India’s First Woman Chartered Accountant – R Sivabhogam

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Born :

Ms. R. Sivabhogam was born on 23rdJuly, 1907. She had her schooling in Lady Wellington School Chennai and was a student of Sister Subbalakshmi, a doyen in the field of Social Service. She graduated from The Queen Mary’s College Chennai.

Motivated and inspired by the clarion call of Mahatma Gandhi, she along with her friends participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement and was imprisoned for a year.

It was during her imprisonment that she developed a keen desire to become an Accountant, an area untouched by women at that time. This desire of hers was fully supported by her elder sister.

Sivabhogam then registered for the Government Diploma in Accountancy and subsequently created history by becoming the first Indian Woman Accountant in 1933.

Training :

She underwent articleship training under Mr. C. S. Sastri.

After the training she wanted to start independent practice but the then British Government enacted a law under which people who had undergone imprisonment were prevented from registering themselves as Accountants.

Sivabhogam filed a writ petition to quash such an Act and got the verdict in her favour.

It is interesting to note that a separate file by name Sivabhogam was opened in Delhi for the above petition.

She started her independent practice in 1937 and was also a part-time assistant with M/s. Sastri and Shah. On the formation of ICAI in 1949 Sivabhogam was enrolled as a member and became a fellow on 17th June, 1950.

Ms. Sivabhogam was elected as a member in the very first year of the formation of the Southern India Regional Council (then Madras Regional Council) and was its Chairman for three consecutive years from 1955 to 1958.

Thus, she holds the record for not only being the first lady Chairman of a Regional Council but also a Chairman of a Regional Council for three consecutive years.

Till date no other woman Chartered Accountant has held the post of the Chairman of the Southern Regional Council. During her Chairmanship she created yet another record by holding the first ever Regional Conference in 1956, which was inaugurated by legendary statesman Sir. C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer.

She took active part in the various activities of the Institute, including the Fourth conference of the Asian and Pacific Accountants held at New Delhi in 1965.

As a Chartered Accountant Sivabhogam carried out audits of a number of social service organisations on an honorary basis. She had been very active in the sphere of social service too and primarily championed the cause of women’s education.

She was the committee member of the Society of Auditors and was also Senate member of the University of Madras.

She was forthright in her views about women’s empowerment and education and had a passion for the same. Highly charitable, she instituted a number of scholarships in the name of her father.

She also instituted in 1956, an award in the form of a gold locket for the best lady candidate declared successful at one sitting in the Final examination conducted by ICAI. A firm believer of Gandhian principles, Sivabhogam wore only Khadi till her death on 14th June, 1966.

The Year 2006 being her centenary year, the Southern India Regional Council of ICAI is planning to celebrate the same by creating an endowment in her name for awarding scholarships to economically weaker female students wishing to pursue the Chartered Accountancy course. ‘There Aren’t Any Rules for Success that Work, Unless You Do.

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.

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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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