Lady Abala Bose: A visionary

Lady Abala Bose: A visionary

May 22, 2014

They say behind every successful man there is a woman. It holds true for one of the greatest men of science India has produced, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, too. His wife, Abala Bose was the one who was the constant encouragement behind his successes. More importantly, she was a successful woman in her own right – one of the greatest social reformers, feminists and educationists to have graced Bengal. Her 150th birth anniversary passed by on April 8 yet few of us had any inkling.

Early life and inspirations

Abala Bose’s inspiration was the liberal tradition espoused by the likes of Raja Rammohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. It helped too that being the daughter of Brahmo leader, Durgamohan Das, she imbibed the best Brahmo traditions while studying in Bethune Girls’ School and then in Bethune College. Durgamohan Das was a well-known champion of women’s rights in the true Brahmo tradition. She and her sister also inherited the fortitude and the generous nature of their mother.

Being free from the traditional society of that time, she decided to take up medicine as a career. In this regard, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Kadambini Ganguly. Kadambini was one among the first two Indian women and the first Bengali woman to qualify to practice western medicine in India. After she had to work in a hospital under a woman with inferior qualifications just because she was an Indian, she protested and left the service to set up a highly successful private medical practice in Kolkata. Earlier she could not complete her medical studies from Calcutta Medical College as she failed by just one mark. She was then taken to England by her husband where she successfully completed her studies.

Aware of the bitter experiences of her inspiration, Abala Bose (née Das) decided to conduct her studies in Chennai (then Madras). However, fate intervened in form of a marriage proposal from Jagadish Chandra Bose. Coming from such a person, she and her family simply could not refuse the proposal. She left her medical studies and married Bose in 1887 at the age of 23. 

Lady Abala Bose and her husband, AJC Bose

Achievements as an educationist and social reformer

Abala Bose’s tryst with educational reforms began after her visit to Europe in 1896. She observed how girls’ schools were run there, and also the Montessori system of education. On her return she decided to implement the European system adapted to Indian conditions.

She was elected secretary of the Brahmo Balika Shikshalay which she worked tirelessly to improve, even introducing self-defence classes for the students by the revolutionary, Pulin Das. In 1919, she brought together eminent personalities like Chittaranjan Das, Jadumati Mukherjee (mother of Sir Rajen Mukherjee), Prafulla Chandra Ray, social reformer Priyambada Bannerjee, Sir (Dr) Nilratan Sircar and others to form Nari Shiksha Samiti, for the spread of women’s education and for providing financial assistance to widows. It was also responsible for opening maternity and child welfare centres in the province of Bengal. The organisation also strove to ensure female representation in educational bodies and to press for a gender-sensitive syllabus.

The Nari Siksha Samiti building in Jhargram

Abala Bose was responsible, single-handedly or jointly, for the establishment of educational institutions for women. Muralidhar Girls’ College was formed jointly by Lady Bose (she had acquired the title of ‘Lady’ upon her husband's knighthood in 1916) and Krishnaprasad Basak. The same two people also founded Beltala Girls’ School in Bhowanipore area. During her lifetime, through the Nari Siksha Samiti, Lady Bose set up about 88 primary schools and 14 adult education centres in the British province of Bengal. With these as well as others’ efforts towards women’s education through the establishment of schools and colleges, there arose the need for women teachers. Here too Lady Bose pitched in. The result was Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan (now called Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan Primary Teachers Training Institute) in 1925. It was the first institute in Bengal for the training of primary and pre-primary teachers. Here, her exposure to the Montessori education system in Europe helped a great deal in setting up the system of training.

Being inspired by the tradition established by Rammohan Roy and Vidyasagar, she put in a special feature in this institute: qualified widows were trained and employed by this institute as well as its branch institutes as teachers, thus enabling many to break free from a life of often abject dependence and poverty. Another among her numerous contributions towards women’s education was Sister Nivedita Women’s Education Project. The project was meant for educating adult women, and had branches all over the province of Bengal.

Along with teachers’ training institutes, Lady Bose also established the industrial training institute, Mahila Shilpa Bhavan in Kolkata and in Jhargram. Through these, she encouraged entrepreneurship and financial self-sufficiency, especially for distressed women and widows. They were trained in different arts and crafts, and then helped to set up their own businesses. Another training institute was set up in Kamarhati which catered to poor women, training them in weaving, leather work, pottery and tailoring. In 1925, she also established Sadhana Ashram, a home for widows.

Another achievement of Abala Bose regarding education of women was being chosen the first president of Bengal Women's Education League. The first attempt to bring together all women interested in female education in Bengal was the convocation of the Bengal Women's Education Conference in February 1927 which led to the formation of the Bengal Women's Education League. The All-India Women's Education conference had been held in January of the same year, indicating that the formation of the League in Bengal was part of a national trend of coordinated activity to improve educational opportunities for women.

After independence, the efforts of Lady Bose shifted towards the education and rehabilitation of displaced and economically distressed girls and adult women, irrespective of their marital status. This is the principle on which inmates of the Bani Bhavan are now recruited.

The Boses were close friends with Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita. Swamiji was a regular visitor to the Bose household and the Boses also regularly visited him. Later they became close to Sister Nivedita, who championed JC Bose at various fora, stifled as Indian scientists often were by British high-handedness. Nivedita spent her last years in Darjeeling at the Boses’ rented home; she died there as well. The house has now been renovated and is being planned to be turned into a major cultural and educational centre.

Abala Bose (extreme right) with Sister Nivedita (extreme left)

As a feminist

That she was a great educationist is established beyond doubt by her works. But unfortunately few remember it today; it is more a cursory knowledge rather than the way it should be. Today, Lady Abala Bose is more famous as the wife of JC Bose and to some extent as a friend and confidant of, along with her husband, Swami Vivekananda and later Sister Nivedita.

The multifaceted Lady Bose also had a seminal contribution in another field: women’s suffrage. Along with stalwarts like the freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, Irish-Indian educationist, suffragist and Theosophist, Margaret Cousins, English feminist Dorothy Jinarajadasa, feminist Uma Nehru, and social worker and activist Ramabai Ranade, she was part of the committee that met Edwin Montagu on December 15, 1917 when he visited India to negotiate the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. It was with this deputation that Indian women began their struggle to secure for themselves political and civil rights. The deputation asked for franchise on the same terms as men. After a lot of negotiations and arguments, eventually, in 1921, Bombay and Madras were the first provinces to extend the franchise to women. Bengal ultimately got this right in 1925.

Time for a fresh look

A point which needs emphasis is that her husband was a supporter and willing partner in her various efforts, and provided a solid rock of support all through his life. And she did vice versa. He was responsible for bringing in many eminent personalities to provide moral as well as financial support for her noble projects. She was at once his guide and disciple, as necessity demanded. They were a couple equal in all respects, each complementing the other perfectly.

Lady Abala Bose was a visionary leader – educationist, social reformer, feminist. Yet little has been done to really promote her stature. Few remember her today the way she needs to be remembered. This is an irony because organisations she founded, like Nari Siksha Samiti, continue to do yeoman service for the state; schools and colleges she set up continue to provide education. Her vision and methods regarding the education of girls and women were largely adapted and extended by the West Bengal state government after independence. It is high time we bring back into focus for the present generation her life and her work.

Lady Bose (2nd row sitting, 3rd from left) beside her husband in Chicago in 1915

Lady Abala Bose

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team

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