Sundari Vellayan who graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1954 is an inspiring role model for all girls and women. She overcame many adversities in her life to have a successful career and a fulfilling personal life. She was unassuming, led a simple life, and was passionate about the belief inculcated by her parents that what boys can do, so can girls! An ex-colleague called her the “Revolutionary Woman” who embodied self-confidence, relentless devotion to service, integrity, discipline, and unabated courage. Continue reading, and you will see why.
Sundari was born in Madras (now called Chennai), Tamil Nadu on June 21st, 1931 to parents from a lower middle-class family. Her father Annamalai Mudaliar was a clerk in the district taluk (an administrative unit) office. Her mother Radha Bai was a house wife. Sundari was the third child with two brothers and four sisters. Radha Bai was determined to educate all her children irrespective of their gender. Considering that her children were growing up in the ‘30s and ‘40s when girls were married off as soon as a good match was found, this was a very progressive view.
Sundari sailed through Government Secondary and Training School, Vellore in 1948 with very high scores in the SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) exams. After completing the Intermediate program in 1950 at Voorhees College in Vellore she secured admissions to Madras Medical College as well as CEG. Sundari chose to study engineering because it felt natural to her. Her daughter Madhavi had this to say: “My mother was a bold, self-confident, self-assured lady who always thought that any job a man can do, women can do better! The thought of pursuing, what was then perceived to be a male dominant field, wouldn’t have fazed her at all. In fact, knowing my mother, she would have welcomed the challenge!”
Sundari joined CEG in 1950 as an undergraduate student in telecommunications engineering.
Sundari graduated from CEG in 1954 with a degree in telecommunications engineering and joined Coimbatore Government Polytechnic as a lecturer in Radio Engineering. In 1957 she left this post to join the Madras offices of All India Radio (AIR). She was transferred to the AIR station at Coimbatore in 1967 and later promoted to Assistant Station Engineer.
After working in AIR for a few years, in 1970 she accepted an offer to become the principal of the Government Polytechnic for Women in Madras (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women). In addition to dealing with the many responsibilities of running the Polytechnic and dealing with several teenagers at home she studied for and received an MBA in 1979 when she was over forty years of age. She served as the principal of State Institute of Commerce Education for a year in 1979.
In the years of leading women’s education in the state government organization, Sundari earned a reputation as a take-charge leader with excellent administrative capabilities. In 1980, this prompted the educational trust run by Periyar Self Respect propaganda Institution to recruit her to head a polytechnic for rural women in Thanjavur. Sundari nurtured the Periyar Centenary Polytechnic College from a small establishment located in a makeshift residential house to one that grew into a college with a great reputation at Periyar Nagar, Vallam, on the outskirts of Thanjavur.
Sundari put her heart and soul into this Polytechnic. She was very good at recruiting passionate and hardworking teachers. Her daughter Madhavi who was thirteen at that time remembers how Sundari would leave early in the morning for her work and return very late at night, sometimes as late as 11 pm.
Indira Premkumar (CEG 1966) who was running the Electronics & Communication Engineering branch in Government Polytechnic, Trichy, remembers the development of the Periyar Polytechnic. Sundari was resourceful in obtaining access to the Trichy Polytechnic electronics lab for her students when she started the program in electronics and communication. Indira recalls being an external examiner at Periyar Polytechnic and pairing up with Sundari as the internal examiner.
The Polytechnic at Vallam stands as a testament to Sundari’s hard work, dedication, and tenacity. The library at this institute was named “Principal Sundari Vellayan Library” to honor her dedication and hard work.
In 1984 Sundari left the Periyar Polytechnic to serve as principal at the Government Polytechnic for Women (GPCW) in Coimbatore until 1989. In 1989, Sundari came back to Government Polytechnic for Women in Madras as principal.
Under Sundari’s administration, the cosmetology program in the Women’s Polytechnic in Madras was started. She was responsible for conducting a short course on computer programming and programming methodology under the continuing education program. A post diploma course in computer applications was started in Coimbatore under her administration.
Throughout her educational career, there were incidents of student strikes and labor strikes in Madras and Coimbatore. She handled these very gracefully. A particularly stressful time was when she was asked to go on administrative leave after students at the Periyar Polytechnic at Vallam enacted a political mock assembly. The onus was on Sundari to fight back and prove that the students were only exercising their right to free speech in the largest democracy of the world.
During her tenure as the principal, she was also responsible for the women’s hostel as the warden. She counseled many young girls who had difficulty mastering the courses or had difficult home situations. When they were ready to give up, she supported them with her time and advice to stand on their own legs. In the many graduation ceremonies she presided over, she would passionately implore the graduates to put their education to good use, find a good job, seek independence and stay in the job. She would also add somewhat jokingly that, if it came down to a choice between husband and job, to choose the job, reiterating the importance of job security and financial independence for women.
An organization in Tamil Nadu called Nalvazhi Nilayam honored her with the award “Aasiriya Maamani” (Great Jewel of a Teacher) for her achievements.
Sundari’s influence on those she mentored has been long lasting. A teacher she hired in the Periyar Polytechnic and mentored, P. Subramanian, sent me a beautiful eulogy in Tamil.
After a very successful career, Sundari retired in 1991.
Sundari was the breadwinner in her family. She stayed unmarried until 1963 when she was in her 30s so that she could help her parents and educate her two younger sisters. Sundari married Chidambaram Vellayan who was from a village called Aragalur near Salem in Tamil Nadu. He was a Tamil professor and scholar in Presidency College in Madras. Sundari’s three daughters Parvathi, Madhavi, and Radha were born in 1963, ’66 and ’69.
Sundari’s mother died in 1965 and her father within six months after. Sundari and Vellayan took responsibility of Sundari’s two unmarried sisters still in school at that time. They supported them through completion of their education and also saw through their marriages. Vellayan was so impressed by Sundari and her sisters’ educational accomplishments that he wanted to emulate his father-in-law in having five daughters! Sundari’s two sisters studied medicine and became doctors and the other two sisters went into teaching and became headmistresses. Her elder brother worked in income tax office and younger brother was a state bank branch manager.
In 1973 the family was struck with disaster when Vellayan died of a heart attack. Sundari showed great strength and courage in this tragic situation by returning to work on the eleventh day after Vellayan’s death. In addition to working, she raised her daughters, who were under ten when Vellayan died, by herself. When their father was alive, the parents wished for each of their daughters to become a doctor, an engineer and a lawyer. With their mother’s strong support and guidance, Parvathi went on to become an engineer. Madhavi and Radha became doctors. Sundari’s daughters say that there was never a longing for a son in their family and that their mother was very proud of what her daughters have accomplished. They remember how Sundari regarded education as the greatest wealth and this has stayed with them for life.
Sundari not only brought up her three daughters on her own but also raised two nephews and a niece and educated them. Madhavi says their house was like a mini-dorm, bustling with all the youngsters. Even though Sundari’s sisters felt she was taking on a lot after becoming a widow, she was determined to help the extended family and carried on her responsibilities as a single mother.
Sundari took to heart the ideals of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy (a passionate social activist who was a strong proponent of women’s rights) on caste-based discrimination, rationalism, self-respect, and treatment of women. As a strong believer in women’s equality, she wholeheartedly opposed the dowry system. Sundari would openly declare to the groom’s family that there will be no dowry and that the education she provided to her daughters was the greatest gift she could give. Coming from a widow, with no male support, with three daughters to marry off this took some real courage and conviction.
Sundari served as an honorary board member in the Periyar Centenary Polytechnic College after her retirement. She attended board meetings regularly and provided advice.
Starting in 2008 Sundari began dividing her time between India and the USA, where her daughters lived. She was a passionate believer in remaining active and fit as long as possible. Even in her 80s, she continued to be independent and self-sufficient. She remained physically and mentally active, participating in cookery challenges (and winning prizes!), engaging herself in beadwork and distributing gifts to family and friends and enjoying Sudoku challenges. She passed away on July 1, 2017.
Passionate Educator with strong convictions
Sundari was brought up to believe in the equality of women. She took this belief and made it her mission to be a passionate advocate for women’s education and empowerment. She helped hundreds of women. Her support of women spanned financial, social and emotional well-being. She was also known to be a staunch supporter of unskilled laborers, both at work and at home. Life threw her a number of challenges including making her the sole support for her family with three young daughters. Sundari’s resilience is remarkable in the face of such emotional turbulence. Women everywhere can look at Sundari’s life story and derive inspiration to overcome obstacles in their lives.
Pagalavan Krishnamoorthy, Sundari’s nephew, and a CEG alumnus (1984) saw my post about the project and wrote to me about his aunt’s death in July of 2017. He introduced me to Sundari’s daughters. Without this first connection, I had no place to start this article.
Sundari’s daughter Parvathi, Madhavi and Radha took time from their busy lives to provide details of Sundari’s life, patiently answered my questions, and provided the wonderful pictures in this article. Their mother would have been very proud of the way they explained her work and life. Without their help, this article could not have been written.
This is the ninth 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.