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Let’s remember the man who set up India’s first university for women

  • Mrinalini Singh
  • October 28, 2017
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In one of the bustling streets of Mumbai’s Khetwadi area, a heritage building has been serving as a thriving oasis for visual arts programmes that come under Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) University’s College of Arts. Restored and inaugurated as the SNDT University — Jindal Centre for the Arts in 2015, the art hub (also called SNDT Kayashala) completed two years in August 2017.

However, few Indians know about the pioneering leader who established this historic institution in an era where little attention was paid to women’s education. Dhondho Keshav Karve, dedicated social reformer, avid educationist and one of the earliest crusaders of women’s rights in India. Born on April 18, 1858 in Murud (in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district), Karve spent the most of his early childhood in the village of his birth. His father, Keshab Bappunna Karve, earned a meagre salary as the manager of a small estate.

Deeply influenced by the reform movements and the people leading them, Karve decided to work towards educating and uplifting the status of women in the country, especially widows. In 1893, Karve established the Widow Re-marriage Association in 1893. The same year, he set an example by marrying Godubai, a widow who had lost her husband at the age of 8. He also began speaking out against regressive practices such as untouchability.

However, despite being ostracized by the society, Karve didn’t stop raising his voice against this unjust discrimination. In 1895, he established the Hindu Widows Home Association, a welfare institution that helped widows support themselves. Karve’s widowed sister-in-law, Parvatibai Athavale, was the first student to join this school. This was followed by a Mahila Vidyalaya, a residential school for girls that trained them for jobs. He even developed a parallel matriculation course for girls.

Such was the furore caused by Karve’s work that the news of it even reached the far shores of South Africa. Gandhi, who was in South Africa at that time, would go on to write about it admiringly in his weekly publication, Indian Opinion. In 1955, Karve was awarded Padma Vibhushan. In 1958, four years before he passed away, the President bestowed on him India’s highest civilian honour, Bharat Ratna, and released postage stamps bearing his visage to mark his centenary year of his birth.

In another tribute to the social reformer’s illustrious life, a road in South Mumbai had been earlier named Maharishi Karve Marg (he was given the moniker ‘Maharshi’ in honour of his selfless work). Incidentally, this road merges into a route named after Raja Ram Mohan Roy, another Indian reformer far ahead of his times.

Such a great soul!!

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