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Remembering India's first woman CA

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R. Sivabhogam (1907-1966)
R. Sivabhogam (1907-1966)

R. Sivakumar

The year, 1930. Fresh after the release from Vellore prison, a 23-year-old wondered what the future held for her. Her mind was full of patriotic feelings but her family compulsions were different. She boards a train to Taliparramba, a remote place in Kerala, where her eldest sister lived. The issue before Sivabhogam was whether to get married, sacrifice her personal life to fight for the country's freedom, or pursue a career.

A difficult proposition indeed for a person who was already a graduate and jailed for participating in the Civil Disobedience movement. These two aspects themselves were sufficient for marriage proposals to be rejected those days. One proposal was rejected on the ground that she was physically challenged. This upset her.

Her dilemma was compounded by the powerful words Swami Vivekananda she had read while in prison: "Faith in Yourself". She held discussions with her sister and with her mentor, the legendary Sister Subbalakshmi, and finally took the bold decision of pursuing a career in accounting, primarily dominated by men at that time.

People around her were surprised and advised her against the decision, as the general feeling was that it is a tough exam and very difficult to pass (a situation no different even today). However, she stuck to her decision and with the able support of her sister created history. R. Sivabhogam became the first woman chartered accountant of India.

After passing the examination, yet another person helped her was C. S. Sastri, who took her on as an apprentice. After completing training, she took on the British again this time it was a different fight. She filed a writ petition to squash the then prevailing law, that is, those who have undergone imprisonment cannot register for practice. She won the appeal and started practice.

Sivabhogam later became the Chairperson of the Southern India Regional Council (SIRC) of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (the then Madras Council). She is the only woman so far to have held this position, that too for a continuous period of three years. Sivabhogam practised for almost three decades.

During her chairmanship, the SIRC had a galaxy of freedom-fighters, patriots and eminent scholars as chief guests for its Annual General Meetings. Notable among them are Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Sir C. P. Ramasamy Iyer, A. S. P. Iyer, Chakravarthy C. Rajagopalachariar, C. Subramaniam and K. Santhanam.

During her practice of over three decades, Sivabhogam carried out a number of audits. Her forte was Reserve Bank of India audit, in which she was an authority. However, her mind was more on conducting audits of charitable institutions. She concentrated on the same in the last three years of her life.

She also motivated quite a few youngsters to take up the chartered accountancy course, and provided coaching classes by putting together an erudite faculty. She was keen that girls join the CA course and instituted a prize for the best women candidate in the Final examination.

From the formation of the ICAI in 1949 till 1990, of the 15,173 members, the number of women CAs in the southern region was a mere 525 (3.4 per cent).

However, in the last 15 years, there has been a steady growth. Of the 18,954 members during this period, 3,754 (20 per cent) were women. At this rate, half the number of CAs in the next three decades will be women.

A true patriot, Sivabhogam wore khadi through out her life and travelled only by bus. Sivabhogam died on June 14, 1966. It is indeed a befitting tribute to her that her centenary year is being celebrated by the SIRC of the ICAI. An endowment in her name is being created for awarding scholarships to economically weak women students desirous of pursuing the CA course.

(The author, a chartered accountant, is a grand-nephew of R. Sivabhogam.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 27, 2006)
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