T A Sarasvati Amma : Hidden Star – Janaky Sreedharan

They were three sisters and two brothers — brilliant, studious and intellectually alert. The daughters were Padmalaya K.Nair, T.A Sarasvati Amma and T.A Rajalakshmi. As daughters of T.A. Kuttimalu Amma and Marath Achyutha Menon, growing up in in the early half of the twentieth century, both Sarasvati Amma and Rajalakshmi showed a flair for literature and science alike and entered into the field of higher education in Kerala as teachers in the mid-decades of the twentieth century with great confidence and hope.

T.A. Rajalakshmy hit fame with her Malayalam stories and novelettes early on in her literary life, gathering a huge readership and critical acclaim. In the latter half of the twentieth century she was rediscovered and iconised by a vibrant feminist consciousness in Kerala. Many women researchers burrowed deep into her works works trying to find answers to her untimely death shrouded in mystery .Very often the comparisons to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf throbbed with subtexts of feminist readings into a life tragically cut short. The mystique around the elusive figure of this writer persists to this day adding lustre to her enigma.

It was on my own pursuit of this enigmatic writer in 2017 that I stumbled over another stunning figure who was none other than Rajalakshmy’s sister T.A.Sarasvati Amma, globally hailed as an expert in ancient Indian mathematical traditions but ironically not much known or talked about in her own native land. Isn’t it disappointing how we, the progressive, literate Keralites who pride ourselves on our scientific temper have fallen short of acknowledging the seminal contributions made by women infields other than literature and arts? What amazed me further three years back, was the difficulty to trace her life and to find reliable sources who could provide me with some fruitful insights into her intellectual life.

Musing on this invisibility of women intellectuals in our public discourse, I wrote a Malayalam article on her in my column ‘Vazhithaarakal’ in the Sanghaditha magazine, in 2017. Reminded of the significance of this mathematician recently , I republished the column in my own WordPress blog which caught wider attention. Some of her close relatives got in touch with me volunteering to offer information known to them . Santha Achuthkumar was one of them who put me in touch with her son T.A.Balagopalan and his wife Raji Gopalan residing currently in Australia .I am much obliged to them for certain crucial dimensions of her personal life which has made me understand this reputed scholar in a more complex and layered manner.

Recalling the reading habits of the sisters, Sarasvati Amma’s son says that her “…literary interests were mostly of English and Sanskrit literature. Rajalakshmy similarly read lots of English books. Both of them seemed to read classical English books of the 18th & 19th centuries and they sometimes discussed them, but hardly any of recent English authors.” Santha Achuthkumar too shared her memories of a conducive intellectual ambience at home which nurtured these immensely talented women.” Their father encouraged reading and he had a good collection of books. History, Psychology — you name it and it was there.”

It is also heartening to note that there is more material on her in the digital space than there was earlier. The worlds of science and astronomy are waking up to Sarasvati Amma’s remarkable contribution. Some links in the vast expanse of the internet will take you to her book Geometry in Ancient and Medieval India published by Motilal Banarsidass in 1979 and the way in which scholars and mathematicians world over have lavished praise on her erudition and interpretative skills. Born in 1921 she reportedly attained her basic degrees in Physics and Mathematics from Madras University before moving onto Banaras Hindu University to pursue education in Sanskrit at a higher level. After doing post-graduation in English language and literature at Bihar University, she shifted to Madras University as a representative of the Government of India’s Ministry for Education and worked under the supervision of the renowned scholar Dr.V.Raghavan. According to R.C.Gupta , her research scholar, to whom we are indebted for many professional details , “In selecting the subject of Sarasvati’s research, Raghavan showed his analytical wisdom and soon “ and decided that she should specialise in the field of Indian contribution to mathematics, algebra and geometry” as “she was qualified in Mathematics” (see his Foreword in her 1979 book).” https://bhavana.org.in/t-a-sarasvati-amma-1918-2000/

The aforementioned book was an offshoot of that research. International communities of mathematicians have appreciated her work as a deep enquiry into the ideas, assumptions and conceptsin the Indian geometric traditions in the ancient and medieval ages. Dr.Michio Yano considers her work as one which laid the foundations for the study of geometry in India. According to David Mumford it is one of the most comprehensive accounts of Indian Geometric knowledge. In her chronicle tracing the evolution from the Vedic times to the seventeenth century, we see her giving much emphasis to the Jaina contributions to mathematics.

Many of her contemporaries testify that the renowned Sanskrit scholar Fritz Staal was her fellow researcher at the University of Madras. A reputed senior academic who did not wish to be named and who has served many years in some of the foremost research institutions in India asserted: “Hers is a pioneering work.We have shown a criminal negligence and indifference towards her work .” But now the Kerala Mathematical Association has been conducting a memorial lecture in her honour in the last few years. She was feted along with Richard Feynman in their birth centenary year 2018 by Natskies laboratory which aims to promote astronomy and space science. The site states that her work “… deals in detail with the Sulbasutras in the Vedic literature, with the mathematical parts of Jaina Canonical works and of the Hindu Siddhantas and with the contributions to geometry made by the astronomer-mathematicians Aryabhata I & II, Sripati, Bhaskara I & II, Sangamagrama Madhava, Paramesvara, Nilakantha, his disciples and a host of others. The works of the mathematicians Mahavira, Sridhara and Narayana Pandita and the Bakshali Manuscript have also been studied. The work seeks to explode the theory that the Indian mathematical genius was predominantly algebraic and computational and that it eschewed proofs and rationales.”  http://www.natskies.com/2018/10/06/this-year-100th-birth-anniversary-of-doyens-in-the-field-of-physics-and-astronomy/

Dr.R.C.Gupta avers that Sarasvati Amma was able to consult and draw richly from the unpublished manuscripts on ancient Indian mathematics from the libraries in Madras. Her knowledge of Sanskrit proved advantageous in her journey.She published many remarkable research papers among which the one titled “The Development of Mathematical Series in India after Bhāskara II” elicits the following comment from Dr.R.C.Gupta :”The importance of the paper lies in the fact that it falsifies a commonly held belief that no progress in mathematics was made in India after the 12th century AD. Also, it testifies that certain series (for π, sine and cosine) were already known in India about three centuries prior to their first appearance in Europe.” https://bhavana.org.in/t-a-sarasvati-amma-1918-2000/

In her career as a college lecturer she served in many colleges in Kerala and outside. Her longest stint was reportedly in Ranchi Women’s college, Ranchi, from 1954 to 1972.In Dhanbad she functioned as the principal of Sri Sri Lakshminarain Trust Mahila Mahavidyalaya where the administrative work and bureaucratic hassles completely crippled the researcher in her. She had to put up a tough battle against a corrupt system apparently. Her son recollects painfully: “But what with battling the mafia and admin duties, there was no time nor mindset for any research.”

And in her letter to Dr.R.C.Gupta she wrote : “I do not do any useful work nowadays, immersed as I am in the squabbles and problems of an affiliated college accustomed to tactics to which I am not accustomed.”

According to her son, on coming back to Kerala after retirement she requested the Vice-Chancellor of Cochin University in 1981 to facilitate her research activities but the administration at that point of time showed no interest or encouragement to such an original researcher. Perhaps it is an indication of the kind of negativity that ails our research institutions and stifles all potential in brilliant researchers. And her final move to Ottappalam seems to have put an end to all possibilities of research, as there was no space or scope to give her wings there. Although she was divorced she had the responsibility of taking care of her mother till her death which might have prevented her from taking up any adventurous research projects.

T A Sarasvati Amma with her mother

Santha Achuthkumar regrets that the family was not really aware of the caliber of this fine acadamecian and researcher. She remembers finding an invite to a conference hidden within a book much after her death. She recalls wistfully that Sarasvati Amma never mentioned the letter or evinced any desire to attend this conference. Perhaps if she was a writer of fiction or poetry she would have been more visible in the public domain and the family too would have known of the brilliance of this person. This state of affairs reveals our lamentable lack of awareness of the spectrum of intellectual work a woman is capable of given the right atmosphere and nourishment. It also highlights the importance of giving equal attention to other spheres of intellectual activity apart from literature and arts where women are doing sterling work and spearheading innovative research.

Sarasvati Amma’s life was not a one-dimensional one and the responses from the family members are varied and complicated. Her son feels badly neglected by his mother as she left him as a baby with his grandmother. His relationship with his mother must have been conflicted—a mix of admiration and bitterness which could be the plight of many women who might have had to take certain hard decisions to balance work and home. That resentment still runs deep, even as he expresses his deep wish to republish his mother’s book which perhaps is a beautiful way of coming to terms with the unique individual his mother must have been.

Writing this short biographical piece has been a deeply learning experience for me. A person, living or dead, is a composite of perspectives of others, mostly at odds with each other and it becomes an extremely daunting task for a biographer to assemble the clashing testimonies into coherent narrative. We are left with many traces of an individual’s life on this planet, none of which exhaust the intricacies and contradictions experienced by that individual. There will always be many loose ends which urge us toward delicately tentative conclusions which again we need to be prepared to revise in the light of newer facts. And I think the process becomes even more complicated when we attempt to recreate the life of a woman who lived life on her own terms; particularly when she has achieved a certain measure of success in her field, making unpopular and unconventional decisions which must have caused pain in people who were close to her. It has never been easy for a woman in Kerala to flout the rules of family life to pursue her vocation. She has had to make difficult choices and sometimes pay a heavy price for it. I have tried my best to understand her and rebuild that life with as much empathy as possible, with warts and all. Because the hurt we felt and the hurt we caused is also a part of what we are —so vulnerable, so human.

Sarasvati Amma passed away in 2000 leaving behind a precious intellectual legacy. While admiring and celebrating her, we have to remind ourselves time and again, of many gifted women scientists doing groundbreaking work in libraries and laboratories in our midst in complete anonymity . It is time to make visible all those hidden stars in the firmament.

[Janaky Sreedharan teaches at the Dept. of English, University of Calicut.]

6 thoughts on “T A Sarasvati Amma : Hidden Star – Janaky Sreedharan”

  1. Thanks so much for writing this, Janaki! As I read this, I was thinking — it was so common in matrilineal families or those with traces of matrilineal culture for children to be raised by grandmothers or aunts. In fact, mothers in matrilineal culture in Kerala were seen through lenses quite different from those of Victorian sentimentality. Mothers in matrilineal homes were powerful, not sentimental — it was the mother of grandmother or aunt or even the father who was the source of affection. But children who grew up in another generation, fed on Victorian ideas of motherhood could probably never come to terms that their mother matched up with ‘real’ motherly ideals. And I also think I will read Rajalakshmy’s work quite differently now — they so powerfully voice the dilemmas of women caught between the wife/mother ideal and their own need for a life of the mind. As I read this, I cannot help thinking that women with a life of the mind should seek affirmation perhaps not in their biological offspring but in their daughters-in-the-soul (yes, that could be a nice kin term in a new system of kinship, when we finally queer kinship beyond alliance and sexuality!). I feel so much for her, much more than perhaps her own kin because I can well comprehend what she went through in her private, affective world, as a woman committed to a life of the mind myself.

    The other thing that struck me was the terrible intellectual desert that the higher education sector already appeared to be. In fact that was the case already in the 1920s, if one is to take Anna Chandy seriously — what she writes in her autobiography. She is already telling us how bland and boring the career of a history professor or college professor was! Not just Sarasvati Amma but many other talented women from Kerala who pursued a career in science ran away from colleges here and the situation was not much better elsewhere (with the exception of some places like Delhi University of the 1950s where scholars like T S Rukmani could thrive).

  2. Thank you for this piece on Saraswati Amma, Devika and Janaki. I spent my childhood in Ranchi, so I was thrilled to read that Saraswati Amma’s longest teaching stint was in Ranchi Women’s College from 1954 to 1972 — overlapping with the years I spent in Ranchi as a child. There were only a few Malayali families in Ranchi at the time and my parents knew almost all of them. I don’t remember hearing of Saraswati Amma — I’ll have to do a little more digging. By the way, the founder-principal of Ranchi Women’s College was an incredible Malayali woman Mrs. Bhanumati Prasad who developed the college into what it is now: one of the premier colleges in that part of the country. Her surname comes from her Bihari husband Mr. Prasad who passed away when her two sons were still teenagers. Bhanumati founded and managed the college while raising her two sons by herself. She was a very prominent personality around town in my childhood years. Imagine that — a Malayali woman, a single mother for most of her life, in distant Ranchi starting a college on her own in 1949 with eleven students which now has a student strength of nearly 10,000! Here is a writeup on her in the college’s website:

    https://www.ranchiwomenscollege.org/Background.html

  3. Thanks Janaki and Devika for bringing in the untold and unheard stories of women in the history of Kerala. The invisible yet invincible women to whom we can pay our debt only like this. Great endeavour.

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