How a Dalit Woman Used Education to Empower Herself and Those Around Her

The late Ponnuthai’s is a tale of remarkable struggle against the institutionalised discrimination that Dalits continue to face.

Vadipatti (Tamil Nadu): Standing at the nondescript village of Vadipatti near Madurai, Ponnuthai School betrays no sign of extraordinariness. With only three classrooms, three teachers and 80 students, the school – among a cluster of flourishing private schools – is more like a family.

The students are shown a film every week, trained in various art forms including parai (a kind of drum), theatre, dance and art. Sometimes they travel too. The teachers, for their part, spend a considerable amount of time on learning communication and art skills. “Tamil is our medium of education, and our kids actually love it. They enjoy learning here,” one of them says. The non-conformity doesn’t stop there. Or rather, doesn’t start there. Ponnuthai School, which is over six decades old, was started by a fiery Dalit woman who fought against odds to educate herself, and later others.

Ponnuthai’s is a tale of remarkable struggle against the institutionalised discrimination that Dalits continue to face across generations. Ponnuthai’s parents Vellaiyan and Muthammal had migrated to Pottulupatti village in Vadipatti taluk from Usilampatti in Theni (then Madurai) in 1886 to work in the construction of Mullaperiyar dam. Ponnuthai was born here in 1928.


Because of the cordial relationship that Vellaiyan managed to maintain with inspector Nagapoojar – in whose farm he was engaged as a labourer – the inspector came forward to enroll Ponnuthai in a local school. The school had only two Dalit children including Ponnuthai. Some teachers in the school even refused to call her Ponnuthai (since thai, meaning mother, was seen as a mark of respect) and her name went down in the register as “the daughter of Velliyan.”

However, her original name was restored with the intervention of a few teachers who had also helped Ponnuthai complete third form (eighth standard) in the same school. Soon after acquiring her basic education, she went to Dindigul to get training to be a teacher. When she returned, Ponnuthai received a warm welcome and soon she busied herself with writing letters for the villagers, filling their forms and discussing various issues with them. Meanwhile, she also married her cousin Baluchamy and began working as a middle school teacher at Bodinaayakanpatti near Madurai.

However, in the process of educating and empowering herself, Ponnuthai had ruffled a few feathers. The patriarchal, dominant caste members in her neighbourhood couldn’t accept that a Dalit – and that too a woman – could be so empowered. She soon lost her job, but that did not stop her from teaching. Ponnuthai found a suitable public place in her village and her classes continued. Since she had earned a name as a teacher, students began thronging Ponnuthai’s classes. But the troubles continued and Ponnuthai had to move her classes to under a tree.

In 1953, Ponnuthai converted her residence into a school by seeking temporary permission from the district education department. The school had only two teachers. She then began campaigning among the villagers, visiting every house and farm, meeting the farmers and shepherds and singing folk songs to them on the importance of education. The school began with 10 students but it soon outnumbered the number of pupils at the government school in Bodinayakkanpatti. Observing the success of the school in attracting students, the district education department in 1954 granted permanent approval to it as a government-aided primary school.

Students and teachers at Ponnuthai’s school. Credit: Muthurasa Kumar

Apart from teaching, Ponnuthai was also involved with Gandhi’s Harijan Sevak Sangh and the Congress. She had established contact with Anand Thirtha, a pioneer in the Harijan Sevak Sangh, which worked against untouchability in Madurai.

In 1960, Ponnuthai built a full-fledged school on ten cents of land  rught– approximately 4,500 square feet – which she had bought for Rs 110. Former minister P. Kakkan launched the project. Influenced by her friendship with Thirtha, she named the school ‘Gandhiji Primary School’. With eight teachers, including a headmaster, the school had 850 students.

But the attacks continued. It had become a norm for members of the dominant castes to attack the school and damage its properties during local festivals. Ponnuthai routinely sought permission for additional protection during such festivals.

In 1980, the school was razed to the ground during a religious procession. Ponnuthai was almost written off. But undaunted, she continued her classes in the broken classrooms. However, it became difficult to run the school with a decline in the strength of students and teachers. It was at this point that Ponnuthai met V. Balasundaram – a veteran Dalit leader who headed the Ambedkar Makkal Iyakkam (Ambedkar People’s movement). The movement helped her rebuild the school.

By 1990s, Vadipatti began to see a rise in English medium schools. Ponnuthai’s free Tamil medium school was no longer an attraction. But despite her old age, and despite the fact that her leg was amputated after a severe case of diabetes, she would go around in a wheelchair and campaign among the poor to educate their children.

In 2002, Ponnuthai breathed her last – her dream of renovating the school remaining unfulfilled.

Dhanapal, grandson of Ponnuthai, now runs the school. Credit: Muthurasa Kumar

But inspired by the struggles of his mother to run the school, Ponnuthai’s son Nageswaran kept the school alive by rethinking the idea of teaching. Nageswaran’s son Dhanapal – an architect – is also now involved in running the school. “I was not too keen initially. But when I heard of my grandmother’s struggles to open and run this school, I thought I should do my bit too,” Dhanapal says.

Among the mushrooming private schools in Vadipatti, Ponnuthai’s school no longer goes by Gandhi’s name. “We have not wilfully changed it. But people recognise it only as Ponnuthai’s school,” a teacher says. Undaunted by the sophistication of the private schools around, the Ponnuthai Amma Gandhiji Primary School has a vibrancy of its own.

The school is a testimony to the struggle and journey of a Dalit woman towards social justice and education. Sixty-four years later, the school represents a piece of forgotten history but also the power of a visionary.

Translated from the Tamil original by Krithika.

Join The Discussion