The way they looked: Karve Matric graduates, Bombay, 1929

Vanita Vishram school graduation

A GUEST POST from my aunty Dr. Bindu on the occasion of the International Women’s Day.

There they stand, 5 Gujarati girls with their teacher, the graduating class of Vanita Vishram School in Bombay, the year most likely 1929 or 1930. I found this photograph as I was sorting out my eldest sister Pritiben’s files following her death on July 31, 2015. Pritiben had kept this and other old family photographs carefully.

On the back of the photo she had pencilled in the names of the students. In the photo Vinodini is on the left. Pritiben must have been unable to recall her surname. Next to her is Kusum, our mother. Shardaben Divan, 4th from the left, was their teacher. Mummy and her classmates were about 18 years old.

Mummy had been married 2 years prior to this photo. She was a very good student who could have gone on to college, but her father­-in­-law would not allow it.

Look at them closely ­- all of them have their heads covered, all are wearing the saree in the Gujarati style with the pallu in front, draped across the right shoulder.

I examine my mother’s photo carefully. Her arms seem very thin, she barely looks at the camera. She wears a sari with stripes, a rather undistinguished one for her whose taste in sarees was exquisite. Was her choice of sarees too determined by her in­-laws? Of the 5 women only Madhulata Shah, on the right, appears determined, ready to take on the world and challenge it but fate had other plans for her…

These girls were the lucky ones. As late as 1947, the year India became free, only 8% of Indian women were literate. Our five had finished high school even if what they certified for was Karve Matric, a parallel course developed for women by Maharshi Karve. The established universities of the day including Bombay University did not recognise this high school graduation. Vanita Vishram exists today, in Khetwadi. It is now a co­educational high school.

I gazed at this photograph, from almost 90 years ago, for long and long. A graduating class today, anywhere in India, would look oh so different. No one would be in a sari or have long hair, no one would cover their head, and I wonder how many of them would be married.

Life for mummy’s daughters was vastly improved with societal mores playing a much less restrictive role than what mummy and her generation endured. By the time I was born 2 decades later when mummy was 36, there was not a shadow of doubt that her girls would study, go to college, have a career and be quite free to pursue their own inclinations about marriage.

This change did not happen as a gift from the Gods! The Indian struggle for independence and its leader Gandhi made it respectable, nay it enthusiastically wanted for women to be educated. We must not forget these women and that struggle for providing so many of us the education we got, for the autonomy of our bodies, for the freedom to have or deny intimate relations ­ a little discussed topic that these women in the photo and many of their sisters had to submit to, what are delicately called ‘wifely duties’, and the toll physical and psychological it must have extracted from them…

It happened all over India, for instance in Madras (now Tamil Nadu)*:
Subbalakshmi, (Mythilli Sivaraman’s grandmother) was another victim of her age. Married at 11 and mother at 14, Subbalakshmi spoke for so many of her age when borrowing from Tagore’s poetry she had written poignantly in her diary, “I forget, I ever forget that I have not the winged horse… that the gates are everywhere shut at the house that I dwell”.

A BIG Salaam then to mummy and her innumerable sisters who bore so much in their lives and made it possible for many of us to satisfy our “thirst for far­away things” and in anguish and solidarity for those, unfortunately also far too numerous, who continue to suffer thus today….

Happy International Women’s Day!


  • To my dear friends Sonal Shukla for the details about Karve Matric and Balaji for introducing me to the film and write ­ up on Mythili Sivaraman. (Sonal’s email with details about Karve Matric can be read in the comment below.)
  • Wikipedia article: Mythilli Sivaraman
  • * The Hindu article: Fuelled by memories
  • Lata’s email reply to this post can be read in the Comments section. The photos accompanying the reply are below.


Leela and Shanta - 1940

The Kanes

5 thoughts on “The way they looked: Karve Matric graduates, Bombay, 1929

  1. What a beautiful write up and the photo!!! Kusumfui looks so sweet and shy (may be).

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I salute the women of that era. Many of them quietly accepted their fate but always wished to free themselves from their subjugated lives.

    We have to thank many women who broke those shackles and paved the way for the future generation. Also men like Gandhi, Karve, Phule – who fought against all odds!!

    I am very proud of all Pusawala girls who studied so well and charted out interesting careers.

    Thank you for sending it on Women’s Day.


  2. Bindu,

    Terrific read! I had read a lot about the women of that period when I wrote an article on my mother-in-law in Marathi newspaper during her birth centenary year. Of course, because of the work done by great social reformers like Maharshi Karve, Agarkar, Ranade & others, the Maharashtrian community in Pune & Mumbai was ahead of others a far as women’s issues were concerned. Another push came during the freedom struggle as women helped the underground movement by providing food, safe places to the underground leaders & distributing pamphlets etc. That’s when Gandhiji & others realised the role women could play.

    My mother-in-law was one who finished her MA, by 1939 & started a Bhagini Samaj for the women from her community (which was quite backward in women’s education) in Girgaum in 1943 & started a Montessori school in 1945. She had the benefit of doing a workshop with Mrs. Montessori during her detention in India before the war. I read some of her articles & fiery speeches she made at their community meetings & realised how much ahead of time she was. She had the advantage of having well educated father & a mother who had studied in St Colomba High School in Nana Chauk. Not only her but all her sisters were well educated. Really a big Salaam to all the women of their period because of whom we are where we are today!

    When I saw the photo of Matric Five, I remembered my mother’s photo with her friends from Hujurpaga school in Pune.

    The 1st photo is taken in 1936. My mother is on the extreme right, her friend Shanta standing next to her & the girl with specs is Parag’s Masi who was with my mother in school.

    Leela & Shanta is of Mummy’s graduating class from Ferguson College in 1940. Mummy & Shanta are standing smack in the middle.

    The 3rd – The Kanes was taken at my mother’s friend Shanta Gharpure’s wedding – Shanta & her husband Dr. Kane & the friends. Again in 1940. Dr, Kane a Chemical Engineer was son of Mahamahopadhyaay Kane (in case you have heard). He lived in Pant House (above Dadaji Dhakji show room) near Girgaum Chaupati.

    Fascinating history. Unfortunately it gets forgotten with each generation!

    Happy Women’s Day!


  3. Karve later started a post-Karve matric course that ended with the students acquiring a G A degree. G does not refer to graduation. It stands for Gruhini something. Karve was great for his times but his vision of women’s future was as homemakers. Even the widow remarriage movement was also with the idea of reformers to settle a widow in a home with a husband ‘to look after’ her……

    During the period when many youngsters were leaving British education, Tagore and Karve schools were kosher. My mother-in-law’s school Sharadagram (now near Junagadh) was closely
    connected to the freedom movement and had switched over to Karve Matric. She was doing first year of G A when she conceived Himanshu (Sonalben’s husband) and left college. It was a 3 year course. Masi, Vajubhai Patel’s wife and a friend of Malatiben from jail in 1942, was a G A.

    G A as well as Karve Matric had all the ingredients of the British courses except English and Maths. Later they became optional. The idea was for many more women to continue higher education and not be handicapped by these humiliating compulsions…. school education first came to child/young widows who had never been to school or were drop outs.

    Somewhat liberal families also started sending unmarried girls for at least some years of the Karve matric course and some married women and school drop outs joined too. I remember our local Mahila Mandal running courses in Hindi, Montessori training and preschool classes as well as Karve matric classes as part of their Gandhian activities.

    Masi, though she did the 3 year G A course, later as she had done some cramming in English, also passed the University’s matriculation. My mother had done the Vernacular Final (VF) course, terminating her school education – this was the parallel system of 7 years schooling for the poor and the rural populace in Britain. She also did the cramming to enter class 4 of the British Matric.

    Kids of the Lords etc. in U K until age 10, had tutors, governesses and prep schools. Then they entered secondary schools to lead them to University. The poor took the 6­7­8 years of free elementary education to become workers. The British had this ‘terminal’ education. Masi had received it too this 7 years.

    Secondary school started at age 10 in its first year so these kids started directly in class 4 without having done the ‘heavy’ courses for 3 years and all subjects were now taught in English. But these girls at least had done arithmetic up to class 7. All this about VF, because it makes my blood boil to think of what a horrible system the British had introduced to perpetuate class and gender bias. Naturally girls were sent to VF system. I remember this too.

    For some reason at some point your mother was sent to a Karve school. And obviously your father studied in the British system. Karve classes were run in many places where other schools were not available. One could appear for their exams externally.

    Karve had a women’s hostel in his Hingne ashram near Pune. He had separated his widow

    remarriage campaign from his schools so that girls’ education was not stopped by people opposing widow remarriage. He segregated his wife too as food would be considered contaminated if she ate with others. His daughter in law, the social scientist Irawati Karve had said “I am happy I was Maharshi Karve’s daughter-in-law. I am also happy I was not his wife”. We saw a play based on Yuganta, her book relooking at Draupadi in Mahabharat……


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