Chandra Aiyangar: Perpetual Learner

headline pic -chandra

Chandra Aiyangar graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1969. She joined Indian Broadcasting Engineering Service (IBES) in the year 1974 and retired as the Director (Engineering), South Zone, All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan in 2007. After retirement, she taught in Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College in Chennai for eight years. Since 2016, she spends her time in community service and spiritual pursuits. A passionate advocate for women’s education, she says “Education is everything. Especially women’s education.  I am what I am today because my parents educated me.”

Early Life

Chandra was born on May 30, 1948, in a conservative South Indian family in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Her father N.R.Raghavachariar was hailed a Lawyer par excellence and was the author of the book Hindu Law, which is widely used even today by the Indian legal community. Her mother Chengamalam was a homemaker. Chandra was one of eight children, with five older brothers, one older sister and one younger brother.

Education was very important to her family.  Chandra was an excellent student and was the top graduate in her district in the SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) exam. The now-defunct Swadesamitran, the first Tamil language newspaper owned and operated by Indians, carried a story on her excellence.  She completed the Pre-University Course (PUC) at Stella Maris College, Chennai.

One of her brothers studied engineering and was instrumental in Chandra applying to CEG for the undergraduate program. Her father encouraged Chandra to further her education, and so did her mother. Chandra applied to the undergraduate program in Electronics and Communication Engineering at CEG and was admitted in 1964.

At CEG

Chandra was one of two girls who joined the college in 1964. Two others, Mallika and Kalpa, joined a little later.

After her first year at CEG, Chandra experienced tremendous pressure from her family to leave engineering and study a more traditional field for fear that as an engineer her marriage prospects may become slim. She left CEG and joined the physics undergraduate program at Women’s Christian College (WCC), University of Madras, in Chennai. However, she could not bear the thought that she spent one year as an engineering student, but was asked to start as a first-year student in WCC.  On her own, she approached the Registrar of the university and demanded to be admitted as a second-year student since she had already spent a year at CEG. Even though the registrar was sympathetic, the process to accommodate Chandra would have taken a long time.  Chandra decided she would rather pursue engineering and came back to CEG. She graduated from CEG in 1969.

Career

Chandra joined Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) in Bangalore along with classmate Mallika.  After a year there was pressure from her family to come back from Bangalore and live at home until she got married. In 1970, she moved back to Chennai and joined Madras Government Polytechnic for Women, now known as Dr.Dharmambal Women’s Polytechnic (WPT), as Assistant Lecturer in Electronics where Sundari Vellayan (CEG 1954) was Principal.

Chandra got married in 1971 to Raghunathan, an officer in Indian Police Service (IPS). She moved with Raghunathan to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and started teaching at Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College, now known as Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology (MNNIT).  She established an Electronics lab there and taught students in the industry-integrated curriculum. She was the only woman in the entire campus and remembers being treated with a lot of respect.  At the close of one year, Raghunathan was transferred to Aligarh, another city in Uttar Pradesh.

After a brief time off for the birth of her daughter, Chandra joined Aligarh Muslim University as a faculty member. Here her stay was only a year and a half long.  However brief it was, she enjoyed her work, the culture, and the company of her predominantly Muslim neighbors and co-workers. In 1974, she wrote the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)’s Indian Engineering Services exam and chose to join the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. She received a posting in the All India Radio (AIR) in Aligarh. Chandra moved around a lot in her career due to the nature of her husband’s work in the Indian Government, which included frequent transfers from place to place.  Raghunathan’s next posting came quickly, and he was posted to Lucknow.   Chandra’s management suggested she get a transfer to New Delhi which had some stability.  In 1975, Chandra moved to New Delhi, and this time her husband followed her.

In New Delhi, Chandra worked in the Research & Development department of AIR. Kamala Subrahmanyan (CEG 1953) was also posted in New Delhi at the time and Chandra remembers Kamala’s warmth, guidance, and encouragement during the early part of her career in AIR.   Chandra developed a number of prototypes at the New Delhi office, which went on to become products used in AIR in lieu of importing expensive ones from foreign vendors.

She made a name for herself with two major development projects. She had been following the development of microprocessors and was keen on doing some work involving them.  She also received a lot of support and mentoring from her boss, whom she described as a visionary, who would talk to her about the endless possibilities of microprocessor applications and computer control. One of the major projects she did was the digital transformation of the switching used in broadcasting.   It involved computerizing the mechanical, relay-based switching, to one that was digitally controlled. The system was installed in the biggest broadcasting establishment in the country, The Broadcasting House, New Delhi.  During 1984 Asian Games in New Delhi, the system developed for the studios was extended to cover the various sports events across several sports complexes.

A second major project Chandra was responsible for was for the Bombay AIR.  In commercial broadcasting, popular programs and advertisements were stitched together, switching from one to the other seamlessly. The selection of the advertisements depended on their prices and had to be carefully chosen when a popular music or program was broadcast.  Chandra developed a microprocessor-based editing system using a kit provided by an RCA Corporation sales representative, and her self-taught-knowledge of assembly language programming.  Chandra credits her managers at AIR for being supportive of her work and encouraging her to present papers at conferences on her development projects.

In 1979, Chandra moved to AIR in Patna, following her husband’s transfer there.  During her time in this office, her work with the NEC transmitter and automating its controls and operations won her the Akashvani Technical Excellence Award, given by AIR India to promote research & development.  Chandra would win two more such awards in her career at AIR.  Chandra remembers having to test her work during off hours of the transmitter, or whatever time was available in the maintenance window. The technicians involved in the testing were all very curious and hence were motivated to help her with the testing.

Chandra had always been interested in higher studies, and in 1981 she decided to apply for admission into the master’s program in Computer Science at Penn State, University Park, in the USA.  She credits her boss with getting her a Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) guide to study for the exam.  She would come home from work at AIR, and study for the GRE with her little son on her lap. She applied for her American visa and, with the No Objection Certificate from the Indian Government, it came through easily.  While she didn’t have an assistantship for the first semester, her brother who was at Harvard Business School at that time was prepared to support her, and off she went to the USA, with her husband and his parents taking on the care of her two children back in India.

After returning to India in 1984 with her master’s degree, Chandra worked in the Electronic Data Processing Cell (now known as the IT Division) of AIR headquarters in New Delhi.  She was involved in a number of projects including computerization of the New Delhi studios’ records archive, personnel management for the human resources division, and software for the budget department. Later she was assigned to the Planning and Development division of All India Radio and was responsible for identifying new technologies and their introduction to the networking, evaluation, and replacement of old systems, and identifying new geographical areas to be covered by AIR. She was deputed to Nippon Electric Company, Japan, for six weeks to study new technologies in broadcasting. She was also deputed to Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), Kuala Lumpur, as a resource person and conducted a training program in Singapore for broadcasting professionals from Asia Pacific Region.

In 1991, Chandra was transferred to Bangalore and headed the AIR station there. Here she managed two 100kW medium wave transmitters and a major studio setup. She also installed the first FM transmitter for AIR Bangalore.  In 1997, Chandra moved to South Zone Office of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Chennai. Here she was responsible for all AIR projects in the four southern states – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka. Her work involved project and people management and operations. During this period, a large number of FM transmitters were installed and commissioned by the studios.

In 2005, Chandra was transferred to AIR in Visakhapatnam and back to Chennai in 2006. Handling the live broadcast of the Indian President Abdul Kalam from mid-sea, on Navy Day, was a challenge Chandra remembers. She retired in May 2007 as Engineering Director, South Zone, of All India Radio and Doordarshan after thirty-three years in the service of the Indian Government.

After retirement

Soon after retirement, at the invitation of Dr. K.S. Babai (CEG 1966), Principal, Chandra joined as a professor at Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College in Chennai.  She taught courses on mobile communication, cryptography, software project management, and professional ethics. She enjoyed teaching and interacting with the younger generation immensely. She also managed campus recruiting and liaising with corporate houses to boost hiring of fresh graduates.  It gave her tremendous satisfaction to see her students from poor background landing jobs in multinational companies.

Chandra decided to stop teaching in January 2016. Since then she has been a volunteer with Sri Ramakrishna Math, in Chennai. She is actively involved in rural services at Meyyur, a remote backward village in Tiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu State, adopted by the Math. She also proofreads their e-books as well as Vedanta Kesari, a monthly magazine published by the organization.

Family Life

Chandra’s husband Raghunathan whom she married in 1971 was an IPS officer in the Indian Government.  He was a self-made man, earning his college degrees while working in Bombay, and studying in night college. His knowledge of fluent Hindi, as well as his standing as an outsider with no bias, made him an excellent candidate for the IPS postings in the northern states of India.

chandra family-edited-captioned

Raghunathan was Chandra’s rock. Chandra remembers how excited he was when she got admission to study in the USA.  Chandra’s first semester at Penn State was difficult, getting used to the new environment and feeling homesick. She missed being there for her young children. When she decided she wanted to quit, her husband reminded her that she would never be happy with herself if she did that, and she would not be a good example for her children. This motivated her to focus on her studies and obtain her master’s degree in computer science in 1983. Sadly, Raghunathan passed away in 1992 tragically at the very young age of forty-seven. Chandra’s older brother and his wife were of tremendous support to her after her husband died.  Her brother passed away in 2015 but her sister-in-law still lives with her today.

Chandra has two children.  Her daughter Padmapriya who was born in 1972 is an engineer as well and worked for Cognizant Technology Solutions until recently. Presently she lives in Berlin, Germany, with her husband Ravi. Their son Raghav is doing an integrated five-year program in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Chennai which will result in a master’s degree in 2018.

grandson and daughter captioned

Chandra’s son Sudarshan received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from IIT at Chennai and then went on to do his Ph.D. in Computational Engineering in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He currently works for Microsoft. His wife Padmapriya is a biomedical engineer and they have a son, Vaishnav, and a daughter, Ananya.

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Inspirational Technical Pioneer

Chandra overcame the resistance of her conservative family to pursue her education in engineering.  She was fortunate enough to have married a husband who supported her career progression, including furthering her education.  Even before getting a formal education in computer science, she immersed herself in the emerging technologies to pioneer the automation of operations of AIR.  When we spoke, her passion for technology and technical education came through loud and clear.  I feel fortunate to bring her life story as an inspiration to all girls and women to study technical fields, contribute to technological advances, and be equal partners with men in the twenty-first century.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to Chandra for working with me over WhatsApp sessions and emails to write her life story.  It was such a pleasure and privilege to talk to Chandra.  I wish I could have had more interaction with her when we were at CEG.

Note

This is the sixteenth 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 on LinkedIn (use #CEGalumnae in the search for posts/content) or my website Mathisarovar.

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 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.

 

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