• The Feminist Times

Dhanvanthi Rama Rau: A Feminist Icon



When her father was transferred to Madras, Dhanvanthi was boldly encouraged by her mother to go to University, despite the fact that she would have to stay in a hostel. She graduated from Presidency College (there were 700 boys, while the strength of girls was 11) and went on to complete the M.A. course with honours. She then took a job as an Assistant Lecturer at Queen Mary’s College in Madras. Two years later, in 1919, she was married to Benegal Rama Rau, who had returned from England after passing the ICS examination. It was an unconventional match to the extent that bride and groom belonged to communities from vastly different parts of the country and different linguistic groups. Otherwise, the arrangement followed traditional patterns. The ‘talks’ were initiated by the parents, who also arranged the first meeting, during which the young couple did not exchange a single word. Only later did their parents ask them for approval of the proposal. The Kashmiri community was aghast and several relatives and friends cut off social relations with the family. Dhanvanthi slowly settled down to a new life of social and cultural domesticity, befitting the wife of an ICS officer. Of her husband she writes appreciatively, ‘He was a man of unshakable integrity and intelligence. I never knew him to do or think a dishonourable thing.’ But she regrets that ‘...his strict upbringing had fashioned his armour against giving or receiving love in an open, uncomplicated way.’ Soon Rama Rau was posted with the Government in Delhi and the family had to shuttle between Delhi and the summer capital Simla. Dhanvanthi had lived largely in Madras and with her heavy south Indian silk saris was conspicuous among the north Indian women wearing georgettes. Her first impression was that it was an artificial society and that they were ‘fashionable westernized women aping European ways in their homes.’ She utilized her spare time differently, sitting in the visitors’ gallery of the Legislative Assembly, following the debates. There were valuable lessons to be learnt here about the serious political events taking place throughout the country, just by listening to the arguments put forth by leading politicians. She was particularly impressed by Motilal Nehru, ‘a striking personality and a natural leader... but warm, human, with genuine friendliness.’ She also recalls that Jinnah, immaculately dressed in western clothes, was equally impressive. About him she writes ‘...he had a cold, severe manner... in my opinion he was not a man one could easily make friends with.’ She listened to Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, and Jawaharlal Nehru. ‘...An array of talented men and women all of whom had a great influence on my life,’ she writes. Dhanvanthi’s natural sense of social justice impelled her to seek out other like-minded persons whether in Madras or Delhi or London or South Africa. Sorrowful memories of her childhood haunted her; for instance of her aunt Birjo, who lost her husband early and was ‘considered a widow without ever having been a wife,’ or of her sister Kishan, who was helplessly caught in an unhappy marriage. Several years later, in Bombay, she saw a newly married twelve-year-old girl give birth to a baby and was disturbed when this child-mother burst out crying.

All of these events made her determined to take up the cause of the Child Marriage Abolition Society. Against considerable opposition, including scathing remarks from a British officer’s wife, she campaigned across the country for the cause. Finally the Bill was passed by Parliament in 1929, putting the minimum age of marriage for girls at 14, and for boys at 18. Similarly, through the All-India Women’s Conference for Educational Reform, she joined the struggle for girls’ education and rallied against segregationalist social mores like caste and the purdah system. She was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal by the British government for active work with women’s organizations. During their stay in England in the 1930s, Dhanvanthi discovered that a vast majority of people had little or no idea of life in India. Katherine Mayo, an American woman, had published a book called Mother India, Dhanvanthi learnt that this was the subject of a Conference on ‘Indian Social Evils,’ in London, to which not a single Indian had been invited. She managed to get into the conference and, after listening to a highly prejudiced commentary presented by an Englishwoman who had not even visited India, she denounced it in no uncertain terms. There were a few fair-minded persons present in the audience who gave her a hearing. After this incident, she was invited to participate in several forums where she interacted with leading social workers and feminists. This was the beginning of her work on social issues in India.


Family Size, Family Welfare

By this time political figures like Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru and Annie Besant were also talking of social transformation – there was so much to do. Dhanvanthi too was fired with the reformer’s zeal. Back in Bombay at the end of Rama Rau’s US posting, she saw the miserable conditions of domestic life among the slum dwellers. She recognized that limiting the size of the family was vital for the health and well-being of the mother and critical for the economic development of the country. In this context, it is worthwhile to remember that, just after independence, life expectancy in India was barely thirty years. Dhanvanthi took it as a personal challenge to get Family Planning policies (earlier called ‘birth control measures,’ which was changed following strong public reaction) on the radar of the National Planning Commission. In 1949, she started an initiative called The Family Planning Association of India and vigorously campaigned in the face of resistance from politicians as well as some socialites. She is still remembered for this significant contribution to women’s liberation in a high-density third world country like India. In 1953 the Planning Commission accepted Family Planning as a part of the Central Government programme, and India became the first country to adopt family planning as part of its National Health programme. Besides this she actively worked for several other causes such as stopping immoral trafficking in women, the rehabilitation of handicapped children, and schooling for the blind. This required her to travel extensively to understand the real problems on the ground. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959, the Watumull Foundation Distinguished Service Award in 1967 and the Society of Man’s Award for Peace in 1968. She was also invited to several conferences on the subject and was elected President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). She retired from the Family Planning Association of India in 1974, after participating in its Silver Jubilee celebrations.


This is an extract from The Benegal Brothers: An Extraordinary Family and the Making of Modern India by Kanchan Karopady Bannerjee, published by Roli Books. Get your copies here.

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