Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Talking Point > The remarkable life of Leela Row Dayal

The remarkable life of Leela Row Dayal

Leela Row Dayal, the first Indian woman to win a match at hallowed Wimbledon had varied talents and interests

A photo from the 31 August 1935 issue of the ‘Hastings & St Leonards Observer’ shows Dayal umpiring.
A photo from the 31 August 1935 issue of the ‘Hastings & St Leonards Observer’ shows Dayal umpiring.

On 19 May 1964, Harishwar Dayal died during an expedition to the Khumbu region near Mt Everest. Dayal was a shining star of independent India’s still-young diplomatic corps, having served as political officer in Sikkim and then ambassador to Nepal.

Two days later, a brief obituary appeared in The New York Times , in which it was noted that in his final moments he was accompanied by his wife Leela Row Dayal. Leela, the obituary noted, was “a former Indian tennis champion who represented India at Wimbledon".

Leela lived an extraordinary life. Indeed, she lived the kind of elite Indian life that could have only taken place in the years between the two World Wars, when the highest echelons of Indian society could simultaneously keep one foot firmly planted in the country of their birth, but another just as firmly, in the broader international networks of the British empire.

Leela, like so many other elite Indians of the time, could simultaneously be unmistakably Indian and unabashedly international.

She was born Leela Row in December 1911, the daughter of Pandita Kshama Row and Raghavendra Row, both feudatories of the Holkars of Indore. Her mother remains one of the great names in what is called the “modernism" movement in Sanskrit literature. In Modern Indian Literature: An Anthology, author K.M. George called Kshama Row a lady of wisdom who “imbibed modernity through her visits to European capitals in the company of her doctor-husband".

“She had an inborn love and flair for Sanskrit and was blissfully free from the pedantic formalism characteristic of pundits.... She became virtually the voice of India to herald the Gandhian struggle for freedom and the attainment of Independence in memorable poems like Satyagrahagita, Uttarasatyagrahagita, and Svarajyavijaya.... We see in her short stories a conscious effort to capture the reality of life in modern India."

There was one more aspect to Kshama’s personality: She was an excellent tennis player. Around the 1920s, Kshama Row and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur—later independent India’s first health minister—became two of the finest female tennis players in India. In 1927, Kshama won the singles title at the Bombay Presidency Hard Court Championship.

Leela would drink deeply from the Pierian Spring that was her mother’s versatile talent.

The daughter emerged on the Indian tennis scene not long after her mother. In 1931, Leela won her first ladies singles title at the All India Championships, beating Lena McKenna in straight sets. She then lost two finals in a row to the other great Indian tennis player of the time, Jenny Sandison. Leela bounced back to win six titles from 1936-43.

Sandison’s name is notable in the history of Indian tennis. Born in Kharagpur in 1910, she became the first woman of Indian origin to participate in Wimbledon, only to lose in the first round to Frenchwoman Simone Barbier 6-2, 6-3.

It would take another five years before an Indian woman would not only participate at Wimbledon but also win her first match there. In 1934, Leela beat Gladys Southwell in the first round of the ladies singles in a scoreline that suggests something of a titanic struggle: 4-6, 10-8, 6-2. She then lost to France’s Ida Adamoff in the second round.

Regardless of her brief participation, Leela’s 1934 campaign remains a landmark in the history of Indian women’s tennis. She, and Sandison before her, blazed a trail that others in the decades that followed would tread on, albeit not with great regularity.

In 1943, Leela married Harishwar Dayal, a member of the Indian Civil Service. We know of at least one thing that drew the couple to each other: mountaineering. In 1963, Leela wrote an article for The Himalayan Journal titled “Trekking In The Nepal Himalayas, 1963".

“Harishwar and I were always passionately fond of the high mountains, and had made a number of trips, sometimes on official duty while we were in Sikkim, but mostly on holidays. We chose to be posted in Nepal, hoping to make a few tours in the north, particularly in the Solu Khumbu region."

But the posting, she wrote, didn’t work out as planned. They arrived in Kathmandu in 1963 only to be told that the trek to the Himalayas was too arduous and would involve her husband taking too much time off work. Leela was not one to be so easily deterred.

“In March, 1963, I made up my mind to set out on my own, with Harishwar meeting me by helicopter either at Gire (six days’ march from Kathmandu) or at Namche Bazaar.

On March 21, our staff consisting of ten porters, an assistant who kept the accounts and two servants left, and I followed them two days later with Sardar Ang Tharkey, reaching Hiplu at 4 p.m., having covered 16 miles on foot, including an extremely stiff climb from Dolaghat to Hiplu, that is from 1,800 feet to 5,000 feet, in four-and-a-half hours."

Ten days later, she had reached Namche: “Waking up early, I wore my Tibetan dress, after a cold bath in the icy river, and continued the walk up to Namche, where I expected to get good news of Harishwar’s arrival by helicopter. Just outside Namche we were met by a large crowd of school children who gave us a warm welcome, smothering us with scarves and flowers and offering us refreshment. I met many old Tibetan refugees who were really happy to see me dressed like the Iha-chams (wives of noblemen) of Tibet.... I got a message that my husband could not make the trip, after all. There was another change of government in Nepal which required his presence in the capital. It was always some political crisis which prevented us making the trips or returning earlier than expected. The Sherpas are extremely pious and their devotion to the Dalai Lama is unflinching, as is evident among the Ladakhis, the Lahoulis, the Sikkimese and the Bhutanese. Everyone, man, woman and child, wears his photo in a locket.... After lunch we went on to Khumjung (where Edmund Hillary had his camp) and reached Thyangboche in the late afternoon. Thyangboche is a most beautiful spot, surrounded by high mountains, and I saw Everest every day for the next five days at any time of day and night. It was a heavenly sight by moonlight."

A year later, the couple would travel to the Khumbu region again, only for Harishwar to die tragically.

Leela later helped erect a samadhi to her husband nearby in Gorak Shep.

She went on to write books in English and Sanskrit. The 1972 annual report of the Samskrita Ranga (a Chennai-based organisation for the promotion of Sanskrit drama) notes that she helped translate many of her mother’s poems into highly regarded Sanskrit plays. Her name pops up in all kinds of memoirs and diaries, in which authors thank her for her generosity, her diplomacy and her ability to connect people with other people.

Leela Row Dayal climbed mountains, wrote plays, was a dab hand at the violin, knew the Dalai Lama, and, of course, won a match at Wimbledon.

It is what you might call a full life.

Next Story