Two events occurred in the 1940s that came together to create the many faceted Gandhigram.
On Feb 2, 1946 the villagers of Chinnalappatti rioted near the railway lines to force the British authorities to stop a train heading for Madurai. On the train was Mahatma Gandhi and the villagers wouldn't have anything less than his darshan and blessings.
The second event had occurred some years before in Madurai. Soundaram, the beautiful daughter of affluent businessman T V Sundaram Iyengar, became a teen-aged widow. Her dying husband Dr.Sunder Rajan had made her promise that she will not sit at home, but would educate herself to serve the society. Her father sent her to study medicine at Delhi. Here, wily old Gandhi had trapped the young student and added her to his growing army of dedicated young people.
The events connect:
By the time of Chinnalappatti 'riot' Soundaram had graduated and begun to work with many Gandhi disciples, among whom were Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy and Ramachandran an educator. Soundaram and Ramachandran fell in love and married with Gandhi's blessings. The marriage was revolutionary for two reasons: one, it was widow re-marriage, and two, it was marriage between the highest and lowest of castes spread across a linguistic divide.
Gandhi bid the young couple to seek a new place in rural India to serve. Before long, the connection between the two events that we saw, happened. Was Lagumiah, a modest agriculturist of Chinnalappatti at the riot? We do not know for sure, but the man was public spirited enough to offer 50 acres of his lands as a canvas for Soundaram and Ramachandran to create their masterpiece on.
Dr.Soundaram began a 2 bed clinic and an orphanage in a thatched hut. Ramachandran turned to education, his forte. From that beginning the experiment has grown to touch every stage of man's progress from cradle to grave and spread to cover seven districts of Tamil Nadu. Services include basic and specialist medicine, child care, primary, secondary , under graduate and doctoral and post-doctoral education, destitute care, old age home, creation of rural employment and marketing of produce, savings and credit schemes and so on.
First, was health:
It is a bewildering list! But what is easily overlooked is the zest, commitment and compassion Gandhi has caused to percolate through time, through Soundaram and Ramachandran and through many of their successors right till this day. In the vast Gandhigram campus you will find people who scarcely miss the city and are at work which often touches the very frontier that the world is at. The story of Gandhigram is best told through the lives of some of the people there today.
Dr. R. Kausalya Devi, Managing Trustee of Gandhigram Trust --the apex body-- is a bubbly lady pushing into her seventies. She is unaware of the cult status she enjoys in these parts. This alumnus of Madras Medical College is known for the 14+ hours that she puts in every day with a beaming face at the 250-bed Kasturba Hospital. "Oh it all happened quite quickly," she giggles. "I was in Madurai in 1969 for a friend's wedding. And have been here even since - happily unmarried!". Dr. Soundaram --or,'Founder' as she is affectionately referred to here-- was looking for a doctor to head the rapidly expanding medical services. Kausalya had been in secure Government service for ten years. "I had no intention of coming but an hour with the Founder changed all that. She was irresistible!," she says.
Gandhigram's experience in rural health and family welfare attracted the Ford Foundation. Between 1959 and 63, the Athoor Health Intervention Project, funded by the Foundation probed and perfected a model programme with which to take health education to rural India. The Project achieved remarkable success: acceptance of family planning went up from less than 1% to over 34%, birth rate fell from 43%  to 28.1%  and birth interval grew from 43 to 50 months. The experiment at the Athoor block level was soon being replicated everywhere and the Government of India accepted -- for nation wide practice-- this success story spawned at Gandhigram. A cheerful Dr.Vijaya Srinivasan runs the Institute of Rural Health and Family Welfare. Health workers come from all over the country for residential courses. "Working here, you get to see what a great impact you can make," says Dr. Vijaya.
Full scale education:
Formal and experimental education was always a part of Soundaram's and Ramachandran's enthusiasm. In 1956 the Government of India experimented with Rural Institutes. 14 came up in all. While all others fell by the way side, the one at Gandhigram was astutely steered by Ramachandran to claim status as a Deemed University in 1976. Past the railway line where Gandhi's train had stopped is the well tended campus of the University. It attracts students from all over the country and abroad. Its courses have a decided rural tilt.
Gandhigram Rural Institute's present Vice Chancellor is Dr. G. Pankajam. She is a brisk lady exuding a professional air. Her office is a cottage where Jawaharlal Nehru had spent a whole day away from the cares of India. "I am a total Gandhigram product," she says. "I grew up entirely here. My father was quite well to do, but chose to live on the campus and be of assistance to the Founder. I went to the school here and got my doctorate in education from here." Did she ever think of getting married and going away? "No," she says firmly. "There is enough here to make up for a family."
In 2001, Gandhigram's other educational services enfolded the following: 440 pupils at the primary school, 120 at Soundaram Vidyalaya [an experimental school with English as the medium of instruction], 1518 [700 of them girls] at Thambithottam Higher Secondary School, 116 at the Sevikashram [which admits girls above 16 who missed out on early education], 50 at the Avvai Ashram [-for the hearing - impaired] and a 100 at the Lakshmi College of Education, which trains teachers.
People making people:
In Gandhigram you see the cheer and sense of belonging of people who were literally made here. Neela looks after the Sowbhagya home, with 180 children. Children play about the little garden around the memorial for Soundaram. "I grew up here and left to settle in the world outside. But I was totally miserable! Kept thinking of Dr.Kausalya's devotion - and I returned. This is Home," she says. So far 1200 have passed through Sowbhagya, among them a doctor and a chartered accountant, 15 post graduates, 20 professional teachers, 100 nurses and 40 or so technicians. 2nd Saturday of May is alumni day and the place fills to the brim with friends meeting delirious friends.
Rajam is the head-mistress at Sevikashram, a haven for homeless girls and women between the ages of 13 and 32. "I struggled to run a small home for women in Tirunelveli but couldn't manage it," she says. Then she met the Founder. "Bring your girls over and start a centre here," she said. So Rajam packed her dozen wards into a train and arrived -- 23 years ago. Since then 2300 women have passed through this centre and settled in life.
Story of Bharathan:
It is fashionable for media and many people in India to proclaim from time to time that Gandhi is dead or that he is irrelevant. They just don't know their Gandhi. His work was about making Indians discover themselves and believe in their land. To get to know Gandhi you need to get in touch with the people he touched.
Bharathan, who lives in Gandhigram never met the great man but seems to have 'got him'. His story is worth telling at some length for the edification of many Indians who are filled with complaints about the land they live in.
Bharathan does not know anything of his parents. "I just grew up here," he says. He went through formal education at Gandhigram and got a degree in arts. Drawing and painting had always been a fascination. He would squeeze leaves and flowers to colour his pictures. So, Bharathan armed with a degree thought he might fit in the design department of a textile mill, creating patterns. But there was trouble: the chemical dyes used in textile printing roused an unbearable allergy in him. Also, out of Gandhigram, he was lost and lonely.
"May I come back?" he asked. "I want to work on natural dyes that are kind on workers." That was 18 years ago. Bharathan who is close to 40 now, has worked in the far corner assigned to him at Gandhigram. In that time he has taught himself some science, experimented with natural dyes and fixers. The problem with natural dyes was that they they were not fast and therefore 'ran' at each wash. On this score --and price--, chemical dyes won. Bharathan investigated over 400 natural substances and come up with 22 fast natural dyes. The European ban on Azo dyes in 1996 helped on the price front. Bharathan's technology has created a sizable industry in naturally dyed fabrics, which are today exported. The Central Institute of Cotton Technology in Bombay tested his products and found them fit.
This camera-shy man runs a series of self-employment courses for young women of these parts. "I want them to add value to their work using natural dyes and earn at least Rs.300 per day," he says with a quiet passion. Students are busy at work learning his secret skills. India doesn't know Bharathan yet. But Italy has discovered his worth. Last year he went to Pisa and Milan and taught artisans there on methods of 'fixing' local natural dyes. This year the invitation has come from Sardinia and Sicily.
In Indian lore, the Bharath after whom the country has been named, was abandoned by his father. But this Bharathan is luckier. His pedigree -- like those of many others at Gandhigram-- includes the Father of the Nation, - and Dr.Soundaram.
Dindigul Dt., TN
Phone : 0451-452328
Gandigram Rural Institute
Dindigul Dt., TN
Phone : 0451-452371
Gandigram Inst. of Rural Health and Family Welfare Trust
Dindigul Dt., TN
Phone : 0451-452346