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Trail-blazer in women's education

The Queen Mary's College, since its inception in 1914, has played a crucial role in women's education and empowerment. Its scholars, spread all over the world, grow nostalgic when they talk about their alma mater.



Founder-principal Dorothy de la Hey

Where once were barren spaces,
Now our stately buildings stand
There has grown a pleasant garden
From that wilderness of sand,
And Queen Mary's stands triumphant
On the Mylaporean Strand.

YOUR HEART never failed to race as you got off the bus to walk into the `Queen among colleges'. Just out of school, you felt like an explorer stepping into the unknown. If you had an attack of unease, you also had a sense of anticipation. And you had excellent company. A cool morning sea breeze sailed you in, the spreading trees shaded your path, the long walkways encouraged exercise and contemplation, the heritage buildings resonated with the history of learning. You had teachers fired by a passion to make you a name to reckon with.

In 1964, when the college celebrated its 50th year, it had trail-blazed women's education in the South. In the post-Independence years, girls from the middle-class came in droves and carried back the college's message: Women had rights. In the new millennium, the 4000 students of Queen Mary's College are from the socially and economically disadvantaged sections — first generation learners. Added to them are the physically challenged, who have found in its vast compound hope for a future and the confidence to get there. There has been no let-up in QMC's commitment to play a crucial role in women's emancipation.

In 1917, Dorothy de la Hey, founder-Principal, wrote in the first college magazine, "There is no doubt that this college is destined to have an influence on the future of Indian womanhood. How anxiously and yet how hopefully I wait to see the assurance that the influence will be good." Her hopes have not been belied. On July 14, 1914, the Government of Madras opened the college on an experimental basis and called it `The Madras College for Women', a name changed to honour the British queen. De la Hey found a fitting motto in the words, "Commonsense and Consideration" and the emblem instituted in the golden jubilee year stands for loyalty to the university, the state and the nation.

"It was a very modest beginning," wrote De la Hey for the Diamond Jubilee souvenir in 1974. "With the vigorous support of the governor, Lord Pentland, new buildings soon rose up, first Pentland House, then Stone House, then Jeypore House to link up the two, also a kitchen block. By the time I left, there were Physics and Chemistry laboratories." And the science students didn't have to make the jutka trip to Presidency anymore.

Opening a hostel brought a slew of problems to the Principal. "Hindu parents were at first doubtful about sending their daughters as residents. Because of this, it was necessary to make strict rules about conduct, going out, etc. I expect present-day hostel residents smile at what their grandmothers tell them!"

"The small numbers in my time made us feel very much as one family. It was a real mix-up of communities and this was of great benefit to all concerned. I shall never forget those years in Madras, with their trials and successes but their never-failing interest." She couldn't make it for the Diamond Jubilee; she was 90 by then. But she wrote from England, "Much has been accomplished by the graduates it has sent out. Long may it continue to flourish and to be a boon to India and the women of India."

`First' and `only' describe the culture established by its administrators and imbibed by the young women crossing its portals — the first women's college in Madras; one that pioneered courses in Home Science (BSc) and Household Arts (Intermediate); the only women's college where 65 per cent of the students are on a scholarship; the only government college in the whole of the State to award a Bachelor's degree in Music, Travel and Tourism Management, Nutrition and Dietetics; where girls can get that rare degree in Physical Education; where functional English is a vocational course; where you have a choice of 18 under-graduate departments, 15 post-graduate ones, 9 for M.Phil. and 3 for PhD.; Arts and Science courses in both English and Tamil. And thanks to stalwarts like Irawathy, a special place for Geography. Few know a primary school on the premises teaches poor children."QMC takes pride in bringing out the best in our women," says Principal Padmini. "Its scholars are in all fields spread all over the world." Take education: Rajammal Devdas, Vasanthi Devi and Elizaba Zachriah. Medicine: Mathangi Ramakrishnan, Suniti Solomon. Music: Nadhabramam Vidya Shankar, Charumathi Ramachandran, Vani Jayaram, Neeraja and Narmada. Social Service: Meena Muthiah, Maragatham Chandrasekar, Service: Mrs. P.P. Naidu, Sumangali Chettur, Satyabhama, Shanta Sheela Nair, Lalitha Hariharan, Lakshmi Menon, Lakshmi Sehgal, Selvi Das and R. Sivabogam, the first woman C.A, ... the list is long.

In 1944, the only place Mano Baktavatsalam, social activist, was allowed to visit was her beloved QMC. "I knew no other world," she says. Nirmala Thiagarajan, whose 30-year relationship with QMC as a student, teacher and Principal goes far deeper than the number suggests, recalls the Home Science exchange programme with the University of Tennessee. "After our training at Knoxville, we returned to start the PG course in Home Science. We had Dr. S. Radhakrishnan for our Golden Jubilee celebrations and Indira Gandhi graced the Diamond Jubilee function. Arranging security for VIPs was training by itself."

Nithya Balaji of NGO `Nalamthana' says, "QMC taught me to stand for what I feel is right. It is here that I first breathed the fresh air of women's empowerment."

Malathi Rangaswami, VP, Madras Music Academy is succinct: "We are where we are today because of QMC."

Others also have put down their feelings on paper. T. S. Kanaka (first woman neurosurgeon): I joined the college the year Independence was declared. On my request, Principal Nallamuthu Ramamurthi admitted my sister. I was a first-time hostelite. The Principal gave me company and comfort whenever I felt homesick. I wish to stress the relationship between the seniormost staff of the college and the juniormost student."

An interesting sidelight: In the 1980s, a student happened to fall when MGR's motorcade was passing by. At once, the CM ordered PTC buses to ply through the college with a stop inside. The thrilled students nicknamed the girl MGR Vasantha!

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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