Indira Premkumar graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1966. Her career, spanning thirty-four years, was dedicated to technical education. Her former colleagues praise her as an excellent teacher and administrator, who was kind, empathetic, and humble. She brought sincerity and care to everything she did, retiring as the Principal of Government Polytechnic for Women in Madurai. “Work is Worship” was her motto during her career and she managed her family life with equal dedication. In retirement, she has turned to spirituality and is a great provider of support for everyone who is lucky to come across her.
Indira was born in Madras (Chennai) on February 18, 1943, in a middle-class family. Her father K.Gopalan Nair was originally from Kerala and was a lab staff in a nursing home in Poonamallee. Her mother Sarojini Amma was a housewife, married when she was barely fifteen years old. Indira has one older sister and one younger.
Indira studied in Lady MCTM Girls’ High school in Purasawalkam, Chennai, and completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) in 1959 with first class. Mathematics and music were her favorite subjects in school. The school had a good music program and Indira participated in musical events. She joined Ethiraj College for Women to complete the Pre-University Course (PUC) required for admission to professional colleges. Since she did not get selected for medical studies she entered Queen Mary’s College for Women undergraduate program in physics, with mathematics as the ancillary subject. She graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Science degree with distinction.
In 1963, CEG introduced a three-year intensive undergraduate program in engineering for those with a bachelor’s degree. Indira got interested in electricity and magnetism while studying physics and decided she wanted to major in electrical engineering. She would be the third woman in the CEG electrical engineering program, after A. Lalitha and Mary Mathew.
Indira was one of three women who joined CEG in 1963 in the three-year program. The other two were K.S. Babai in civil engineering and A. Prabavathi (Praba) in electronics and telecommunications. The three women forged a deep bond that exists even today. During her first year at CEG, Indira was timid and very quiet. But her interest in music got an outlet in the CEG arts festival.
Indira faced a few challenges with the long commute to the school from her home. The first bus Indira could catch to get to campus was at 5:30 am but would arrive only at 6:45 at the campus since she had to get off at the Egmore station, catch the electric train to Saidapet, and another bus to campus and then walk to the specific lab. Heat Engines lab which started at 6:30 am sharp was a problem, but the situation was managed with the help of the understanding faculty.
Indira was an excellent student and stood first in both the first year and the second in her Electrical Engineering branch. When a fellow student and lab partner got into an accident and missed classes, Indira helped him with the practicum aspects when he came back to class.
In her final year, due to faulty equipment, Indira had to repeat the Control Systems lab finals and delay her graduation by six months to the end of 1966. This was a shocking incident for someone who had always excelled in whatever she undertook, but with support from her family and friends, Indira moved on to start her career. Her professors gave her glowing recommendation letters, which in addition to her academic excellence also mentioned her singing talent!
Soon after her graduation, Indira joined the Government Polytechnic for Women, Madras (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women) in January 1967. Her teaching load consisted of a variety of subjects, both theory, and practicums. During 1967-69, Indira attended summer schools in Industrial Electronics and was ready for more challenges.
In July 1969 Indira became the Associate Lecturer in Electronics at Government Polytechnic for Women (GPCW) in Coimbatore. The diploma program in Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE) was brand new and started with just five students. Working under the guidance of her colleague and CEG alumna Mary Mathew, the entire Electronics lab was set up by Indira and two other staff members, with the help of a few students. In addition to teaching, Indira also managed the procurements, served on various committees, and was a resident tutor and assistant administrator of the student hostel.
In 1974 Indira was promoted as a Gazetted Lecturer in electrical engineering and joined the Government Polytechnic in Trichy (GPT). At that time GPT admitted only male students. Subsequently, a diploma program in ECE was introduced with the admission of twenty girls. Indira handled the program well drawing from her experience gained in GPCW. She also helped her fellow CEG alumna Sundari Vellayan equip the Electronics lab at Periyar Centenary Polytechnic for women. In 1984 Indira was promoted to head of the department (HOD) and posted to the Government Polytechnic in Aranthangi. After a brief tenure there, Indira was back at GPT taking on various responsibilities including being an interim principal.
In April 1992, Indira was promoted to principal of Government Polytechnic College for Women, Madurai (GPCWMDU). With her family in Trichy, Indira became a resident principal at Madurai with weekend visits to the family in Trichy.
A highlight of her career at GPCWMDU was the implementation of the Government of India funded Community Polytechnic Scheme (CPS). The goal was to provide training to destitute rural men and women, including the physically challenged, as a way to uplift their lives. Short courses in tailoring, electrical wiring and repair, screen printing and doll making were offered. Indira was concerned that girls with high potential were not able to take advantage of the program due to transportation and security concerns. She made sure the government official concerned understood the difficulties of the rural women; the official was Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, who went on to become the President of India!
GPCWMDU was one of the polytechnics in Tamil Nadu chosen to participate in the Canada India Institutional Cooperation Project (CIICP), a Human Resource Development Project in Technical Education. The Government of Canada, through Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), funded the project. As the principal, Indira was responsible and successfully managed the activities including management level workshops.
Under CIICP’s Linkage Project, Indira worked with her counterpart Linda White at the College of North Atlantic, Newfoundland and Labrador. As part of these activities, Indira attended the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) at Winnipeg and visited Canadian campuses and the project headquarters.
Indira wrote an article called Canada Calling for CIICP Newsletter. It is a moving piece, a mix of the appreciation for Canadian hospitality and details of the Linkage Project. The phrase in this article “we all are one – bound by the bonds of love and laced by the thoughts of fraternity” embodies Indira’s character and spirit.
While she was compassionate, Indira was also very strict about enforcing discipline in the women’s hostel (dorm) in the polytechnic. Students who violated dorm policies were punished, but in a way that did not spoil their chances for the future. Even when threatened with politically backed actions by the students’ families, she stood her ground.
Muthulakshmi, retired head of the math department at the Government Polytechnic in Trichy (GPT) had this to say about Indira: “Indira mentored the junior faculty, taught them how to be punctual and sincere in their work and set an example with her excellent teaching, hard work, and genuine caring. She made it a point to interact with the students giving them advice when needed.”
Geethanjali, current principal and former colleague of Indira at GPCWMDU praised Indira’s ability to connect with the students because of her empathy. She said the students looked upon Indira as a mother figure and this made it easier for them to approach her with their challenges and troubles.
Indira retired from the services in 2001. The entire administrative staff from the GPCWMDU hostel, including the cooks accompanied her back to her house in Trichy. That is the kind of effect Indira had on those who worked with her.
Indira credits her parents with giving her the most important wealth of education which gave her the advantage to do well in life. Indira’s older sister got married early in life. Indira’s younger sister Shantha followed in Indira’s footsteps and is also an alumna (1970) of CEG.
In her second year at CEG Indira got acquainted with N. Premkumar who was a student in the integrated five-year B.E. program. This came about through her participation in CEG’s Onam celebrations with students of Kerala origin. The friendship grew over the years and eventually, they got married in December 1971. Premkumar had joined as Lecturer in the electrical engineering department at Regional Engineering College (REC), Trichy (now NIT, Trichy) in 1969 after getting his master’s degree in electrical engineering teaching at CEG. Later he studied for his doctorate at Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bangalore and became an assistant professor at NIT.
Indira and Premkumar juggled their careers, and family and made it all work. When Premkumar was away doing his doctorate in Bangalore, Indira managed the family in Trichy. When Indira was transferred to Madurai and could be home only during weekends, Premkumar managed the caring of their children. Premkumar passed away in 1994 due to a tragic event. Indira’s son Raj was just then graduating from an engineering college with high distinction; second son Vijay was in the 11th grade and would go on to have an engineering education. Both of them have very successful careers in engineering management.
Indira’s first son Raj says this about his mother: “She is someone who does not fuss, maintains her equanimity and gets things done, whatever it takes. While everyone knows her as a gentle and always smiling person, her kids, students, and staff knew that she can be firm and demanding when she has to be. She gave up classical music as a career when she entered CEG, but she is an excellent singer and continues to sing for her family and friends.”
Indira’s second son Vijay had this to say: “Until my father’s death, my mother led a protected life. My father took care of all family matters. But when he died she found the strength to pull the family together and moved us forward. She is also the most compassionate person I know. Seeing how a DHL delivery man looked unhappy, she asked him what was wrong and found out that he was worried about paying the fees for his daughter’s schooling. She wrote him a check for a large sum when she hardly knew him. He visited her after a year with his daughter to thank her for her generosity.”
Indira settled in Chennai after her retirement. During her career, Indira’s focus was on her work and her family. Once she retired, she turned her attention to spirituality. Visiting temples and keeping fit with walking are regular activities in her life these days. Her compassion coupled with her spirituality makes many of her friends ask her to pray for them to get them through their difficulties. It is as if they think she has a direct line to God. Her children, their wives, and grandchildren are her sources of strength. She participates actively in her class reunions and keeps in touch with her former classmates. She enjoys the internet and social media; and is technologically quite savvy. While her mother tongue is Malayalam, she is well versed in the Tamil language and enjoys Subramania Bharathi’s poems and writings.
Her former classmate M.R. Ranganathan had this to stay about Indira: “She has no inner agenda. She is open, friendly and also very humble”.
Another former classmate M.K. Baba says: “Indira, my classmate, I am proud to add, is a woman personified in humility, knowledge, full of appreciation, enthusiasm, and passion for helping fellow human beings.”
Empathy and Balance in Life Leading to Satisfaction
Indira is a great example of someone who transformed her natural empathy into lifelong success. She was a very successful technical teacher and administrator. She made a mark on everyone she came across with her honesty, integrity, humility, and compassion. Today, in her retired life, she continues to make an impact on the lives of those who are lucky to know her. When I asked Indira for some words to the women and girls of today, she said: “Give equal importance to your family and work. You will find satisfaction in life”. Words of wisdom to live by.
Indira was very kind to talk to me at all hours of her day. She collected her thoughts in copious notes so that I will have the facts to write about her. During these interactions, I have gained a friend who was known to me in CEG only as a senior.
Indira’s former colleagues B. Muthulakshmi, C. Geethanjali, and Hema Krishnaswamy, and Indira’s former classmates M.R. Ranganathan and M.K. Baba were kind enough to give me details of their interactions with her. I am very grateful for their input.
Indira’s sons Raj and Vijay gave me their perspectives on what it was like growing up with a working mother who had nothing but kindness to show those she came across. My sincere thanks to them.
This is the twelfth 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.
My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.
I will be writing more such posts here and then will be collecting them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about CEG alumnae from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.