The Inspiring Journey of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha
National Engineer’s Day, celebrated annually on September 15, pays tribute to the birth anniversary of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a renowned engineer and former diwan of the Mysore kingdom. This day not only commemorates his contributions but also serves as a moment to honor engineers throughout India for their remarkable role in the nation’s progress. In the spirit of this celebration, we dive into the extraordinary story of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, India’s first female engineer, who fearlessly challenged societal conventions and opened doors for women in the engineering profession.
Early Life and Family
Born in 1919 into a middle-class Telugu family in Chennai, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was the fifth of seven siblings. While her brothers pursued engineering careers, the prevailing norms of the time restricted her sisters to a basic education. Despite getting married at a tender age of 15, Lalitha’s father held a strong belief in education and ensured she completed her studies up to class 10. However, her life took a challenging turn in 1937 when her husband passed away, leaving her a widow at the age of 18.
In an era when societal expectations often demanded isolation and perpetual sorrow from widows, Lalitha decided to chart a different course. Rather than conforming to these norms, she set her sights on a career in engineering, a field predominantly dominated by men.
With unwavering support from her father, who was a professor, Lalitha embarked on her educational journey at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). Remarkably, she was the sole woman in the entire college, but the college authorities took significant steps to ensure her comfort and safety, providing separate accommodation.
Lalitha’s daughter, Syamala Chenulu, now residing in the United States, shared that students at her mother’s college were supportive, challenging stereotypes of the era. Despite the initial solitude, Lalitha’s determination soon led to the inclusion of more women at the college, with figures like Leelamma George and P. K. Thresia joining civil engineering courses.
In her early twenties, Lalitha embarked on a professional journey that took her through various organizations, including the Central Standard Organisation, Associated Electrical Industries, and the Indian Standards Institution. Her expertise even led her to serve as a consultant to the United Nations on engineering projects in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Advocacy for Women’s Rights
Beyond her impressive engineering achievements, Lalitha was a vocal advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. She staunchly believed in equal access to education and employment opportunities for women, leaving an enduring legacy of empowerment.
Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha’s life serves as an inspiring testament to resilience, determination, and the capacity to break through barriers. Her pioneering journey as India’s first female engineer not only shattered gender stereotypes but also paved the way for countless other women to enter the field of engineering.
As we celebrate National Engineer’s Day and honor the memory of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, let us also remember and celebrate the trailblazing legacy of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, an exceptional engineer and advocate for gender equality.