One hundred years ago, Madras was, as you can imagine, a very different place. Huge, shady trees formed lovely avenues, very few vehicles were seen on the road, and people led gracious simple lives.
But it was, in other ways, not such an idyllic place. There were many injustices in those days, especially aginst women, who were not treated well at all.
It was into that world that our Founder Andalamma, was born, in the year 1894. Since she came from a well-to-do-family, she had the benefit of good education (not many girls did, in those days.) She went to St. Thomas Convent, Mylapore, and the Presidency High School, Madras, and she learnt all the crafts and skills of a young lady of her time. But Andalamma, as she grew up, was also learning something else that no school taught, but which everyone needed. That special ‘something' was Social Awareness- the ability to feel compassion for the poor, helpless and less fortunate, and the desire to do something to change their Plight.
Lttle did she realise how her opportunity would come. At a very young age, Andalamma became a widow, and thought she must now accept a life seclusion - for widows in those days could not remarry or mingle in society.
It was then that she met the person who would change her life - the Hon'ble Justice M. Venkatasubba Rao, a brilliant and much respected Judge who was determined to make Andalamma his wife - a brave gesture in those times! But Justice Venkatasubba Rao was a very special man - learned, courageous and upright in his beliefs. He deeply wished to transform the ills of society, and in his young wife he found the ideal partner. Together they set out to brighten the lives of hundreds of under - privileged people.
Both of them believed in living by example - never to preach, but practise their ideals, to show others by lighting the way. And this is what they did. In 1928, with their own money ( a grand sum of Rs. 10, 000) which at that time was a generous figure indeed) they founded the Madras Seva Sadan - an institute to protect, teach and help destitute women and children - people who had been abandoned and mistreated by society. Here on the sprawling grounds of this noble institution, all the ideals and all the love in the mind and heart of Lady Andal began to take shape.
At the Madras Seva Sadan, women who thought they had nobody to live for found new purpose and meaning in life. They were fed, clothed, given work, taught skills, and learned to become happy independent members of society. And the numbers grew from 8 to 3,000 in just 30 years.
And so, the Madras Seva Sadan, and all the many other institutions under it, grew from strength to strength under Lady Andal's firm and careful guidance. She didn't just lead her people; she took a personal interest in each one. Dressed in beautiful silk sarees, her presence was loved by all. She would weave flowers into the hair of little girls, feed them personally with rice balls, take them for evening drives to the beach.. she was one of the first ladies to drive her own car in those old-fashioned times! Ans when the holidays came, and some children had no home to go to, she took them to her own beautiful house where they spent memorable times together.
In fact, she was truly a Mother to many, taking care of them until they were old enough to marry, finding good husbands for the girls, and organising the weddings for which she would herself buy the sarees and jewels!
Lady Andal worked tirelessly to organise the many activities and functions of the Madras Seva Sadan. Breaking all barriers of caste, creed, religion and social stigma, the Madras Seva Sadan took in people from any and every background. In fact once a Harijan girl joined the school, but the upper caste children did not want to eat with her. Lady Andal did not scold or lecture, but she taught the children a lesson they would never forget. She invited all the children to eat with her. At the meal, she seated the Harijan child on the right with the other children all around them, and then she began to eat. Once the others saw this, they realized how small their thinking was. And the problem never came up again!
This was how Lady Andal, like a bright star, lit the way for others dispelling the darkness of ignorance and prejudice. And yet for all her greatness she was a humble lady. She was honoured with very prestigious awards the King George's Medal, the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal and the Padmabhushan all for her outstanding work in social welfare. But these honours did not change her. Nor did any of her work come in the way of her being a good and devoted wife. She stood by her husband in all his important postings. She welcomed equally into her home the most illustrious of persons (Royalty, National Leaders and famous personalities) - also the humblest. No one was denied welcome in her home. She always had time to celebrate birthdays and festivals with the family and filled their lives with joyful moments, beautiful gifts and funfilled occasions.
In 1960, Sir. M. Venkatasubba Rao passed away, and it was as if the light had gone out of Lady Andal's life. Deeply grieved, she bore her loss with courage, and carried on her duties, still with a smile and a kind word for all. In 1969, she joined her husband at the lotus feet of the Almighty.