One frame, many stories

Poovaiah sisters, Sita, Chitra and Lata, with their guru, Jailal.

Educational institutions were first started in Kodagu after the British takeover in 1834. Kodavas took to education enthusiastically. In 1909, St Joseph’s Convent was founded by Catholic nuns in Madikeri. It was primarily for girls, but boys were allowed up to 7th standard. The school catered to both boarders and day scholars. I recently came across a remarkable group photograph taken in 1911, of the students at the time, along with the European nuns who ran the school. This school offered quality education to the children of those locals who aspired to see their children well-prepared to take advantage of lucrative jobs and career opportunities under the colonial dispensation. This school saw several generations of students, especially women, pursue higher education and excel in diverse professions at a time when women were not very much involved outside the traditional responsibilities of raising a family.  

One family in this frame, frozen in time, has members who went on to become famous during 1930s and 1950s.  They are the seven daughters and one son of the first lawyer from Kodagu — Codanda D Poovaiah.  Six of his daughters continued their education outside Kodagu. 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 get a degree. She later became the principal of Crosthwaite College, a well-known institution in Allahabad. She was familiar with the Nehru family and had a brief role in the education of a young Indira Gandhi. She was awarded the Padma Shri 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, but also to direct dances in Hindi movies. All the sisters took part in the freedom movement. Chitra and Lata defied prohibitory orders during the ‘Quit India’ movement and were arrested and jailed for two weeks. Sita went on to earn a PhD in Arts from Bombay University and became the first Kodava lady to get a doctorate degree.  

Over the years, several girls who had their early education in this school went on to achieve in various fields. Konganda Accamma who studied here in the 1920s joined Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi. She was one of the first Kodava women to earn an MBBS degree and headed Vanivilas Women and Children’s Hospital 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 has the distinction of being the first lady ambassador from the IFS cadre. Muthamma had to face gender discrimination while in service. She  fought  against the government and went to the Supreme Court in 1979 for redressal. The apex court passed a judgement in her favour which paved the way for other women civil servants from being discriminated against. She also authored a book titled, Slain by the System, in 2003.

St Joseph’s is now a co-ed school and continues to provide quality education.

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One frame, many stories

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