They inspired Indian people through words, deeds, art and mythology, and now the female titans of Chennai stand watch over the city's famous tourist attraction, Marina Beach.
While most cities have too few public works that celebrate women, instead favouring monuments to male leaders and soldiers, Chennai has a cluster of statues depicting its heroines.
They are positioned along Marina Walk, a promenade that skirts the 12km beach and each day is wandered by tourists. Most visitors to Marina Beach are lured by the chance to sunbathe, paddle or feast on delicious snacks sold by street sellers.
I wasn’t hungry, nor in the mood to swim. Instead, I wanted to learn about the Indian female poets, goddesses, politicians and freedom fighters honoured by statues. So I asked a taxi driver to drop me at the northern tip of this attractive strip of sand.
When I alighted, to my west was a well-known Chennai landmark. Blazing afternoon sun illuminated the Senate House Building at the historic University of Madras, a red-and-cream wonder of Indo-Saracenic architecture. That design style was introduced by the British, who had a major influence on Chennai for about three centuries starting from the mid-1600s.
India’s long battle to be rid of the colonising Brits and regain control of their country, featured a female freedom fighter honoured by a statue on Marina Walk. Alongside popular museum Vivekananda House, which explains the life of revered Indian Swami Vivekananda, I saw a gleam emanating from a small, lush park. Its source was a tall, gilded statue of Dr Annie Besant, after whom the park is named.
Besant is actually English, but she died in Chennai in 1933 after years in which she campaigned vigorously for Indian self-rule. Her story is rousing and engrossing. Besant was born in London in 1847, two decades later married a clergyman, but then separated from him after becoming vocal in her distaste for religion.
Further rebellion against the norms of female behaviour in that era led to Besant becoming publicly outspoken on controversial topics ranging from trade unions to birth control and female voting rights. As I stood alongside her statue, with auto rickshaws whizzing past, I learnt how she gradually became intrigued by Hinduism, and angered by her nation’s occupation of India.
After publishing an anti-imperial essay, Besant visited India repeatedly from the 1890s onwards. She became deeply connected to the country, and to Chennai, and spent years promoting its nationalist movement. This activism culminated in her helping to create the Indian Home Rule League and entering the Indian National Congress.
Such tenacity was also a hallmark of the trailblazing career of Besant’s Marina Walk neighbour, Jayalalitha Jayaram. Along this beachfront are two monuments to Jayalalitha. In the 1990s, she shattered Chennai’s political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman elected chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the Indian state of which this city is the capital.
A rather modest, golden statue of her gives way to a far grander memorial unveiled two years ago. From my vantage, this stark white structure, about 15m tall and 43m wide, contrasted against a rich blue sky. It hosts the tomb of Jayaram and was intended to resemble a phoenix.
This design was to signify the resilience of this Chennai woman, who was a famous film actress in the 1960s and 1970s before unexpectedly launching a political career in the 1980s. Back then Indian politics was a harsh environment for women.
Jayaram discovered this in 1989 when she was physically assaulted in parliament by political opponents. Not only did she persist, but two years later this heroine made an enormous breakthrough for Tamil Nadu women, earning the first of her three terms as this state’s chief minister.
This mighty task may have been simpler to achieve for another of Marina Walk’s celebrated women, Kannagi – for she was a goddess. Just south of the Jayaram memorial, is an elevated statue of Kannagai, one arm outstretched, pointing to the horizon. This is a powerful depiction of the Tamil goddess. A key figure from Tamil lore, Kannagi fought endlessly to clear the name of her husband, who was wrongly accused of misdoings, resulting in her becoming a popular representation of devotion.
Similarly symbolic, and also commemorated by a statue along Chennai’s beachfront, is Avvaiyar. This monument represents not one woman, but many. As I read on a plaque alongside the artworks, Avvaiyar was the name of several renowned female poets of Tamil Nadu.
It explains that this title translates in English as: “Respectable Woman”. The Avvaiyar are in good company, then, along Marina Beach, where many women who shaped the city are given their due recognition through prominent memorials that tourists can admire.