Dr. Thangam Venkatesan, Kanakavalli’s September Vignette, is more than a doctor. She is an international expert in a condition called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS), – a challenging and virtually unknown health disorder – a teacher and academician, a meditation instructor, an avid gardener, a mother, daughter, wife, and traveller. She inhabits these many roles with ease and grace, bringing joy and love to everything she does.
A reluctant physician to begin with, Thangam has now come to believe that pursuing medicine shaped her destiny – it is what brought her together with her husband of 25 years, what took her to the US where she still lives, and what drives her to remain a lifelong learner.
In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of the Kanakavalli Journal, Thangam traces her love for nature to summers spent in Tirunelveli with her grandparents, and opens up about her serendipitous discovery of meditation. For her, beauty is about reviving the past and keeping tradition alive – something she finds in Kanakavalli. While on a recent visit to Chennai, Thangam stopped by to curate a range of fine kanjivarams from the Kanakavalli repertoire, selecting saris that reflect her absolute joie de vivre. Excerpts of the conversation below…
A Life in Bloom
On Medicine as a Calling
I come from a family of physicians; my father, my sister, my cousins – they are all doctors. Growing up, I always said I wouldn’t end up on the same path, and I told myself I wouldn’t marry a doctor. I wanted to be an architect, and I actually did really well, until I bombed my drawing exam. I then reluctantly turned to medicine; attending KMC simply because it was the closest college to my house! In retrospect, I think this was the right path for me even though I did not realise it at the time. This decision transformed both my career and my personal life in ways I couldn’t have imagined and definitely for the better. I went on to meet my husband who happened to rotate at KMC, though he was from MMC–in fact, we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary! I also got the chance to go to the US to pursue my higher studies.
The choice to practice medicine is what led me to work with a disorder that is virtually unknown – Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. I now work with patients from all over the world and I thoroughly enjoy every moment of my work – from treating patients to teaching and performing research. Studying to become a physician really shaped my destiny, and helped many important things in my life fall into place.
My father is still a practicing doctor and is passionate about what he does. I grew up watching him work. I would observe him doing house calls, going out of his way to be there for his patients. And so, even though I initially fought it, caring for people is something that has come easily and naturally to me since I was a little child. I have been around patients and doctors all my life, and becoming a doctor myself was perhaps the most logical extension of my personality and upbringing.
From the Clinic to Academics
I think it’s very hard to separate the different branches of my work, as a physician, researcher, teacher… they all flow seamlessly into each other. I have always had a deep intellectual curiosity, and am the kind of person to make my own way in the world. I like to quote my boss, who once said, “You can either follow the guidelines, or you can make the guidelines.”
Working with Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome – a very difficult and challenging disorder – I am constantly thinking about how I can push the envelope. First, as a clinician, I see challenging cases, oftentimes cases that have no clear path to recovery. This leads me to research, to discovering new things and studying in great detail. I think one supports the other – my deep commitment to my patients leads me to delve further as a researcher, and my research helps me to be a better physician. I am a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and I find academic medicine very rewarding.
I work with everyone from medical students and faculty; I also mentor many young people including high school students. I love being surrounded by incredibly intelligent people, all driven to do the best they can. This keeps me on my toes, makes me want to keep learning more. Often, even a medical student’s question might leave me stumped, but this only makes me delve deeper into research. I learn so much by teaching and I don’t think I will ever stop learning.
Caring for Patients, Plants and the Planet
I have always had a deep love for nature and plants – something I think all of us do deep down. I love to garden, and I’m also an active recycler and composter. My grandfather, who was from Tirunelveli, loved to grow things. He had a lot of land in his hometown, and every summer when we visited we would find whole fields devoted to beautiful flowers. One year it would be sunflowers, the next it would be roses – and the entire house would be filled with the scent of the petals. My grandmother would scold him about wasting time and land – he was a college principal, not a farmer. But he was passionate about his fields of flowers, and it was a delight to return every summer wondering what he had planted.
My father also has a green thumb. Even though he had a hectic schedule, often finishing work only at 11pm, he would still potter around the garden, whatever the time. He is very active in the Harrington Road community where he still lives, and, along with a group of residents, took the initiative to plant trees in the area. He would go water these trees at 11.30 every night, saying that the Corporation wouldn’t have bothered to! He would also compost – my father was way ahead of his time! He has been composting for the last 50 years.
Above (clockwise from top left) : White hydrangeas in Thangam's backyard that provide Fall colour; Yellow coneflowers also called Black-eyed Susan; Purple Clematis
When we moved to the US and finally bought our own home, we made sure it had a large garden. I spend part of my free time in the garden. I love to see new life. I love seeing something grow out of nothing – there is so much pleasure in watching and nurturing new life.
A very unexpected turn of events led me to stumble upon meditation. I am usually a very fun-loving person, and my friends would not have imagined I could even sit in one place for more than a few minutes. I happened to take a few Chinmaya meditation classes when I returned from my training in the US, but I had a deep yearning for something more. Some might call it serendipity, but just at that time, a friend of mine took me to a meditation teacher.
My very first experience sitting in meditation with him – using a a technique called Pranahuti – was transformative. I felt like I’d experienced something entirely new. When we returned to the US, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to continue this practice. But serendipity struck again, and a friend introduced me to a teacher a few miles from our house.
Meditation is something I can always rely on to retrieve feelings of peace, calm, and energy. It has helped me a great deal, and I am a better person for it. I am more compassionate and more patient. I recently decided that I wanted to share this treasure with others, so I became an instructor. I hold sessions at home for friends, family, strangers. It is so much fun to share my experience and guide others on this journey. It keeps me centred and balanced.
A Balancing Act
I used to be constantly active and on the move – I still am, but with meditation, I have a newfound appreciation for just being alive. I have found a sort of peace and gratitude that I think helps me balance my routines and roles. I find myself trying to work smart, rather than long. And I have found a rhythm – there are times I’m very busy working around the clock, and other times when I take a break, go on vacation, and recharge with family and friends. And I find myself managing my many roles and jobs in a similar rhythm.
I’m lucky I have a family, especially a husband, who is very supportive. My children are quite independent, and my husband and I have never inhabited stereotypical gender roles. When we got married, he was living alone in Ireland, so he knew how to cook and I didn’t. He is a paediatric gastroenterologist and is also very busy, but he still does almost all the cooking. The standing joke in our home – since I’m always in the garden and he in the kitchen – is that I grow the vegetables and he cooks them! He has also always been an incredibly involved father.
Balancing work, family and all my other pursuits has been challenging, of course, but I have always found the most wonderful and supportive people in my life – from my family to my friends and even a housekeeper, Collette, who became like a grandparent to my children, and worked with us for 13 years! It has never been just me, it has been a community coming together, and I feel very fortunate for this.
Above (clockwise from top left) : Thangam with her family at the Warden's house in Pachaiyappas College - her father's birthplace; At home beside the crabapple tree with her children Arvind and Tara, the joy of her life; In Alaska with her family many years ago
Luckily, we get reasonable amounts of vacation time in the West. Travel has always been a priority for our family. I believe it opens our eyes to the world, showing us how other people live. It teaches us that despite having different customs and different ways of doing things, we’re all essentially the same. In every country we have visited, we have learned something. We love tasting the local cuisine, interacting with locals, visiting art museums… We try to avoid the more touristic attractions, and wander off the beaten path. Some of our favourite places have been Peru, Alaska, and Iceland and more recently seeing the Northern Lights!
On Beauty, Tradition and the Kanjivaram
The Madras of my childhood taught me a love for tradition – for temples and beauty and saris. As I moved away from home and from India, I think I began to look back more and realise how much these things mean to me. Saris were always a part of our lives.
As children, we waited to wear beautiful kanchi pattu pavadais for special occasions. The kanjivaram is something very beautiful and pristine for me. I love the handwoven feel of the silk, and the significant skill and expertise that goes into its creation. I have an aunt who lives in Kanchipuram and as children we often visited the looms. I learnt to recognise the weight and beauty of this beautiful craft.
When I first chanced upon Kingsley, I could not believe there was a 100-year-old building down Spurtank Road. I was so pleased to discover that it wasn’t just a store, but a concept, and that Kanakavalli is committed to reviving tradition. Ahalya has immaculate taste, and ever since my first visit to Kanakavalli, I have not bought a kanjivaram from anywhere else. I think this is what beauty means to me – reviving the past and keeping tradition alive. I can’t wear a sari every day because of the nature of my work, but I have a collection that I cherish and wear for special occasions.
On her choice of sari
My husband and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and I wanted something special for the occasion. This particular kanjivaram I found while browsing through the collection at Kingsley seemed to be calling out to me. I’m the kind of person who loves to wear vibrant colours that seem to reflect my personality. I fell in love with the striking shade of royal blue, and I knew it was the one.
Thangam wears a beautiful Kanakavalli kanjivaram sari in vibrant blue dotted with chakram motifs in gold zari. The korvai border in fuchsia pink has annapakshi motifs, while the pallu, also in fuchsia pink, is composed of yazhis and geometric patterns in gold zari.
- Dr. Thangam Venkatesan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera
View Thangam's curation here