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