Archive for August 16, 2020

Kamala Harris and her Chennai connect

The celebrated Tamil poet Bharati described the modern women thus “With graceful strides and head held high and looking straight into the eyes with ideals that are not afraid of anyone in the world…  the woman does not falter as she has the possession of wisdom.” These aspirational hallmarks of the new-age women seeped so deeply into the Tamil psyche that it produced an unprecedented stream of emancipated and enlightened women in the capital city of Chennai since the hundred years the poet scripted the mesmerising lines. From music, art and theatre to medicine and politics, the female folks of the metropolis has made an indelible mark in diverse walks of life and their imprints are now seen across the county and abroad. And Kamala Harris is an offshoot of such a phenomenon.

The trigger to this enthusiastic transformation is the varied socio-cultural and political factors that played out during the early twentieth century in the then city of Madras that was later rechristened as Chennai. It was in Madras the Theosophical Society, that propounded an inclusive approach to spiritualism, took firm roots and soon became its international headquarters. Annie Besant, the society’s President for many years, was a women’s rights crusader and through her innumerable writings and lectures, extolled them to take up education in all earnestness. A firm advocate of universal suffrage, then a revolutionary idea, she could encourage many women to take active participation in politics and later, as the President of the Indian National Congress, enrolled many of them to the freedom movement. In Annie Besant, many young Tamil women found a role model worthy of emulation and one such was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a revolutionary in her own right and the first woman to be a member of a legislature anywhere in India. Also the first woman medical graduate in the country, she was again the sole female to study in a men’s college and the one instrumental in setting up the Adyar Cancer Institute in the city, the one of its kind in cancer research till date.The Cancer Institute, produced another outstanding women, Dr. V. Shanta, an internationally renowned Oncologist surgeon. When specialised cancer care is hugely commercialised, she renders her services almost free to thousands of patients in the institute and her contributions are recognised with many prestigious global awards. Her saga of selfless care continues as hundreds of young doctors in the city are getting trained by her. And the first women to fight the British by joining the Indian National Army, Dr. Lakshmi Segal, was again from Chennai.

When the city produced women of eminence in letters and in the academic professions, it is the deluge of female talent that the city unleashed in the art and cultural sphere that took the world by storm. The Kalakshetra, an international centre for dance, music and other visual arts, set up by another theosophist, Rukmani Devi, is a world class cultural centre that attract students across the world. Breaking from the traditional shackles that are associated with performing arts, the institute has produced many eminent women practitioners of the vivid art forms enriching the cultural tapestry of a whole nation. In Music, at a time when women performing on stage were a taboo, the city produced towering female musicians like the revered M.S. Subbulakshmi, whose singing captivated many generations of classical music lovers, across many continents. She was the first female singer to receive the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of the nation and the one of the very few to sing in the United Nations. This illustrious lineage of Chennai lady musicians includes such stalwarts as D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and the oscar nominee, Jayashree Ramnath and the list goes on.

It is from such a women empowered background that Shyamala Gopalan, the mother of Kamala Harris, emerged and she carried in her the ideas of equality of gender and of race to the shores of America. These progressive streaks were on ample display as she participated in the racial protests in Oakland during the sixties and later, passed them on to her two daughters. “When my mother, Shyamala stepped off the plane in California as 19 years old, she didn’t have much in the way of belongings. But she carried with her lessons from back home, including ones she learned from her parents, my grandmother Rajam, and her father, my grandfather P V Gopalan. They taught her that when you see injustice in the world, you have an obligation to do something about it,” said Harris in a recent talk. Emphasising her indebtedness to the city, Harris added “In Madras (Chennai) I would go on long walks with my grandfather, who at that point was retired. We would take morning walks where I’d hold his hand and he would tell me about the heroes who are responsible for the birth of the world’s biggest democracy. He would explain that it’s on us to pick up where they left off. Those lessons are a big reason why I am who I am today”.  Now you know what Chennai has delivered to the United States and it is pure deliverance!

By the way, I Googled for the most prominent man from Chennai and the first name that popped up was Sunder Pichai!



The full verse of Bharati’s poem in Tamil goes thus:

“Nimirndha nan nadai naer konda paarvaiyum

Nilathil yaarkkum anjaatha nerigalum

Thimirndha gnana cherukkum iruppadhaal 

Semmai maadhar thirambuvadhu illaiyaam”


August 16, 2020 at 11:02 pm 19 comments

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