Social reformer Dhondo Keshav Karve, whose pioneering contribution to women’s education in India has rarely been surpassed, died on November 9, 1962.
Karve was born on April 18, 1858 at Sheravali in the Khed taluka of Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district in a Chitpavan Brahmin family. From an early age, education was an important aspect of his life. He once walked 110 miles on a difficult terrain and amid rain to the city of Satara for an examination, but was not allowed to appear in it because he looked very young -- a very disheartening experience for Karve!
Later, he studied at Bombay’s Elphinstone College and secured a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
Since child marriage was the norm those days, his family found it fit to get him married at the age of 14. His wife was an eight-year-old girl called Radhabai, someone he was used to playing with in the neighbourhood. But after marriage, the two children had to “forget our old relation as playmates and to behave as strangers, often looking toward each other but never standing together to exchange words”, Karve later recalled in his autobiography.
Radhabhai died 19 years later during childbirth.
Against his father’s wishes, Karve, in a fairly radical decision for that era, decided to re-marry a widow, Godubai, who had also started receiving an education. When he started teaching mathematics at Pune’s Fergusson College in 1891, Karve decided that women’s education would be his goal in life.
His influences were wide-ranging — from educationist Pandita Ramabai and social reformer Vishnu Shastri Pandit to British intellectual and scholar Herbert Spencer, whose works he read.
In the 1890s, Karve founded the Widhawa-Wiwahottejak Mandali, an organisation which encouraged widow re-marriage and supported their children; he also started a school and shelter for women and widows near Pune. In 1907, he started Mahila Vidyalaya, and in 1908 a society to train workers for the widow home and the vidyalaya. Many orthodox Brahmins of Pune opposed these progressive steps, some even severing all links with him.
Inspired by the opening of a women’s university in Japan, Karve was determined to start one in India. As he saw it, the objectives of the university would include imparting education that would develop women’s personalities and prepare them to participate as citizens in nation-building. He went around the country to collect funds for the university and established it in 1916.
In 1920, the university was renamed Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University or SNDT Women’s University after an industrialist from Mumbai, Vithaldas Thackersey, donated Rs 15 lakh to the university.
Besides being the first women’s university in India, SNDT Women’s University was also the first women’s university in all of south-east Asia. The first proud batch of five women graduated in 1921 from here. Currently, the varsity is headquartered at Churchgate, Mumbai. Its other campuses are at Juhu, Mumbai and Karve Road, Pune.
True to the vision of its founder, the motto of SNDT University is Sanskrita Stree Parashakti (“An enlightened woman is a source of infinite strength”). In its modern-day avatar, the SNDT University’s goals include providing access to higher education for women through formal and non- formal streams including adult and continuing education, and a wide range of professional and vocational courses; and developing scholarship and research in emerging areas of study, especially from women’s perspectives.
Between 1929 and 1932, Karve toured extensively, visiting Europe, United States, and Africa to attend conferences and give talks on education, sharing his experience as a pioneering educationist from India and learning about developments in the field in other nations.
For his lifelong contributions, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1955 and the Bharat Ratna in 1958.
Born a year after the 1857 revolt, Karve led a long and rich life, and when he died, having crossed the age of 100, India was a free nation. Because of people like Karve, 1947 didn’t mean attainment of mere political freedom but also the possibility of forging new, progressive social ideals. He had realised early on that without taking women forward, freedom could not be fully realised. It was easier for other like-minded men and women who came after him to build edifices on the building blocks of women’s education that Dhondo Keshav Karve so tirelessly put together.
Also on this day:
1954 — Shankar Nag, Kannada film actor, was born
1969 — P.V. Cherian, Governor of Maharashtra, passed away
1988 — Thengai Srinivasan, Tamil film actor, passed away
2005 — K. R. Narayanan, President of India, passed away
Dhondo Keshav Karve, (born April 18, 1858, Sheravali, India—died November 9, 1962, Poona [Pune]), Indian social reformer and educator, noted for supporting the education of women and for organizing associations for the remarriage of Hindu widows.
While an instructor in mathematics (1891–1914) at Fergusson College, Poona, Karve became concerned with breaking down orthodox Hindu opposition to widow remarriage, and he established the Widow Marriage Association in 1893. In the same year, he shocked public opinion by himself marrying a widow; his first wife had died in 1891. Karve also founded (1896) an educational institution, Hindu Widows Home, in Poona, to help widows support themselves if they could not remarry.
Karve became increasingly concerned with illiteracy among women, and on his retirement from Fergusson College he started Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University in 1916. He later widened his social reform efforts to include the establishment of societies for village primary education and the abolition of caste. Karve’s autobiography was entitled Atmavritta (1915). On his 100th birthday he was awarded India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna (“Gem of India”).