is by right of character, she has but gone ahead in the same service, and when the time comes will return to the prison of the world that she may help her brethren to be as free as she. She leaves for a while the outer world to gain new power, power which she has won the right to have because of her life's dedication. Parvati Ammal is one of India's heroes who come again and again, now in one garb now in another, now in one form now in another, to serve their Motherland until that Motherland at last earns to realise herself…"

It may with good truth be said of Shrimati Parvati, as of all great Servers of Humanity, that selfless life is indeed a deathless life. Though the physical presence is no longer on earth, the fragrant memory of her gracious personality will abide in men's hearts. And the priceless example of a valiant soul, clothed for the time in a woman's weak frame, who lived and labored and died like a hero for a Sacred Cause–that of the advancement of India's women, the welfare of the little children, and the emancipation of both sexes from the tyranny of blind tradition and cramping custom,–will surely, for generations to come, inspire others to noble endeavour.

1 Indian Social Reformer, Feb. 25, 1928.

2 Vide Swarajya March 14, 1928.

3 Made available by courtesy of the Editor, "Navajivana".

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