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Saga of grit and success


She’s a trained classical singer, got a Ph.D when she was 80, and is the president of Women’s Indian Association. Now, Sarojini Varadappan adds another feather to her cap — Padma Bhushan.

I learnt that social service was not easy, and that accountability was important right down to the last paisa.

PHOTO: V. Ganesan

WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE: Sarojini Varadappan.

The year — 1932. A pregnant woman, her ten-year-old daughter in tow, walked towards the Vellore jail to meet her husband, who was imprisoned there. The woman was Gnanasundarammal, the girl was Sarojini Varadappan, and the man in prison was M. Bhakthavatsalam, who later became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He had been arrested for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement. Her father being arrested, and policemen carrying out searches in her father’s house were all commonplace occurrences for young Sarojini.

Sarojini Varadappan, social worker, chosen for Padma Bhushan, says her father’s association with the Congress and her mother’s association with the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) were contributing factors in her zeal for social service.

It is a well known fact that Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, president of the WIA, was instrumental in starting the Cancer Institute in Chennai. Sarojini recalls what an uphill task it was.

An institute is born

“It was a time when doctors such as T.S.S. Rajan felt money spent on the institute could be used to combat other diseases, and Dr. Muthulakshmi faced a lot of opposition to her plan even from the medical fraternity! So, all we managed to get from the Government for the institute was a small strip of land. Pandit Nehru was supposed to visit Madras around the time we’d planned the inauguration, and Dr. Muthulakshmi wanted him to inaugurate the institute. So I called up my uncle O.V. Alagesan, who conveyed our request to Pandit Nehru. He agreed at once. After the inauguration, Rajaji patted me on the back and said, ‘The Women’s Association has won.’ Even now you can see the letters WIA on the board outside the entrance to the institute.” Just three letters, and what an inspirational story lies behind them!

Later, Sarojini became the president of the WIA. When she took charge, it had four branches in Chennai. Today, the number has increased to 76. Sarojini has also been with the Indian Red Cross for 30 years, and is the president of the Mylapore Academy. However, it was never easy for Sarojini to follow her heart. “I was a student of National Girls High School, now called Lady Sivaswami Girls School. When I attained puberty, I was pulled out of school. My teachers tried to persuade my family to let me resume my studies, but the request was turned down.”

Her father consoled a distraught Sarojini and arranged for Hindi tuitions. But when the time came for Sarojini to take the Prathmic exam, her great-aunt objected to her leaving the house to write the exam! “So my father spoke to Pandit Nataraja Sarma, who designated our house as one of the exam centres for a group of girls, including me. That’s how I took the exam!” The year she passed her Visharadh, Gandhiji was in Madras to hand out certificates to the successful candidates, but again her family would not allow an unmarried girl to be seen in public. “So I lost the opportunity of receiving my certificate from Gandhiji,” she says ruefully.

For Sarojini, marriage to cousin Varadappan meant liberation, for there were no restrictions on married women going out. So when Gandhiji visited Madras next and stayed at the Hindi Prachar Sabha, Sarojini, now married, served as a volunteer. She and her friends enrolled 1,000 women in the Congress. “In the evenings, Gandhiji would relax on an easy chair, and we would count the day’s hundi collections, and keep accounts. I learnt that social service was not easy, and that accountability was important right down to the last paisa. The Seva Dal put us through exercises and marches, and some of the volunteers came in madisars!”

Music lessons

Since she’d learnt music, Sarojini would sing the prayer songs at the Congress meetings. “Satyamurthy was interested in music. So the party always had a music wing. I learnt to play the violin, and my guru, Parur Sundaram Iyer, taught me more than 500 kritis of various composers. I learnt Kshetragna padams and Tamil padams from Mylapore Gowri Amma, who lived on Brodie’s Road. My favourite Tamil padam was ‘Ethanai Sonnalum.’ I learnt Bharatiar songs from E. Krishna Iyer, whose classes were held in Vanniar Chatram on East Mada Street. On weekends, Veena Visalakshi would teach me Hindi bhajans.”

Singing in Congress meetings ensured that Sarojini had no stage fright when she had to address the public later. “But I still had an inferiority complex about not having a degree. So I did my M.A. in Political Science at the Mysore University, under the Open University scheme. Later I did Master’s in Vaishnavism from the Madras University.” Sarojini passed M.A. with a first class, and at the suggestion of her professor Narasimhachari, she did her Ph.D on ‘The Concept of Social Service in Swami Narayana Philosophy.’ She went to Ahmedabad to do research, and got her doctorate at the age of 80!

An ardent devotee of Kanchi Paramacharya, she took his blessings when she assumed office as president of the Social Welfare Board, Delhi. “He advised me to continue to study Sanskrit, which I’ve tried to do,” says Sarojini.

Sarojini served for sometime as member of the Film Censor Board. She even got into an argument with S.S. Vasan over a cut she’d made in his film! Why did she not think of politics as a career? “My father said I wasn’t to enter politics as long as he was alive. In fact, when C. Subramaniam proposed my name for a Rajya Sabha seat, my father turned down the suggestion.”

At 87, Sarojini still thinks of herself as a student. “I recently bought a computer, because I want to know how to browse the Net. My grandson (politician Jayanthi Natarajan’s son) teases me as the only one he knows, who still writes letters!”

Political kolu!

Sarojini Varadappan describes the Navaratri kolu they had in those days. “In 1937, when Rajaji formed a Congress Ministry in Madras, my mother hired a carpenter to make a mini Legislative Assembly! We had celluloid dolls representing every member of the Assembly, dressed exactly as they dressed in real life. We even had a doll attired just like Bhulusu Sambamurthy, the Speaker, who wouldn’t wear a shirt. Another year, we made a scale model of the Ramapadasagar dam. In 1947, Lady Nye, wife of the last British Governor of Madras, came home to see our kolu. My friends used to jokingly refer to it as the ‘political kolu,’ because we invariably had a political theme!”

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