Dhanvanthi Rama Rau


Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was born into a Kashmiri Brahmin family in the south-west of India. She attended Presidency College in Madras, graduating in 1917 with an honours degree and the Griggs Gold Medal in English, and progressing to an Assistant Professorship at Queen Mary’s College, Madras. She first arrived in England in 1929, when her husband Benegal Rama Rau, Financial Advisor to the Simon Commission, was asked to travel to England with the other members of the Commission for the writing of their report. Their daughters, Premila and Santha, then aged 9 and 6, travelled with them and became the first Indians to attend the Hall School in Weybridge. Initially the family lived at Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge, before moving to a flat in London when their daughters started to board at school. In her memoirs, Rama Rau describes the racism she experienced in 1930s England, and their struggles to secure a flat for this reason. The family were, however, in part protected by their social status and wealth which allowed them to travel throughout Europe when based in Britain.

In her memoirs, Rama Rau describes her work for organizations campaigning for Indian independence, which took her throughout Britain, as well as for a variety of women’s organizations. In 1932, with a group of Indian women based in London at the time, including Sarojini Naidu, she attended the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin, leading the Indian delegation at the behest of Naidu. She continued to work for the Alliance and writes in her memoirs that the meetings gave her her ‘first experience of dealing with international work for women’s rights’ (p. 180). She also founded the Women’s Indian Association, an organization that aimed to provide links between Indian women in Britain and British women interested in India with Indian women in India. She was awarded the Kaisir-i-Hind gold medal by the British Government for her work with women’s associations.

In 1938, Rama Rau’s husband, by then Deputy High Commissioner for India, was called to South Africa by the High Commission. She followed him there, leaving her daughters in the care of a Jewish lodger, Lilian Ulanowsky. War broke out while all of the family were in South Africa the following year, and it was this that triggered their return to India.

Finally settled in Bombay in 1941, Rama Rau immersed herself again in social welfare activities, joining several women’s organizations, including the All-India Women’s Conference of which she was elected President in 1946. The squalid conditions of the Bombay slums led Rama Rau to establish the Family Planning Association of India of which she became President. She also served as President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Published works: 

An Inheritance: The Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (London: Heinemann, 1977)


An Inheritance: The Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (London: Heinemann, 1977), pp. 170-1

Date of birth: 
01 Jan 1893

This is Dhanvanthi Rama Rau’s autobiography in which she describes her stay in England.


Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu, Motilal Nehru, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, Santha Rama Rau, Eleanor Rathbone.

All-India Women’s Conference, British Commonwealth League, Family Planning Association of India, International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Townswomen’s Guilds, Women Citizens Associations, Women’s Indian Association.

Precise DOB unknown: 

I was comparatively young, excitable when slighted, somewhat rash and certainly courageous enough to face so important a person as Eleanor Rathbone in the chair, and women in the audience like Sylvia Pankhurst and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, stalwarts of the exceedingly controversial suffragette movement. I asked for permission to speak, and was graciously allowed five minutes. I did not speak on any of the subjects on the agenda, but merely disputed the right of British women to arrange a conference on Indian social evils in London, when all the speakers were British and many of them had never even visited India. Not one of them had even asked if there were any Indian women’s organizations that were dealing with the problems on the spot, the same problems that British women were exploring from the great and deceptive distance of fifteen thousand miles. I added that, even though we had offered to help with the conference when arrangements were being made, our offer had been ignored. I told them that educated Indian women were working in every province of their country to eradicate social evils and outmoded customs and prejudices, and we refused to accept the assertion that the removal of social evils in Indian society was the responsibility of the British. We were already assuming the responsibility ourselves, and we were sure we could be more successful than outsiders, especially those who were ignorant of the cultural patterns of our social groups and therefore could not be as effective as our own social reformers.

Secondary works: 

Burton, Antoinette, The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007)


Here, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau describes her uninvited participation in a ‘Conference on Indian Social Evils’ called by the MP Eleanor Rathbone. The passage provides a fascinating historical example of western ‘feminist’ constructions of South Asian women as passive and in need of ‘saving’ from cultural and patriarchal constraints. Rama Rau’s intervention here can be read as an act of political resistance against colonialist forms of feminism. Her assertive behaviour offers a glimpse of the ways in which female South Asian subjects might have impacted on British cultural and political life in this early period of migration.

Involved in events: 
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 


Oatlands Park Hotel
Oatlands Drive Surrey
Weybridge, KT13 9HB
United Kingdom
51° 22' 39.4608" N, 0° 26' 6.0576" W
Date of death: 
01 Jan 1987
Precise date of death unknown: 
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1929
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

1929-30, 1930-4

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