Banga Mahila Vidyalaya
Banga Mahila Vidyalaya (Bengali Women’s College) was the first women’s liberal arts college in India. Established at Kolkata (then known as Calcutta) on 1 June 1876, by the liberal section of the Brahmo Samaj, it was successor of Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya (School of Hindu Women) set up on 18 September 1873 by Annette Akroyd. Banga Mahila Vidyalaya was merged with Bethune College on 1 August 1878. The short-lived Banga Mahila Vidyalaya not only laid the foundations for higher education of women in India, it was the pivotal issue which fostered the second split in the Brahmo Samaj. David Kopf says that while the immediate cause for the split in the Brahmo Samaj in 1878, was the marriage of Keshub Chunder Sen’s daughter to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, ‘’women’s emancipation was the major issue of the 1870s.”
When the Brahmo Samaj split for the first time in 1866, all the progressives within the organisation, including Keshub Chandra Sen, Sivanath Sastri, Sib Chandra Deb, and Durga Mohan Das, were together. Their thinking about most matters related to the Brahmo Samaj matched. The parting of ways started in the early 1870s, and one of the issues on which they differed was women’s education.
The writings of Theodore Parker, the socially active Unitarian, had a profound impact on the Brahmo Samaj thinking. Mary Carpenter, a British follower of Theodore Parker and daughter of Ram Mohan Roy’s Unitarian friend, Lant Carpenter, also had a positive impact on Brahmo Samaj thinking. During her first two visits to India, Mary Carpenter met the Brahmos and asked them to extend the American and English efforts at women’s emancipation to India. Among her more devoted supporters were Monomohun Ghosh, whom she had occasion to meet when he was in England, attempting first an entry into the Indian Civil Service and then the English bar in the early and mid sixties.
When Mary Carpenter visited Kolkata in 1869, she had a definite scheme for promoting women’s education in India. She proposed the establishment by the Brahmo Samaj of a normal school to train women teachers for girls’ schools. Such a school was set up as part of the Indian Reform Association. At that point of time, Bethune’s school was the only institution for girls’ in Kolkata, which Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Dwarkanath Vidyabhusan and other liberals were supporting.
It was then that a second British woman, Annette Akroyd entered the scene. She had formed a deep friendship with Monomohun Ghosh in England and when Keshub Chunder Sen went to England and delivered his noted speech on Female Education in India, she made up her mind to travel to India. She arrived at Kolkata in 1872 and was house guest of Monomohun Ghosh.
Annette Akroyd opened her school, Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, in 1873 with Dwarkanath Ganguly as headmaster. It became the cause of a bitter quarrel between the conservative and liberal sections of the Brahmo Samaj of India. Ultimately, Annette Akroyd got married and left the school. With the arrival of Mary Carpenter on her third visit to India, a more ambitious scheme to train women for higher education was adopted with the establishment in 1876 of Banga Mahila Vidyalaya .
Conflict of opinions
The focus of conflict between the conservatives and progressives initially centred on one view that female education as preparatory for marriage and the other view that women should be educated on the same basis and to same levels as men.
David Kopf writes, “Miss Akroyd played a leading part in this debate, sarcastically distinguishing Keshub, the rhetorician of women’s liberation in England from Keshub, the typical Hindu male keeping knowledge from the minds of women… Keshub tried to convince Miss Akroyd, Ghosh and Sastri that he was progressive, but at the same time wary of radical change.’’ Miss Akroyd lost faith in Keshub’s ‘go slow’ policies. Sen countered with a warning about denationalised female education in Bengal and anglicized curriculum.
The progressives, who later formed Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, replied, that Keshub Chunder Sen had joined the growing legion of Hindu revivalists and militants who had nothing but contempt for things western.
David Kopf writes, “The triumph of the Sadharan Brahmos over the Keshubites on the issue of women’s emancipation clearly represents the impact of Unitarian social philosophy on Hindu society and culture. As the facts disclose, Unitarian impact was not merely intellectual or ideological. Through the advocacy and work of Carpenter and Akroyd, its impact was intrusively practical.” He goes on to conclude, “The relatively emancipated professional Indian woman of today owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the Brahmo pioneers of the nineteenth century.
Durga Mohan Das, Dwarkanath Ganguly, Ananda Mohan Bose, Monomhun Ghosh and Annadacharan Khastagir were actively involved in the revival of the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya as Banga Mahila Vidyalaya. The education imparted was of a higher standard, its students following the course meant for Entrance (school leaving or university entrance) Examinations.
The Report on Public Instruction for 1876-77 prepared by the Education department said, that Banga Mahila Vidyalaya was “in every sense the most advanced school in Bengal. It was formerly managed in Calcutta by Miss Akroyd, and lately revived by some Bengali gentlemen who desire to see girls appearing at the university examination and finishing their education at the new college for women in Cambridge… It is the first attempt to establish a higher English boarding school for girls.”
Among the prominent students of the school were Kadambini Bose, a cousin of Monomohun Ghosh, Sarala Das and Abala Das, daughters of Durga Mohan Das, and Subarnaprova Bose, sister of Jagadish Chandra Bose and later wife of Mohini Mohan Bose.” Kadambini Bose became the first woman in India to pass the Entrance Examination in 1878.
Amalgamation with Bethune College
By the year 1866-67 a movement was afoot for remodelling Bethune School because the school was not sought after. That Banga Mahila Vidyalaya was higher type of school was also admitted. Monomohun Ghose who was secretary to the Bethune School Committee was also connected with Banga Mahila Vidyalaya. He played an important part in the amalgamation of these two institutions. Chief Justice Sir Richard Garth, who was president of Bethune School paid a visit to Banga Mahila Vidyalaya and was highly pleased with the arrangements and the instruction imparted to the girls. The result was an offer from the committee of Bethune School to Banga Mahila Vidyalaya for amalgamation, which came about on 1 August 1878. With the amalgamation Bethune School entered a new phase in its history.
- Kopf, David (1979), The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, pp. 30-41, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-03125-8
- Bagal, Jogesh Chandra, History of the Bethune School and College (1849-1949) in Bethune College and School Centenary Volume, edited by Dr. Kalidas Nag, 1949, pp. 33-35
- Sastri, Sivanth, Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Banga Samaj, 1903/2001, (Bengali), pp. 178-179, New Age Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
- Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali (editors), (1976/1998), Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) (Bengali), p 222, ISBN 81-85626-65-0
- Acharya, Poromesh, Education in Old Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 86-87, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-563696-1
- It is not clear whether the school was revived at Ballygunj or Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya shifted to Ballygunj from Entally where it was initially located. Sivanath Sastri, in his Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Banga Samaj, p 197, mentions both the schools as being in Ballygunj.