Shantha Unnikrishnan graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1970. Her career started out with a setback but she persevered and went on to teach at her alma mater, CEG, and retired from there as an Associate Professor of Computer Science. She carried on the spirit of her parents’ caring, hospitality, and generosity, throughout her life. In her retirement, Shantha leads a quiet life filled with spirituality.
Shantha was born on October 4, 1946, in Madras (Chennai), 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. She was known to write poems. Shantha has two older sisters. One of them is Indira Premkumar (CEG 1966).
Shantha studied in Presidency High School for Girls in Chennai, and completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) in 1963, obtaining the first rank in her school. She joined Queen Mary’s College (QMC), Chennai, to complete the Pre-University Course (PUC) in 1964. She continued studying there and graduated in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics.
In school, Shantha was interested in dancing. Even as a three-year-old child, she used to choreograph her own dance. She studied the classical Bharatanatyam dance but did not complete her training. She used to participate in dance programs conducted by Kerala Samajam and Malayalee Club (organizations of persons of Kerala origin) during Onam festival. Her sister Indira would sing, and her other sister would keep the beat. In QMC, she participated in the dance programs of their Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Shantha followed her sister Indira and applied to the undergraduate engineering program in CEG for those with a bachelor’s degree in physical sciences. In 1967 Shantha joined the Electronics and Communication (ECE) program. Her batch would be the last one to go through the three-year program, as CEG discontinued it that year. It is quite interesting that Indira was in the first batch of this program, and Shantha in the last batch.
Shantha was fortunate to have had a sister in CEG who could guide her in her studies. Additionally, she remembers her senior K.S. Kamala (CEG 1970) helping her with loans of expensive textbooks from her father’s library. Shantha’s classmates in the ECE program, Prema, and Nalini were staying in the Madras Women’s Polytechnic (WPT) hostel. They often visited Shantha’s house to enjoy home cooked meals during weekends and enjoy each other’s company.
Shantha recalled an interesting anecdote. In 1969, the ECE students went on a mandatory study tour to Bangalore and Mysore. Nalini was not able to go on this tour, and Shantha and Prema joined the fifty boys on the tour. They visited Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), Indian Telephone Industries Ltd. (ITI), Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL). The girls had to make their own arrangements for accommodation. In Bangalore, they stayed with Shantha’s uncle in the ITI quarters. The tour included some sightseeing in Mysore. Shantha recalls the tour bus breaking down and reaching the Brindavan Gardens late at night, and then searching for her sister’s house in Mysore with great difficulty. All her male classmates helped locate the landmark leading to the house. While most of the boys waited quietly in the bus, the staff who was in charge of the tour, and three boys, accompanied Shantha and Prema in getting to the house from the landmark. Shantha says she will never forget the help from her classmates on that night!
Shantha graduated in 1970 from CEG with less than a first class due to failure in a lab exam. This would impact her career, but Shantha overcame this setback and went on to have a fulfilling career.
Immediately after graduating, Shantha joined CEG as an Associate Lecturer in the ECE department of CEG. While the college had women faculty in humanities and science departments, she and Nalini have the distinction of being the first women engineering lecturers in the college. Shantha remembers participating in a play by the faculty in 1975, which was well received. Another activity was the French language coaching class organized by CEG for the staff which Shantha attended in the evenings with Nalini. After Nalini left CEG to go to the USA, Shantha was the only woman engineering faculty in CEG.
Shantha started her teaching career teaching Manual Telephony and Line Telegraphy. Other courses she taught included Automatic and Carrier Telephony, Electron Devices, Electronic Measurements, and Television Engineering. Shantha also guided final year students on their projects. She continued her education by attending several summer and winter schools in various institutions.
Being the only female faculty in engineering, Shantha had the responsibility to escort a few girl students on the study tour in 1976 of ECE and Electrical Engineering branches. With the help of her uncle, who held a high position in the Southern Railways, Shantha arranged for a dedicated railway carriage for the tour. Unfortunately, a cyclone struck, the trains were canceled, and the trip seemed doomed. Indira remembers having to contact the students to tell them the bad news. Shantha was quite sorry for the students and decided to do something about it. She persuaded her uncle to arrange for another carriage when the train services were resumed, within only two days of the canceled tour. Shantha says it was priceless to see the happy faces of the students when they heard the news.
Jay Jayachandran, Executive Vice President, Global InfoTek, Inc. (CEG 1977), who was Shantha’s student at CEG says:
“Shantha Madam taught us Telephony and was a student favorite. She was a friend to us. She was pleasant, and we have never seen her angry or upset.”
Shantha’s boss, Dr. K.M.Mehata, retired Professor and Director, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at CEG, had this to say:
“I admired Shantha’s sincerity, dedication, and motherly affection. I was consistently impressed by her amicable nature, willingness to help, and a keen sense of responsibility. She was very effective in her efforts to engage the students in the class with good humor and captivate their attention with fluent delivery. Her execution was meticulous in any task she undertook.”
Shantha was not able to apply to the Madras Public Service Commission, responsible for governing the recruitment of personnel into the state’s public service since she had not graduated with first class. At her sister’s advice, Shantha decided to teach in the state polytechnics where such constraints were not present.
A joint-venture between industry and the educational institutes called State Institute of Co-operative Vocational Education and Training (SICVET) was started in 1975 at the Regional Engineering College (REC) (now known as National Institute of Technology) in Tiruchirappalli, offering diploma courses in Architecture and Interior Design, Electrical Appliances and Systems, and Textiles and Fashion Design. In 1977, Shantha moved to Tiruchirappalli and joined the SICVET program to teach the Electrical Appliances and Systems program students. She also taught part-time classes at the Government Polytechnic College, Trichy (GPT). The SICVET program was merged with the GPT in 1979. She taught there until 1982, before joining as Lecturer in the Electrical Department at REC, where she continued to work until 1984. In REC she handled classes for the part-time students in the undergraduate ECE program. While at REC, in 1982, she completed the post-graduate program in Computer Technology and obtained her master’s degree with first class.
In 1984, Shantha resigned her post in REC and moved to Chennai. She joined the Computer Science department at CEG as Lecturer. Her teaching included subjects such as digital computer logic and design, database management, data communication and network, computer graphics, and computer architecture. She handled the lecture and laboratory for the computer science, and computer application diploma (DCA) and master’s (MCA) programs. The number of women staff and faculty in the 1980’s was considerably large, and Shantha did not have to perform duties such as accompanying the girl students on tours.
Shantha retired in October 2006 as Associate Professor in Computer Science.
Shantha’s parents were embodiments of hospitality. Even today, many CEG alumnae from the 1960’s recall their visits to her parents’ house and being welcomed with love and food. Shantha’s father passed away in 1990, and her mother in 1998.
Shantha credits her sister Indira with guiding her through her education and career. She remembers how Indira and her husband Premkumar provided her with accommodation, and guided her through her work in REC. They remain very close even though they live in separate cities today.
Shantha married Unnikrishnan when she moved to Chennai. He is a self-made man who worked for an American company, at their Bombay office. He took voluntary retirement in 1994, after serving as the Deputy General Manager, and started a consultancy firm.
Shantha and Unnikrishnan’s daughter Sharmila has a master’s degree in Applied Geography as well as a bachelor’s degree in Education. She and her husband Sanjay Menon lived abroad before settling in Chennai. Sharmila heads a school run by Achariya Siksha Mandir, an educational trust. She has a six-year-old son. Sanjay is a consultant.
Shantha’s son received his bachelor’s degree in commerce and an MBA in Finance. He worked in Hindustan Computers Limited and Tata Consulting Services and was working as a senior manager in Tata Business Support Service in Hyderabad when he suffered a heart attack and died prematurely at the age of forty. His son is ten years old and lives with his mother in Chennai.
Shantha and her husband have traveled extensively around the world, visiting Far East Asia, Kenya, Uganda, Europe, Dubai, and the USA. In the USA, she had the opportunity to visit old colleagues and students from CEG.
After retiring from her Associate Professor position in CEG, Shantha and her husband eventually settled in Thrissur, Kerala. Shantha says she loves the rain, jackfruit and things unique to Kerala which were the reasons for choosing Thrissur as their place for retirement. She spends her time in daily activities, visiting temples nearby, reading and watching television. She leads a peaceful spiritual life. Her daughter and her family visit her whenever they get a chance.
The Persevering Technical Educator
Shantha had a lifelong career while serving the needs of her extended family, and later on, her own. She overcame a setback in her education and went on to contribute in the field of technical education. She ended her career in teaching at her alma mater, CEG. She says the most important wealth a girl can acquire is education, leading to a successful life, and she and her sister Indira are great examples of this.
My sincere thanks to Shantha for answering all my initial questions, and the many clarifying questions later. She also provided me with the pictures that make this article complete.
Shantha’s sister, Indira Premkumar, helped me with additional answers to questions. My sincere thanks for her encouragement with this project.
I am thankful to Prof. Mehata and Jay Jayachandran for taking the time to give me input on Shantha for this article.
This is story number twenty 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 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.