Madhubala Chinchalkar, The Polar Woman on Maitri Mission

Madhubala Chinchalkar

Madhubala Chinchalkar was 58 years old when she came across a newspaper ad for applications for a program in Antarctica. Little did she know, she’d be heading there. Madhubala was the only woman at the Maitri Mission of India to Antarctica during her time there. She has been given the title of “The Polar Woman” by the Indian government. 

Q.Why did you apply to go to Antarctica? Did you ever think that you would get in?

I read an advertisement in the newspaper that ‘doctors are required to accompany the 36th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica’. I was always fascinated by this pristine continent. I decided to appear for this walk-in interview and give it a try! I was 58 years old then and thought may be, I would never be able to make it.

I had never in my wildest dreams imagined going to Antarctica!

Q. You went to Antarctica at the age of 58. Did that ever impact your experiences?

I went to Antarctica at the age of 58, but it never impacted my experiences! Internationally, all the expedition members need to undergo strict physical and psychological evaluation before travelling to Antarctica.’ Physical’ because this continent is totally cut off from the rest of the world during eight long winter months.

Ships or aeroplanes cannot travel here. Hence staying in Antarctica during winter is next to staying in space! ‘Psychological evaluation’ because, during this period we are away from civilisation. So, one must be psychologically fit to stay in isolation during long and dark winter months of Antarctica.

Q. What do you think keeps women from chasing their dreams? How can they overcome these challenges?

I feel many times, the family and social responsibilities keep us, women away from chasing their dreams. Women are multitasking and can achieve many things simultaneously in various fields with their hard work, determination, and perseverance. They should be determined to pursue their dreams. Mental strength and family support help to overcome these challenges.

Q. Tell us more about some challenges that you faced there. How did you overcome them?

Antarctica is the land of superlatives. It is the highest, driest, and coldest continent on our planet. Months of midnight sun and equally long polar night poses a great challenge.

Madhubala Chinchalkar is putting her experience in Antartica into a documentary that brings together her journey and the threat to the environment.

Summer months are busy here. Midnight sun helps outdoor field work. As a doctor, injuries during field work, extreme cold and dry climate etc. pose a great challenge.


Madhubala Chinchalkar
Image Credit: Madhubala Chinchalkar

Winter in Antarctica is the most challenging period! During Polar night, there is dark outside. There are blizzards and temperatures are extremely low. Expedition members are station bound. Our body clock or circadian rhythm is disturbed. Loss of appetite, irregularities of sleep, anxiety, depression, increased irritability among the members is quite common. These are known as winter effects.

I had to handle one life threatening medical emergency during winter. One of our team members got extremely ill. This continent is cut off from the rest of the world during winter.

As soon as the winter ended, the first flight arrived in Antarctica, National Centre for Antarctic, and Ocean Research (NCAOR) arranged for emergency medical evacuation of this patient. The patient was brought to Cape Town successfully and ensured that he was taken care of in the hospital.

Q. What remains the highlight of your Antarctic experience?

‘Antarctica’ has been a life changing and character-building experience for me. Antarctica gives the true feeling of vast dynamic forces of nature. In Antarctica, we feel the presence of the creator of the universe all around. We too become a part of it. My best memory of this place is the amazing nature, stunning colours of sunrise and sunset, Aurora Australis during Polar night.

Antarctica is the only place on our Planet where humans did not get any chance to interfere with nature. How beautiful our planet is when untouched by humans

Q6. What is your advice to women who want to go to Antarctica?

I want to tell everyone reading this, if you want to do something, determination and efforts can make it happen. You do not know if you will get in or not, do not think about that. Just attempt and take your shot. When things are meant to happen in your life, they will. Antarctica is the most pristine land in this world, and everyone deserves to see it once in their life.

It is untouched. In the beginning of the twentieth century early explorers used to take dog sledges to Antarctica to explore it, numerous people died because of the harsh weather and because the land was uninhabited. As if there was a wall of ice all around Antarctica, and it was not possible to go there before since there were no ice breaker ships or airplanes. However, now there are expeditions to the subcontinent, and the youth should undertake them. 

Q. Tell us more about your documentary ‘…. And Skua Returned Early!’ 

During the time I was in Antarctica, I shot multiple photos as well as videos of my time there, amazing nature, polar night, blizzards, Aurora Australis, milky way, naturally occurring ice caves etc. I was deeply humbled to see life in the middle of divine nature during summer.

I wanted to show these experiences to people across the world who may never have been to Antarctica at the same time to draw their attention to the serious threat to our beautiful planet. I compiled all the videos and I wrote the background information for the documentary. In ‘Maitri’ I got an opportunity to read more about this icy continent. There was a huge collection of books here, right from the days of ‘Dakshin Gangotri’.

It was a treasure that I discovered during wintering in ‘Maitri’. I helped in setting up the library in Maitri then too and could read almost all the books it had about ‘Antarctica’! The entire idea was to help people understand what Antarctica all is about and to bring a piece of it back to their homes that they could watch on tv. I do not believe that it is comparable to watching it on television, but it is still something for the people who cannot imagine going there.

The documentary is called “…. And Skua returned early!” Skua is the name of a bird whose arrival in Antarctica marks the beginning of summer here, and early arrival of Skua is a sign of grave warning about early onset of summer because of Climate Change. I hope this documentary, which has won many awards nationally and internationally, reaches out to more people. Please watch it if you are reading this.