Sulochana graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1962. She had a very successful career in civil engineering in the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) becoming their first woman Chief Engineer in Civil Designs and continues to lead a very successful family life. As a young woman in the first year of her career, she declared she was up for any challenges in a field that was exclusively men’s at the time. With her hard work, sincerity, intelligence, and integrity, she demonstrated exactly that while continuing to nurture her family. Her life story is an inspiration to all women who wonder how they can do it all. She couldn’t have done it without the support of her husband and other family members; therein lies a lesson for the larger society.
Sulochana was born in Cuddalore, South Arcot District, Tamil Nadu on 18th May 1941. Her father P.Ramachandra Iyer was the Principal of The Hindu College, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, for over eighteen years. Later, in 1954, he became the Principal of Besant Theosophical College, Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. Sulochana’s mother Seethammal was a housewife. Of their fourteen children, only seven survived. Sulochana was the fourth. She came after two brothers and had two younger brothers and two younger sisters.
Sulochana attended St. Anne’s Girls Secondary School in Cuddalore, and after completing the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (S.S.L.C) exam in 1956, joined Stella Maris College in Madras (Chennai) for the Pre-University Course (P.U.C). Her family was in Cuddalore, and hence Sulochana and her siblings were entrusted to the care of her uncle during their college studies at Madras.
While being very conservative and orthodox, Ramachandra Iyer was quite broad-minded when it came to educating all of his children equally, irrespective of gender. He pushed aside the opposition from the extended family and insisted that Sulochana get a professional education. She was exposed to engineering early on, with her brother already studying to be a civil engineer at CEG. Her ambition was to become an engineer, following in the footsteps of her brother who was four years older than her. In 1957, Sulochana applied to CEG and was admitted to the undergraduate program in civil engineering.
Sulochana was one of two women who joined CEG in 1957. They were among more than two hundred male students.
Sulochana had to use the public bus to commute to the campus. Usually, the buses stopped outside the campus, but during the rainy season the driver took pity and would drive inside the campus to drop her at the building entrance. Sulochana’s curriculum did not have the civil engineering survey class in the first year but at the Principal’s request, she attended the course along with senior Parvathi and classmate Narayani.
Sulochanais was trained in the classical Bharatanatyam dance. She participated in the CEG Arts Festival by giving dance performances.
Sulochana remembers that her classmates were very friendly and helpful. The professors were supportive and watched over their welfare.
Sulochana graduated in 1962 from CEG with a civil engineering degree. She received job offers from the state Public Works Department (PWD) as well as the Electricity Board (TNEB). Based on her perceptions of the prospects for career growth, Sulochana joined TNEB as Assistant Engineer. She was posted to the headquarters in Madras (Chennai) in the design wing, working on hydro-electric projects which included Kodayar and Kundah; and Lower Mettur barrage works and Kadamparai pumped storage scheme.
That same year, Sulochana was featured in an issue of the Tamil magazine Anandha Vikatan (you can read about it in the article on Parvathi). She was interviewed along with three other CEG alumnae, Mary Mathew, Parvathi and classmate Narayani, for an article on gender equality. Sulochana was proud to be the only woman from the region of South Arcot in TNEB and claimed that, given a chance, she was ready for any fieldwork.
At this time, women’s polytechnic colleges were being established to educate women in technical fields and all women engineers in the government services were deputed to work in the polytechnics. In December 1964, Sulochana was deputed to the Government Polytechnic for Women in Coimbatore as Assistant Lecturer in Civil Engineering. She worked alongside another CEG alumna Mary Mathew, helping her build the polytechnic’s new location. She moved to Madurai Polytechnic in 1968. In 1976, she got transferred to Madras Government Polytechnic for Women (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women) as head of the civil engineering section where she worked until 1978. While there, she joined the postgraduate program in structural engineering at CEG and received her master’s degree. She credits the support of her family, especially her aunt and husband for being able to do this while working.
After her stint at Madras Government Polytechnic for Women, Sulochana went back to work in TNEB. She was promoted as Executive Engineer/Civil in 1986. In this position, she was responsible for purchasing, vendor management, and contract execution oversight. Additionally, she was responsible for the design of the powerhouse site for the Parsons Valley and other hydroelectric projects.
In 1994 Sulochana became the Superintending Engineer (SE)/Civil Coimbatore Water Supply Scheme. True to her words spoken in the interview with Anandha Vikatan in 1962, she took on fieldwork. She oversaw the execution of the scheme, which required drawing water through a thirty-four-kilometer long tunnel from the Paralayar powerhouse to Coimbatore city. She was also in charge of the renovation of Kadamparai powerhouse after a fire hazard.
Back in the headquarters in Chennai, she was posted as SE/Investigation where she was responsible for the feasibility studies for all sizes of hydroelectric and thermal projects; and getting the approval of TNEB, the government of Tamil Nadu, and the government of India. The studies required arriving at the most economical scheme for deep forest areas taking into consideration all the alternatives.
A former colleague, Karpagavinayagam, CE/Civil Design, under whom Sulochana worked when she was SE/Investigation, had this to say about her:
“She took the initiative to solve one of the outstanding issues in the field that was persistent for a long time. She used to visit the worksite even in the dead of night when the circumstances warranted.”
In 1996, Sulochana was promoted to Chief Engineer (CE)/Civil and took on two major responsibilities at the field office of Masinagudi. One of them was Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project (PUSHEP), which was an underground power project; and the other was the Parsons Valley Hydro Electric Project. Each of these projects presented several civil engineering challenges. In the PUSHEP, the challenge included unexpected rock falls and the enormous size of the powerhouse. In the Parsons Valley project, due to the poor nature of the soil, a lot of precautions needed to be taken and the upper strata needed to be supported and strengthened before excavation began. Under Sulochana’s leadership, these challenges were addressed successfully.
In May 1998, Sulochana moved back to the headquarters. Her work as CE continued with getting clearance and approval for all hydro, thermal and gas turbine projects with a team of four Superintending Engineers who reported to her. Her other notable work was the involvement in the Cauvery water dispute discussions with the government and associated departments.
Sulochana was the first woman Chief Engineer in Civil in TNEB and made use of the excellent opportunities to contribute to the economy with her services. She retired from TNEB in 1999 after thirty-seven years of service.
Sulochana married a man of her choice. She met Subramanian Sekaripuram, a professional accountant in 1962 when she had just started working at TNEB. They were married in 1966. Subramanian went on to run several businesses involving computer centers and training institute for call centers and retired in 2013.
Sulochana and her husband have two sons and two daughters. The eldest son and the youngest daughter followed their mother’s footsteps and became engineers. The first daughter is an interior designer and the second son is a Chartered and cost accountant. Of her eight grandchildren, two are in India, living close to Sulochana in Chennai, and the rest in the USA. Teaching them mathematics is her favorite activity in retirement. Solving Sudoku puzzles keeps her mind active. Spiritual activities for which she never had much time during her career also fill her days.
Sulochana’s eldest daughter Sujatha and her family live near her mother. She spoke about the tremendous support she receives from both her parents and the commitment shown by Sulochana in helping when challenges come up. In turn, she watches over her parents’ welfare in their old age.
Sulochana’s daughter Srilatha remembers her mother helping with homework after coming home. While helping her children, Sulochana would also attend to the paperwork she brought home from the office. Srilatha credits her mother with instilling in her great work ethics, and more importantly the joy of working and the can-do attitude that she hopes to pass on to her own two daughters.
Sulochana’s son Seshan is head of a high-tech engineering team and a women’s advocacy engineer in the diversity efforts at his work. He credits his mother for his current role as a technical leader. She was his inspiration for getting into engineering. He remembers going with her on field visits and being thoroughly impressed with her ability to deal with the local tribes, laborers; and the dacoits who were active on the Karnataka and Kerala border at the time. He said though she was extremely engaged with her work, she always found time for her children. There were also compromises along the way he said, with the family living in different locations.
Sulochana’s son Sathish characterized his mother as having true grit. She had a fire inside her to achieve her career goals and watching her successful career was like seeing a motivational speech come alive. He also made an important point about his parents having mutual self-respect for each other, the foundation of a successful career for a married woman.
All the children credit their father’s unwavering support to Sulochana for her success at work and family life. “Behind every successful woman there is a man,” is an appropriate saying for the Sekaripuram family.
An inspiration for women – We can do it!
In her career, Sulochana was focused, systematic, and had clarity of thought. She persisted in her efforts to complete projects to bring about desired results. A lifelong learner, her career in the government services prepared her to show grace under pressure. Sulochana has this to say to the women of today: “I could become an engineer because my father prioritized education over settling down in life. Today things are different. Women have ample opportunities and, more importantly, acceptance in all walks of life. My advice, therefore, would be, to use these opportunities to sharpen your skills and follow your passion. All other things in life will automatically fall into place.”
Sulochana was kind enough to talk to me and also document the facts about her life in meticulous detail. She took the trouble to find her old pictures at work, which are included in this article. I am very thankful for her input that enabled me to write a high-fidelity account of her life story.
Sulochana’s sons and daughters gave me good insights into what it was like growing up with a working mother like Sulochana. Their inputs made this article rich and inspirational. My sincere thanks to them.
This is the eleventh 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.