Annalakshmi Rajadurai – Paving the Path for Woman Journalists in Tamil Media

In the sixties, there were very few women in newspapers in Sri Lanka. The few who gained entry stood out as bright eyed, educated young women trying to storm into a male bastion. Their greatest qualification was the acceptance that they could write well. In this era, Mrs. Annalakshmi Rajadurai entered the arena of newspaper journalism.

Annalakshmi Rajadurai not only rose to be an outstanding journalist but also an eminent personality in the realm of writing. Her texts have a distinctive style of captivating readers.

She has earned a name as one of the most influential women in the field of journalism for five decades.

I got a golden opportunity to meet her just after she retired from the Virakesari newspaper editorial, after the pandemic at the age of 82.

During the last of my series of interviews with her, she gifted me a book authored by her. She autographed it for me. I was humbled and honoured when I saw that in her book, she had written about me too and my contribution to the Tamil media industry as a Tamil woman journalist.

Following are excerpts of my interview with Annalakshmi Rajadurai:

Q: Tell us about your hometown and the environment in which you grew up

A: My hometown is Jaffna – Tirunelveli. My father’s name is Rasaiya. My mother’s name is Rasamma. I have a brother and sister. My father was a carpenter. Women of that era were more often than not, uneducated. So they only carried out the household chores.

I was born on June 8, 1939. The era in which we were born would be referred to as the era of World War II. As a result, there was a severe famine in the city.

It was a time when no one cared about studying. However, in the mid in the 1940s, parents developed a desire to educate their children, including daughters.

I received my primary education at the Tirunelveli Hindu mixed school and later at Tirunelveli Senguththa Hindu College (two languages), and did my London A’levels at Ramanathan College –Chunnakam.

We didn’t have a radio at home. Nor did we have a newspaper to read. One or two people would put radios in their home and play loud, such as movie songs, so that other neighbours could hear it. During festivals and weddings, it is common for loudspeakers to be turned on and movie songs to be played.

Annalakshmi Rajadurai 

Many public libraries in cities bought one or two Tamil newspapers. Adults and teenagers, who wanted to read the newspapers, shared the pages as they read.

There was not a single library in the school at that time. They would have bought a couple of magazines, including Veerakesari.

A sister who lived next door to my house told me many myths and stories. I also enjoyed listening to stories narrated by clergy during religious festivals. These triggered my own imagination and creativity.

I was an avid reader and then began to write myself. I wrote a short story in 1958 and sent it to the Thinakaran Sunday newspaper. It was immediately published. I was jubilant!

Q: How did your interest in the media come about?

A: It cannot be said that the media was influential among the people in the late 1950s or early 1960s. In the Tamil language newspapers, only Veerakesari, Thinakaran and Suthanthiran (weekly) were published. Eelanadu newspaper was just beginning during that period.

Other than my interest in writing, I didn’t have any other qualifications to pursue a career in the media. I was dreaming of becoming a teacher.

In those days when newspapers were scare, it was customary for me to spread out and read pieces of newspaper that were used to wrap groceries. One day, in April, 1962, I got a Verakesari newspaper. A small advertisement in it caught my eye. The caption read ‘Youth needed as sub editor’.‘Youth’ mean young isn’t it, we are young too.

I cast aside my ambition to be a school teacher. I would accept the opportunity to be a Sub Editor! It was a new career for women.

I faced the interview and was selected. Then I met another woman in the youth group who thought like me. She is Yoga Vallipuram (Balachandran). From 1966 onwards, Yoga Balachandran worked as a Sub Editor in Dinapathi and Chintamani, with Mr. Sivanayakam, being the head of the department.

Q: Were there any obstacles at the onset?

A: Initially in the editorial we were the only women. Yoga and I were both enthusiastic about our duties and responsibilities. We worked hard and earned the respect of our colleagues.

Mr. Kesavan, the Managing Director, once asked the News Editor, ‘How are those girls?’ He replied, “they are the geniuses’sir!”.

Q: Challenges faced in the field of journalism?

A: I entered into the industry with the belief that I could excel in the writing-oriented journalism industry because I had a passion for writing. I enjoyed the drama of hunting for news and the words “Let’s check it out”!

A three-month training period was provided the newcomers to the job as a Sub Editors. There was some writing and translation practice.

I was determined to complete assignments correctly and without making any mistakes. Yoga was the same. Every day, we read and wrote news clippings from English newspapers and English telegraph. ..I also created a weekly page for students called ‘Maanavar Kesari.’

Sometimes, the news editor would ask us to attend a meeting or seminar and write about it. My favourite was to take time away from my regular duties to attend meetings, learn new things, and meet new people.

“Miss, you don’t have to come to work tomorrow! Watch the movie and write a review.” There was no greater joy than receiving movie tickets or invitations from the news editor!

In that era the cinema premiere for media was an important for film distributors, because the fans had to be given details about the cinema on that day.

I thoroughly enjoyed my work. Hence, I did not feel that anything was an obstacles or challenge!

Q: How was the understanding between male and female journalists during your time?

A: Our arrival must have appeared at a pace of innovation in those early days when both of us women were Sub Editors. Both Yoga and I had the confidence to act independently without having to ask for anyone’s backing or help.

Annalakshmi Rajadurai receiving an award from former Dinamina  Editor-in-Chief Sarath Cooray

As a result, the male staff held us in high esteem and valued us immensely. There was a sense of understanding and camaraderie among the male and female employees. Over time, in each period, some women have taken the lead in journalism.

Q: How was the contribution of women in the media perceived in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s?

A: If you ask me about the role of women in the media during this time of the period, mainly in the print media, my own role which spans more than five decades is also significant.

I believe that it was a turning point in 1966, when I was given the responsibility of being the editor of the weekly family magazine ‘Thodhi’. I have some experience in writing short stories and novels under the pseudonym ‘Jaffna Nangai’.

When I got to work as the editor of ‘Mithiran Varamalar’ magazine from 1973 to 1984, I was able to inspire young writers, including young women. I was responsible for pages such as ‘Literary World’ (ElakkiyaUlagu) and ‘Women’s World’ (Pengal Ulagu) and for some time also worked as a features editor.

After the year 2000, I was responsible for publishing the weekly supplement ‘Mangaiyar Kesari’ and the weekly supplement ‘Kalai Kesari’. From 2010 to 2020 I had the opportunity to work as an editor of Virakesari’s international magazine ‘Kala Kesari’, for the development of Tamil culture, art, history and archeology. I would like to thank Kumar Nadesan, the Managing Director for giving me this post.

As far as women’s pages in the early days were concerned, the focus was on family, home decoration, religion, cooking and aesthetics. Beyond that, Women were considered uneducated, without their own career, and facing economic hardships.

In 1970s, the women’s status began to improve. In 1995, I participated in the World Conference on Women in Beijing. This marked a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality. I also participated at the South East Asia conference organised by Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC-1982) Manila, and the World Classical Tamil Conference in Combatore-2010, India, also participated on three occasions in the forums for International Writers for Cinema in Tamil Nadu.

Some of our female Tamil medium journalists like Yoga Balachandran, Anandi Balasingham, Leela Ramaiah, Renuka Prabhakaran and others have written about women’s equality, women’s rights and women’s advancement in Thinakaran, Thinapathy and Chintamani.

After the 1990s, young female journalists such as Suriyakumari Panjanathan and Thevagowry Mahaligamsivam were focusing on feminism and started writing in Virakesari.

I must mention that you yourself, Krishni Kanthasamy became a historical woman in the field of Tamil media. You became the first female defence reporter from the Tamil minority community, covering such horrible and dangerous incidents on the ground when Sri Lanka was experiencing the grim realities in the war for a long time.

Since the 1990s, Priyadarshini, Ponmalar and Menaka have been contributing to the news sector. Today we are happy to see some women like, Vidhusa, Dhanusha and Chitra making their mark in Veerakesari.

Since the inception of the Thinakural Daily in 1997, young female journalists have been making a significant contribution through the women’s section ‘Ival’. Some female journalists, including Yoga Balachandran, paid close attention to their role during the days of Dinapati and Chintamani, similarly, starting with Anandi Balasingham and Leela Ramaiah, women made their mark in Thinakuran. Later on we can see some female journalists like Vasuki Sivakumar and Lakshmi Parasuraman.

Q: In today’s media, women are seen as progressive. However, women journalists have not yet occupied influential positions in the Tamil media. Why do you think that is? What be done to bring about positive changes?

A: Why hasn’t a female journalist become the editor-in-chief of a Tamil medium national newspaper until now? There could be many reasons for this. The final decision is in the hands of the Board of Directors or the owners.

A male journalist with extensive experience, talent, and intellect is usually chosen. It may be easier for a male to manage and communicate with the male management.

At a time of tremendous crisis in the country, the editor-in-chief may have to stand in the newsroom to determine the front-page news of the newspaper. In some cases, high-ranking government officials may ask for explanation.

We are aware of how the media can be subject to unnecessarily harassing and threatening.

I believe women will be able to hold key positions in the Tamil media in future, including chief editor.

Q: As a veteran woman journalist, what do you want to say to young women Journalists?

A: A Journalist is a social worker. The journalist informs people about the current situation of the country, including the political situation. Information should be disseminated fast. The journalist also has a responsibility to guide people without bias. Also it is important for a journalist to know current issues of the country and the backgrounds and international issues. Armed with this knowledge and skills the journalist will earn the trust and goodwill of the people.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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