In the middle of the 19th century, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore found solace and serenity in the barren land in Birbhum district of Bengal. He purchased the land and built a small retreat for meditation, named, Santiniketan, the name later came to denote the entire area. As a child, Rabindranath accompanied his father to Santiniketan. In 1901, Rabindranath started his Brahmacharyasrama, to fullfil wishes of his father who was a considerable figure of his time in the field of educational reforms. By then the barren land was converted in garden full of flora and fauna. Rabindranath’s choice of Santiniketan for his school was definitely because of its environment. The school began with five students on roll.
It was always the objective in Santiniketan that learning would be a part of life’s natural growth. The first step towards this objective was to establish in the child a sense of oneness with nature. Rabindranath said we concentrate on learning from books and neglect the knowledge that is freely available on all sides. From the beginning, he wanted his students to be aware of their environment, be in communication with it, probe it, make experiments and collect specimens. And to guide them he wanted teachers who could go beyond book-learning, who were seekers themselves and who would find joy in the process of learning.
The school was a conscious repudiation of the system introduced in India by the British rulers and Rabindranath initially sought to realize the intrinsic values of the ancient education in India. The school and its curriculum, therefore, signified a departure from the way the rest of the country viewed education and teaching. The curriculum had music, painting, dramatic performances and other performative practices. Beyond the accepted limits of intellectual and academic pursuits, opportunities were created for invigorating and sustaining the manifold faculties of the human personality.
The same joyous atmosphere is evident and the children look as happy and free as ever. Classes even to this day are held under the trees. The first day of rains is still celebrated with an outing, barefoot and sans umbrellas. The spirit of Rabindranath lives on in Santiniketan.
Alexander Duff was a young missionary inspired by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who came to Kolkata (the then Imperial capital) to set up an English-medium institution. Apart from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Duff was also helped by Lord William Bentink, the Governor-General of India. Roy helped Duff by organizing the venue for the college and bringing in the first batch of five students. Roy also went ahead to pacify the parents and guardians of the students that them reading the King James Bible was not an attempt to convert them to Christianity. Duff was unlike other missionaries and wanted to introduce his students to the best of European religion, science and literature. He was also very selective in hiring teachers for his new institute and made sure he had the right amalgamation of European and Indian teachers who would do justice to both Christian and secular understanding. Duff wanted his teachers to encourage in their students a questioning attitude and rational thinking. The Scottish Church College was one of the oldest colleges for liberal arts and sciences in India.
With the right vision, Duff established a strong education system in Bengal which succeeded in spreading progressive values across the state. Though Duff wanted to spread English education as far as he could, he realized that it would not be possible until the students mastered their vernacular language first, due to which a lot of emphasis was placed on learning the Bengali language. The Scottish Church College was also one of the earliest institutes to promote women’s education and was co-ed from the beginning. When Duff introduced political economy as a subject in the curricula, he faced his church’s criticism.
Till today, the Scottish Church College remains one of the most popular institutes for higher education in Kolkata and has famous alumni, such as Swami Vivekanand, Subhash Chandra Bose, Gopinath Bordoloi, Derek O’Brien, Mithun Chakraborty and Nirad C. Chaudhuri among others.
To encourage widow remarriage Dhondo Keshav Karve, a social reformist, set up the Widhawa Wiwahottejak Mandali in 1893. The year 1896 marked the beginning of a new era in the history of women’s education in India when he established an ashram for widows and helpless women at Hingne near Pune. He realized that to make these women self-sufficient, reliant and confident, schooling was essential at the ashram. Karve launched a programme of schooling there, which later became a regular school for girls and women. After reading about the Japan Women’s University, he had a dream of establishing a women’s university. In December 1915 Karve, in his presidential address to the National Social Reform Congress in Bombay, announced his decision to shape his dream into reality. In 1916 the university started with the enrollment of five students. Karve did not wait for the government permission for funds. The University expanded rapidly when in 1920 an industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Vithaldas Thackersey, donated Rs. 15 lakh.
The vision of Maharashi Karve and the foresight of Sir Vithaldas Thackersey led to the establishment of the first women’s university in India called ‘The Indian Women’s University’. In 1931 the University established the first college in Mumbai. Thereafter, in 1936 the University was shifted to Mumbai from Pune and in 1949 the Government of India recognized it as a statutory university. In 1951 the university was named Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, in the memory of Thackersey’s mother. Maharshi Karve received Bharat Ratna in 1958 for his contribution towards women’s education.
Today, the University has an enrolment of over 70,000 students. It has three campuses, located at Churchgate, Santacruz-Juhu, Pune. It has 26 colleges, 38 university departments, 11 undergraduate colleges and 38 postgraduate departments. The university continues to manage three secondary schools for girls, which it had inherited.