Gone are the days when men were expected to go off to work in the office and hold high positions while women were supposed to stay at home and look after the family. Not anymore. Here are a few women who contributed to this change in mindset.
Punita Arora: First woman Lieutenant General of Indian Army
Commissioned in 1968, Punita Arora born to a Punjabi Arora family from Bhatinda became the first woman to adorn the four star rank of Lieutenant General in the Indian Armed Forces. She was the first woman officer to command the Armed Forces Medical College and the first woman Vice-Admiral of the Indian Navy. In course of her 36 years of service in the Armed Forces she was awarded the Param Vishist Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal and Sena Medal.
Vandana Luthra – the queen of beauty and wellness segment in India
One of the most successful first-generation women entrepreneurs Vandana Luthra, the Founder of VLCC, is a globally recognized name in the beauty, health and fitness industry. After completing her graduation from the Polytechnic for Women in New Delhi she went to Europe to gain expertise in beauty, food and nutrition and skincare. Luthra was already 30, married and a mother of two when she started Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves (VLCC) a beauty and wellness service centre in Safdarjung Development Area, New Delhi that focused on dietary modification and exercise regimen-based weight management programs. Today VLCC is a market leader in the Indian wellness and beauty segment. It has a chain of 326 salons in 153 cities and 13 countries with more than 4,000 employees. VLCC manufactures and markets more than 170 body care, hair care, and skincare products. VLCC also manages vocational training institutes operating from 73 campuses in 55 cities across India and one in Nepal. Luthra was awarded Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian honour) in 2013 and was featured in the Forbes Asia 2016 list of 50 Power Businesswomen. She also featured in Fortune magazine’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women in Business in India for six years in a row – from 2011 to 2016.
Saroj Khan the first woman choreographer in Bollywood
In her career spanning over forty years, Nirmala Nagpal alias Saroj Khan was one of the most successful Bollywood choreographers who choreographed more than 3000 songs. At a time when nearly all the technicians were men, it was not a cakewalk for her to make a name for herself as Bollywood’s first female choreographer. But Khan who joined the industry as a 3-year-old child actress in the early 1950s and became an assistant choreographer at the age of 12 managed to carve a niche for herself as one of the rare breed of choreographers and dance directors behind the camera. Some of the most spectacular songs choreographed by her included “Ek Do Teen” in “Tezaab” (1988), “Choli Ke Peechay Kya Hai” in “Khalnayak” (1993), “Hawa Hawai” in “Mr India” (1986), “Dhak Dhak Karne Laga” in “Beta” (1991) and “Devdas” (2002). Ironically ‘Masterji’ as she was fondly called — never received any formal dance training but still managed to win three National Film Awards and eight Filmfare Awards — the maximum won by any choreographer in India. Saroj Khan died of cardiac arrest at the age of 72, on 3 July 2020.
Saina Nehwal the only female badminton player from India to attain the world no. 1 ranking
A brown belt in karate Saina Nehwal is the first-ever badminton player from India to clinch an Olympic medal. Born on the 17th March 1990, Saina Nehwal started playing badminton at the age of eight and created a sensation when she won the BWF World Junior Championships and represented India at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This was the beginning as she became the first Indian ever to win a BWF Super Series event in 2009. This was followed up by winning the India Open, Singapore Open and defended her Indonesian Open crown in quick succession in 2010. Saina Nehwal created history yet again when she won the bronze medal at the London 2012 Games. She was conferred with the Arjuna award in 2009 and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in 2010. In April 2015, Nehwal became the number one ranked player in the world and the first-ever Indian to reach the top spot. In her 12-year-long badminton career, Saina Nehwal has won over 24 international titles, eleven of which are Superseries titles. She is also the only Indian to have won at least one medal in the World Championships, the World Junior Championships – and a bronze medal at the Olympics. She is the only female player from India and the second Indian player – after Prakash Padukone – to rank number one in the world and has represented India in three Olympics. Actress Parineeti Chopra is playing a lead role in a biopic on Saina Nehwal, which is going to be released in the theatres on March 26. The biopic, directed by Amole Gupte, was supposed to be released last year but got postponed due to the nationwide lockdown. The biopic is expected to focus on the badminton champ’s life – her childhood, training and playing for India. Towards the end of the teaser, Parineeti Chopra can be heard saying: “Saamne koi bhi ho, main toh bas maar dungi.”
Sarojini Naidu – the first woman Governor of an Indian state after independence
Sarojini Naidu a freedom fighter and poetess famously called Bharatiya Kokila (The Nightingale of India) was born in a Bengali Hindu family of Dr Aghore Nath Chattopadhyay in Hyderabad on 13th February 1879. In 1925 Sarojini Naida became the first Indian woman President of the Indian National Congress and also the first woman governor to become the governor of a state in India- United Province present-day Uttar Pradesh. Sarojini Naidu was a prominent figure during India’s Independence Movement and was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s Swaraj ideology. Sarojini Naidu’s father wanted her to become a scientist or mathematician but she was more inclined towards poetry and writing and wrote a play called “Maher Muneer” which among others impressed the Nizam of Hyderabad. Her poem called ‘The Lady of the Lake’ consisted of 1300 lines. Sarojini Naidu’s father Dr. Chattopadhyay laid the foundation of the Nizam College in Hyderabad.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the second of three children of Motilal Nehru. She was the real sister of India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who was eleven years older than her. At the age of 21, she was married to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit a Maharashtrian Saraswat Brahmin barrister settled in Kathiawar, Gujarat who was arrested for participating in the Indian freedom struggle. Ranjit Sitaram Pandit died in Lucknow prison in 1944, leaving behind Vijaya Lakshmi and her three daughters Chandralekha Mehta, Nayantara Sehgal and Rita Dar. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit went on to be the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post in pre-independent India when she was elected to the provincial legislature and was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the United Provinces. After independence, she joined the diplomatic service and served as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, USA, Mexico, Ireland and Spain. In due course, she became the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.
Amrita Pritam the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award
In her career spanning over six decades celebrated poet and novelist Amrita Pritam penned 28 novels, 18 prose collections, five short stories and 16 miscellaneous prose volumes. Best known for her novel Pinjar which was the background story behind an award-winning film, Pinjar (2003) Amrita Pritam mainly wrote in Punjabi and Hindi, but her works were translated into Danish, Japanese, French and Mandarin. Amrita Pritam who published her first collection of verse at the age of 16 became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award, Bharatiya Jnanpith Award, Padma Shri, and Padma Vibhushan besides the Sahitya Akademi Award for lifetime achievement. She also received the international Vaptsarov Award from the Republic of Bulgaria (1979) and Degree of Officer dens, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officier) by the French Government (1987). Most of her stories and poems were based on the partition and unhappy experiences of her marriage. She died after a long illness at the age of 86 in New Delhi on 31 October 2005. On 31 August 2019, Google honoured her by commemorating her 100th birth anniversary with a Doodle.
Devika Rani the first lady of Indian cinema
Born in the educated and well-to-do family of Col. Dr Manmathnath Choudhary and Leela Devi in Waltair near Visakhapatnam in present-day Andhra Pradesh, Devika Rani spent most of her early life in a boarding school in England from the age of nine. After completing her schooling she stayed back in London to study acting and music before she met Himanshu Rai, an Indian barrister-turned-film maker, who was planning to produce a film called ‘A Throw of Dice’. Rai invited Devika to help him produce the film. Devika and Himanshu Rai returned to India and paired to play the lead role in a film called Karma (1933) the first English language talkie made by an Indian. Though the film flopped badly in India but created a sensation as one of the earliest Indian films to feature a kissing scene that lasted four minutes – a record for the longest duration kissing scene in Indian cinema. Devika Rani also sang a bi-lingual song in the film which is said to be Bollywood’s first English song. The couple went on to establish a production studio called Bombay Talkies which launched several stars like Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Madhubala and Mumtaz. Devika Rani played the lead role in most of the films produced by Bombay Talkies. In her film career spanning nearly 10 years, Devika Rani left such an impression in the minds of the audience that Sarojini Naidu called her a “lovely and gifted little lady”. Devika Rani was awarded the Padma Shri (1958), Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1970) and the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1990) for her contribution to Indian cinema.
Mithali Raj the highest run-scorer in women’s international cricket
Nicknamed “Lady Tendulkar of Indian Women’s cricket” Mithali Raj the former Captain of the women’s national cricket team is the 1st Indian and 5th woman cricketer overall to score over 1,000 World Cup runs. One of the most elegant batsmen in world cricket, Mithali Raj scored 214 runs at the age of 19 in the second and final Test against England at Taunton and there was no looking back since then. She holds the record for playing the most consecutive Women’s One Day Internationals and the only female cricketer to cross the 6,000 run mark in Women’s One Day International matches. She also holds the record for most half-centuries in WODIs and was the first player to score seven consecutive 50s. Mithali led India to the first World Cup final in 2005 and the first-ever Test series victory in England in 2006. Mithali Raj is the only female who led India as the Captain twice in the 2005 and 2017 ICC ODI World Cup finals. The first woman to play in 200 ODI matches, she became the first woman to complete 20 years in international cricket in 2019. She was awarded several national and international awards, including the Wisden Leading Woman Cricketer in the World (2017), Arjuna Award (2003), and Padma Shri (2015). Raj has now been appointed as a batting consultant for India women’s national cricket team. Taapsee Pannu is playing her role in a biopic on her life called Shabaash Mithu directed by Rahul Dholakia. When not playing cricket, she is a Bharatanatyam dancer.
Tarla Dalal – the woman who made girls ‘marriageable’ in the Indian marriage market
Celebrity chef and author Tarla Dalal has written more than 200 cookbooks and is one of the top 5 best-selling cookbook authors in the world. Born and brought up in Pune she relocated to Mumbai after her marriage to Nalin Dalal in 1960. She started running cooking classes from her home in 1966 which became extremely popular. There was a time when any girl who attended Tarla Dalal’s cooking classes automatically became ‘marriageable’ in the Indian marriage market. Her first cookbook named “The Pleasure of Vegetarian Cooking” was published in 1974 which has sold 1,500,000 copies and made her a household name. Tarla Dalal has written more than 200 cookbooks and is one of the top 5 best-selling cookbook authors in the world. Her books have been translated into Dutch, Russian, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali. Tarla Dalal was awarded Women of the Year by the Indian Merchants’ Chamber in 2005 and the Padma Shri in 2007 which made her the only Indian from the field of cooking to be conferred the title. Tarla Dalal died in 2013 following a heart attack.