As the WCC enters its centenary year this week, Shonali Muthalaly returns to its tree-lined campus to relive some of its history.
“What? There was never a chocolate brown baby?” I’m aghast. And to be honest, a little betrayed. Principal Ridling Margaret Waller pats my arm kindly. “Well, perhaps Clive did have one,” she laughs. “But just not here.”
The Women’s Christian College enters its centenary year this week. Which makes this a good time as any to disentangle history from fiction. A task which turns out to be more complicated than I envisioned thanks to generations of students who have spun together a vivid tapestry of tall tales and urban legends to pass on to wide-eyed, suitably awed ‘freshies’ every year.
In my first week of college alone I was solemnly told about that illustrious British officer Robert Clive’s tempestuous affair with a local girl at stately Doveton House, the oldest building on campus. The result, my seniors told me — in appropriately hushed tones — was the birth of a chocolate brown baby. “Oh the scandal,” they sighed. Then there was the tale of Lily, reportedly a WCC student, who fell in love with the college dhobi. Unfortunately, the star-crossed lovers were torn apart by societal norms and a dejected Lily threw herself into the pond in front of Main hostel, subsequently christened the ‘Lily Pond.’ “So that wasn’t true either?” I squeak. “The pond was just named after the water lilies in it?” My former professors nod at me sympathetically.
In a desperate bid to regain my dignity I shrug, “Obviously that tall story about the Maharaja who steered his elephant into the Doveton porch so he could get climb off, straight into the second floor is untrue.” The professors exchange glances. “Actually, that really is an elephant porch,” Waller says. I look at her suspiciously. She points at the front portico of Doveton, which rises to the second floor supported by 30 foot high columns. “It can accommodate a royal elephant fitted with the howdah on which the maharaja sat.” This was, of course, well before the monkey house was born. A monkey house? Well you know what they say. Truth, very often, is stranger than fiction.
The first private women’s college in Madras, WCC was founded on July 7 1915 as a joint venture of 12 missionary societies from USA, Canada and Great Britain. In what she later called a ‘venture of faith’ the college’s founder-principal, a British educationist Eleanor McDougall, rented a large house in Kilpauk for three years — to contain the college — with just two staff members and no students. However, it finally opened with a faculty of seven and 41 students. (One of whom was Rukmini Lakshmipathy, who went on to become India’s first female political prisoner and freedom fighter.)
They soon needed a bigger campus so in 1916 the college moved into Doveton house, a historic Georgian colonial mansion constructed before 1780, set on the banks of the Cooum. Today, it houses the administrative wing of the college, including the Principal’s office. Acquired by Sir John Doveton, a soldier in the East India Company, the building’s colourful past inhabitants include the Gaikwad of Baroda. Held prisoner here from 1875 for his role in the murder of a British resident in his state, he built himself a bandstand, a stone room to house his monkeys and an airy room on the terrace from where he could see all the way up to St. Thomas Mount.
In 1914, the Indian National Congress met here. (The title deeds bear the signature of Annie Besant.) Two years later, Doveton and its 11-acre campus was bought for WCC with a donation of Rs. 77,600 from an American missionary group. The Main hostel was constructed next, with a time capsule bearing the names and photographs of the college’s first students set into the foundation. Then came the unusual chapel, funded by an ‘unknown American friend’ with a gift of $10,000. With more doors than walls, it is set in the geometric centre of the campus and was designed by two Madras Quakers — Reginald Dann and Guy Jackson. Two years after it was built, it hosted its most famous visitor — Mahatma Gandhi. In 1925, he addressed the students who were reportedly so excited that they first dressed in silk saris, and then ‘in the nick of time’ (according to an article printed in the college magazine The Sunflower that year) changed into ‘khadar saris’ to impress him. Gandhi was not the only visitor who was charmed by the students. In 1923, when Rabindranath Tagore spoke at the college, the girls convinced him to sing them a song after assembly.
Waller, who has taught at the college for more than 30 years, is fiercely protective of the college’s flora and fauna, and has co-authored a book cataloguing the variety. “We recorded 105 varieties of trees in 2008,” she says, “then we added 25 new species.” Over the centenary year, they intend to add 100 more. Selected so they bloom in succession through the year, the trees give the campus its distinctive ‘green’ scent, a blend of waxy conifers and bright flowers. As the college grew — it now has 3500 students — they acquired more land and added more buildings. However, they simultaneously maintained the 20-acre campus’ fiercely lush green cover — a rarity in the heart of the city — by tucking the new buildings into discreet corners.
The college clearly inspires loyalty, given how many of the alumni were in attendance, draped in heavy silks and fresh jasmine flowers, at a midnight thanksgiving service held to mark the beginning of the centenary year this week. A choir of 100, including alumni, professors and students, sang David Haas’ ‘You Are Mine’ by candle light, followed by the college song, into which the WCC motto ‘Lighted to Lighten’ is woven.
Sure I’m biased, but as an ex-student I’d say the WCC advantage is the fact that it creates women with strong personalities. Too many women’s colleges in India see themselves as finishing schools. At WCC, we were treated as individuals, not a flock of little girls. This led to some colourful traditions — the more decorous ones include a Senior’s Dramuda (drama, music, dance) to welcome the freshers, ‘Spring Sing’ by the choir and the annual college play. But to be honest, it’s the ‘secret’ WCC customs that moulded us for life: The most memorable of which was the annual ‘hostel fight,’ a tug of war between the four hostels which involved earnest pre-planning, manoeuvring of troops and some serious bruising. All I remember is kicking and squealing when I was taken captive, covered in mud, and physically carried to the Coon hostel, where I was held prisoner along with a dozen others. Unlike the Gaikwad of Baroda, we had no monkeys to entertain us. Though, to be fair, our captors did share their chocolate biscuits.