Prime mover: "Khadi" Kamakshi Ammal
THE soft sound of charkas and the chanting of "Vande mataram" and "Raghupathy Raghava" flowed out of a nondescript building on Cherry Road, Salem. Around 60 women were engrossed in working on wooden charkas. For them, it symbolised not only the nation's freedom but also their emancipation and empowerment. These issues were considered sacrilegious in the 1930s.
But social fetters failed to stop the women despite the conservative times. They raised these sensitive issues 75 years ago and their demands the right of widows to inherit their parents' properties and reservation for women in Assemblies and Local Bodies sent the society of men to spirals of anxiety. Surprisingly these radical initiatives sprung from women who came from highly traditional homes.
At a time when women were confined to the kitchens, this motley group, guided by Margaret Cousins of Women's India Association and Dr. Annie Besant, felt the need for a women's forum. Thus was born the "India Mahila Samaj" on June 1, 1930. The Samaj was then fondly referred to as "Charka Sangam". Later it became Indian Women's Association (IWA).
The initiator of this revolution was "Khadi" Kamakshi Ammal, wife of freedom fighter Natesa Sasthry. She was one of the first women in the South to beimprisoned for defying the British. Wearing a traditional madisar, she marched down the streets of Salem holding the fluttering tricolour to show her protest against foreign clothes. She was sent to Vellore prison.
Her endeavour to form the India Mahila Samaj was supported by Lalitha Samanna, Madhaviammal, Bhagavati Ammal and Sita Thatachari, the daughter of freedom fighter C. Vijayaraghavachariyar. But her incarceration stopped the other members from taking active part in the freedom movement. The Samaj lay dormant for 11 years.
In 1941, a young girl, Alamelu, rallied the members and revived it with the support of Seethalakshmi Ramaswamy, the founder of Sri Sarada educational institutions, Narmatha Bai, Rukmani Kuppanna and Nagalakshmi Chinnaiya Pillai.
From then, it never looked back. "In fact Rajagopalachariyar, Rukmani Arundale and Sarojini Varadappan were personally involved in the Salem samaj," says Dr. S. Lakshmi, former Vice chancellor of the Mother Teresa Women's University. Rajaji even donated a sum of Rs. 337 to the Samaj.
Women like Subbulakshmi, Saraswathi Muthusamy, Solachi Chockalingam, S. Ambujammal and novelist Y. Mu. Kothainayagi played significant roles in its development. Great men like Kamaraj, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, C. Subramaniam and other dignitaries graced its functions on various occasions.
The IWA celebrates its Platinum jubilee, on July 9 and 10, 2005, primarily to glorify a legacy, which has been studiously cultivated all these years without compromising the cultural identity and nationalistic fervour which "Khadi" Kamakshi" epitomised.
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