Born in a Dalit family in Madurai district in 1928, Ponnuthai’s resilience and determination in the face of discrimination is a story worth telling and hearing a million times.

Ponnuthais school turns 66 The story of the fiery TN Dalit woman who fought all odds
Features Education Wednesday, April 03, 2019 - 14:51

“My mother feared no one. When she spoke, she did so with her hands behind her back and her head held high.” When Nageswaran speaks of his mother Ponnuthai, founder of Ponnuthai Amma Gandhiji Primary School, Vadipatti, there’s reverence on his face and pride in his voice.

Evidently, what Ponnuthai did 66 years ago was no mean feat. Born in a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu’s Vadipatti Taluk in Madurai district in 1928, Ponnuthai’s resilience and determination in the face of discrimination, especially during a period when caste-based violence was at its peak, is a story worth telling and hearing a million times.

On a balmy summer afternoon, we visit Ponnuthai Amma’s primary school in Vadipatti. The school is a modest one-compound building with three classrooms, a performance hall and a small library on its first floor. While we wait to speak with Nageswaran inside a classroom, a child peeks at us, followed by a couple more.

After flashing shy smiles, the three young boys stride in to introduce themselves as the school’s alumni, now in their middle school. Before their former headmaster (Nageswaran) can arrive, they offer to tell us about their school.

Ponnuthai Amma Primary School has a total strength of 85 students and three teachers. While it was originally named Gandhiji Primary School, it is today better known as Ponnuthai School. Presently, Ponnuthai’s grandson Dhanapal heads the school's education committee. On the day we visited the school, it was celebrating its 66th Annual Day function, a jubilant affair and a proud moment for parents, students and teachers affiliated with the institution.

Inside one of its classrooms, a small group of girls in colourful pavadai-chattai (skirt-top) wait in line in front of their teacher to get their lips painted red while outside, another teacher patiently tries to convince a bewildered mime performer that the white on his face is just powder and can be wiped away easily. Suppressing smiles, we head over to Nageswaran, to learn more about the fiery woman who founded the school.

A story of resilience

Ponnuthai’s parents moved to Vadipatti in 1881 from Usilampatti (about 52 kilometres away by road) to work in the Periyar Neerpasana Kalvai project. “In school, teachers named her Vellainmaga (daughter of Vellaiyan) because they refused to call her ‘thai’ (a respectful term). They also refused to teach her and another student, both of them the only two Dalits in the school,” begins Nageswaran.

Ponnuthai would go on to complete her third form (8th standard) with help and encouragement from inspector Nagabuja Naidu, in whose farm her father worked, and then complete her teacher’s training in Dindigul.


Her passion for teaching was shared by two of her siblings, too, both of whom went on to become teachers themselves. Swami Anandha Theertha, who worked with Mahatma Gandhi in pioneering the Harijan Sevak Sangh, was a source of inspiration for Ponnuthai who was also an ardent follower of Dr Ambedkar. “On 14 November 1950 she began teaching at a middle school in Bodinayakanpatti,” says her son.

But this was not to last. Ponnuthai weathered severe criticism and taunts from a caste-obsessed, patriarchal society that drove her out from classrooms because she was a Dalit and a woman. Not one to be easily shaken, Ponnuthai continued teaching, sometimes under trees and eventually inside her own house, obtaining temporary permission from the District Education department in 1953. The very next year, Ponnuthai’s temporary arrangements gained permanent approval and on 10 October, 1954, the government-aided primary school began functioning from a modest, thatched-roof location. 

Six years later, in 1960, the school was inaugurated at its present premises by P Kakkan, who was then Minister of Public Works (Madras State) and Member of Madras Legislative Assembly for Melur. The school had eight teachers and a total strength of 850 students. Nageswaran tells us that the entire zone had only three schools.

However, Ponnuthai's challenges did not abate. Both in 1970 and in 1980, the school’s building suffered severe damages, a direct consequence of a Dalit woman’s success. Nageswaran tells us that a few villagers had vandalised and damaged the school in both these years.

Nageswaran shows us framed photos of his mother and other certificates given to the school

"It was common for thatched roof houses to catch fire. In our case, we couldn't always be entirely sure that it was natural. It is fair to say she had to face great difficulties to keep the school running," he adds.

However, Ponnuthai was undeterred by these difficulties and she went on teaching, rising every time like a phoenix from the ashes. Over the years, Ponnuthai’s presence and contributions became undeniable. Even during her final days in 2002, having lost her leg to diabetes, Ponnuthai remained a figure of inspiration. Her son Nageswaran took over as headmaster of the school in the year 1973.

Why we need more Ponnuthais

The air inside the school’s performance hall is electric and at around 5.00 pm, it intensifies into palpable anticipation. Eager faces stretch and strain their necks from where they're seated, watching the entrance with rapt attention. Seated behind these young children are their parents, who are equally excited to see the day’s chief guests.

Minutes later, director Pa Ranjith, followed by writer Stalin Rajangam, walk in to a rousing welcome in the now steamy room. A few performances later, the director comes up on stage to share his own journey with the small group of eager students and parents.

“I was probably seated here like one of you during my childhood days. I too studied in a government school such as this. The first time I acted, I was probably in class 7,” he says.

While appreciating the teachers for putting together a thoughtful show, Ranjith speaks directly to the children on how it is important to keep up their enthusiasm to learn and pursue the arts. To the parents, he urges, “Education is the only way through which we can hope for a change. Ambedkar insisted on the same. Do not discourage your child from whatever they want to become. I am what I am today only because my father did not stop that young boy from drawing on papers and walls.”

To Ranjith, a school such as this is essential. “I feel her efforts are most important. Imagine being a woman especially in a place such as this where caste atrocities have always been very high,” he says.

Students and teachers along with director Pa Ranjith, writer Stalin Rajangam, Ponnuthai's son Nageswaran and grandsons Jaisingh and Dhanapal

Writer Stalin Rajangam, also a professor at the Madurai American University, comes up on stage to speak primarily to the children. “I am like your teachers but I teach for older students,” he pauses, while his audience nods along.

As someone who understands the ground reality better, where private educational institutions tend to dominate over schools such as these, Stalin says, “A lot of great people have come from very humble places. It is their experiences that take them places.”

Challenges today

In the '90s, the main challenge that the school faced came in the form of private institutions. Today, it still battles this prejudice, losing many of its students to private matriculation schools.

“Parents naturally opt for such schools. I also realised people were judging the school based on its infrastructure. If we had to take forward our grandmother’s legacy, a few changes had to be made,” says Dhanapal, Ponnuthai's grandson who is an architect.

Nageswaran and present Headmaster Venkad Lakshmi

Dhanapal during 65th Annual Day Function

In 2014, he spent close to Rs 7 lakh from his pocket to convert the tile-roofed school into the concrete building that we see today. Since the time it received a facelift, the school has also been conducting regular annual day functions, inviting well- known personalities as chief guests to inspire both the students and parents.

Dhanapal also hopes to increase the number of students enrolled so that they can hire one more teacher in the coming year; Government schools maintain a 30:1 student-teacher ratio.

“Government schools tend to have more girls as students mainly because if parents have to choose between their son and daughter for private education, they choose their sons. This is true even today. It is primarily because they think government school education is not on par with matriculation school education. I hope to be able to change this mentality among parents. In recent years, however, I am seeing parents walking their child to our school, just like how they would if they studied in a private matriculation school. This is heartening to see,” says Dhanapal.