Smt Gnanapurani Madhvanath (also known to her friends as Gnana and to many as SriG Amma) was born in Chennai on October 23rd, 1934 to Sri V.S. Chengalvarayan and Smt. Saradha, into a large joint family steeped in Tamil traditions of Saivite and Murugan worship. Her father Sri V.S. Chengalvarayan and grandfather Sri. V.T. Subramaniam had played a pivotal role in the revival of Tiruppugazh, so much so that their family was known as the “Tiruppugazh Kudumbam”. Their family home on Lingichetti street was a place for various saints and devotees to congregate, and she spent her childhood growing up in the company of visiting ascetics such as Vallimalai Swamigal and Mouna Guru Swamigal, and had occasion to meet Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi (as a 9-year old) and Kanchi Periyaval, amongst others. Another frequent visitor during this time was a young Pithukuli Murugadas, he would in later years refer to Gnanapurani as the “scientist amma”.
A brilliant student with an independent streak, she opted to pursue Physics rather than Tamil, and went on to do a B.Sc. and MA in Physics at Presidency College, Chennai. Upon post-graduation she joined the Alagappa Chettiar College for Women in Karaikkudi as a lecturer in Physics. After a year she left to join the recently created Atomic Energy Establishment (later known as the Bhabha Atomic Research Center or BARC) in 1957 as one of their first women researchers. In 1961, she was deputed by BARC to Kansas University (KU) at Lawrence, Kansas, USA, to pursue a Masters in Biophysics. At a time when students from the Indian subcontinent were generally scarce in the USA, and it was extremely rare for single Indian women to travel abroad, she travelled to the USA on her own with her father’s blessings and encouragement. Her academic success at university paved the way for many of her juniors at BARC to travel to KU for higher education.
In 1963, she returned to BARC and continued to work on applications of radiation in medicine and industry. In 1966, she married Madhvanath, her BARC colleague and classmate from her B.Sc. days. The same year she took a leave of absence from BARC to join her husband at Univerisity of California at Berkeley, where he had enrolled in the PhD program. At Berkeley, she conducted research studies at Lawrence Berkeley Research Laboratory on the effect of radiation on plant cells. In 1969, a son Sriganesh was born to them. In 1971 they returned to India and rejoined BARC. Forced to choose between her career and the increasing demands of motherhood, she left BARC to become a full-time homemaker. In 1972, a daughter Vaishnavi was born. She took her duties as a mother very seriously, and focused her energies on ensuring that her children excelled in both academics and the Indian fine arts.
In 1988, she suffered a great personal tragedy when her daughter Vaishnavi, then 16 and a first year student of economics at SIES college, lost her life in a drowning accident during the torrential Bombay monsoon. In 1992, she decided to visit Buffalo, NY, USA, to spend some time with her son, who was by then a PhD student at the University of Buffalo. Madhvanath joined them shortly thereafter, following his retirement from BARC. Their home in Buffalo soon became a popular hangout for Indian graduate students looking for home cooked Indian food.
During this time she came in contact with Haran Aiya (Chaitanyananda), an ardent worshipper of the Divine Mother in the ancient Sri Vidya tradition, who had set up a Devi shrine in the garage of his home at 33 Park Circle, Rochester, NY. The introduction to Aiya and Sri Vidya came as a soothing balm to the grief of losing her daughter. She soon became a regular visitor to the temple, and was initiated into the Sri Vidya tradition by Aiya. She also met Aiya’s guru, Sri Amritananda of Devipuram (fondly called Guruji) when he visited Buffalo and Rochester. Interestingly, they had been acquainted with each other from their earlier days at sister organizations BARC and TIFR.
In 1992, she was requested by Aiya to help with bringing out a revised and expanded edition of Sri Vidya, a comprehensive manual for worship of the Sri Chakra that he had compiled over the years and transliterated into Tamil. After returning to Chennai in 1994, she took up this monumental task, and the book “Sri Vidya: Sri Chakra Puja Vidhih” was published in 1995. Being the first manual of its kind for Sri Vidya, it drew the attention of scores of Sri Vidya upasakas in South India, and many travelled to her home in Tiruvanmiyur in Chennai to get a copy of the book, which was distributed at no cost. This brought her into contact with the community of Sri Vidya upasakas in Chennai, and many of these upasakas became firm friends.
Over the next 20+ years, she continued to work on various book projects for the Rajarajeswari temple of Rochester, including Sanskrit and English versions of Sri Vidya, and additional puja manuals that the temple brought out every Navaratri. The work often involved long hours transliterating original Sanskrit texts into Tamil and Roman scripts with diacritic marks to indicate the correct pronunciation, and then doing several rounds of manual corrections to the hardcopy proofs generated after typesetting. It was painstaking work requiring enormous attention to detail and knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil and English, which she carried out with characteristic dedication. During this time, their home in Chennai became the default landing point and lodging for Aiya, Guruji and scores of other visitors to Chennai from Rochester and elsewhere, and she and Madhvanath frequently travelled with them on various temple tours of South India.
While her work on Sri Vidya literature was her primary sadhana, she recited the Lalita Sahasranamam daily and served the devotees of the Mother in every capacity. Adept at English, Sanskrit and Tamil, she had also picked up Kannada and Telugu to be able to converse with her husband’s family, and some Marathi by virtue of living in Bombay. When Aiya started to introduce Vedic suktams into his pujas at the temple, she took to learning and reciting suktams such as Sri Rudram with great enthusiasm. In 1996, she was given purnadiksha (complete initiation) into Sri Vidya by Aiya, and the name of “Guruguhamba”, a reference to Murugan, her family deity.
Gnanapurani was also a lifelong student of Carnatic music. While in Bombay she learned music from Pallavur Mani Iyer, a student of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and a composer in his own right. She also learned several rare Purandara Dasa Kritis from the vainika Sri C.K. Sankaranarayana Rao, and compositions of Annamacharya, bhajans and abhangs from various teachers at every opportunity. She also taught music to anyone who came seeking it, in Bombay, Buffalo, Rochester, and in Chennai, but as a matter of principle, never charged any fees for this service.
In 2005, she and Madhvanath moved to Bangalore to be closer to their son who had relocated to Bangalore from the US. She dedicated herself to being an active grandmother to her two grandchildren Sashwathi and Skanda, and taught them music and bhajans from an early age. Her home also served as the local Sai center and they hosted Sai Bhajans every Thursday. She also taught the Lalitha Sahasranamam to those interested, and hosted its chanting at her home every Friday. She continued to teach music to interested students.
In 2013, she fulfilled a life long dream to visit the famed Murugan temple of Kathirgamam in Sri Lanka. She also had occasion to visit all her favorite temples – Kanchipuram, Tiruttani, Devipuram and Chidambaram (for Aiya’s 70th birthday) the same year.
On April 9th, 2014, in her 80th year, Gnanapurani left the mortal plane. It was the day after Ramanavami and the tenth day of Vasantha Navaratri, and she had just spent the last week of her life serving Guruji and Guruji Amma from Devipuram who were visiting Bangalore and staying with her.
The last book she worked on was the 2014 Navaratri publication for the Rajarajeswari temple, which, fittingly, was dedicated to her family deity Subrahmanya.
She made numerous friends of various ages and from all walks of life over the years, such was her genuine interest in getting to know people. She touched various lives in countless ways, and will be fondly remembered for her humor and lively conversation, her ever smiling and gentle demeanor, her unassuming nature and humility, her selfless acceptance of every request made of her with no regard for personal cost or inconvenience, her work ethic, her hospitality and generosity.
May her soul forever rest in peace at the divine feet of mother Lalitha.
Some pictures from Amma’s life may be found here.
Some of her contributions to Biophysics are more accessible now, thanks to Google (see publications, Masters thesis). The Rochester temple website is here.
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