No stone or page has been left unturned while writing about the city of Bengaluru and the achievements of its founding fathers, both medieval and modern. But as we celebrated womanhood on Sunday, I got to thinking about Bengaluru’s feminine forces and the unacknowledged influence they exerted on the city through the centuries. What I discovered was:
Women were integral to the building of Bengaluru. The story of the city and the Kempegowda dynasty itself took a different turn when, as legend has it, the beautiful Doddamma, daughter of the 14th century landowner Ranabhaire Gowda refused an unsuitable marriage proposal from the local palegar. Fearing a reprisal, the family then left their village near Kanchipuram one night, only to settle at Avati near Nandi Hills and make local history. City stories also mention Lakshmamma, another woman from the clan, who sacrificed her life so that a collapsing gate of Bengaluru’s medieval mud fort would stand strong and the new settlement built by her father-in-law Kempegowda I in 1537, could be completed.
Women were politically correct. In the 17th century, Bengaluru was governed by the Marathas under Shivaji’s father, Shahaji Raje Bhonsle who received it as a jagir from Ibrahim Adil Shah, the Adil Shahi ruler of Bijapur. Following Shahji’s death in 1664 and differences with his brother, Venkoji or Ekoji I, Shivaji entrusted the town to a woman, Venkoji’s wife, Deepa Bai, as Choli Bangdi (pocket money).History then records the critical role played by Maharani Lakshmi Ammani Devi in the politics of Mysore during the 18th– 19th century. She set a precedent for other distinguished queens and Regents of the Wodeyar dynasty who raised Yuvarajas, built iconic institutions and were keenly involved in education, healthcare, art, culture and development initiatives across Mysore state.
Women contributed generously to civil society. The 1900’s saw traditional Bengaluru women actively participate in India’s freedom movement and play prominent philanthropic roles. Those reticent women in nine-yard sarees staring out from sepia tinted photographs were path breakers in their own right! They fought for women’s rights, including raising the bar on early marriage and founded institutions like the Mahila Seva Samaja (1913) (Smt.Parvathamma Chandrashekhar Iyer) the Women’s Peace League School and the Malleswaram Ladies Club where city ladies like Smt.Gajambal Ramalingam, offered their streedhan jewellery to Gandhiji’s Harijan Fund at public gatherings in 1927.
While Qadir Bi was ostracised when she converted to Christianity in 1881 and set about missionary work in Bengaluru’s zenana missions with the CEZM, Smt. Lakshmidevamma was conferred the title of `Dharmaparayane’ at the Dasara Durbar in 1934 for her charitable work which included renovating the CVMS Hostel, a family legacy on Avenue Road and building a Children’s Hospital at the Vani Vilas Hospital.
Women broke boundaries. The spirit of entrepreneurship burned bright. Kanya, an iconic women’s silk co-operative and retail establishment was started in the 1950’s by Smt.Ammani Iyengar in Malleswaram as an income generation plan for women of her time. The progressive coffee planter Lokasevaparayini D.Sakamma set up and managed Sakamma Coffee Works and with Kamalamma Dasappa of the Mahila Seva Samaja became one of the first two women to be nominated to the Mysore Representative Assembly in 1928. Two years later, 8 year old Byramma created a world record in 1930 by swimming in Kempambudhi Lake for 18 hours non-stop! But her outstanding achievement is now long forgotten by the authorities and the lake she swam in is a garbage dump. There is no mention of her anywhere.
Celebrated 19th century Carnatic vocalist Bangalore Nagarathnamma then defied convention in the 1940’s when she bought land, built a temple and helped establish the famous Tyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru. She also pushed for and ensured equal participation of women musicians onstage. It continues to be one of the largest classical music festivals in India. Around this time, Kamalamma Dasappa’s granddaughter, Dr. Rajeshwari Chatterjee was on her way to becoming Karnataka’s first woman scientist at the IISc. with her pioneering work on Electrical Communication Engineering. And even though there are many other Bengaluru women from the city’s past who still remain unacknowledged here, dig a little deeper and you will find that the list is endless.Many of them I’m sure, will be from your family tree as well.
Women moved the heavens. We can’t have a list of strong women without Bengaluru’s sacred feminine, can we? Bright, painted shrines and temples are dedicated to our fierce Amman’s who dominate the city at almost every street corner and get the mightiest of men bowing to propitiate them. These watchful rural Goddesses include Kempamma, the tutelary deity of the Kempegowdas, the martial Kaliamman, Annamma, Patalamma and Mutyalamma, the boundary Goddesses whose temples once marked the city periphery, and Banashankariamma who lends her name to a locality amongst others. Malleswaram hosts an ooru habba for Gangamma while Draupadiamman is celebrated with the ten day Karaga festival in the Pete and a dramatic fire walking ritual in Ulsoor.
Men made space for women. City administrators and visionaries also acknowledged women in civil society and provisions were made accordingly. Hajee Sir Ismail Sait built the Gosha Hospital for women in purdah, the progressive Diwans of Mysore supported women’s education and health while the MN Krishna Rao Park was earmarked as the first public park exclusively for ladies and children. VS Thiruvengadaswamy Mudaliar, a businessman-philanthropist named the Kamala Bai Girls High School after his wife and Sir Jehangir Kothari dedicated a community hall to the Zoroastrians of Bengaluru in the memory of his beloved Gool Bai.
While debates rage across the country on gender issues and women’s safety in public spaces continues to be questioned, these Bengaluru women, both mythic and modern, inspire us to keep moving forwards into the future despite the odds. Its upto us to keep redefining ourselves and our city. Happy Women’s Day!
Image courtesy: dejaview.in