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The Contribution of the Brahmo Samaj in the 19th Century to Women Education

In the 19th century the influence of Western education and culture created awareness on a lot of people in India. Only for that reason the rational and national thinking, irrespective of religion, arose in their mind. Slowly both Indian and European educationists and social reformers understood that the education of the womenfolk was highly necessary for the social reforms of the country. Because women were living in the darkness of ignorance, naturally they took an active part for the upliftment of the womenfolk. They advocated women education, widow-remarriage, betterment of the widows, prohibition of child-marriage, prohibition of Parda system. Their efforts created awareness and a silent revolution took place on the necessity of self-employment and wage-employment of middle-class women economically and then socially.

It is a well-known fact during this period ordinary women-education and advice was not easily forth-coming as there were no knowledgeable institutions which can fulfil this task. It is true that Hati Vidyalonkar and Shyammohini Devi were exceptions. To some extent the existing local landlords, kings, emperors did encourage the reading of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Quran, Puranas, Mangalkabya and even keeping records of business, writing letters, but the age-old systems of superstitions, illiteracy, ignorance failed to usher in a process of learning.

In the 19th century, any discussion on the education on women could not be completed unless we consider the influence of Raja Rammohun Roy who established the Brahmo Religion and the Brahmo Samaj. It was he who brought about the enlightenment in thought and thinking of the people. It is religious understanding encompassed the present generation, the state and foreign shores which he achieved with his vast knowledge of various religious forms. The broadness of his thought, the result of which led to the acceptance of the Brahmo Religion not only all over India but even abroad. Such was his personality and influence along with his logical thinking that this path-finder even drew the attention of the foreigners and some foreign institutions apart from the educated and enlightened local population.

Raja Rammohun Roy was never afraid of his detractors and critics. On one occasion he categorically asked, “Have you ever measured the intelligence of women so that you can call them less intelligent that men? Since education and knowledge if given to them and not absorbed by them, then you can only classify them as less intelligent. You have never shared education and knowledge with the womenfolk, how will you treat them as less intelligent?”

From 1871 to 1882, in a span of 12 yrs., women education in India underwent a massive expansion. In 1873 schools for girls were 1640 in numbers and most of them were primary in nature. High schools for girls were maximum in Bengal and Madras. The role of Keshub Chandra Sen, Ramtanu Lahiri, Shibnath Shastri needs to be highlighted here. Because of their untiring effort, there was a spurt in the establishment of schools for girls. The Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, Bango Mohila Vidyalaya, Metropolitan School (later known as Victoria Institution), Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya are some of the note-worthy institutions which came into existence. At the same time Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar without any government support established 35 schools for girls in 7 months in 4 districts. Outside Bengal, establishments of schools for girls were taken up by the Arya Samaj. In Northern India in Jalandhar Swakanya Vidyalaya was established by them. In 1867 Dr, Atmaram Pandurang established the Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra which focused on widow-marriage, upliftment of the lower class, inter-caste marriage apart from the education of girls and their acceptance in society. The role of Deccan Education Society may also be mentioned for its pioneering role in women education.

The role of women education also had the tacit support of some of the well-to-do personalities of Calcutta and foreigners. Most of the well-to-do families had the arrangement to educate their womenfolk in their houses and not in any girls’ school. This lead was given by Raja Radhakanto Deb, Raja Baidyanath Roy, Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Pyarichand Mitra etc. Most of those womenfolk were taught by Vaishnabis, European ladies and Bengali Christian ladies. But no formal syllabus was followed by them.

At the same time some native institutions also took an active role in the propagation of education for women. To mention a few ‘‘Tattwabodhini Sabha, Sarbo-Shubhokori Sabha, Samajonnati-Bidhayini Suhrid Samiti” and the British Indian Society which had Debendranath Tagore, Ramchandra Vidyabagish, Akshoy Kumar Datta and Pyarichand Mitra as its members. In fact, in 1847 the first Free-School for girls was set up at Barasat by the initiative of Pyaricharan Sarkar.

In the meantime the Brahmo Samaj came forward regarding the social progress and spreading of education in womenfolk. The members of the Samaj published several newspapers and magazines, viz., Bamabodhini, Abolabandhab, Mohita, Antahpur, Bharati, Bharot Mohita etc. to inculcate the social awareness about the importance of women education.

In 1861, Keshub Chandra Sen declared, [Here I quote] “No nation can come forward in the path of civilization keeping behind the womenfolk. The honour and the acknowledgement of each nation depends according to the social status of women.” [I unquote] — At that period Keshub ardently felt that higher education is not immediately required, but is required a general education. Due to that reason he was eager to enlighten the individual’s personality through the special course of learning so that women could acquire an open field of sense and sensibility. He established an association “Antahpurstree Siksha Sabha” and made an arrangement of sending to every house to make women learn the basic of education. This initiative of Keshub Chandra was highly appreciated at the report of the D.P.I. at that period. When Miss Mary Carpenter of the Unitarian Church of England came to the then Bengal, she travelled to East Bengal, Madras and Bombay with Keshub Chandra and helped to reform the Brahmo Samaj. In 1871, Keshub founded a girls’ school with a teachers’ training department. Afterwards many trained teachers of this institution were engaged in Bethune and other schools.

In 1883 Keshub started the Vedic school among the young members of the congregation. Metropolitan Girls’ School, later known as the Victoria Institution was a successful institution for higher education for Indian ladies. This school survived due to the grants from the Cooch Behar State and the able management of Bhai Pratap Chandra Mazoomder who secured the government aid.

During that century, Dwarakanath Ganguly, the editor of “Abola-Bandhab” was one of the pioneers, propagating and reforming women education. He was connected to the “Teachers Training Department” of Bethune school in 1870-71. In 1873 Miss Ackroyd established a boarding school at Entally named “Hindu Mohila Vidyalaya” which was opened to girl students irrespective of any religion, with the help of Dwarakanath Ganguly, Durgamohan Das and Manomohan Ghosh. Afterwards this school was named as “Bango Mohila Vidyalaya” and regained its fame with the help of Dwarakanath, Durgamohan and Anandmohan Bose. That high standard school was also praised in the D.P.I. report.

At that period, students of higher classes were Kadambini Basu (who later became the first graduate and lady doctor, afterwards also the wife of Dwarakanath Ganguly, the editor of Abola Bandhab), Durgamohan’s first daughter Sarala (afterwards the learned Philosopher P. K. Roy’s wife and the founder of Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School), then his second daughter Abala (afterwards the famous Scientist J. C. Bose’s wife and the Secretary of the reformed Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya) and also J. C. Bose’s sister Subarnoprova — some of the few names that can be mentioned — all of them forgoing a golden trail in the propagation of education for women.

The 60-s and 70-s of the 19th century saw the definite role of Bengali women in the field of Literature and Science. During 1863-1872 in a span of 10 years, all magazines published and meetings held were directed towards the spread of women education and emancipation of women. The daughter-in-law of Debendranath Tagore, Jnanathanandini Devi edited the Bharati and the Balok magazines. Tagore’s daughter Swarnakumari Devi, a multi-talented lady published her first novel in 1877. Later for the next 50 years she wrote many scientific articles and also two magazines — Bharati and Balok along with writing many songs, novels and plays.

By 1878, we can see that the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj with its progressive ideals had entered headlong in the reformation of society and women education. Dwarakanath Ganguly and others felt that education bereft of morals and religion was not beneficial for women. In future, to become a good housewife apart from formal education (School- College-University) women need to learn Home Science, Cooking, Embroidery, Personal Hygiene etc. It is for this reason that a girls’ school was initiated and set up following the Brahmo ethics and religion. Hence in 1882-83, the three stalwarts of the Brahmo Samaj viz., Dwarakanath Ganguly, Shashipada Bandyopadhya and Aghornath Mukhopadhyay set up a school where students were taught by Dr. Kadambini Ganguly and Girijakumari Devi (wife of Shashipada Bandyopadhyay).

In 1890, Umesh Chandra Dutta took over the Sacretaryship of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Along with him Shivnath, Dwarakanath, Anandamohan and Heramba Chandra Moitra became associated in providing a new dimension in women education. On the 16th of May of that year, they renamed in English “Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya” as “Brahmo Girls’s School” and in Bengali “Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya”. The basic reason advocated by them was that for acquiring knowledge they were establishing a school named ‘‘Shikshalaya’’ and not Vidyalaya. The school started with 15 students and gradually a hostel was opened. This initiative was highly praised in the “Bamabodhini” magazine which mentioned that in the city of Calcutta initiative taken by the Brahmos to establish a girls’ shikshalaya-cum-hostel and its growth was welcome. In a short period the number of students increased to 80 and boarders to 25.

Two other personalities need also to be mentioned in the field of education during this period. They are Shivnath Shastri and Upendrakishore Roychowdhury. Even in the 19th century Shivnath in his memoirs had mentioned that primary schools for girls should be of 3 hours duration and follow the kindergarten method of education. He himself used to teach in the Pre-primary section by drawing pictures on the blackboard. Upendrakishore had taught Music and Life Science. During this time we also find that Sitanath Datta Tattwabhushan was in-charge of the girls’ hostel and also engaged as home-tutor for girls. The Headmaster was of course Harakanto Basu who was later followed by Shashibhushan Basu.

The role of Brahmo Samaj in women education cannot be completed unless we mention the initiative and motivation provided in setting up a boys’ school also. On the 6th of January 1879, the City School for boys was set up which was later elevated to a college in 1881. This college played an important role in Bengal Renaissance. The luminaries like Krishna Kumar Mitra, C.R. Das, Surendranath Bandyopadhyay, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. Harendra Coomar Mukhopadhyay taught at this famous institution.

In 1896, a small institution called “Little Band of Mercy” was formed within the Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya. The basic idea was to inculcate a sense of mercy for the elderly, poor and helpless women, permanently ill and disabled womenfolk etc. Subscriptions were raised from the public. In 1889 a Government grant was given to this Shikshalaya.

In conclusion we may mention that the Brahmo Samaj and its members in the field of women education had left an indelible mark in the environment. Apart from this, it also made people eager to know and help its cause. Hence not only education, the Samaj reformed Society and Humanity for the benefit of all.

By Smt. Sutapa Roychowdhury

(Excerpt of the speech given at Calcutta Brahmo Conference on 24.11.2018) 

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