The History and Archives of Indraprastha College for Women

The History and Archives of Indraprastha College for Women

in Interview
Published on: 30 January 2018

Meena Bhargava and Kalyani Dutta authored 'Women, Education and Politics: The Women's Movement and Delhi's Indraprastha College' (Oxford University Press, 2005). Dr Bhargava is Reader in History at Indraprastha College and has published widely on medieval and the early modern period of Indian history. Kalyani Dutta retired from the English department and has translated the writing of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Dr Vinita Sinha is with the English Department, and has translated the short stories of Phanishwarnath Nath ‘Renu’.

Suparna Sengupta is a historian and was formerly Research Coordinator at Sahapedia.

Suparna Sengupta speaks to Meena Bhargava, Kalyani Dutta and Vinita Sinha about the history of Indraprastha College and the setting up of its archives (Delhi, October, 2016)

Writing the History of Indraprastha College

Meena Bhargava:  Let me introduce you to the fact that our former principal, Dr Aruna Sitesh had conceived this idea of commemorating 75 years of college. What she had in mind was to do a calendar history of the college which would run chronologically, but both Kalyani Datta and I thought that we would actually talk about women’s education, women’s role in national politics and also the kind of obstacles which women’s education faced, how they were surmounted, and then, of course, what we consider a very brave episode, that is, the participation of the students of IP college in the nationalist movement.


Let me also add that when Dr Aruna Sitesh decided to ask us to write a book, she also conceived the idea of having the college archives. Our college, then and now still, is the only college in the University of Delhi to have its own archives. The process of it began in 2004 which was then inaugurated in 2006. 



Kalyani Dutta: We were excited about it. And as she said, our idea was not to write just a straightforward year-wise chronological account. We wanted to see it in a, ‘Our college and its history’, in a wider context in northwest India as it were. A lot of things were happening in Lahore but in Delhi what happened. Delhi was a little, as she has mentioned in the book, a little conservative about this.


And yes, the chairman of the college at that time, Narayan Prasad, he was very keen on this project. And he had a house with all the archival material of the college, from as you might say the year one, had been preserved very carefully. I mean that was by itself a story in itself. In cupboards, in beautiful handwriting which was common in those days, everything was written down. You cannot imagine what a lot of wealth of sociological materials you can get from just a simple attendance or admissions register—which were the kind of castes which you used to send students to the college etc.


After classes, we used to go over to his house and spend hours looking through all the cupboards and taking out files and pictures. And carefully preserved. His father and his grandfather who had also been trustees of the college had preserved beautiful cuttings from old newspapers which gave you a wealth of information about how Delhi was in those days, what was the composition of its population, populace. So, all that was very interesting.



Archiving the history of Indraprastha College


M.B.: I think to understand the evolution of the college it would be important to see how actually we have preserved our documents and our pictures and the way we created the archives in 2006 and now of course the 2006 archives got expanded into museum and archives learning resource centre.


I would like Dr Vinita Sinha to tell us about the process of when we started working for the archives and how we actually put it together.



Vinita Sinha: I am Dr Vinita Sinha. I belong to the English department at IP College. I have spent more than three decades in the college and even though, I am not a student of the college but in the process of building the archives, I must say that I have got almost into the fold, as if the college belonged to me more than just being a teacher here.


Taking it further from what Meena mentioned, that for the late principal, Dr Sitesh, it was a very radical and a very far-sighted view to take at that time, with meagre resources, to not only have the history written and released on the 75th anniversary of the college but to take it further in the form of building the archives. We were able to carve out one space which is in the main building.We spent more than a year collecting photographs and our major resource was none other than our late chairman Shri Narayan Prasad ji as mentioned by my colleagues earlier, a storehouse of knowledge and extremely proud of the possessions that he had. As Kalyani just mentioned, right from newspaper cuttings to photographs that is on display, register in which the name of the first student was mentioned, everything was derived from there.


But the other part of it was where we got involved in sifting all of that and trying to tell the story on the wall. So, it was a very careful choosing of photographs, how to, where to begin from, right from our genesis in the old building, then the shifting to the next one and finally where we are. The inauguration of the building, the first faculties, you can see them all on the wall, the first magazine, the handwritten magazine which was brought out by students of IP college. We are extremely proud of our college building which is a heritage building. So, to show the college in different views: the east view, the west view. Incidentally, some of the photographs were once again by our late Chairman: the aerial view of the college. So, we finally inaugurated it in March 2006.


After that the present principal had a greater vision of expanding the archives into a learning and resource centre which is where we are right now. And of course, things had improved with better resources. So, the place became a little more than what we had actually thought of. Once again as you can see, if you go around the archives, you can see how the whole story has been told on the wall and the documents which are there, which are being displayed are really worth a close look.




Founding Indraprastha College


K.D.:  In the founding of this college as well as down to the days of fierce moments of indepence struggle, in this institution, both school and college, there has always been a strong stream of nationalism running through. When it was founded, it was a more patriarchal enterprise. In those days, they were the men who were interested. They were followers of Annie Besant, believed in Home Rule, believed in theosophy and were interested in establishing a school for girls from families which did not traditionally send their women to schools and colleges. So, it took a lot of effort to persuade families to send their girls to schools.



M.B.: The college began in 1924 in the two rooms of the haveli in Cheepiwada which were donated by Rai Bal Krishan Das. By profession, he was a banker and he decided to donate this haveli to start this school for girls in 1904. When this school began in 1904, it was actually a response to a very radical, aggressive speech of Annie Besant called ‘The Education for Indian Girls’. And Rai Bal Krishan Das belonged to the Delhi Theosophical Society and there were a group of them.


The first principal of the college was Leonara G’meiner, an Australian. She had actually been invited by Annie Besant. She was her disciple. She was also a theosophist. And Leonara G’meiner came along with her niece all the way from Australia, O’James. Ms. O’James was put in charge of the Montessori school and Leonara G’meiner became the principal of the college. One of the major contributions of Leonara G’meiner was her fight against purdah. Let me mention that Leonara G’meiner had a major role to try and stop the girls from leaving school and she was quite happy because by the 1930s the dropout range of the students had reduced remarkably. So, these were the two things, the purdah and the dropout rate which she tried to control.


So, as the number of the students went up and also, we got a lot of students from north India. It was not just Delhi but there were students coming from Jalandhar, Lahore, from places in UP like Khurja. And I am specially mentioning Khurja because one of the students of the first batch, 1924, Kalavati Gupta, who enrolled as the second student (the first student was Rajdulari Sharma who became the vice-principal of the school) came from Khurja. She studied history in this college and also went on to become a lecturer in the department of history before she became the principal in 1934. So, these were the different places where they came from and they needed the residence as well. So, they put tin sheds in the school in two rooms which served as classrooms as well as the place where they would be staying. So, it was in 1932 when the numbers became unmanageable that they shifted to this place on Alipore Road, Chandravali Bhawan which was actually a kind of a house, a bungalow which was donated again by Rai Pyare Lal to serve as the school.


But it was from 1926 onwards, that Leonara G’meiner had been negotiating with the British government about the Alipore House, the place where we are actually located. Leonara G’meiner retired in 1934 but without any success in getting this place. Kalavati Gupta took up this and it was only on August 6, 1938, that the government decided to give us this building for two lakhs. The college management paid 2,00,000 rupees and 60,000 was given by the government. The college entered this building in October 1938, again October 6, 1938 but it was formally inaugurated on February 7, 1939 by Lady Linlithgow. And since then, of course, we have been in this building. It has now gone onto become a heritage building. We have kept our front façade as it is. There has been a lot of expansion but all that expansion is towards the back side and we have kind of expanded because the number of students now has gone up remarkably.


I would also like to mention Lala Jugal Kishore, the grandfather of our later chairman, Shri Narayan Prasad-ji. He was one of the founder members. This group of Delhi theosophists got together to start this school for girls in 1904. As Kalyani mentioned earlier, that it was very difficult to get the girls out of their homes to study in the school. They preferred to be taught at home.


This school was called Indraprastha Hindu Kanya Shikshalay. The use of the term ‘Hindu’ is important not in any communal sense but it was a way of appealing to the community that they should send their daughters to this school where their purdah traditions, where their values would be preserved. And it was within a year or two, rather 1906, onwards that we had students coming from the other communities. We had Christians, we had Muslims, we had Jains coming in. And as far as the Muslim girls were concerned, like again the Hindus who preferred that there should be a panditain  to teach them, they preferred Ustanis who would teach them at home. But by 1906-1908, they realised that it was difficult to get Ustanis and that they could not be taught at home. So therefore, the kind of confidence which the school gave to not only the Hindu community but to the other communities to send their daughters to school is remarkable. 


And also, what I may add is that while there were these girls coming in, there was no age bar. The girls could come to the school at any time and more importantly, Lala Jugal Kishore whom I just mentioned, he persuaded his daughter in law to come to school in order to fight that resistance that married women could not go to school.




Curriculum at Indraprastha College


K.D.: A lot of things changed because, in the beginning, as it has been written in the book, the families wanted their children, girls, to be taught in Hindi. That was part of, I suppose, the Swadeshi feeling which was running. But in a very few years’ time they wanted English to be taught and the people who were looking after the college had quite a difficult time to find a teacher, a woman teacher who would teach English. There was a lot of decisions taken by people in those days in what it would seem are radical decisions. There was a big controversy of course not only in India but also abroad about, okay, women must, girls must be educated but what should they learn. What kind of subject? What is the curriculum? Should it be just needlework and a little bit of language or something? One of the most interesting pictures which people like a lot is where there is a chemistry class going on, you may have seen that, where there is a male teacher standing and there are these girls who are science students but all with their heads covered carefully. Because that was the mark of the time. On the one hand, traditional Indian customs and social customs, their heads covered but what they are studying, they are in a chemistry lab.



M.B.: All students who came to this place were to study what they call ‘literary’. Literary meant that they must know their vernacular language: Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. English was not the medium of instruction to make the girl students more ‘comfortable’. Then there was religious and moral teaching. Religious and moral teaching meant that they should know about their own community and they should know about their own religion. Then what they called  ‘scientific study’, basically science which the focus was on hygiene, on health etc. And then physical training, which is how they must exercise. And then, of course there was arts which they called arts and music. Music specially because they must know how to recite the shlokas, the Sanskrit shlokas. So, that was the beginning. That is what they were supposed to study.


And then by the time we are into college in 1924 and then around 1926-28, the syllabus changes where they must know the vernacular. To that they added Punjabi and Bengali. Apart from that they would do history, philosophy, economics, and mathematics, apart from of course, hygiene and music and needlework and embroidery etc. which they had to learn. Because there was this fear that if they are educated and due to a lot of influence of the British, they might just lose their so-called ‘traditional’ values. Therefore, they would always remind them that they must study but not again ‘become memsahibs’. They must understand their domestic duties and they must be able to make a home etc. So, these were the subjects which they started off with.


And initially of course, as again Kalyani had mentioned, English was not taught at all. But then very soon when we shifted, when this became a college in 1924, by 1925-26 there was this demand that they want to study in English. Even before that around 1915-16, when it was still a school and the girls wanted to study English, (the college management was very careful in case the parents think that it is being inflicted on them, so they decided to put a fee of 1 rupee) whoever wanted to study English. And in 1916 they also introduced the high school etc. what they call the matriculation and they started having these two mediums, those who wanted to study through vernacular and those who wanted to study through the English medium. So, by the time we became a college in 1924, the syllabi had changed, there was keenness to study English. Of course, the fee was no longer just one rupee, it gradually went on to be 12 rupees. So, that is how the college kept growing.


In the 1970s, looking at the demand for the change of subjects and the kind of subjects they wanted to study, commerce was introduced. In the 1990s, we started off by introducing a paper in a subject in BA programme which was computer applications but now we have a full-fledged computer science department and then of course, IP College became the only college to have its own mass media course in 1999. So, we have expanded.


Why I am talking of this is actually to also convey that how the college has stood by and has always met the demands of the kind of subjects or the kind of disciplines which the girls wanted to study. Although, of course, it is unfortunate that we could not become a science college and our last batch of science was in 1929.



Teaching at IP College

K.D.: There was a lot of resistance to having male teachers, not even somebody who would teach Sanskrit. It was very difficult to find a woman to teach Sanskrit.. Probably because it was devbhasha (language of the gods). So finally, they had to appoint with the concurrence of the parents a panditji to teach.



M.B.: So, although there was this resistance that they did not want men teachers and they were looking for a panditain (female pandit) they finally got a pandit. But there were three men teachers. They were called professors. Professor Rama Deva, who taught Hindi, Urdu and also Sanskrit. And there was Professor Nandkishore who taught music. And Rehman Ul Nisa who taught needlework and embroidery.



K.D.: That in itself is very interesting that there is a male to teach needlework which, one would think, is a preserve of women. And then when science was introduced in the Cheepiwada campus, they had to have male teachers for Chemistry. When I entered as a student in the late 1950s, there was still two or three male teachers who were teaching. There was one teacher who was teaching Bengali and Science and Mathematics and there was one for I think, Urdu.



M.B.: In 1937, when the university recognised the college as what they call the degree college, we only had B.A (Pass) then and not Honours. Honours was introduced in 1943. In fact, we made our admissions for Honours in different subjects (English, History, Psychology) in 1945. M.A. was introduced in 1945. So, in 1937 they said that there should not be any male teachers. But of course, the college management kept them. There were these male teachers in fact till 1959 and as she mentioned, there were three of them. One of them, Mr. Goswami, was forced to retire. One of them who taught Urdu was T.N. Zutshi, who died. And then of course, there was Prof. Rama Deva. He retired.



K.D.: So circumstances rendered the college with all female teachers.



M.B.: Yes. So, either forced retirement or retirement or T.N. Zutshi’s death. 1959 was the last batch of these three male teachers. There was a big gap between that and I think it is only in the later or in the early 2000s, that we started having male teachers again.



K.D.: As far as faculty is concerned, it is unimaginable how far we have travelled, because there was a time and not too far away but still before Independence where, you cannot imagine, women teachers were paid far less as compared to male teachers in the university. I mean this was accepted. I cannot say complicit. And I think it is only in 1943 that they decided to pay equal salaries. Having been at the forefront of women’s education, I mean for teachers, working women as it were, to gain the right to have equal payment for equal work, to achieve that. That is how far we have travelled.



M.B.: One of the things about salaries, if I may add, one of the reasons why they did not want men teachers on the faculty was because of this disparity. And that disparity was there in 1937 when they were being asked to do that. 


Incidentally, it was Maurice Gwyer as vice-chancellor who carried out this reorganisation of the university when it was he who introduced the idea of honours, BA (Honours). He introduced the idea of three-year degree course and then, of course, the cooperative teaching which is that the college teachers can teach in the university departments. And it was he who actually laid down that even if you are employed in a college but by Delhi University, by virtue of being the constituent college of Delhi university, you would be called a university teacher. So, when he carried out this reorganisation, there was this question, why should then the women teachers be paid less than men teachers if both men and women teachers are the teachers of the university. So that was how, in 1943, the parity in the salaries came.



I’d like to mention Nirmala Sherjung, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. Actually, there was no separate department of Psychology. It was a combined department of Philosophy and Psychology. And those teachers who had studied philosophy were expected to teach psychology. So, when the women teachers were recruited, they were supposed to sign a bond that they were not married. In other words, they did not hire married women for the kind of problems that it would be that they would want to go on maternity leave and if they went on maternity leave, it would disturb the classes etc. Nirmala Sherjung was married and she wanted a job. She was married to a political revolutionary who had been in jail for quite some time. And she was also pregnant at that time. But she hid the fact that she was pregnant for the fear of losing her job. But then of course she later told the principal. So, Nirmala Sherjung did not lose her job and of course, she had her child. But then the issue of maternity leave came up again in the case of another teacher, Economics department, R.W. Ghatge, Mrs. Ghatge. She was pregnant and when she applied for maternity leave, it was a big issue and there was discussion that she could not go on maternity leave. In fact, it was with Mrs. Ghatge that this whole idea, that maternity leave is required as far as women teachers are concerned, began.


So, that was one aspect of the recruitment. The other aspect of the recruitment which I would also like to mention, which in a way reflects on the radical spirit of the college and also on the principals of the college is that when Nirmala Sherjung was recruited, she had to sign a bond that she will not participate in the national movement. But then Nirmala Sherjung participated, she went on marches, she supported the students. And there was one incident when in one of the Prabhat Pheris, she was holding the mashaal and she was in the front of the procession. And somebody happened to see her who reported to the governing body and then that governing body wanted the principal to take action against Nirmala Sherjung. The governing body’s stand was that the person who reported that Nirmala Sherjung was in the procession was ‘a responsible person’. The principal of course, talked to Nirmala Sherjung. Let me also add that the college management (they were so much under the British government’s pressure especially owing to the government grant) did not want the principal to investigate. They wanted a separate enquiry committee. But the principal insisted that she would talk to Nirmala Sherjung. And then she reported to the college management saying that Nirmala Sherjung is a responsible person herself and what she says is the truth. So, that is how Nirmala Sherjung continued to be in service. She was not suspended and she retired later.


So, these are the kind of trends that we find in terms of recruitment or the different disciplines or their involvement in the national movement .



Women in Indraprastha College and the Nationalist Movement


M.B.: Talking about the nationalist movement, they were absolutely fearless because the British government would put a lot of restrictions. And a major restriction that they would put was to stop the government grant. If we go into the history of the college, the college had always been in the midst of financial crisis from the very beginning and they have had to either raise funds themselves or make their own endowment funds. So, they were dependent on the government grants. But that deterred neither the students nor the teachers to take any stand in the national movement in which they were very, very active. So, in the process of writing this book, Women, Education and Politics, we interviewed some old students and they were old students of the 1940s and it is interesting to note that the Vice-Chancellor at that time was Maurice Gwyer. And he being the vice-chancellor, the students not only of Indraprastha College but throughout the university did not actually want him to be the vice-chancellor and they would go and resist him and take out marches etc. in the university. 


And what I would like to tell you is when these girls went out to protest or they’d jump the walls, go to Gandhi Maidan to listen to Gandhiji and Nehru or they’d just go on a march to protest against the British government or very very actively participating in the 1942 Quit India movement, it had a lot of repercussions for the college especially in terms of the grants. The government stopped the wheat ration for the hostel. Not only Indraprastha Hostel but also which was known then, the Commercial College which is now the Sriram College of Commerce and the Ramjas College. So, the wheat ration for these three hostels were stopped. Despite that, the girls, the students did not give up. There were lots of protests, there were lots of newspaper articles criticising the government regarding this stopping the wheat ration but the curb on the ration continued for two years, from 1943 to 1945. And as the students participated in the movement there was this fear, they knew that they would be rusticated and we have these several students from the 1940s who told us that knowing very well that they would be rusticated, they still continued to participate and they called themselves mini-politicians who would organise meetings in the lawns of the college. They would picket the classes. And there were some students who even went up to Maurice Gwyer and appealed to him that although they have been a party to the movement and they have been in the marches, they have taken the anti-government stand but that they should not be rusticated. Of course they were, and many of them were sent to jail. So, they were quite happy to report to us what happened in the jail, and the kind of national pride that they still carried on in 2000s, in 2004 and in 2003 when we interviewed them, is remarkable.



K.D.: Yes, generally I think because we are a little off campus on the way, I think there is a general view that it is very biddable kind of girls we produce. But that is not true. To anybody who knows about the college, it is just the opposite.


There is one little incident if I might say of how far in those days when people thought that when women were, the '40s, were very quiet except for those who joined Mahatma Gandhi’s program. It seems that girl guides and guides movement were having some kind of a meeting somewhere and at the end of the programme, the girls were supposed to salute the Union Jack and sing 'God save the King' etc. I think they said, 'We will not sing that thing. Why should God save the king, God should save everybody. And, as far as the King, you can leave our country.' So, I think that was very interesting. Of course, the government complained about them but they were not punished.



M.B.: Let me add to what she said that this girl guides movement. They called themselves ‘Zenia Patrol’ and they used to go to Kingsway Camp for their training etc. and this was one of the things that while they were learning about girl guides, they were supposed to, at the end of every exercise, salute the Union Jack. But instead of saluting every day, without fail they would say, not saluting, ‘India Chhodo’ ('quit India'). And that is how it would be.


To this we may also add,  the Indian People’s Theatre, IPTA. Most of IPTA plays were anti-government. And therefore, the government would not give them a space to perform. They would not give them the mikes. So, they would use their own. They took a white sheet and they would take a takht and make their own stage. But then how do they publicise. They were not allowed to publicise. They could not put posters because they were anti-government. So, what they did was on the newspapers, with black pen, they would write the name of the play, they would write the venue and stick them on the roads so that as people traversed those roads or passed those roads, they would read those notices and then come for the play.


And you know the students of the 1940s when the national movement, especially around the Quit India movement, the students, and I am talking about IP college students, they made groups. And wherever they lived, they would be in charge of that particular locality. Say, for instance, Chandni Chowk or whatever and then they’d take out marches. And what is more important is that they started wearing khadi and they would spin the khadi themselves and wear that. So, in connection to the Zenia Patrol which I mentioned, these girls would take out marches and they would sing songs like ‘Nahi rakhni, nahi rakhni, zaalim Sarkar, nahi rakhni’. So, that was the extent of the national pride and the nationalism which we noticed in IP College.



Women of Indraprastha College and Resistance


K.D.: And during the '70s and '80s when there was this anti-dowry movement, I think the faculty as well as students of the college had a lot to do there. There was, at one point, Meena mentioned, how during the times of the nationalist movement, students used to meet and sit in the lawns. Well, that feature was enacted once again when I think during the '70s and '80s when there was the anti-sati movement and all of these anti-dowry movements, students after classes used to sit in the lawns and have discussions. Also, the Naxalite movement. There used to be very vigorous discussions in the lawns of the college.


V.S.: Two of our teachers, once again from the English Department, Dr Sudesh Vaid, is very well known for her activities for PUDR. And along with her, Dr Kumkum Sangari. They brought out a very well-remembered book called Recasting Women. So, this kind of radicalism of vision and expression has been a part of the college. And we are able to carry it so far and I am sure we will be able to carry it further.


M.B.: Then in the 1970s, there was this case about the eve teasing (harassment of women) in the DTC buses where again the IP college was at the forefront. They were the ones who organised this. And also in Deorala when Roop Kanwar became Sati, the movement around that, then again IP College was at the forefront.



Heritage Calendar: Founders and Alumni of Indraprastha College


V.S.: Only last year, 2015, we were able to bring out this calendar which I would really to share with you. We called it the heritage calendar. Meena and I worked on it. And the theme which we decided for this calendar was the firsts. So, right from the first building to where we are and then we chose to talk about the first principal. Then, we decided to bring out this photograph. He was the member of the first governing body, Rai Bahadur Dr. Ram Kishore. And it just went on. Again, we have the principal’s photograph, Kalavati Gupta. She was also from the first batch of students. Again, you see a teacher from the first faculty. So, this became a very interesting one. And one more photograph which I may like to bring to your notice is that of Lotika Sarkar. Lotika Sarkar who is an alumna who went on to become the first lady teacher in the Law Faculty. Law Faculty is not an easy place for women to survive. So, this is the story of the archives that is there.


K.D.: Speaking about feisty women,we can talk about Sarla Sharma. She is still living. She was one of the very fierce trade unionists . It was not very common. She is one of those political women, openly, very clearly. The vice-chancellor in her time was V.K.R.V. Rao. She wanted to hand him some pamphlets about trade unions and he was refusing to take it. She said, ‘I am going to stand here till you accept this from my hand. I want you to know about what we are doing’. And of course, to keep the link alive we now have Aruna Roy. She is an ex-student of this college. Aruna Roy is keeping the banner flying as it were, as an activist who has done so much.