The Pioneers: Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. She rose in revolt against child marriage and the devadasi system.-THE HINDU

A multifaceted personality, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was one of the outstanding Indian women of her time. She had several firsts to her credit: she was the one of the first woman doctors of the country (1912), the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council, the first woman to be elected as its Deputy Chairperson, the first president of the Womens India Association, and the first woman to be elected as alderman of the Madras (now Chennai) Corporation.

Muthulakshmi Reddy was concerned about the plight of women and deeply interested in liberating them. She fought for their upliftment in several fields. When one of her cousins died of cancer, she took an interest in cancer studies and pursued it at the Royal Cancer Hospital in the United Kingdom. She was instrumental in starting the Cancer Institute in Adyar, Chennai, and founded the Avvai Home for the benefit of destitute women.

At the top of these achievements, she is known for her political activism in respect of social issues. First she rose in revolt against child marriage and the devadasi system. (Under this system, parents married off a daughter to a deity or a temple before she attained puberty. These girls became dancers and musicians and performed at temple festivals.)

In 1930, Muthulakshmi Reddy introduced in the Madras Legislative Council a Bill on the prevention of the dedication of women to Hindu temples in the Presidency of Madras. The Bill, which later became the Devadasi Abolition Act, declared the pottukattu ceremony in the precincts of Hindu temples or any other place of worship unlawful, gave legal sanction to devadasis to contract marriage, and prescribed a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment for those found guilty of aiding and abetting the devadasi system. The Bill had to wait for over 15 years to become an Act.

While progressive persons supported the abolition of the system, many conservative nationalists opposed it. While the then Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president C. Rajagopalachari, in the words of Muthulakshmi Reddy, was not very much in favour of abolition of the pernicious practice, another Congress veteran, S. Satyamurthy, argued that the devadasi system needed to be protected because it was essentially a part of the indigenous Hindu/national culture.

The Bill, introduced by a nationalist, was blocked by nationalists themselves for one reason or another until E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, leader of the Self-Respect Movement and later the Dravida Kazhagam and one of the progressive nationalists when the Bill was introduced, and Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, another veteran of the Self-Respect Movement, campaigned actively among the people for the passage of the Bill.

Muthulakshmi Reddy could not get the support of a section of nationalist leaders in spite of the fact that she got an endorsement from Mahatma Gandhi for liberating the women. Her perseverance, unmindful of the resentment of some of the influential leaders of the time, earned her laurels from progressive intellectuals.

S. Viswanathan
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