While some responsible citizens were making an attempt to improve women’s education, the impact of colonialism was felt in changing communal interactions, says R.V. Smith
Delhi 100 years ago was not the hectic metropolis it now is, though it was slowly changing from medieval to pre-modernistic, as evident from the following stanza published in “Stree Darpan” by Rameshwari Nehru, a pioneer in women’s education and uplift: “Vida ka abhushan pehno, seva maang baro ri / Deshbhakti ki sari odho, phir Bharat gaan karo ri”. Titled “Sachhi Holi”, it was an exhortation to celebrate the festival in the true spirit of the revolutionary times before the achievement of Independence. Visalakshi Menon has quoted the verse in “The Quest for Women’s Education”, the memoirs published to mark the centenary of Indraprastha Girls’ School, established in the haveli of Lala Balkrishan behind the Jama Masjid. She goes on to say that Vijayalakshmi Pandit confessed in her autobiography that her father (Motilal Nehru), though championing women’s rights, did not bother much about her formal education and that of her sister, Krishna Hutheesingh. “He thought it was the correct thing (for them) to have lessons in grandeur with a governess.” The result was that both girls longed for classes in a regular school, where they could study with other children.
According to Narain Prasad, 90-year-old grandson of the founder of the Indraprastha school and college, the philanthropist Jugal Kishore attended weddings and parties and other get-togethers more to seek funds for his venture than to enjoy them himself with his son Lala Jagdish Prasad and friends. He and the others also started collecting one-rupee and 100-rupee funds from all and sundry. Then there was the “Atta fund” for which housewives set aside a handful of flour for the cause of girls’ education every day. The atta was collected in the ‘Dharm Pot’. Those were the times when Lala Munshi Ram, Syed Karamat Husain and Babu Sangam Lal were making herculean efforts for the promotion of women’s education. Side by side, the Arya Samajists had started competing with Christian missionaries in opening schools for girls. Karamat Husain’s student, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, carried on his mission in Aligarh, on behalf of Muslim girls, whose benefactors later became the Raja of Mahmudabad and the Nawab of Rampur.
According to Swapna Liddle, in 1902 the population of Delhi was 2,08,000, which comprised 1,14,000 Hindus, 88,000 Muslims, 2,000 Christians and 4,000 others. “There was a property boom and land prices increased significantly at the turn of the century.” The expansion was most noticeable to the west of the Walled City, with the ruins of earlier times still littering the south. One could go to Mehrauli in an ekka at a rupee per head. But before 1857 Mehrauli and its suburbs were more of health-cum-picnic resorts for the residents of Shahjahanabad and British officials, the example being set by the last of the Mughals, who generally went there during and after the rains for Sawan swing fairs and occasions like Phool Walon-ki-Sair. Delhi also boasted a purdah garden, exclusively for women, except for the chowkidars.
In the late 19th Century, she says, the canal that divided Chandni Chowk into two halves was practically closed and its path covered up to make a pathway for pedestrians to walk below shady trees (mostly neem, shisham, imli and pipal). Architecture also began to take on Western characteristics in the Chowk, whose streets on either side of the closed canal were used by horse-drawn carriages, carts and wagons — there being no motor cars until Lala Chunna Mal bought one and people thronged to see it wide-eyed.
Still, to quote Liddle, Delhi’s cultural diversities had survived “the upheavals of the Mutiny and the impact of colonialism to a great extent”. People still met on the steps of the Jama Masjid and at Edward Park (now renamed after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose). “Here one could listen to the wa’iz preaching on a topic of Islamic doctrine; to the dastangoh, entertaining listeners for a small fee; and to poetry of a sophisticated nature.” Those employed in the workshops also congregated there, though the illiterate or semi-literate sometimes recited Hali’s Mussadas or the Masnavi of Mir Hasan extempore. Delhi was still a centre of Islamic learning and students from all over the country and Afghanistan and Central Asia came to it, eager to imbibe and practise what they had learnt. Deputy Nazir Ahmad was the one who taught many students after retirement from Government service. But he continued to remain a busy man and a prolific writer. Khari Boli was the spoken lingo, a medium between the Persian and Sanskritised languages “that came to occupy the high ground between Urdu and Hindi.” Events like the Id mela in Maldhar Khan’s bagh and the melas on Nauroz and Akhiri Chahar Shambeh, along with the Sunday fair near the Calcutta gate, had ceased to exist, while Ramlila changed location from the river bank to the parade ground in front of the fort, then Tis Hazari bagh and finally Shahji-ka Talab (now Ramlila ground). The changes were remarked upon by Munshi Zakaullah (born in the 1830s). Diwali and Holi became less extravagant because of sophistication and the urge to save money. Muslims and Hindus did not play Holi together anymore but sweets were still sent by Hindu patients to Muslim hakims though friends of the other community were now excluded under the impact of communalism.
Indraprastha Girls’ School had a famous Australian principal, Miss Leonara G’meiner, because of whose participation in the Freedom Movement, influenced by Annie Besant, the school was delisted by the Government for some time. There were two other Australian teachers, one of whom (Miss James) died. The other, Miss Priest, went back to her country. All this and more is beautifully brought out in the centennial publication which brings the hauntingly impressive haveli in which it is housed alive to the nostalgic words, “Shabeh tehnai me, kuchh der pahle neend se/ Ghuzri hui sad garmiyan, bitey huye din aash ke.” (The night’s solitude prior to rest was spent recapitulating the passionate indulgence and days of gay abandon). But now girls studying there use computers to complete their lessons. The changes in 100 years have indeed been immense.