The first college of home science

Subha Das Mollick

Home science as an academic discipline was initiated in India in 1932, through the establishment of Lady Irwin College of Home Science for Women. This was one of the first achievements of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) under the leadership of the Irish – Indian educationist, Margaret Cousins. In the west, ‘home economics’ and ‘family and consumer sciences’ came into existence at the turn of the 20th century and was introduced at various levels of academic curricula. Historically, the purpose of these courses was to professionalize housework, to provide intellectual fulfillment for women, and to emphasize the value of “women’s work” in society and to prepare them for traditional gender roles.

Margaret Cousins envisioned that introducing home science as a core subject of higher studies for women would not only turn young women into accomplished homemakers and conscientious mothers, but would also mould them for social work and dedicated service to society. Lady Dorothy Irwin came forward as one of the chief patrons of the college, along with the maharanis of Baroda and Bhopal. Equally importantly, Margaret Cousins garnered the support of nationalist leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Annie Besant, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and none other than Mahatma Gandhi for developing the mission and vision of this newly founded college offering this unique subject for study. The motto of the college “Vidya hi Seva” (Education is service) was pronounced by the Mahatma in consultation with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, after a prolonged debate over the two options ‘Education is service’ and ‘Service is education’.

The significance of this motto becomes clear when Flower Silliman, a nonagenarian lady of Jewish descent recalls her student years in Lady Irwin College from 1946 to 1949. After she finished her schooling from Jewish Girls School in Calcutta, Flower Silliman’s father decided to send her away from the political turmoil of the city to an institution of higher education where she would be safe. He opted for Lady Irwin College because another Jewish lady, Hannah Sen, was the director of this college. Ms. Sen was happy to take young Flower under her wings.

Flower Silliman is receiving her diploma from Pandit Nehru

Lady Irwin College turned out to be a life changing experience for Flower Silliman. For the first time she moved out of her cloistered Jewish life and stepped into the real India. For the first time she had friends who were not Jewish. For the first time patriotic feelings for being an Indian stirred inside her. She was sucked straight into India’s nationalist movement. Nationalist leaders visited the college almost everyday. Pandit Nehru came to consult Dr. Hannah Sen on some crucial matters and Mahatma Gandhi came to hold quiet meetings with Sarojini Naidu and the other women leaders in the forefront of the nationalist movement. Mahatma and the others sometimes held special meetings with the girls to update them on the political developments on the national front. Flower learnt to sing patriotic songs and the prayer songs close to Gandhiji’s heart. But Flower best remembers the visits of Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela Mountbatten. She often dropped in to chat with the girls, listen to music on the gramophone and dance to the tune of English country music. Flower and other friends were invited to the Viceregal lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) on Pamela’s birthday and Lord Mountbatten came out to shake hands with all the girls.

Hannah Sen Director of Lady Irwin College with Jawaharlal Nehru

Lady Irwin College had a very cosmopolitan group of students from all over India. The college celebrated all the major Indian festivals, from Diwali to Eid to Guru Nanak’s birthday to Christmas. There were celebrations of the different new years. While Flower enjoyed the diversity that was India, she was a little disappointed that the Jewish New Year was not included in the calendar of celebrations. So she celebrated Rosh Hosannah with her friends.

One year passed in a jiffy. Soon it was the midnight hour of 15th August and India made her tryst with destiny. There was festivity and optimism in the air. But nobody was prepared for the bloodbath that followed the euphoria of Independence. Gandhiji was in Calcutta, fasting and praying for the sanity of his countrymen. The country was put to test to cope with the violent situation. The girls of Lady Irwin College too were put to a very difficult test. They were asked to step out of their comfortable cocoons and get a first-hand experience of the troubled situation and be of service to the refugees who came in waves from across the border. The girls of Lady Irwin College spent sleepless nights rolling out chapatis for the thousands of hungry men and women. The army jawans took these chapatis and airdropped food packets over refugee camps. The girls rose to the occasion in many other ways in their attempt to make life bearable in the refugee camps.

Students of Lady Irwin College pose with Pandit Nehru. Jael Silliman is seen behind Pandit Ji

Slowly the situation came under control. Gandhiji held his prayer meetings every evening in the gardens of the Birla House. The Lady Irwin College choir sang at these meetings. Flower vividly remembers the evening of 30th January, 1948. She had opted to skip the prayer meeting that evening because she was not feeling well. The girls who had gone to the prayer meeting came back shaken and stunned. Gandhiji had been shot at point blank range. The entire country went into mourning. The girls turned on the radio to listen to Nehru’s mournful voice announcing the Mahatma’s demise.

In 1948, Flower Silliman became the president of the students’ union. Soon she passed out with flying colours and came back to her native city Calcutta. She got a job as a nutritionist in P.G Hospital. But when the hospital was taken over by the Government of India, she lost her job because the hospital could not afford to employ a nutritionist. Flower took up a teaching job in Loreto House. Flower says that the abiding lesson learnt during her years at Lady Irwin College has been the lesson of amity. In a country like India, where diverse communities coexist shoulder to shoulder, the only way to live in peace and harmony is to appreciate the religion and cultural practices of the ‘other’.

Lady Irwin College continues to be a coveted college for girls in Delhi. Housed in an imposing heritage edifice in the heart of the city, the college offers undergraduate and post graduate courses in home science and food technology. Specializations are offered in areas like food and nutrition, human development and childhood studies, development communication and extension, fabric and apparel science, resource management. Till 1950, it was managed by the All India Women’s Education Fund Association, after which it got affiliated to the University of Delhi. Girls who make a beeline to take admission in this prestigious institution are blissfully unaware of the pivotal role played by this college in the formative years of the nation.

The author is a teacher, writer and filmmaker, living and working in Kolkata. She may be reached at [email protected].

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