PIONEERING POOVAIAH SISTERS OF COORG. ONE OF THEM TAUGHT INDIRA GANDHI
By C P Belliappa
Codanda D. Poovaiah was one of the first lawyers in Coorg around the turn of the nineteenth century and had a flourishing practice in Madikeri. He built a palatial house in Madikeri named ‘Poovaiah Villa’, where he and his wife raised their seven daughters and two sons. Sadly, one of sons died while a student in Chennai.
Poovaiah ensured that his daughters too received good education. In 1909, the Catholic mission started St Joseph’s Convent in Madikeri where all his daughters received their early education. The girls were exceptionally bright. By the time they completed their schooling their father asked his daughters whether they would like to get married and settle down or wished to continue their education, which meant their going out of Coorg. It was unanimous ‘Yes’ to education. However, the eldest daughter, Muthakka, volunteered to stay back to look after the parents and interests of the family. Enterprising and independent, Muthakka became a successful Insurance Agent. I remember her as a familiar personality, impeccably dressed in Coorg sari, long-sleeved blouse and vastra, out for long walks in Madikeri during the 1950s.
By 1930s the sisters excelled in various fields and soon came to be known as the ‘Poovaiah Sisters of Coorg’. One of them, Rohini, was the first lady from Kodagu to acquire a degree. She later became the principal of Crosswaithe College, a well-known institution in Allahabad (Prayagraj now). She was close to the Nehru family and had a brief role in the education of a young Indira Gandhi. She was awarded the Padma Shree in 1973. Another sister, Ashlesha, was one of the first lady doctors from Kodagu. Yet another sister, Swati, did her Nursing degree and later went on a scholarship to Columbia University in 1948 for further studies. The three younger sisters – Sita, Chitra and Lata became renowned Kathak dancers and were much sought after not only for their performances all over India, but also to direct dances in Hindi movies. In a book titled – ‘Kathak, Indian Classical Dance Art’ – by Sunil Kothari, he mentions that the sisters were pioneers in popularizing Kathak among educated upper middle-class girls. Sita, Chitra and Lata were trained by the well-known masters of the Jaipur gharana, Sundar Prasad and Pandit Jailal. The sisters were recognized for their highly aesthetic and sophisticated presentation on stage. Sita went on to earn a PhD in Arts (dance) from Bombay University and became the first Kodava lady to get a Doctorate degree.
All the Poovaiah sisters took part in the freedom movement. Chitra and Lata defied prohibitory orders during the ‘Quit India’ movement. They courted arrest in Chennai and were jailed for two weeks. My father, C.M. Poonacha, was a freedom fighter and knew the family well. Besides, their brother (my namesake right down to our initials!) was my father’s bojakara. I had the privilege of being invited to Poovaiah sisters’ home on Malabar Hill in Bombay in 1968. Quite a few of Mumbai’s who’s who were present at the party. Except for Ashlesha, all the sisters remained spinsters.
In a group photograph taken in 1911 of the students in St Joseph’s Convent (SJC), four of the Poovaiah sisters are in the frame. Other siblings would have been too young to attend school. In a family photograph taken in 1946, on the occasion of seventy-fifth birthday of their mother, all the seven sisters and their brother, his wife, and children are present.
The iconic century-old group photograph of students and the Catholic nuns of SJC has many stories to tell. On a personal note, my wife’s grandmother is one of the little girls sitting in the front row along with two of her sisters. She later married Pemmanda K. Monnappa who had the unique distinction of being the Inspector General of Police in three southern states. P.K. Monnappa was the police chief who headed the government action in quelling the Razaakars revolt in Hyderabad. He was the first IGP (that was the highest rank those days), of the newly formed Karnataka State in 1956. Another sister married Chenira Kushalappa who was one of the most distinguished forest officers. He was the Chief Conservator of Forests of the erstwhile Coorg State.
Also in the frame is the future wife of Palecanda Medappa who was the first Chief Justice of the newly formed Karnataka State in 1956.
My sister’s future father-in-law (Konganda S. Muddayya) is one of the little boys sitting in the front row. Interestingly, his future mother-in-law is also in the same frame!
Over the years several girls who had their early education in this school went on to achieve in various fields. Konganda Accamma, who passed out of SJC in the 1920s, joined Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi. She was one of the first Kodava women to earn an MBBS degree. She headed the Vanivilas Women and Children’s Hospital in Bangalore for several years.
One of the most distinguished alumna of this school is C.B. Muthamma, who was the first woman to qualify for the Indian Foreign Service in 1949. She also had the distinction of being the first lady ambassador from the IFS cadre. Bollera Jaji Mandanna (thamanePandanda) and Muthamma were classmates and vied for the first rank in their class. Muthamma held on to the top rank while Jaji was a close second. Jaji was chided by her mother as to why she is not coming first in class. Jaji answer was – ‘That Muthamma is not allowing me!’ Jaji become a well-known Consumer Protection activist and was nominated as MLC during Devaraj Urs’s tenure.
My thanks to my sister Vijaya Muthanna, an old student (married to Brig Konganda M. Muthanna), Dr Jammada Shanthy Machaiah, and to Codanda B Kingu Poovaiah (nephew of the Poovaiah sisters), for the photographs and details of those who studied in SJC. Dr Shanthy Machaiah is currently the President of the Alumni Association of the school. She retired as a senior research scientist in the prestigious BARC (Bhaba Atomic Research Centre) in Mumbai.
I am sure many will be able to identify and trace members of their family in this remarkable century-old photograph.