How Madras saw the genesis of India’s first women’s magazine published by a woman

Chennai:

At the turn of the 20th century, literate women in India were in search of reading materials written exclusively for women. Although insignificant in number, these ladies have become a vital demographic among readers and print consumers. Even Mahakavi Bharathi edited a women’s magazine – Chakravarthini of Triplicane, from 1904 to 1906. Indian Ladies Magazine, India’s first women’s magazine edited and published by a woman – was launched in Madras in 1901.

The Indian Ladies Magazine, which was printed from 1901 to 1918 and then restarted from 1927 to 1931, is a rich repository of information on the life of the Madras aristocracy. It describes the aspirations of Indian women in the midst of the dominant colonial mentality. And it includes the stories of many who educated themselves, dated the governor’s wife and even played tennis while wearing sarees.

The name of the publisher of this magazine was Kamala, a pseudonym for a Christian Telugu woman named Hannah. The name Kamala had an important history behind it. Kamala was a fictional character created by India’s first female author in English – Krubabai Satthianadhan. Long after her untimely death, her husband, Samuel Satthianadhan chose to remarry – and his second wife Hannah chose to take the name Kamala, when she launched her own literary career.

Hannah’s father had converted to Christianity but luckily stayed in touch with his roots. She grew up hearing stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, learned Sanskrit and Carnatic music. Hannah’s father believed that a good education was necessary to help a girl live a well-balanced life and understand her own personality and sent her to Noble College Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam, AP) where she became the first female graduate from South India.

It was then that his marriage was arranged. Samuel Satthianadhan was a widower from a family of pastors attached to the Sion Church in Chintadripet.

It wasn’t until after her engagement that Hannah graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Presidential College, Madras, and she nearly fell into embarrassment onstage as the audience cheered and whistled for the first woman to graduate from the south of the India. His life in Madras was filled with happy memories. Living in an opulent home in Royapettah – The Myrtle, Hannah twirled through Madras high society and offered excellent descriptions of her social life – particularly in regards to parties at Marina’s new beach and chronicles from the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1906. During one of the royal receptions, Hannah was chosen to translate for Princess Mary who presented her with a signed portrait.

Satthianadhan recognized Hannah’s literary spirit during their first year of marriage and they co-wrote a book called Stories of Indian Christian Life. In a prose sprinkled with good humor, the book tries to differentiate between religion and culture. He was talking about converts trying to adopt Western culture just because they had turned to Christianity. Hannah had then taken the alias Kamala and soon everyone was calling her by that name, including Satthianadhan.

In 1901, Satthianadhan convinced Kamala to start a magazine emphasizing the need for a forum where Indian women could express themselves. The Indian Ladies Magazine is thus launched. Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Sarojini Naidu and Cornelia Sorabjee contributed articles frequently. Almost all of Sarojini Naidu’s poems were created at ILM. Sarojini and Kamala were close friends, but Sarojini turning to politics, they went their separate ways.

And Kamala stubbornly stayed away from the independence movement and politics. “Let the politicians fight. It is a big task. But we must also work to build our country. Without social reforms, India can never be happily free,” she said.

The magazine has been very well received. Even the London Times called it brilliant, interesting and comprehensive (with articles on the Vedas as well as practical cooking recipes). Kamala even wrote episodic stories for children – the most notable of these being Detective Janaki. But tragedy struck when her husband died while traveling in Japan. Soon on the heels of widowhood came another catastrophe. The Arbuthnot bank collapsed and Kamala lost a significant portion of her savings.

The wealthy widow had to take up a position as a tutor at the Pithapuram Rani, but still supported the magazine despite great difficulty. But after the queen was involved in an accident, the rajah put an end to her education. Even though Kamala found herself unemployed, she continued to publish her magazine taking tuition for the children. It was not until she set sail for England where she wanted her son to qualify as a civil servant that Kamala shut down the magazine. It was in England that she wrote the books – Lives of Great Men and Great Women of India, Indian Tales of Animals and Stories of Ancient India.

In 1923, when her son graduated from ICS, the family returned home to India. An observant Kamala would write a series My Impressions of England in The Hindu for a year. Back in India, she helped start a school in Pallavaram with three resident students and three fellows. Named Vidyodaya, today it is a famous educational institution.

Subsequently, Kamala was made a member of the Senate of Universities and an honorary magistrate. She was interested in starting new cooperatives and strengthening the presence of existing cooperatives. These included dairy and craft cooperatives for women. In 1941, Kamala received a coronation medal and was subsequently made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

— With contributions from Nivedita Louis

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