Boss lady #5: Dr. Kamla Chowdhury

The (until recently) forgotten founding de-facto director of IIM Ahmedabad

So the Wikipedia page on Dr. Kamla Chowdhury only has two sources — Prof. Chinmay Tumbe’s fantastic essay on her life and contribution last year here, and the IIM-Ahmedabad archives that were updated in 2007, which is in stark contrast to the Wikipedia page on Ravi J. Matthai who learned the ropes of running and leading IIM-A from Kamla.


Sexism prevented Dr. Chowdhury from being given her due in dramatic ways. But before I get into that, a little bit about this hands-on founder of one of the finest higher education institutions our country has produced.

Dr. Kamla Chowdhury went to school at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. She learned the sitar and pursued music at Santiniketan. These facts about her only make her more personally inspiring for me. She completed a BA in Math & Philosophy from Calcutta University in 1940.


Dr. Kamla Chowdhury had married a civil servant, Khem, but he was murdered early on in their marriage while the couple was sleeping. This sentence from Tumbe’s essay drives home the baffling tragedy for me, “Kamla woke up to find him lying dead beside her.” So Kamla became a young widow, and was blamed by her in-laws for her husband’s death (classic treatment of widows in India). She was clearly traumatized by the event (who wouldn’t be) and battled depression thereafter.

Shantiniketan

What followed was a story of resilience if I’ve known one. Tumbe writes Tagore sent her a message of condolence after the event. Inspired by Gandhi and Tagore’s ideals and values, Kamla picked up the pieces of her life and persevered on to complete a PhD in Social Psychology at U Michigan. A quick note on the importance of Gandhian principles and the women’s movement in India — a common thread across every woman I have written about in this blog so far is that they were deeply influenced by Gandhi. Resilience, is also a common thread among all of these women. Kamla’s story is particularly moving considering the social stigma against widows in Indian society.

Fast forward to 1962, Kamla is back in India. She was running the Psychology division at a textile research institute in Ahmedabad, founded by Vikram Sarabhai, who seemingly held deep affection for Kamla, which unfortunately is mostly what she is remembered for in mainstream media, and not very respectfully — this part breaks my heart! In any case, Kamla was looking for a new gig, less isolating than her current role at the textile research institute. This is when she moved on to running the nascent IIM-Ahmedabad.

At the time Dr. Kamla Chowdhury was running IIM-Ahmedabad, the Harvard Business School did not even admit women into the MBA program!!! (Tumbe)

At IIM-A, Dr. Chowdhury was the first faculty member and literally designed the academic curriculum. But at best, she was granted the title of “Coordinator of Programs” when she was really doing the job of Director. The reason she never became director is infuriating — a bruised young man’s ego! During 1963–64, a young PhD student from HBS was sent to IIM-A wrote several damning letters about Kamla’s abilities to the director of the IIM project at HBS, primarily because he was affronted of Dr. Chowdhury’s “bypassing him, undercutting him, and being too busy”. As a result, there was no first Director of IIM-A for quite some time despite the presence of a more than qualified candidate at the university who was already doing the job. Finally, Ravi Matthai was selected as the institution’s first director. Kamla helped him tide through a turbulent first-year of director-ship despite the unfair treatment she had received.


During her time at IIM-A, Kamla continued to work toward levelling the field for women at the institute. For instance, an alumna of the batch of 1981, wrote about how a recruitment poster appeared on campus that stated that “women need not apply.” This advertisement was for positions in the prestigious Tata Administrative Service management trainee programme. Chowdhry took up the matter directly with JRD Tata, and the rule was overturned the following year.


Post IIM-A, Dr. Chowdhury continued to work with the Ford Foundation in Delhi. She even served as adviser to the Prime Minister on Wastelands management, took on several environment and sanitation-related policy challenges, and was a member of several international institutions such as the United Nations Panel of Eminent Persons for the World Summit for Sustainable Development. It is sad that Kamla is mostly remembered as “Sarabhai’s mistress”, as opposed to her extraordinary career in institution-building and leadership. I am grateful Prof. Chinmay Tumbe righted that wrong to an extent by writing and disseminating his incredible tribute to Dr. Kamla Chowdhury.


*This anecdote, and most other facts throughout the article come from Prof. Chinmay Tumbe’s essay.

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