Subbalakshmi was born at Mylapore in Madras as the first daughter of Visalakshi and R. V. Subramania Iyer (a civil engineer. Her father, R.V. Subramania Iyer was employed in the Public Works Department of the Madras Presidency),. They belonged to an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family from the Tanjore district. Subbalakshmi was ranked first in the public examination in the Chingleput District, for the fourth standard of the Madras Presidency at the age of nine.She was married while very young, as was customary, but her husband died soon after.In April 1911, she became the first Hindu woman to graduate from the Madras Presidency and she did this with First Class Honors from Presidency College,Madras
In 1911, Ms. Christina Lynch, (who later became Mrs. Drysdale), was the Inspectress of Schools for the Madras Presidency, and was very concerned about the thousands of Brahmin child widows every year who were uneducated and kept out of sight of every one.
She felt that they were an untapped potential for the country and that even if a fraction of them could be educated they could make a huge difference! She had a plan for a Government run Child widow's Home, but needed a committed role model and educator to make her plan work.
When Subramanya Iyer, Subbalakshmi's father, met Ms. Lynch in Coimbatore, he told her about his young widowed daughter who also had the same idea, and had already started educating young Hindu widows in her own home.Soon after Subbalakshmi finished her graduation that November, Ms.Lynch came to see her.
In 1912, the Sarada Ashram, or Sarada Illam was started by Subbalakshmi at her own house, Peepul Tree House, Egmore, with the Saradha Ladies Union's first donation of Rs. 2000/- The first four girls in the Ashram were, Amukutty, Parvathy, Seethalakshmi and Subakka.
Six more girls joined by the time Ms.Lynch got involved, bringing in Government funding and they shifted to Triplicane’s Adi Cottage, for a rent of Rs.25/- per month!
Ms.Lynch, (Mrs.Drysdale), continued to work with the Sarada Illam for many long years.Subbalakshmi's aunt, Valambal was very involved, right from the start, in looking after the girls' personal needs and nutrition, etc. She was a pillar of strength to the girls.
Although the widows came from varied backgrounds and several of them had been rescued from very difficult circumstances, the Sarada Illam itself was a very happy and joyful place. The widows were encouraged to play, read, and have fun. They went every evening to the Marina and Sister Subbalskhmi made sure that they learned to swim too!
Education was a huge focus, but she insisted that they put away their books at certain times of day, in order to relax and have fun.According to the testimony given by women who grew up at Sarada Illam, they played badminton, and other sports, enacted plays, composed and sang songs. It was in many ways a far better life than many women at the time, who were not widowed, enjoyed!
Soon after World War started in 1914, the Sarada Home had to be vacated from Adi cottage in Triplicane as the house owner wanted the property for himself. They moved temporarily to the school rooms of the Triplicane Governement School that Subbalakshmi had helped start, and taught at, close by.
On their daily walk to the Marina beach, the little child widows would look at this strange “Ice House” and comment how wonderful it would be to stay there. Subbalakshmi would laugh it off.Shortly after, the secretary of the Zamindar who owned it approached her with an offer to renting it to the Government for running her widow's home, and Miss Lynch got the Government’s sanction to buy it for the Widows’ Home.
Very often the young widows who joined the Sarada Illam would have discontinued their education several years earlier, or may have never been educated at all, till they came here.
Between Subbalakshmi and her chithi, Valambal, they would coach and tutor the girls to bring them up to their age-appropriate standard and then admit them in the Triplicane School.
In 1917, the first batch of trained girls who had joined Sarada Illam in 1912, entered the new college for women, Queen Mary's College, which had been started in 1914.The institution grew and there were more than 100 widows staying and studying in the Home. Most of them passed their S.S.L.C. and were trained as teachers and nurses. Many continued their studies in Queen Mary’s College and passed their B.A., M.A. and L.T. degrees and became lecturers, headmistresses and inspectresses of girls’ schools. A few even became doctors and auditors. In every corner of South India, you could meet Sister’s old students, in turn, spreading her gospel and helping their unfortunate sisters to become educated and self-supporting.