Unknown first woman writer – A tribute

Kothainayaki Ammal was officially recognized as the firm Tamilian woman to write a detective novel, but her works were barely documented in Tamil literature

Kothainayaki Ammal was officially recognized as the firm Tamilian woman to write a detective novel, but her works were barely documented in Tamil literature
Kothainayaki Ammal was officially recognized as the firm Tamilian woman to write a detective novel, but her works were barely documented in Tamil literature

Vaithamanithi Mudumbai Kothainayaki Ammal: First woman to occupy the editorial board of a Tamil magazine

While travelling down memory lane, we find that so many unsung heroes of our pious land have contributed to literary works, music, and freedom-fight struggle, but remained mostly unknown, to the people of this era. One such person is Vaithamanithi Mudumbai Kothainayaki Ammal, whose journey has been full of unexpected struggles, and turmoil and her inherent guts to have stood for what she believed in, is commendable.

Born in the year 1901, her fate was immediately sealed by her father’s friend Sri. Srinivasa Appangar, who had not only named her Kothainayaki after the famous deity “Andal” and seemed to have promised to take her as his daughter-in-law in the future. Unschooled as a child she was married at the age of five and a half years to Parthasarathy, a nine-year-old then. Here I should mention that child marriages were rampant then, and few girls had the privilege of having been sent to proper school or home tutored or never sent at all or educated.

Kothainayaki Ammal belonged to the NO-school category, but her mother-in-law took care of teaching her the Telugu language. She was proficient in chanting “Thiruvaaimozhi” which is a part of the 4000 Divya Prabandham in Tamil language and was unlettered. Her good fortune was that she got married into a scholarly family which provided her with the right environment for unfolding her creative talents later.

Her husband had ensured and encouraged her to watch plays, and dramas so that she was never deprived to know what the outside world was and what it had to offer to society then. She was dreamily, imaginatively, so creative that she had always been good at spinning stories, which she couldn’t pen down on paper, because of her being unlettered, a deficiency, that was soon taken care of by her neighbour T C Pattamma, who taught Kothainayaki to read and write.

After this she became unstoppable, encouraged by her husband, she wrote and published her first play “Indira Mohana”, in the year 1924, published by Novel Press. Over the next 30 years, she wrote about 115 books under the pen name Vai. Mu. Ko. As her tryst just began as a writer, in the year 1925, a well-known author then, Vaduvur Doraiswami Iyengar suggested that she take took over the magazine “Jaganmohini” which he had been running for the past two years. To her credit within four months of taking over, she had 1000 subscribers. Hailing with a tag “Orthodox Brahmanical family”, others of her clan at large, were so outraged by a Brahmin woman taking over as an editor of a magazine, that they burnt copies of Jaganmohini, but in all this Kothanayaki remained unperturbed, unfazed and unshaken. Such was her dedicated commitment to an all-encompassing society.

Kothainayaki’s first novel was “Vaidehi” which was serialized in Jaganmohini and later brought out as a book by LIFCO publishers who are still publishing books, novels, and shlokas. Her second novel was “Padma Sundaram” which was translated into Malayalam. In her play “Vatsakumar” she criticized those who frowned upon the Bharatanatyam form of dance as an immoral act.

Here I should mention the fact that how writings of authors, could have an impact on our society in a good progressive way. “A fan of Kothainayaki Ammal, S Ramanathan Chettiar, a resident of Saigon then, was so moved by one of her novels “Aparaadhi” which advocated widow remarriage, who with the same impact of the novel, arranged for the remarriage of many widows in his conservative community”. Whenever he visited India he made it a custom to visit Kothainayaki Ammal and he would buy many copies of her novels so that when he returned to Saigon, he could give them to his relatives and friends.

Kothainayaki Ammal’s life completely changed in 1925, Mahatma Gandhi ji and Kasturba ji participated in a meeting exclusively arranged for Mahilas in the Vasanta Mantapam, of Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, Chennai. During the course of the meeting, Kasturba ji appealed to the gathering to generously donate to taking forward the Harijan Service Movement. An orthodox Brahmin woman on hearing these words, came onto the stage, removed all her bangles, ring, nose rings, and ear studs, and placed them at the feet of Gandhiji.

After this, when she went back home which was just 100 meters away from the venue, everyone at home was looking at Kothainayaki Ammal astonishingly, trying to understand and comprehend what had just happened. Even more astonishing fact was, the whole family got convinced and willingly donated their might in the subsequent meetings. Such is her personality.

After meeting Gandhiji, she gave up on draping silk sarees and diamonds, and instead took to wearing khadi. She didn’t stop with that, she hawked khadi on the streets of Madras. She gave speeches against British Rule and participated in protest marches.

Once when Kothainayaki Ammal was shouting slogans in a protest march, the police wanted to deter her efforts and tried to stop her by dousing her with sewer water, despite this she continued to raise slogans. With the failed attempts of the police force, they arrested her and sent her to the Vellore prison. From jail too, she didn’t want her serial at the magazine to stop, so she wrote the continuity on scraps of paper and smuggled them out of the prison through her ever-helping husband when he visited her in prison. For the first 13 years, she shouldered the entire burden of running the magazine, and she also ran a magazine called “Nandavanam” for women, for a year.

Kothainayaki Ammal was so talented that though not formally trained in music, with her self-efforts and her keen ear for music, she could compose songs in Telugu and Tamil. She had not only made solo music discs but along with D K Pattammal a well-known vocalist of those days, she had made 3 discs under the Columbia label. Her triplicane house in Chennai has also had eminent Carnatic singers like M S Subbalakshmi and Bangalore Nagaratnammal to have rendered songs. Mahakavi Bharathi was a big fan of Kothainayaki’s renditions. The honour that she got when Rajaji invited her to sing the prayer song when All India Radio was started in 1938 and hers being the first voice heard on the radio. Later she gave many radio programmes too.

Kothainayaki Ammal’s experience as a member of the Censor Board, which she held for 10 years, has to be mentioned. She had censored a scene in the film “Adhirshtam”, where the film had got released with the scene sneaked in and without the legitimate cut. She got furious and ensured that the scene was cut with immediate effect and she took the precautionary measure to this fact, by asking her Jaganmogini agents in other towns to check and report back.

A woman of substance, being an extremely avid supporter of social bondages, and women’s emancipation, she wasn’t afraid to tell what was in her mind always. She wrote fearlessly about everything in her magazine Jaganmogini, where she spoke of the social issues in a woven story form, which would eventually reach the readers’ hearts and minds and would make the desired impact in their lives. She was against toddy and alcohol consumption.

Kothainayaki Ammal was officially recognized as the firm Tamilian woman to write a detective novel, but her works were barely documented in Tamil literature. Her magazine raced to the top and was one of the best sellers too.

After the death of Gandhiji in 1948, she started the Mahatmaji Seva Sangam at North Tank Street, Triplicane where girls were taught music, dance, public speaking, and Hindi. She organized concerts and lectures at the Sangam.

Kothainayaki Ammal stayed humble, and strong-willed all through her life. Darkness crept into her life when her only son died in 1956. It’s after this setback, her ever-beating heart, decided that she couldn’t take it anymore and fell into a pit of never-ending despair. The world bid adieu to this brave blazing light on 20th February 1960 leaving behind a legacy, incomparable to her stature of being an all-rounder.

In the 1900’s you never had an awareness of “BETI PADAO BETI BACHAO” it was normal for girls to remain uneducated, married at school-going age, and all their world was the family they got married into. Kothainayaki Ammal though had gotten married into an orthodox Brahmin family, was able to do and achieve all these things only because of her husband who held progressive views and helped her in every possible way that he could.

All good things in life don’t last forever, Kothainayaki Ammal’s magazine was closed in 1959 and two years after her death that’s in 1962, a letter was delivered with no specific address but it just read “Jaganmohini Madras” was delivered to her house. The ironic fact is that the existing family members are not in possession of a single copy of her novels, or plays, but last seen and heard, copies of 72 Jaganmohini magazine and 65 of his grandmother’s novels were at Calcutta Central Library as narrated by her grandson Venkatakrishnan and now he is clueless whether they still have the books.

There is still a small board outside the family’s ancestral house in triplicane, Chennai which reads “Jaganmohini”, the only vestige of a once popular magazine, which had been published uninterruptedly for 35 years.

1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.

PGurus is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with all the latest news and views

For all the latest updates, download PGurus App.

asically started my career as a part-time secretary with US commercial department 1984-86
1986-2001 had fifteen years of experience with erstwhile ANZ Grindlays Bank now Standard Chartered Bank
Then studied law got enrolled and practising as acounsellor
Writing articles for VSK
Currently anchoring for BHARATH TV a local English channel
Latest posts by Vijayshree Ramesh (see all)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here