Vijayalakshmi Ramanan - a trailblazing Keralite few remember now

Dr Vijayalakshmi with her family

The first lady officer of the Indian Air Force died on October 18 this year. Though accolades were heaped on Wing Cdr (Retd) Dr Vijayalakshmi Ramanan, a woman known for her extraordinary dedication to her career, she lived and died as a daughter of Tamil Nadu, unbeknown to and unsung by her homeland Kerala where she was born.

Vijayalakshmi too will go down in history as one among those many illustrious souls who despite scaling heights of glory are alien to the land they were born in. Even obits paying paeans to her glorious career with the Air Force make no mention of the family of musicians in Kerala that was hers.

A slice of history from Ernakulam

It would be pertinent to go back in history to trace the lineage of Vijayalakshmi Ramanan. 

Appu Bhagavathar, a disciple of the revered Thyagaraja, was a musician in the court of the Travancore kings. Vijayalakshmi belonged to the fourth generation of the musician’s family. Her father, TD Narayana Iyer was the great Bhgavathar’s grandson. His father TA Doraiswamy, apart from being a renowned musician like his father, was a brilliant lawyer as well. It’s said that Swami Vivekananda was mesmerized by Doraiswamy’s prowess in music. His house in Tripunithura overflowed with music with classical notes filling the air with their rich tones. That was Vijayalakshmi’s paternal home. 

Vijayalakshmi was born to Narayana Iyer and Ananathalakshmi of the Chathapuram Karaikyar family of Palakkad on February 27, 1924. Narayana Iyer who happened to be a World War I veteran was employed in Tamil Nadu and hence, his daughter was raised and educated there. But she moved over to Bangalore to work and later settled down there. Perhaps this would explain why she seems to be quite a stranger to the place where she was born.

Vijayalakshmi graduated from Presidency College in Madras and completed her medical studies from Madras Medical College. She opted for obstetrics and gynaecology for her masters.

In her husband’s footsteps

Vijayalakshmi got married to Dr KV Ramanan, son of Dr KS Viswanathan of Kalpathy. Dr Viswanathan, who graduated from Victoria College, Palakkad, then moved on to complete his masters in public health from Harvard Medical School. He then went on to be the director of public health of the Madras Presidency.

It was her husband Wing Cdr Dr Ramanan, who put in an application in the air force on behalf of his wife. Vijayalakshmi was truly blessed in that she had the full backing of her family in her pursuit for a career. In 1955 with her appointment as a gynaecologist in the air force hospital in Madras, Dr Ramanan and Dr Vijayalakshmi became the married first couple to be employed by the Indian Air Force. 

A self-designed uniform

Dr Vijayalakshmi with former President S Radhakrishnan

Being a woman and a doctor too, Vijayalakshmi did not have to go through the usual rigours of training before she joined duty. What’s more, she was lucky enough to design her uniform. She was initially given a light blue cashmere-silk fabric with which to get her uniform stitched. Unhappy with the thin and dull texture of the material, the lady instead, bought a finer fabric in Bangalore silk and had it dyed to a richer hue of blue.

Happy with her fabric, the authorities gave her a go-ahead nod. Dr Vijayalakshmi was from then on seen clad in sari and shirt. But when the authorities insisted on full sleeves for the shirt, the doctor argued her case and won it. She said it would be practically difficult for a gynaec to wear full sleeves. Hence she was allowed to roll up her sleeves up to her elbows.

Padma Bandopadhyay the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force, had worked under Vijayalakshmi. Both were soul mates and Bandopadhyay was heartened to have her friend present when she delivered her babies. 

Music in her blood

Born to a family where music was as spiritual as prayer, Vijayalakshmi found time to pursue her love for music despite her official and personal commitments. She began singing for Akashvani at the young age of 15 and organised live programmes till 1971, all because the Air Force gave her special permission to do so. To her credit stands the fact that she was the one chosen to render patriotic songs on special occasions during the freedom struggle. She was a regular at all Carnatic music sessions. 

“So passionate was she about Carnatic music that it’s said she used to sing while in the operation theatre”, says Vijayalakshmi’s daughter Sukanya Lakshmi Narayan. Not only would she take her kids along with her to all Carnatic music programmes, but also evinced keen interest in their music lessons, recalls Sukanya. She would be around all the while. She also found time to tutor a lot of students who were into music, says Sukanya. That rich legacy in music now lives on through her grandson, her son Sukumar’s son.

Sukanya Lakshmi Narayan, daughter of Dr Vijayalakshmi

Immense strength of mind

Vijayalakshmi lost her husband Ramanan in 1971 when Sukanya was 14 and brother Sukumar was 13. It was Dr Ramanan’s parents and sisters who stood by the bereaved family and lend them strength. Theirs was a huge family comprising grandparents, aunts and their children. This support base was something that blunted the grief over her father’s death, says Sukanya.

“My mother used to drive a car from the time she was 14. She was fiercely independent and taught us to be too”, says Sukanya. 

The Air Force was another great support factor. From the rank of short service commission, the Air Force promoted her, gave her permanent commission and allowed her to live in Bangalore till she retired.

A stickler for discipline

A no-nonsense, no-compromises woman on the work front, the call of duty was sacred to her. Rain or shine, day or night, she would be off the minute she received a call from hospital. Vijayalakshmi was extremely lucky in that she had the full backing of her parents-in-law in all her endeavors. 

As a recognition for her hard work and committed service, the Air Force honored her with the Vishist Seva medal. She retired from the forces in 1979. Ill at ease with the concept of private practise, she continued her work in various nursing homes around Bangalore till the age of 80. A large part of it was rendered for free.

Sukanya’s family

Sukanya, who’s been active as a counsellor, lives in Bengaluru. Her husband, VL Narayan was an IT professional. 

Vijayalakshmi’s son Sukumar, an engineer, is settled in the US. While his daughter, a medical student, is following in the footsteps of her illustrious grandmother, his son is a musician.

Sukanya is no stranger to Kerala as her off and on visits to look up her relatives would vouch for the fact. 

In 1892, Swami Vivekananda landed in Ernakulam on his tour of Kerala. En route to Thiruvananthapuram, he was compelled to stop by to listen to the strains of music that came from a certain house. He then walked into “Saraswathi Vilas”, from where the mellifluous notes had come. The musician was none other than Doraiswamy Iyer, Vijayalakshmi’s grandfather. Swami Vivekananda stayed the night there. 

The musician who was also a famous lawyer was honoured when the authorities concerned lend his name to a road in Ernakulam. 

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