To walk through the gates of Avvai Home is to walk back in time a few decades. To the left is an open space in which lush trees and coconut palms grow freely. Dr. Muthulaksmi’s house stands to the far left of the campus; an old, dilapidated structure. To the right is the Avvai Home Saraswati temple beyond which lies the school and hostel buildings. Outside, the park is empty as the children are in their classrooms attending morning lessons. You almost forget that less than u hundred meters away is L.B. Road and the bustling Adyar signal.
When the Avvai home campus was built in 1936 it was, along with the Theosophical Society, one of the first few buildings in the area. In fact, until the 1950’s Adyar stretched from Gandhi Nagar to only as far as Kasturba Nagar, beyond which it was mostly jungle. There was hardly any public transport to the area. Neither were there electricity or telephone lines.
Its founder, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was an extraordinary woman. To celebrate Ayudha Puja, the staff and students of the home had set up a Dr. Muthulakshmi themed Golu showcasing various aspects of her life as a student, doctor, mother and visionary. She was the first woman in India to graduate from medical college, the first woman to enter the Indian legislature and also the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. Her time in the legislative assembly was dedicated entirely to the cause of protection of women and children. She brought in many reforms towards this end - the prevention of trading women, the abolition of the Devadasi system, prevention of cruelty to children.
Dr. Muthulakshmi’s son in an article published in the home’s platinum jubilee magazine recalls the day that saw the inception of Avvai Home.
‘A few days after returning from our summer retreat in Ootacamund, as I, a boy of ten, was playing in the courtyard of our house at No.6, Randall’s Road (now E.V.K.Sampath Salai), Vepery, two young girls approached our house hesitantly. They told me they had just arrived from Namakkal and had come straight from the station to see my mother. When I told my mother about them, she immediately ran out to meet them. They began to weep when they saw her and explained that they were two sisters from the Devadasi community who had refused ‘dedication’, and having nowhere else to go came to her seeking help and protection. They had read about her in papers and knew of the role she played in the abolishment of the system. The next day my mother sent the girls to what was known as the ‘Non-brahmin hostel’ in Triplicane for admission. When they came back weeping, denied admission on the grounds of being from the Devadasi community my mother was aghast! She told me they were my new sisters and were going to stay.’
Thus began what has now grown into Avvai Home which provides shelter for about 170 girls from marginalized backgrounds, runs a government aided primary and higher – secondary school and a teachers training institute. One of the sisters grew up to become a teacher and the other a nurse.
After Dr.Muthulakshmi had provided asylum for the two young girls, news of this spread to other parts of Tamil Nadu, they were joined by many women looking for a safe place to go to. Within a year it became imperative to form a formal institution to cater to the growing numbers so Dr. Muthulakshmi rented a house at No.1, Kutchery Road in Mylapore and formerly registered the ‘Avvai Home’ under the Society’s Registration act of 1860. Ms. C.N.Nallamuthu, at that time a lecturer at Queen Mary’s College (later to become its first Indian Principal) was made its first Honorary Warden. The girls were admitted in the National Girl’s High school, Mylapore with the help of a friend Mr. Sesha Iyengar. Avvai Home was the first non-missionary, non- Christian institution in Madras presidency that took in all girls without making any distinction of caste or creed.
A few years later, Dr. Muthulakshmi, while looking for a place Avvai Home could be moved to permanently, came across land near Theosophical society on Elliot’s beach road, now Besant Avenue. Fifty grounds of the land that belonged to Thiruvannamalai Shri Arunachaleswarer Devasthanam was leased out to Avvai Home at Rs.10 per month for 50 years. The building construction was completed by 1936. The children moved to the new campus and attended the Olcott Memorial School and the Besant Theosophical School ( now The School, KFI), which were in the neighbourhood.
The Avvai Home eventually turned into an open-house for women looking to protect themselves and their children. I caught Geethanjali, a twelfth standard student sitting at the Avvai Home Saraswati temple and working on matrices. She along with two other girls her age had come to Avvai Home from Aarkkonam.
“In my village, I had to travel half an hour by bus to reach school”, she says, “and with the extra classes conducted for students attempting the board exams classes would go on till seven o’ clock after which it was unsafe to travel. Here I am staying in the hostel and the coaching too is far better than the school in Aarkkonam.”
The basic school was started in 1950 within the Avvai Home premises in 1950 with State government aid. In 1952, the teachers training institute was established under the National Council for Teacher’s Education, Research and Training (NCTERT). According to Ms. Sharadha of the Avvai Home administration, this institute is to be shut at the end of the year owing to some issues regarding the land upon which it is located. The high school was established in 1969 after Mrs. Nallamuthu Ramamurthy donated a large sum of money towards it. The school was upgraded to a higher secondary school in 1978. The school now has more than 800 students. The woman behind the academic growth at the home is Mrs. Mandakini Kishnamurthi, wife of Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy’s second son. She laboured untiringly towards these goals. She was the recipient of many awards one of them the International Education Year Awards 1970 from the United Nations Educational Cultural Organization. She took over as correspondent of the home from 1960 to 2002. Her husband Mr. Krishnamurthi succeeded her. When he retired, Ms. Susheela who is currently the Correspondent, took over and was soon joined by Ms. Rajalakshmi who now holds the post of Secretary.
Once the girls leave Avvai Home they either join work or get married, said Ms. Sharadha. Most students return to Avvai Home as teachers; 32 out of 35 of the government employed teachers at the high school are from Avvai Home itself.
One of their students, Velankanni recently become the first person of her community of Vaigirivals to complete her tenth standard. She is still in Avvai Home, now preparing for her twelfth standard board exams.
According to Ms. Sharadha, the home still receives over 30 to 40 applicants for the hostel every year, however, accommodating them all can be difficult. Yet the home is open to anyone seeking help and has to this day maintains the same spirit as they did for the past 80 years.