In memoriam: remembering the legacy of women we lost in 2020

Here is paying tribute to women who left an indelible mark in the fields of law and justice, art and entertainment, and leadership and who will inspire generations to come.

The best of minds always finds a way towards warmth and hope, even in the most difficult times. It has become all the more important to stay positive this year amidst the gloom and doom of millions of lives claimed by the pandemic and otherwise. 

Amidst these, the world has unfortunately lost some very powerful women. Yet their inspiration and legacy shall continue to heal and empower, long after their passing. Each of them will be remembered for their valuable contribution across the arts, entertainment, and leadership, but most importantly, for inspiring the generations after them.

Here is paying tribute to women who blazed a trail in their unique ways.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

A tribute to Supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg merits more than just a few words. For her life and career has been of struggles and successes, and the fight for equality. 

Having faced biases early in her career, Ruth made ground breaking cases for equality across areas of healthcare, education, gender pay gap, and workplace discrimination, among others. Diagnosed with colon cancer two decades ago with bouts of pancreatic and lung cancer over the years, she rarely missed a day of work.

A feminist icon and a champion for equal rights, Ruth professional journey in law and judiciary spanning over six decades inspired a generation of people across the world to believe in the power of patience and as she said, to fight for things one cares about in a way that will lead others to join.

The inspiration has remarkably taken the form of a pop culture phenomenon, hailed as the Notorious RBG. 

Saroj Khan

Ace choreographer Saroj Khan is known for adding a zing to Bollywood movies and some of its most memorable songs like Ek Do Teen, Dhak Dhak, Chane ke Khet Mein, and Dola Re Dola. 

The three-time National Award winner was dearly regarded as the bona fide masterji in the Hindi film industry by actors across generations including Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Shah Rukh khan, Preity Zinta, Govinda, Sara Ali Khan, Jahnvi Kapoor, and Ananya Pandey. Madhuri earlier said she was a rebel in a male-dominated profession. 

Saroj Khan died of cardiac arrest at 71 and is survived by son Raju Khan and daughter Sukaina Khan. Saroj’s family migrated to India after partition after which she started as a child artist at the age of three and worked as a background dancer in 1950s. She has choreographed more than 2,000 songs in a career spanning four decades. 

Isher Judge Alluwaliah

Economist Isher Judge Ahluwalia is known for leading the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), to become one of the finest economic think tanks in India in her role as the chairman for the past 15 years.

She died of brain cancer and is survived by her husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a former Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission and their two sons.

She completed her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), master’s from the Delhi School of Economics, and bachelor’s in economics from Presidency College, Kolkata.

A Padma Bhushan Awardee, her memoir titled Breaking Through, which was written while fighting brain cancer gives an insight into her personal and professional life. She has also authored several books on economy including Urbanisation in India: Challenges, Opportunities and the Way Forward and Transforming our Cities.

Dr S Padmavati

Known as the godmother of cardiology, India’s first female cardiologist Dr S Padmavati passed away due to COVID-19 in August this year. Born in Burma in 1917, she was a year old when the world battled the Spanish flu in 1918. 

An MBBS graduate from Rangoon Medical College, she pursued further studies in countries like the UK, Sweden, and the US before starting her career as a lecturer at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi in 1953 and opening a cardiology clinic a year later.

In 1962, she went on to found the All India Heart Foundation which has collaborated with the World Health Organization to train students in preventive cardiology. The trailblazer was awarded the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan in 1967 and 1992, respectively.

Elizabeth Wurtzel

Author Elizabeth Wurtzel whose memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (1994) launched her as a generational icon passed away in January this year. Her style of confessional writing may have drawn both scorn and praise, but the author is credited with opening essential dialogue on clinical depression. 

Unapologetic about her messy life, she has not shied away from putting her experiences of self-harm, her parent’s divorce, and drug use, in words. Some of her other books include Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), Radical Sanity (2001), More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction (2001), and Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood (2015), among others.

Regarded as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna” by Times Book Review, her bare and honest writings will continue to win over audiences for generations to come. 

Dame Diana Rigg

Legendary actor Dame Diana Riggs was diagnosed with cancer in March and passed away in September this year. In an illustrious career spanning half-a-century, Diana is the only woman to play Mrs James Bond, and has starred in The Avengers series, Game of Thrones, The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1971), among others.

Starting her acting career in theatre before entering film and television, Diana has won several awards including best Actress from BAFTA TV Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Award for her film Mother Love in 1990.

Olivia de Havilland 

Actor Olivia de Havilland dazzled the screen during the golden age of Hollywood with 49 feature films to her credit. The last of actors from the era, hailed as a true icon of Hollywood, passed away at her home in Paris in July this year.


In a career spanning five decades, the actor essayed memorable roles in both theatre and films like To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), which earned her an Academy Award for best actress, among many other accolades. She was also nominated for best actress in a supporting role for playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Zindzi Mandela

Poet and diplomat Zindzi Mandela, the youngest daughter of anti-apartheid revolutionary, philanthropist and the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela died of COVID-19 related complications in July this year. In the midst of the South African freedom struggle in which her parents were heavily involved, Zindi spent most of her childhood with her sister Zenani Mandela. 

Known for her political and social activism, she was serving as South Africa's ambassador to Denmark since 2015 and was due to be posted as South Africa's head of mission in Monrovia, Liberia. Zindzi is also the author of Black As I Am, a poetry anthology first published in 1978.

Nikita Pearl Waligwa 

Ugandan actor Nikita Pearl Waligwa who is remembered for her role in Queen of Katwe passed away aged only 15 in February 2020. Directed by Mira Nair, it is Nikita’s only film and is based on the true story of a chess prodigy in Uganda.

The young actor was first diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2016, cured the following year, but doctors discovered another tumor last year.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan


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