SOS: Save Our Schools The Zenana Fort Mission School is readying to celebrate its 150th anniversary from November 3, 2013 onwards. One of the first schools that attracted girls of the city and triggered a transformation among young women, Zenana was led by missionaries from Augusta Blandford to Dorothy Taylor who have left behind precious chronicles of the micro-history of the city.

Augusta Blandford, who founded the Fort Mission School in 1864 (known also as Zenana Mission School), was a missionary, teacher, writer and social reformer. She not only championed the cause of women of the city, but also gifted the city with a precious chronicle of its micro-history with her extensive writing.

There is perhaps no school in the city that can boast of documentation of the intimate thoughts of its founder-headmistress. She writes in her memoirs, Land of Conch Shell (1903): “I fancy the lives of its merry little children … as we pass their homes, they run out, double up their soft little bodies and make a smiling salaam, and I know of no sight prettier than the groups of boys and girls carrying books and slates or perhaps simply bundles of olas [leaves of the fan palm used in writing], that we see in the early morning on their way to school. Most of them are neatly and sufficiently clothed, the girls having even found time to weave garlands of white Jessamine in their black knots of hair, and all go leisurely along, laughing and chatting gaily by the way”.

It was in 1834 that the first modern school for boys came up in erstwhile Travancore, in the form of Maharajas Free School, which grew up to become a part of the University College and then broke away to become the SMV High School. It took another 30 years for the first girls’ school to come up in the city. Interestingly, both schools were headed by missionaries.

When John Roberts was invited to erstwhile Travancore to start the school, the only condition he put forward was the freedom to teach the Bible in this school, which was readily conceded by Swati Tirunal. In 1864, when Augusta Blandford was invited by the Travancore king as well as his diwan, T. Madhava Rao, not only was teaching of the Bible central to the curriculum, but the school was housed right inside the fort, a stone’s throw away from the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.

Augusta had come to Kerala in December 1862 along with Henry Baker and belonged to the Church of England Zenana Mission, a missionary agency which aimed at spreading the gospel among women. The school was started in Vadakkekottaram, an allegedly haunted palace in the palace complex that was used by the diwan (the Padmavilasom Palace behind the present school was the residence of the diwans. At present, it is the office of the Director of Technical Education). ‘Vadakkekottaram Pallikkoodam’ started with just three girls and one boy, two being the niece and the daughter of Madhava Rao. The school received “suitable furniture, salaries for native teachers, peons etc and £30 for school books” as grant from the Government.

Augusta writes in a magazine India’s Women in 1881 that the Government also published a notice saying, “The dewan is directed to inform the native gentleman of Trevandrum that his highness hopes that they will cheerfully send their female relations to this school and avail themselves of the advantages thus offered”. She mentions Madhava Rao’s family members “Amba Bai and her daughter Suckoo Bai” as “my dear old pupils”. Amba Bai was one of the first students of the Fort Zenana Mission School.

Raising her protest

Augusta Blandford was not only a teacher and a missionary; she was greatly interested in the well being of the girls and young women of the city. We are today in the thick of a controversy over the legal age of marriage of women. In the 19th century, early marriage was practised by all communities and Augusta was one of the first in Travancore to raise her voice against it. A family fable from the city bears testimony to it. Parukutty Amma of the Kaiyalam family in Vanchiyoor went to the Vadakkekottaram Pallikkoodam in late 1890s. When she became a teenager, her family decided to marry her off and her schooling was the first victim. Augusta came to know of this and visited the house in Punnapuram and pleaded with the parents in the brittle Malayalam that she knew “Parukutty Nalla Kutty – Aval Padikatte – Kalayanam Ippol Venda”. The parents relented for a few months, but then did marry off Parukutty. Augusta then continued to visit the house in the evenings and give private tuition to her pupil. Parukutty Amma continued to be motivated by her mentor to such an extent that her descendants remember her as a voracious reader who read almost all the books in the Sree Chithra Thirunal Granthashala in Vanchiyoor. This, perhaps, was not a one-off incident.

(A four-part series on the legacy of Fort Mission School, the first girls’ school in the city. To be continued)

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