As I write this in 2017, Rajyalakshmi is the oldest living woman engineer who graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). She has the distinction of being the first woman to graduate with a telecommunications engineering degree, which was first introduced in India in 1945. Her life story is one of balancing a career spanning All India Radio, Kamala Nehru Polytechnic for Women (KNPW) in Hyderabad and a family life.
Rajyalakshmi was born on October 17, 1921, in a village called Alathur in the state of Kerala. She was the third in a family of 10 children born to Kalpathy V. Ananthakrishna Iyar and S. Madurambal. Rajyalakshmi’s father worked as a Civil Supervisor in Kerala. It is interesting that he received his diploma, also from CEG! Due to his job requirements, the family moved around a lot in Kerala. Some of Rajyalakshmi’s siblings died in infancy, while the others thrived and excelled in studies.
Rajyalakshmi finished her high school from Achutha Varrier High School (AV Higher Secondary School), Ponnani. She completed the first intermediate year in Brennen College, Tellicherry. Her father got a transfer at this time, and her second year was completed in Victoria College, Palghat.
In Rajyalakshmi’s community, it was customary for girls to study until a suitable marriage proposal came along (arranged marriages were the norm). Her elder sister got married when she was fifteen. At the same time, their father encouraged them to study well and become a doctor or engineer, irrespective of whether it was a son or daughter. Rajyalakshmi excelled in the sciences and decided to study engineering.
Rajyalakshmi had high ideals even as a very young girl. Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) were two of the Indian freedom fighters she felt inspired by. She went to their speeches and, at one of those, she wanted to donate her gold chain to the cause. She was gently dissuaded by her sister who reminded her that her parents may not be very happy about it. Instead, she ended up donating her eyeglasses.
Rajyalakshmi applied for admission as an undergraduate student into CEG 1944 and was accepted. However, housing was a problem. They approached John Jithendranath Rudra (J.J. Rudra, Principal, 1941-45, 1946-48) to discuss the possibility of accommodation in the huge principal’s quarters on campus. That discussion didn’t produce any results. May George (class of 1947) and two of the first batch of CEG women stayed in a women’s hostel in Little Mount, but unfortunately, the food available at this hostel was not suitable. As a strict vegetarian, Rajyalakshmi could not join her seniors in that hostel.
When everything seemed lost, they met the Civil Engineering Professor Seetharam. A compassionate man, he gave her a room in his house after consulting his wife. Rajyalakshmi could live in a room upstairs, with a small bathroom for a shower, and a tap for general use, accessible from the outside. As was customary in those days, the toilet was an outhouse.
Meals were the next concern. The school canteen was able to supply breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a very nominal sum of thirty rupees (Indian currency) per month. With basic needs taken care of, Rajyalakshmi could focus on getting a good engineering education. However, in her third-year Professor Seetharam left CEG, and she had to find other accommodations. She found a roommate in one of her juniors, Mary Mathew (class of 1949). They were able to stay together for two years in a room attached to a clinic in the campus.
Rajyalakshmi had at first chosen Electrical Engineering as her specialty. But with the introduction of Telecommunications Engineering in 1945, she had the opportunity to study a major that was new and exciting. In doing so, she made history as the first woman telecommunications engineer to graduate in all of India!
Rajyalakshmi’s first job after graduation was in Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) Limited. Subsequently, when she got a job offer from All India Radio (AIR) in New Delhi, her father encouraged her to switch jobs, since it was a more prestigious place to work. Rajyalakshmi joined AIR on November 30, 1948 (At age 96, she still remembers it to the date!). Her first job was as a sound engineer in the control room.
During her time in AIR, New Delhi, she had the opportunity to work on the technical aspects of recordings of some famous personalities including India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Pundit Ravi Shankar, Lata Mangeshkar (who wanted meticulous recordings, and demanded perfection), Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbalakshmi, and Melville D’Mello, the famous news reader of that time, and many more. Several of these work-encounters resulted in lifelong friendships. Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, the great violinist became a family friend.
Like all married women in those days, she followed her husband wherever he was transferred, first to Nagpur, back to New Delhi and then to Hyderabad. Arriving a few months after her husband in Hyderabad in 1966, she started her work in the AIR station there. Many of the transfers were made possible by her husband Lakshmana’s clout with the management of AIR and were not very welcome by the direct managers of Rajyalakshmi. But these transfers also speak to the tenacity of Rajyalakshmi in staying in her career, in spite of a lot of roadblocks.
Rajyalakshmi was deputed to be principal of Kamala Nehru Polytechnic for Women (KNPW) in 1970. During her tenure there, Rajyalakshmi started a new program on garment technology, as well as managed other existing programs such as civil engineering, electronics & communication engineering, architectural assistantship, computer and commercial practice, hotel management, and catering technology, and pharmacy. This promoted vocational technical education for women and widened their employment opportunities. She optimized and modernized the administration, accounts, and operations. It was a struggle to deal with the bureaucrats to get things done, but she persisted and dealt with all matters with great integrity and honesty. She improved the educational quality of students graduating from KNPW during her years there which made it a highly sought-after institution for admission.
Outside of her work at KNPW, she started a nursery school for the poor children living around the Polytechnic. Her compassion for the poor was well known in her community of friends and coworkers.
After her deputation to KNPW was completed in 1976, she went back to AIR. She retired from AIR as Assistant Station Engineer (Government of India Class 1 Officer) in October of 1981.
After retirement, she single-handedly founded Lakshmi Industrial Training Institute in Hyderabad. It was built on her work at KNPW of vocational training. She ran the Institute between1982-1986. She was able to help staff the Hindustan Cables branch that was founded in 1970 by Lakshmana with the able graduates from this institute who were skilled electricians, fitters, and machinists.
Her technical education was balanced by her love for performing music. Rajyalakshmi loved to sing, and she was quite good at it. Her son Ramakrishna describes his mother as someone who did not hesitate to take a chance. Even at the age of 70, she was game for parasailing and had to be dissuaded by her husband. She was multilingual and was fluent in English, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam.
Rajyalakshmi met her husband Lakshmana Reddi in CEG. They met when Lakshmana was recruited to tutor Rajyalakshmi on a subject she needed help with. Additionally, Rajyalakshmi was a very good singer in Carnatic Music, and Lakshmana played violin which brought them closer together. Lakshmana was a year senior in the Electrical Engineering program. After graduating he stayed on for a year in CEG as a lecturer.
It is an understatement to say that their marriage was controversial because it was not an arranged marriage, and they belonged to different castes. Rajyalakshmi had moved to New Delhi to join AIR and had accommodations in YWCA. Lakshmana followed her to New Delhi sometime after. They used to see each other in the India Coffee House. News of their meetings got back to Rajyalakshmi’s parents in Chennai, who promptly dispatched her brother to investigate. Theirs was an orthodox Brahmin family and she was showing intentions of marrying outside her caste. In spite of attempts to break up their relationship, including a discussion with Rajyalakshmi’s superior at AIR, the couple married in 1949 in New Delhi.
Rajyalakshmi has four children. The first son Ramakrishna Reddi is also a CEG alumnus. Indira Sastry, the second child, chose to become a doctor. Her medical degree is from Andhra Medical College (AMC) in Visakhapatnam. The third child Ravi Reddi is an engineer, with an undergraduate degree from Nagarjunasagar Engineering College in Hyderabad. The last son Sitaram Reddi graduated from Nizam College in Osmania University in Hyderabad with a commerce degree.
After her retirement, Rajyalakshmi divided her time between India and USA, going back and forth. Three of her children live in the USA, and she wanted to spend time with them. Once her husband passed away in 1999, she made the USA her permanent home, after becoming a US citizen. These days she lives with her daughter Indira. Rajyalakshmi is a source of inspiration and wisdom in her Asian Indian community. Her influence in her local community is such that a psychologist named her clinic after her!
A life of balance
Rajyalakshmi is now 96 years old, and her health is fragile. I had the honor to speak with her over the phone, with her son Ravi guiding the exchange. She wanted to know why I am writing about her. She chuckled at my answer that I wanted young women to know about her life as someone who balanced her family life with her career and never quit leveraging her CEG education. Married to a brilliant engineer who went far in his career, she put hers in second place, yet managed to have a satisfying, and interesting career and life. I hope her balancing act teaches all young women who have doubts about having a successful work life to know that it can be done.
This article would not have been possible without Rajyalakshmi’s children, Ramakrishna, Ravi, and Indira who graciously gave me their time to talk about their mother. Ravi also reached out to his father’s colleague and friend Rama Mohan Rao, who provided valuable input on Rajyalakshmi’s career.
Babuji Reddy (class of 1970) had documented many stories about CEG alumni and shared them with his classmates, and eventually, it landed in my hands and provided many of the details about Rajyalakshmi’s years at CEG.
Rajyalakshmi’s sister Sarada (class of 1953) shared details about her parents, early life, and pictures included in this article. You will be reading about this gracious lady soon.
This is the fifth write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG women.
My goal is simply to encourage more girls to study engineering & science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of the world. I am hoping stories of the CEG women will inspire many to do so.
I will be writing more such posts here, and then collect them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.