Kamala Devi Subrahmanyan who graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1953 entered the technical field with the noble intention of helping her father support his family. She achieved her aim, and in the process had a long and successful career. The career details she provided from her memory after thirty plus years of retirement felt like she had kept notes in a diary, and I found it hard to condense it to just a few paragraphs. Kamala had so many interesting anecdotes around the limitations of technology in her time. It was tempting enough to start writing about the art of radio broadcasting in India during the 1950s through the 1980s seen through the eyes of a meticulous professional.
Kamala was born in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, on the 5th of July 1930. Her father was a Joint Registrar of Cooperative Society, a government body in Madras (as Chennai was then called) and her mother was a housewife. She is the eldest in a family of eight, with four sisters and three brothers.
Kamala attended C.S.I. Ewart Matric Higher Secondary School in Madras and then completed her Intermediate from Women’s Christian College. Kamala’s professional education was motivated by the fact that her father was the only breadwinner of the family. She wanted to share his financial load and decided to get an education in medicine or engineering in order to earn a good living. Her grandfather, uncle, and aunt were all doctors and encouraged her to study medicine. However, Kamala’s preference for mathematics over chemistry, as well as her aversion to dissecting frogs pushed her towards engineering.
She applied to CEG and was admitted into the telecommunications engineering undergraduate program in 1949.
Kamala started her studies in CEG with one other woman student, Sarada. This was the first time she was in a primarily men’s college, but that didn’t make her uncomfortable. She says “Maybe it was because I was brought up in a family where my sisters and I were treated no different from my brothers. We were considered as important as boys”.
Having Sarada as her batch mate also helped. The men generally behaved well towards the two women except that they occasionally aimed paper arrows at the back of their heads. This mischief also stopped when the women ignored the act.
Kamala remembers that on the days she had practicums in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, which usually started at 7 AM, she would leave her house by 5 AM to allow for the travel time to the college. She took a suburban train to a station near the college, and then a city bus. If the bus was late, her only choice was to walk via a shortcut behind the college.
Kamala also remembers the smithy (metal forging) class where they worked on converting a square head of a bolt into a hexagonal one, with Kamala holding the metal bolt over the burning coals, and Sarada wielding the hammer and taking turns. In the survey class, each of the two women was part of a four-person team, sharing the carrying of the staff and the chain. Kamala took an active part in extracurricular activities in college such as the technical exhibition.
She graduated with her undergraduate degree in Telecommunications Engineering in 1953.
Kamala joined the Madras State Broadcasting after graduation. Here Kamala was responsible for building the radio sets as well as checking the quality of the components that went into them. In August of 1954, Kamala received a job offer from All India Radio (AIR) in New Delhi and left the Madras State Broadcasting. Her entire career was spent in various capacities in this broadcasting organization, one of the largest in the world. Kamala’s work took her to the regional engineering offices (East West, South, and North) at various times, in addition to the headquarters.
Her first assignment was in the nerve center of the entire AIR, the control room, which had twelve studios. In addition to monitoring the controls and making sure the transmissions were smooth Kamala also dealt with the technical aspects of recording. She documented the operations for the benefit of the maintenance office. Dignitaries including India’s Prime Minister came to the studios to record and this livened up the otherwise routine operations.
Kamala’s father passed away just four months after she had joined AIR in New Delhi. This prompted Kamala to request a transfer to Madras in order to be close to her family. As a result, Kamala worked in the Madras offices of AIR from 1956 until 1959. Then she moved back to the Broadcasting House in New Delhi, taking on additional responsibilities, first in the control room, and later in the recording unit. She perfected the craft of writing to the bureaucratic Indian Ministry such that the communication was precise and to the point thus avoiding a lot of back and forth correspondence. Kamala worked in the New Delhi office until 1964. After a brief time off for the birth of her daughter, she returned to work and was posted to the office of the maintenance engineer where her work involved dealing with spare parts at various centers until 1967.
In 1967 Kamala was posted to The Transcription & Program Exchange Unit in New Delhi under a service called Vividh Bharati. She was in charge of the high-speed tape duplication as well as the studios where the Vividh Bharati programs were recorded. For the first time here she had a large team to manage. During this time Kamala had the opportunity to travel by train from New Delhi to Rameswaram with India’s President V.V. Giri and supervise the recording services. It was quite a challenge to set up the recording instruments in the constraints of what was available in Indian Railways, but it was done with success. After three years with Vividh Bharati, in 1970 Kamala was promoted and posted to a tape recording unit. She served there until 1974.
In 1974, Kamala was again promoted and posted to the Planning and Development (P&D) unit in the AIR headquarters. In addition to being responsible for designing the broadcasting studios, she undertook inspection of equipment as well. Kamala was not shy about calling out the defects she saw. She remembers an instance when she found the recording consoles from Bharat Electronics Ltd were barely within specification tolerance and rejected them. She was a stickler for quality.
Between 1977 and 1982 Kamala had the opportunity to work in the west and east regional engineering offices. Her work expanded to managing the studio installations and associated processes. Under her supervision of the purchasing activities, the standards for all materials were specified in detail and the quality of materials became better. In the Eastern operations of AIR, there were many stations in remote regions such as Imphal and Aizawl. The supply of materials to these remote stations was made difficult by their locations as well as the political instability of the regions. An incident where the middleman did not deliver materials to specifications motivated Kamala to find a way to source the material directly from the manufacturer which allowed AIR to enforce strict quality standards.
From 1982 to 1985, Kamala was posted to AIR Calcutta after a promotion to Superintending Engineer. Her responsibilities spanned the studios, Transmitters and receiving centers in various locations.
In 1985, Kamala retired from AIR after thirty-one years of service.
Reflections on her career
For nearly thirty-one years, Kamala worked in various capacities in AIR. Her responsibilities during those years spanned technical work, administration, and people management.
Kamala credits her ability to jump into today’s connected world of laptops and smartphones and social media to the knowledge she gained in her years working in a technical capacity. Her administrative work helped her navigate the numerous bureaucracies she encountered in her personal life. She says she continues to learn from her children and grandchildren.
During most of her career except in the Madras operations, she was the lone woman engineer in AIR. She says: “At no time did I face any gender discrimination nor did I ever feel insecure, even when I had to be alone in the engineer’s booth of the annex studios in AIR”.
Kamala recalls working with Rajyalakshmi (CEG 1948) who was five years senior to her. They worked together in the control room of the broadcasting house in New Delhi for a short time before Rajyalakshmi was transferred to Hyderabad. Kamala says Rajalakshmi was like a sister to her.
When she was in AIR New Delhi, she had a few fellow women engineers who were quite junior to her. She shared her experiences with them and coached them to face difficult bosses and to take the initiative to do the work that had to be done even when there was no support from their managers.
Kamala says she enjoyed working under tough task masters. She says “I learned a lot and learned to be perfect. Wherever I worked under hard task masters I received a good report. I received a lukewarm report when I worked under those who were not even aware of the work I was doing.”
Kamala was fortunate to have met great Indian artists such as Pundit Ravi Shankar, Emani Shankara Shastri, Balamuralikrishna, Handel Manuel and many others. She enjoyed lifelong friendships with two of her colleagues until they passed away. Kamala says working in New Delhi helped her develop an appreciation for North Indian classical music.
The education Kamala’s father gave her helped her to land a good job and help her mother and the rest of the family financially.
All of Kamala’s sisters had long careers. One of the sisters was an administrative officer in Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), another in Government General Hospital, and a third in Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI); the fourth sister was a teacher. One of her brothers was a sports editor for The Hindu. Another brother was a geologist. Kamala’s youngest brother is a retired veterinary doctor. Only two of her sisters and one of the brothers are alive today.
Kamala married a CEG classmate of her choice in 1958. Subrahmanyan was very supportive of Kamala’s career and provided all the help needed when Kamala had to work different shifts in AIR or perform weekend duties. He had a successful career in Indian Railways, retiring in 1990 as General Manager of the Western Railways division.
Both AIR, as well as Indian Railways where Kamala’s husband worked, were quite considerate and helped them manage their respective careers by transferring them to the same location whenever possible. Even when they had to live in different cities, they managed their family life together well.
Kamala has two daughters both of whom graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, (IIM), Calcutta.
After retirement, Kamala’s time was spent dealing with the administrative aspects of her mother’s death and helping her daughters settle down. During her husband’s time as the General Manager in Western Railways, Kamala was active as the president of the local Mahila Samiti (women’s group associated with Indian Railways). She was involved in many social service activities, such as visiting the railway hospitals to cheer up the patients, visiting railway schools in the different divisions to encourage the children, and fundraising for the welfare of the railway staff.
In Madras, where Kamala settled down with her husband after her retirement, they managed the homeowners’ association of the small apartment complex they lived in. Since retirement, Kamala has traveled all over the world; she credits her children’s families for giving her the opportunity to do so. For the last few years, she has been living mostly with her daughter’s family in Dubai, though she visits Madras every year in order to deal with various administrative and tax matters.
One of the highlights of a visit to Madras in recent years was the alumni reunion of the CEG class of 1953. She and Sarada attended the event and had a lot of fun talking to the current generation of engineering students of CEG. (See the picture above.)
A Versatile Telecommunications Engineer with Passion for Details
Kamala is a role model for all engineers who care about technical excellence. She explained her work philosophy thus: “In the workplace, there is a perception that some jobs are important and others are not. But I feel that in all organizations every job matters. Some jobs may get recognition, while others may not. I believe that, if one gets involved in the work, even a job which may appear mundane can be made interesting by identifying ways to improve the job and deliver value.” Her work ethics and her passion for quality are traits that anyone who wants to succeed in life should take to heart.
Saravan Krishna (CEG 2015) provided me with the contact information for Kamala. Without his help, I would not have been able to get in touch with her.
Kamala is a researcher’s godsend. She sent me copious notes from her memory on her career and answered my numerous questions via email and telephone. She always responded to my emails promptly. It is a privilege to write about her.
This is the eighth write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.
You can read the life stories of other CEG alumnae here:
My goal is simply to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and stay in it, and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our 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 will be collecting them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.