Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was born into a Kashmiri Brahmin family in the south-west of India. She attended Presidency College in Madras, graduating in 1917 with an honours degree and the Griggs Gold Medal in English, and progressing to an Assistant Professorship at Queen Mary’s College, Madras. She first arrived in England in 1929, when her husband Benegal Rama Rau, Financial Advisor to the Simon Commission, was asked to travel to England with the other members of the Commission for the writing of their report. Their daughters, Premila and Santha, then aged 9 and 6, travelled with them and became the first Indians to attend the Hall School in Weybridge. Initially the family lived at Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge, before moving to a flat in London when their daughters started to board at school. In her memoirs, Rama Rau describes the racism she experienced in 1930s England, and their struggles to secure a flat for this reason. The family were, however, in part protected by their social status and wealth which allowed them to travel throughout Europe when based in Britain.
In her memoirs, Rama Rau describes her work for organizations campaigning for Indian independence, which took her throughout Britain, as well as for a variety of women’s organizations. In 1932, with a group of Indian women based in London at the time, including Sarojini Naidu, she attended the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin, leading the Indian delegation at the behest of Naidu. She continued to work for the Alliance and writes in her memoirs that the meetings gave her her ‘first experience of dealing with international work for women’s rights’ (p. 180). She also founded the Women’s Indian Association, an organization that aimed to provide links between Indian women in Britain and British women interested in India with Indian women in India. She was awarded the Kaisir-i-Hind gold medal by the British Government for her work with women’s associations.
In 1938, Rama Rau’s husband, by then Deputy High Commissioner for India, was called to South Africa by the High Commission. She followed him there, leaving her daughters in the care of a Jewish lodger, Lilian Ulanowsky. War broke out while all of the family were in South Africa the following year, and it was this that triggered their return to India.
Finally settled in Bombay in 1941, Rama Rau immersed herself again in social welfare activities, joining several women’s organizations, including the All-India Women’s Conference of which she was elected President in 1946. The squalid conditions of the Bombay slums led Rama Rau to establish the Family Planning Association of India of which she became President. She also served as President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.