Dr. Narayani Narasimhan: Structural Engineering Leader

On top of the Union Jack club site

Narayani graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She received a Ph.D. in structural engineering from Imperial College, London, in 1971. She has the honor of being the first woman from CEG to receive a doctorate.

Narayani was born in Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu, in 1941, one of 11 children. Her father was an Indian civil servant, and her mother was a homemaker. Narayani had the first four years of her primary schooling in Kerala at her grandparent’s place since her father was stationed in a remote location in Karnataka in Kollegal, known for its silk industry on deputation. After he was transferred to Madras, the family settled down there. Narayani attended St. Ebba’s Girls School and then a year at Stella Maris College for her pre-university course. 

Narayani’s older sister was interested in medicine. But Narayani didn’t care for the dissecting of frogs and cockroaches. She liked mathematics and was very good at it, and decided to study engineering. She had a role model in her father, a practicing electrical and mechanical engineer she admired. At the time, she had minimal knowledge of what being an engineer meant, and her father tried to dissuade her, saying it was not a suitable field for women. 

However, Narayani had made up her mind. She had a strong ally in her mother. A child bride married when she was 13, Narayani’s mother had only limited education. Still, she was progressive beyond her time and insisted her children, irrespective of their gender, will get the education they wanted. Narayani says she owes her engineering education to the pioneering spirit of her mother.

In 1957, Narayani entered CEG to study civil engineering, one of two women students. She recalls that the male classmates were not very friendly, and the women were subjected to catcalls and whistling.

Narayani (right), with classmate Sulochana (middle) and Sarojini (1966 Mech.E.)
at the CEG Annual Day, 1962

When attending lectures, the women used to wait for the lecturer to enter the classroom before going in. In their junior year, the women were told they could not go on the educational tour that all the students took because it would be impossible to escort the two women. Despite all this, Narayani enjoyed her lectures, lab, and drawing and graduated in 1962 with a B.E.(Hons).

After graduating from CEG, Narayani’s first job was in Madras State Electricity Board (now Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB)) as a Junior Engineer. She was excited to be responsible for designing an entire hydroelectric scheme. That same year, she was featured in an issue of the Tamil magazine Anandha Vikatan in an interview with three other CEG alumnae working in TNEB—Mary Mathew, Parvathi, and classmate Sulochana—for an article on gender equality.

Anandha Vikatan Interview: Mary Mathew, Parvathi, Sulochana, Narayani Image is a composite from a scanned copy of Ananda Vikadan, courtesy of Sairam Mattancheril

The article was called “Equal Rights” with the quote from a poem by the famous Tamil poet Bharathiyar who said:

To rule with power and to make laws

we women came into this world.

In capabilities attainable, women are no less than men.

Dance to celebrate that.”

Narayani emphasized that women are just as capable of doing fieldwork since they have been through such training in college and that she would work hard to fulfill her responsibilities.

At this time, women’s polytechnic colleges were being established to educate women in technical fields, and women engineers in the government services were deputed to work in the polytechnics. In 1964, Narayani was deputed to be a lecturer at the Madras Government Polytechnic for Women (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women). As a junior lecturer, she was responsible for teaching many subjects, which she thoroughly enjoyed. In 1965, she left for England to marry her fiancé, Narasimhan, her classmate in CEG, who had gone to Mumbai to do his M.Tech at the Indian Institute of Technology and later to England to practice structural engineering.

Narasimhan and Narayani

Narayani joined Freeman, Fox & Partners in London and worked there until 1967. Aberthaw Power Station in Wales was one of her responsibilities. After a few years of civil engineering practice, Narayani decided to get a master’s degree in structural engineering. She joined The Imperial College and received a diploma in Concrete structures in 1968. The professors were very impressed by her abilities and offered her a grant from the college to do her Ph.D. Narayani had a daughter, and she was only 18 months old when she started her research program. It was a big challenge to manage her research and the toddler at home, but her husband gave her the support and encouragement she needed. Narayani’s research contributed to the British code of practice which was being revised with modification of the shear in flat slabs. The abstract of her thesis titled “Shear Reinforcement in Reinforced Concrete Column Heads” reads:

“Laboratory tests were carried out to study the behaviour of flat slabs supported on columns. The effects of varying amounts of shear reinforcement, and eccentricity of the applied load transmitted to the column, on the ultimate load were of special interest. A method of predicting the ultimate load for concentrically loaded column-slab connections without shear reinforcement is outlined and extended to slabs with shear reinforcement and slabs subjected to combined load, The proposed solutions take into account the strength of materials and the dimensional characteristics of slab.”

Narayani completed her thesis and received her doctorate, making her the first woman of CEG to do so.

After her graduation, Narayani had the opportunity to perform research in academia but chose to work in the industry with private consulting firms such as Power and Lewis and the Ove Arup and Partners. She did both design and site work. She recounts that she had one of the fascinating experiences when she and her colleagues had to go down under reamed piles deep into London clay and inspect the bottom and the sides. 

At this time, Narayani earned the membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), where site work was a prerequisite.

After eight years, she joined the public sector (PSA) in 1979 as Senior Professional and Technological Officer. In 1984, she was promoted to Principal Professional and Technological Officer. Her work consisted of project control for planning, finance, contracts. She was also the project manager for several Royal Air Force (RAF) schemes, such as extending the air traffic control tower at Cottesmore, missile storage igloos at Marham, and communication buildings in 14 different locations in England, Scotland, and Wales, among others. These projects required static and dynamic design knowledge, including protective measures against the storm, electromagnetic pulse, and nuclear and biological elements.

In 1991, Narayani Joined the Ministry of Defence and became Defence Works Advisor (RAF) based at High Wycombe at a level equivalent to Air Commodore. She had line manager responsibility for the offices at Brampton and Innsworth. She provided advice and support to clients at military commands. She was also a part-time external examiner for the postgraduate course in structural engineering and foundations at the University of Westminster. In 1996, she became Defence Works Adviser (Navy) based at Portsmouth, where the Second Sealord is based. Her responsibilities included services for the navy and being a line manager for the navy DWA offices at Portsmouth, Bath, Faslane, and other locations. Her work involved traveling to many areas in the United Kingdom and NATO countries such as Italy. After five years, when the opportunity to retire early came along in 1999, Narayani took early retirement.

After retirement, Narayani wanted to do something entirely different from her engineering career. She was interested in becoming a reflexologist and decided to get a diploma in anatomy and physiology. She practiced reflexology for a few years. In the meantime, she was blessed with three grandchildren, and spending time with them became a priority. Narasimhan passed away in 2009. 

Narayani has a passion for traveling. With her husband, she has visited China and walked on the great wall, visited the terracotta warriors, and cruised the Yankee River. She climbed to the foothills of the Himalayas, crawled through resistance tunnels, museums, and ancient temples in Vietnam and Cambodia, traveled on the bullet train in Japan, was awed by Mount Fujiyama, and took-in robot design. In Iceland, she marveled at the sight of Northern Lights and tectonic plates. Other places she has visited spans Myanmar, Hong Kong, Australia, Middle Eastern countries, The United States, Canada, Cuba, several countries in Europe and South America, and Russia.

Narayani now works for a charitable organization called Citizens Advice two days a week as a volunteer helping people with benefits claims and employment, housing, debt, and family issues. She says it is gratifying to help people. Narayani is a great believer in physical fitness. She does regular exercise and keeps active by going for regular walks and doing Pilates once a week.  

Her advice to young women is to give 100% of themselves to everything they do and not be handicapped by their surroundings. 

She quotes the English poet, Alexander Pope:

“Act well your part, there all the honour lies.”

Note: When I was writing “Roots and Wings,” I tried very hard to find Narayani, but was unsuccessful. In 2021, my alumni friends found her and let me know. We connected over WhatsApp and I am excited to bring this pioneering Indian woman engineer’s story to the world.

17 thoughts on “Dr. Narayani Narasimhan: Structural Engineering Leader

  1. Great writeup on a pioneer and role model. My father (who is no more) was also a civil engineer and am pretty sure he must have known Narayani, wish I had asked him about this pioneer. Thanks for detailing Narayani’s path.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I read your book ‘Roots and Wings’ some years ago I was wondering about Sulochana’s classmate Narayani. Your dogged effort for completeness seems to have paid off. Nice write-up about the pioneer Dr. Narayani. I am printing a hardcopy of your nice write-up about Dr. Narayani and attach it to your book to complete the story of the gutsy pioneering women engineers. Real sorry to note that Narasimhan is no more.

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  3. Shantha, admire your passion and perseverance in continuing to bring stories of these pioneering women engineers from CEG. So happy to read about Narayani’s impressive journey and achievements. Kudos to her for being the first women alumni from CEG to obtain a PhD. I humbly acknowledge following in her footsteps and being the 2nd 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting to know about Er Narayani Narasimhan.Though I have seen her in CEG where I was junior by one year came to know about her achievements only now. Thank you Er Shanta Mohan for your efforts.

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  5. Thank u so much mam for the motivational story..it shows how much craziness she had in the engineering field..big salute to her..thanks for bringing this story.

    Like

  6. K.E.Mani.1962 Mech.CEG.
    Knew Dr.Narayani& Mrs.Sulochana as their batch mate and section mate during the first two years. The publication is very inspiring and motivational for the youngsters.

    Like

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