Women and the Institute

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Students outside the first women’s hostel, c. 1945. (L-R) Rajeswari Chatterjee, Roshan Irani, M Premabai, Miriam George and Violet D’Souza (Photos: APC, IISc)

On the day IISc first opened its doors to students, as the Institute’s Annual Report for 1911 tells us, one hostel block was ready for occupation. What the Annual Report doesn’t mention, however, is that the “students’ hostel” was only meant for men. In 1909, plans had been made for staff quarters, two blocks of student quarters, quarters for “servants, sweepers and maistries”, and even quarters for police. But it would take around three more decades for a women’s hostel to feature in the Institute’s plans.

While there are no records specifically identifying the first woman to ever have enrolled at IISc, records from 1920 mention a “Miss M. M. Mehta”, and those from 1922 a “Miss R. K. Christie”. After a long spell, the next woman to be admitted to the Institute appears to be “Miss K. Bhagvat”, who joined in 1933.

Kamala Bhagvat (also spelled Bhagwat), later Kamala Sohonie, had just graduated with a first-class degree from Bombay University when she sought admission to IISc as a research student in biochemistry. CV Raman, who was Director at the time, infamously denied Sohonie entry because of her gender. It was only after great persistence from Sohonie and her family that he agreed to admit her, with humiliating restrictions. It was a slight that Sohonie never forgot.

Years later, at a function organised by the Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA), she is reported to have said: “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a manner?”

Sohonie would leave IISc in 1936, and in 1939, she would go on to earn a PhD at Cambridge. She is often referred to as the first Indian woman to receive a doctorate in science, but it was Janaki Ammal, a botanist, who earned a DSc (equivalent to a PhD) from the University of Michigan in 1931. Sohonie is also sometimes referred to as the first woman student to ever be admitted to IISc, but records of MM Mehta and RK Christie show that this isn’t true.

Raman, who in public championed women’s education, didn’t make life easy for the women who studied under him. He would eventually admit three women into his lab at IISc, but was strict about not allowing them to mix with their fellow men students, as his former student Anna Mani’s account in Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender, and Modern Science in India by Abha Sur, shows.

This photo of the Department of Physics in 1975 with 78 people in it has only three women: “Miss S. S. Kulkarni” on the extreme left, “Dr. Mrs. Kumari Santosh” towards the right, and “Mrs. C. R. Varalakshmi” on the extreme right

The late 1930s and the 1940s saw the entry of a few more  women to IISc, which slowly drove the need to have more infrastructure for women – including accommodation and women’s toilets. The first mention of the Ladies’ Hostel in annual reports is in 1942, listed under expenses. M Visvesvaraya, President of IISc’s Court at the time, mentions the hostel in his address to the Court the same year.

The first female faculty member at IISc appears to have been Dorothy Norris, appointed Reader in Applied Chemistry in 1917, and made Assistant Professor of Biochemistry the following year (she would go on to be Founder-Director of the Indian Lac Research Institute). Two other women, Dr H Kale and G Clairon, taught European languages. The first Indian woman member of faculty appears to have been Rajeswari Chatterjee, who was made Lecturer in the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering (ECE) in 1953. She was also the first woman to chair a department at the Institute, heading ECE from 1979 to 1981. It is only after 2000 that more women were appointed department heads, although their numbers remain low.

Some departments have always attracted more women – such as those in the Division of Biological Sciences. Some, as in the engineering stream, have very few. The departments of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, set up in the 1940s, both hired their first female member of faculty in the last decade. The Department of Mathematics currently has only one female member of faculty, and the Materials Engineering (previously, Metallurgy) Department is one of a few on campus that have never had women faculty members at all. Even today, the number of women in decision-making bodies such as IISc’s Court and Council remains low. IISc has had very few women Deans, and has never had a woman as its Director. The latest issue of Kernel shows that out of 42 faculty members hired in 2017-2018, only 4 are women.

Ahead of the Institute’s centenary celebrations, IISc put together two documents – one in 2009 called “Down the Memory Lane: Recollections of IISc Alumni” published by the Alumni Association, and one in 2008 called “Reminiscences” published by APC. In these collections, we get glimpses of what it was like for women on campus. GV Kamala, who was at the Department of Management Studies from 1965 to 1975, describes the women’s hostel as a “small house-like building” with a common room stocked with fruits and flowers sent over from Raman Research Institute by Mrs Raman (whose portrait hung in the hostel), with a note attached, saying, “Help yourself”.

DK Padma, who was at the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry from 1967 to 1994, talks about her initial encounter with MRA Rao, the head of the department, who asked to meet her along with her husband and said she would be admitted on the condition that she completed the course of 5-6 years and did not have a child during that period, “as in giving me admission he was curtailing a boy’s career”. Revathi Narayan, who studied at the Molecular Biophysics Unit from 1974-79, initially sought admission to the Department of Biochemistry, where she was asked, “So, you are married, will you leave half way to start a family?” She continues, “No doubt the learned Professor had decided that principles of ‘equal opportunity’ were best left in legal tomes like the Constitution of India and were not seriously meant to be put into practice!”

Kalyani Vijayan, who was at the Department of Physics in the 1960s, wrote that there were so few women at the time (around 30) that Nalini Dhawan, the Director’s wife, knew most of them individually. She also talks about “dear old Ganga”, who did all of the housekeeping and even washed the students’ clothes in the hostel. Ganga serves as a reminder of all the other working women on campus – in housekeeping, in landscaping, in administration, in finance, in the library and other non-science tasks – whose work has kept the Institute running, but whose names are rarely recorded.

Here are the accounts of six women who studied at IISc at a time when women studying science at all was unusual. We were fortunate to have been able to interview Violet Bajaj, one of the women in the iconic photo taken outside the first women’s hostel around 1945, in person at her home in Delhi. The stories by Rajeswari Chatterjee, Rajeswari Chattopadhyay, HK Anasuya Devi, Chanchal Uberoi, and Renuka Ravindran are taken from “Down the Memory Lane” and “Reminiscences”, and in some cases have been edited for clarity and length.

Violet Bajaj

Rajeswari Chatterjee

Chanchal Uberoi

Rajeswari Chattopadhyay

Renuka Ravindran

HK Anasuya Devi

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