Friday, March 19, 2010

Hemlata Sarkar and the school she founded

Hemlata Sarkar

(Hemlata Sarkar)

The Maharani Girls' School, Darjeeling, was the first Indian managed privately run School for Indian girls in the district imparting modern education through the Bengali medium. The founder of the School was Hemlata Sarkar, the Daughter of Shibnath Shastri (a member of the Brahmo Samaj). Born in the year 1868 in the village of Majilpur as Hemlata Bhattacharya, she was disturbed that there was nothing that looked to the education of the girl child. After her marriage to Dr Bepin Behari Sarkar, she accompanied him to Darjeeling in the year 1907, since he had shifted his practice from Kathmandu to Darjeeling. They took up residence at North View, 437 Hill Cart Road. It was here that her concern for the education of the girl child increased. She was justifiably shocked when she found no schools for the girls of the Indian Community. Her daughters were refused admission to the all the English missionary School for girls namely, Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. However, instead of being a nagging petitioner to the government complaining about lack of facilities, she impelled herself to create them for the community.

Those were the days when Bengal reverberated with the call of equality of status for women as an essential pre-requisite for social reforms. Education for women was the only springboard for realising these lofty ideals. Without education the women could not even have attempted to break away from the strangle hood of the corrupt social system replete with ignorance, superstition and hyperorthodoxy. Among the giants of Bengal pursuing the goal of social emancipation was Pandit Shibnath Shastri.

With the blood of Pandit Shibnath Shastri flowing in her veins, Hemlata was no less an enthusiast. She had good social contacts with renowned personality of her time, which came in handy when she decided to open a school in Darjeeling. Among such valuable and friendly contacts were Suniti Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar (daughter of Mahatma Keshab Chandra Sen), the Maharani of Mayurbhanj Sucharu Devi (Suniti's younger sister) and the Maharani of Burdwan. In the year 1908,with the funds received from them for this noble cause, Hemlata Sarkar personally founded the oldest girls institution in Darjeeling. The naming of the school was also a matter of singular ingenuity; with so many Maharanis around it was simply named Maharani Girls' High School. It was first started at Oak Lodge as a primary school. The monthly rent was Rs 150. It's rolls showed an average attendance of 75 students of both sexes. Boys were enrolled only upto class IV; from class V onwards it was an exclusively girls school. The system continues even today. Within three years i.e. 1911, it was upgraded to a High School and in 1957 it was converted into High School Dr Bepin Sarkar took up the responsibility of the first Secretary of the school to help his wife. At the crossroads of Colonial History, Maharani offered a unique experience to its students. Some of the senior citizens of Darjeeling belonging to diverse communities -Nepalese, Lepchas, Tibetans, Mech Adivasis and Bengalis made up the earliest students. The first Matriculate to have passed out from this school in 1912 was Suniti Majumdar, who later became the daughter -in -law of Hemlata Sarkar. Among the students of Darjeeling to name a few were N Laden La, Kazi and Pasang Doma La-ex-headmistress, Minicipal Girls' High School. Among other notable students who later adorned the lives of eminent personalities were Rani Mahalanabis, wife of renowned statistician, Prasanta Mahalanabis and Aditi Sen, wife of Sri Manishi Sen, the last ICS, Sir Jadunath Sarkars daughter Roma Sarkar, Manorama Bose, retired chief inspector of schools and Sebati Mitra principal, Rani Birla College, Calcutta were all students here. Other ex-students of this school were Ila Hom and Meera Sanyal, who later became befitting partners of late Amal Hom and Hironmoy Sanyal, noted literateurs, social activists and nephews of the unjustly executed freedom fighter Sachindranuath Sanyal founder of the Hindustan Republican Party (1923) and India Against Colonialism League (1924). Satyajit Ray picked up his first alphabets during his mother's short stint as a school teacher here. The school was adjudged as one of the twelve best schools in undivided Bengal. Each Annual Prize distribution day used to be a great occasion as Governors, Maharajas and Maharanis used to preside over the ceremonies. Post- Independence, among those who visited the School was Dr KN Katju, C Rajagopalachari and Sri Dharma Vira.

Dr Sarkar died in 1918 creating a void in Hemlata's life. Undaunted, she plunged into harder work. In early 1930's the school was shifted to "German Sahib's House" in its present location i.e. near the railway station. The huge main block was constructed in 1938. Five years later in1943, Hemlata retired from her eventful life at the age of 75 years. Although the vacuum created by her death can never be filled, but by her contribution in the educational field would remain forever as an immortal figure. Having an overwhelming personality that always lovingly demanded and received obedience and discipline, Hemlata is cherished as an epitome of endurance, great visionary and a woman with impregnable spirit. She has left an indelible mark in the educational history of Darjeeling district and its progeny will always be grateful to her for it.

The school now has reached its 100 years. Now, it has a total number of 350 students, 32 teaching staff and seven non-teaching staffs. With its Principal Madam Purnima Roka, the school celebrated its Centenary on 1and 2 September. Out of the two chief guests invited only Asha Gurung, the President of Gorkha Jan Mukti Nari Morcha was present. The celebration began with a prayer ceremony pursued by a programme on Plantation, organised by The Art Of Living. The other highlight of the day was the exhibition put up by the students which included-The History of Maharani's Foundation, Crafts and Hand works and layout of traditional dresses. It was really a feast for the eyes and enlightenment to those who was unaware of Maharani's posh History. The school will be publishing its first magazine by 2009.

Despite its rich past the school now suffers from various problems. Since the school building is surrounded by habitation and there is no proper fencing to keep the school building aloof from the habitation, there is always a danger from trespassers. There is no hostel for the girls due to which a number of them mostly of XI and XII standard commute daily to the school from places like Rimbick, Takdah, Mungpoo etc.

There is no facility of drinking water. The number of classrooms is less along with a dearth of tables and chairs. The school has a small playground not soothing to eyes. Although the school has an area for the construction of girls Hostel, but their hands have been tied due to lack of Funds. It has come into light that many ex-students have come forward to help the school with their donations. But the mystery still remains where those find goes and in whose hands they have been handed. So, any helpful hand can see their donation being utilised well for the improvement of the school, only when it will be handed to the right users, the school authority.

If Maharani is ridden from all its problems, there is no reason why she will not live up to her name but will be celebrating its 500,1000 and so on years. Thanks to Hemlata Sarkar for its foundation, but for its continuation she would love everyone associated with it to come forward with any help they can for the school, since they are not outsiders to the school.


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