C. Amba Bai, B.A., Maharaja’s College, Mysore University, 1922

Photo taken in 1901

C.Amba Bai, the First Woman Graduate in My Family

“This is the story of my great-grand mother Chennagiri Amba Bai (1889-1970), married at 12 and widowed at the age of 24, with three young children to support.

Amba Bai, affectionately called Ambi, was born into an orthodox Brahmin family in Tumkur.. She was the fourth of 14 children of Chennagiri Krishna Rao and Rukmini Bai. Her father, called ‘Rayaru’ was the headmaster of a Government High school in Tumkur. After her husband Srinivasa Rao tragically died in a swimming accident, Rayaru being an enlightened soul, was determined not to allow Ambi to become a victim of Brahmin orthodoxy by shaving her head and confining her to a bleak life. Despite opposition from the more conservative members of the family, Rayaru encouraged Ambi to take the Lower Secondary Examination and then the SSLC Examination in 1918. Even though it meant Ambi having to leave home, her eldest son, then ten years old and live in a hostel, he did not baulk at encouraging her to study further.

He was supported in his mission of educating his daughter by his close friends Sir. M. Viswesvaraiya and Sri. H.V.Nanjundiah, the Chief Justice of Mysore High Court who later became the vice-chancellor of Mysore University. Indeed, the suggestion that Ambi should get educated and stand on her own feet came from Sri H.V. Nanjundiah.

The Mysore University was one of the first universities to be established in the princely states of India in 1916. There were 593 students when it was started and when C.Amba Bai joined Maharaja’s College in 1918, there were 1,051 students, though only a handful were women. Initially there were only the faculties of Arts and Science. The Maharani’s College for women was started much later.

“Biligiri Lodge” in Mysore was a huge bungalow that belonged to Jagirdar Sir. P.N. Krishnamurthy. The vacant bungalow caught Nanjundiah’s eye as an ideal place for a women’s hostel. The house was big, secure and centrally located. He began the spadework by first sounding Sir. Krisnamurthy if he would sell the house to him. When Sir Krisnamurthy came to know the purpose for which Nanjudiah wanted the house, he willingly sold the house to him. Nanjundiah lost no time in converting “Biligiri Lodge” into a women’s hostel.

Ambi got admission in Maharaja’s College, to do the Intermediate Course, preliminary to doing B.A. degree course. Sri. Nanjundiah had made all arrangements in “Biligiri Lodge” for her stay. She had a large room to herself.  Rayaru on his part was just as anxious as Ambi herself as to how she would manage with the girls and devote time to her studies. In order to reduce the burden of work for Ambi, a companion called Sita Bai was engaged. Sita Bai’s duties were to look after Ambi’s daughters Sumitra (then about three years old) and Kapila (then about five years old) while Ambi attended college.

There were about seven other girls in the hostel and there was a male cook preparing food for them. But Ambi would not partake of that food. So arrangements were made for an orthodox Brahmin woman to prepare her food in ‘Madi  (kosher)’and deliver it to her room in a tiffin carrier. That was the only meal she ate the whole day. The girls and Sita Bai ate the hostel food.

Ambi completed her studies and graduated with a B.A.Degree in the year 1922. Her first appointment as a teacher was in the Maharani’s Girls’ School in Mysore. She retired as the head mistress of the Vani Vilas High School in Bangalore in 1947.”

Contributor:    Laxmi Murthy (great-grand daughter of C.Amba Bai)

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