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Do we remember Sister Nivedita?

She did everything to leave an indelible imprint on Indian society

Do we remember Sister Nivedita?

In a narrow lane in the congested part of north Kolkata stands a resolute building. One can see from its entrance a life-size portrait in black and white of a foreign woman with a full-length robe. That is Sister Nivedita aka Margaret Elizabeth Noble, and the structure is the school that she founded in the late 19th century, the school in which I earned my secondary education, living within precincts of 'Sarada Mandir'.

Apart from academic pursuit, it was the period of my life when I got attuned to a Spartan way of life and was exposed to various rituals and festivities. We boarders could become more closely associated with a pan-Indian culture and soak ourselves into a deep sense of Indianness. Often wondered at that impressionable age why a foreign woman embraced everything Indian and went against the propaganda unleashed by Missionaries about the superiority of Western values, culture, and religion vis a vis India under the shackles of domination, and also why my parents chose to put me in that school and into this way of life away from the comforts of home.

The realisation in true sense dawned on me many years later. By this time, I got fair opportunities to travel across India, feel its enormity, multiple diversities, the wide spectrum of cultural hues, and the essence of 'Bharatvarsh' that Nivedita fell deeply in love with. Now, much water has flown since Nivedita breathed her last in India. This is perhaps an opportune moment on her 151st birthday to look back at her legacy, and an occasion to introspect how India, her 'Karma-bhumi', has placed her in the annals of history.

In a colonial India, Nivedita was definitely a rare exception among the common breed of foreigners and the over-zealous hordes of proselytising Christian Missionaries. She never chose to pontificate from a high pedestal to Indians as colonial subjects, nor did she misrepresent India by spreading half-truths or myths to the Western world. She cannot be dismissed as a curious onlooker or a mere visitor or a foreigner with a prejudiced notion about India. She proved herself to be no less an Indian than any one of us.

Nivedita's vast knowledge about India was not built on any preconceived ideas but it was based on her own experience of journeying through India, more as a pilgrim and also through enriching travel experiences with her Guru. Her book 'The web of Indian Life', depicts such experiences. It earned appreciation from scholars for giving a new perspective on India from an insider's view. It was, in fact, a counter-narrative against the Westerners' attempts to portray India as a nation of irreconcilable interests without any hope of harmonisation. But, as expected, Nivedita had to face the wrath of the contemporary imperialists and religious bigots.

Swami Vivekanand found in Nivedita a great potential, a 'real lioness', and prophesied that she had a 'great future for work in India'. Nivedita reached the shores of India in 1898, chose to live in the Northern part of Calcutta city —'the Hindu Quarter', befriended many Indians, and also started visiting the city's institutions imparting female education.

Nivedita's experimental school for girls came up in an orthodox locality in a congested part of the northern Kolkata, not in the European-inhabited central part of the city. The school, in the words of Mr S K Ratcliffe, the then Editor of the Statesman, began 'as a tiny kindergarten' which grew steadily 'until it had a large attendance of little Hindu girls up to the marriageable age, and larger number of married women and widows.' He also writes that 'the school involved no uprooting from familiar surroundings' and 'there was no attempt to convert them to any religious or social system alien from their own'. No wonder, Nivedita could overcome the stiff opposition from the orthodox parents of the locality.

Nivedita's aspirations were to produce new types of "Sita, Savitri, Draupadi, Gandhari, Damayanti", to meet the demands of modern India. She sowed the seeds of empowerment with the introduction of adult and vocational education for enabling women of all ages to learn life skills for a living. In today's India, women forayed into many spheres of knowledge and work experiences, and often confront the dilemma in balancing duties as a homemaker and responsibilities at workspace. Nivedita, more than a hundred years ago, had reassuring words for them and expressed full confidence that educated woman 'should not be a less home-maker', but would possess more 'problem-solving capabilities'. Sadly, except for a few stray sparks, a wide cross-section of women in India are yet to acquire a status of dignity and equality, as Nivedita envisioned.

In her approach to education, Nivedita was all for inclusivity and campaigned for an 'education of the people', which included compulsory primary education, and an overarching reach of education through an army of young educationalists. Way back in 1910, Nivedita suggested for a 3-year service for every student after completion of studies to dedicate themselves for the causes of education for the less privileged ones. Independent India's Sakshar Bharat Programme or Sarva Siksha Abhiyan are reflections of her thoughts.

Nivedita's unwavering faith in India and its inherent strength, prompted her to announce unequivocally and categorically that it is a land "stripling, full of vigour, ready for struggle, ardent, flushed with courage, conscious of powers within, undreamt of by the world around", and with "the memories of five thousand years", was ready to face any civilisational challenge. She wondered how a civilisation unfolding for more than thirty centuries could fail to attain something, that had been "attained by those who have emerged within a thousand years of barbarism". To her, the British conquest of India was nothing but "gangsterism" and the "true programme" for India should be "to turn them out" and sever all ties with the usurper of power. This was at a time when patriotic ambitions of Indians were only limited to aspiring for larger representation in the colonial services or in the legislature. She injected a new hope in the Indian youth to unite under a single banner of India as a nation, with its own national identity, and symbol, based on its core civilisational values.

Nivedita's rationalistic philosophy was solely on the ethos of inclusivity and India's incipient diversities. A century back, she projected a truly modern and secular concept, in which nationalism was to become a new religion for every Indian and not a Hindu brand as is commonly believed. It is definitely not the brand of nationalism that is being advocated in today's India, with dissent playing a less dominant role. Reba Som, in her recent book, "Margot - Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda', has rightly questioned whether nationalism "is a prescribed voice of chauvinistic patriotism that rules out dissent or difference of opinion". Definitely, Nivedita never stood for such a "chauvinistic patriotism".

To her, however, freeing India from foreign rulers was above everything else. With a streak of Irish revolutionary spirit, Nivedita was not naturally inclined towards moderate politics. Litterateur Dinesh Chandra Sen aptly described her as an 'extremist-politician'. Yet, she was with all groups; moderate, extremist, and even revolutionary. Her small house was a 'wonderful rendezvous', not only for 'Western visitors' but 'many interesting types of Indians as well.

Nivedita did not live long in India but could have left an indelible imprint on almost every sphere of Indian life and society. Her profound erudition, sharp intellect, powerful public discourses, and deeply intellectual writings, touched upon subjects as varied as history, science, art, culture, religion, aesthetics et al. She was all for an Indian line of a renaissance and not a borrowed one which should arise out of a churning in India's spirituality, ancient wisdom, and modern scientific values.

In the world of art, Nivedita was all for reviving the treasures from the ancient schools of art: Ajanta, Rajput, and Mughal styles. Many young and leading artists who came under her influence, pursued and promoted ancient Indian art forms. E D Havell from School of Art in Kolkata, Anand Kumaraswamy, the great art historian, and Okakura, the eminent art critic, joined in her efforts and fought against the long-standing western prejudices about Oriental schools. Their unified stand could draw the attention of western connoisseurs like Sir John Woodroffe and Lord Kitchener. She was also no less of an institution-builder. The formation of a new school of art, known as Calcutta School and also the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907 were the outcomes of her untiring efforts. The same is true in the case of scientific research and development in India. The Bose Institute in Kolkata is a living testimony of her desire and persistence. She was a staunch supporter of Sir J C Bose and stood by him in all his struggles against the British scientists who ganged up against him. The entrance of the Bose Institute adorns 'a bas-relief of a woman, with prayer beads in one hand and a lamp in the other'. It stands as a mark of gratitude to Nivedita. But, how many today know about it or recall her unselfish love and sacrifices?

Tagore, despite having differences with Nivedita in attitude and approach, ungrudgingly admitted to her influence in contemporary Indian life, and said that, 'like most of the educated Indians, he was stuck by Nivedita's love for India and the Hindu religion, and apathy towards the English', which perhaps inspired him to depict the character of Gora in his novel of the same name, as mentioned by Pravrajika Atmaprana in her book. His glowing tribute to her sums it up, which says 'she is to be respected, not because she was a Hindu, but because she was great. She is to be honoured not because she was like us, but because she was greater than us'.

Nivedita's year-long 150th birth anniversary celebration is coming to a close. The occasion received a lukewarm response and cursory treatment across the country. The efforts to have a pan-India celebration bore no fruit. In October 2017, the Prime Minister did make a reference to her in his monthly radio programme 'Man ki Bat', but no commemorative official events so far. One of the houses that Nivedita occupied in northern Kolkata has been acquired with the help of the Government of West Bengal. It has been declared as a heritage site and the ASI has chipped in for its restoration and conversion into a fully operational Research Centre. The place where she breathed her last in Darjeeling was recently vandalised by miscreants, which has also been renovated and turned into an education hub in her name. However, as per media reports, Nivedita's memorial at the Darjeeling crematorium is in total shambles.

Now, India, like other nations of the world is in the grip of globalisation, which has led to the homogenisation of culture, and a compressed global society. The overwhelming intrusion of technologies is blurring national borders, and nations are losing identities and cultural diversities. History is losing its significance. Many national leading figures have gone into irrelevance and the values they dearly held no longer finds resonance in today's India. Perhaps this may be true for elsewhere also.

What Nivedita dreamt for her Bharatvarsh is yet to be realised! The concept of Indianness that she dearly cherished has lost its ground. Nationalism is misinterpreted. Inclusiveness in society is still a far cry. Nivedita's role in the history of India's struggle for freedom has paled into insignificance, barring a few oblique references. Her contribution to education was never duly acknowledged. If at all, she is remembered in the context of the Indian socio-cultural reawakening in the 19th century, it is always in a passing reference.

During my visit to Nivedita Girls' school in connection with the 150th ceremony this year, I was overwhelmed with a nostalgic feeling about the days gone by. While leaving the portals of this great institution, a sadness engulfed me that Nivedita, being a shining star in her own right, whose epitaph reads 'Here repose the ashes of Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India', has been relegated to the shadows of Indian history.

(Archana Datta, an alumnus of Sister Nivedita Girls' School, is a retired Indian Information Service officer and now a media educationist. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Archana Datta

Archana Datta

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