Indraprastha College for Women completes 100 years: A century of empowering women - Hindustan Times
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Indraprastha College for Women completes 100 years: A century of empowering women

Mar 04, 2024 05:40 AM IST

The oldest women’s college in Delhi started out as a school in 1904, when Annie Besant and Theosophical Society set up Indraprastha Girls’ Senior Secondary School

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IP College, located at the periphery of Delhi University’s north campus, has sheltered generations of women, moulding them into feminists and independent thinkers. (HT Archive)
IP College, located at the periphery of Delhi University’s north campus, has sheltered generations of women, moulding them into feminists and independent thinkers. (HT Archive)

The year was 1960. Narayani Gupta and her classmates, all 18 years old, at Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women, were a curious lot.

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Once the day’s classes were over, they would walk up to the homes of their lecturers, metres away from the college in Civil Lines, for cups of tea and high-octane discussions on politics, feminism, cinema, and literature.

“We were always welcome in their homes to talk, relax, hang out... We became open-minded young women because of IP College and our teachers there. There was a sense of belonging that never left me,” reminisced Gupta, now 81, a noted historian, who went on to teach history at IP college for 22 years before retiring in 1988.

Last month, IP college – the oldest women’s college in Delhi – turned 100. To be sure, in 1916, Lady Hardinge Medical College opened its gates to girls, but only for pre-medical courses.

The IP College premises comprise two white buildings flanked by a red brick building on each side, a museum, a 20th century fountain in the front lawn, and shiuli (jasmine) and jamun trees that have sheltered generations of students. It’s also the only women’s college in Delhi that has a swimming pool, built in 1956. The building was designed by British architect Walter George in the early 20th century.

Located at the periphery of DU’s north campus, 5km away from a row of Tibetan eateries at Majnu Ka Tila, and a minute away from the Vidhan Sabha Metro station, IP College is an indelible part of the city’s landscape.

But this wasn’t always the educational institution’s address, or even its name. In fact, it started out as a school in 1904, when educationist Dr Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society of India set up The Indraprastha Girls’ Senior Secondary school, inside a haveli in old Delhi’s Chippiwara, behind Jama Masjid.

In 1924, the college was set up – with two rooms inside the school premises, and two students. A decade later, the college moved to Chandrawali Bhawan in Civil Lines, before finally shifting to its current, sprawling premises – Alipur House in Civil Lines – on August 9, 1938.

One of the college’s first batch of two students – Kalavati Gupta – went on to assume the role of the principal of IP College in the 1930s, and the other student -- Raj Dulari Sharma -- became the vice-principal of the college.

However, it was not an easy start for the institution – both the school and college. In 1998, Gupta’s essay with then-principal of IP college, Sheila Uttamsingh, titled “The Interior and Exterior: Indraprastha College for Women”, noted that the administration had to experience a lot of hostility as women’s education was not accepted as a primary need.

“When the founders of the IP school started spreading the word about women’s education, the community was not ready to accept it. They had to go door-to-door to try and convince the parents to let their daughters come to school. The school administration set an example by enrolling their own daughters,” said Gupta.

INSPIRATION TO GENERATIONS OF WOMENIn 1965, all of 23, Salma Sultan moved to Delhi from Bhopal and auditioned for the role of an announcer at Doordarshan, the state-owned broadcaster, a few months later.

At the same time, she pursued her postgraduate degree in English at IP College. “I had lived a very sheltered life in Bhopal, and suddenly I was in Delhi where I was mostly on my own. I was a shy girl at IP College, but I found the teachers very encouraging. My personality development started there, and I believe that helped shape my career soon after,” said Sultan, 77.

In 1967, she joined Doordarshan as a news anchor – with her composed delivery and a rose behind her ear – and became a reliable face that appeared on our TV screens for another 30 years. “I owe much to my IP college teachers Dr Uttam Singh and Ms Indu Jain. I went into a cocoon at IP, but the atmosphere in college made me aspirational. Kuch karna tha life mein, kuch banna tha (I wanted to do something in life, become someone),” said Sultan.

Meena Bhargava, 67, who finished her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the 1970s from IP College and taught there till 2022, recalled an era when it was a deeply political campus. “There was no clampdown on any kind of political thought. There was scope to debate,” said Bhargava.

The retired professor also recalled “hostel nights” at IP College – a sought-after date on the calendar. “During hostel nights, day scholars would be allowed to spend the night at the college hostel. And those would be nights full of dancing and jam sessions, and they were very safe,” she reminisced.

In 2005, Bhargava co-authored a book on the college along with alumna Kalyani Dutta -- “Women, Education, and Politics: The Women’s Movement and Delhi’s Indraprastha College” – in which they also looked at the institution’s contribution to the freedom movement. On the participation of students in the Swadeshi movement, they wrote, “...Students’ response to the government policies took various forms, like boycotting British visitors to the college, organising hartals and protest marches, burning foreign clothes, and hoisting the tricolour flag. Student activities at Indraprastha College encapsulated the sentiments of people all over India.”

NUGGETS OF HISTORYThe college’s website is replete with nuggets of history – of the college, the city, and the country, as each grew, rebelled, and inspired. Babli Saraf Moitra, who was the IP College principal from 2009-2023, started “heritage calendars” in 2015.

Apart from photos of the founder members of the school and college, Lala Jugal Kishore and Leonara G’meiner, and the first two college students, there are also pictures from 1929 of students in the science lab, of students travelling to college in a horse-drawn cart with female attendants, sari-clad students in a cooking class in college in 1929, and a photo from 1956 of students and teachers helping build the swimming pool.

The 2019 calendar is an ode to the architectural beauty of the early 20th century building and the premises – array of arches and pillars, the original emblem of the college, mosaic planters on the pavilion, the famous heritage fountain in the front garden. The calendars also peppered with photos of students and teachers with dignitaries such as former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the country’s first president Rajendra Prasad.

“IP was the first women’s college that succeeded in striking a balance between traditional and modern values. After IP was founded, other girls’ schools also came up,” Saraf said.

A Bachelor’s degree in DU is incomplete without canteen afternoons and memories of annual festivals. For Madhumita Raut, Odissi dancer, memories of her time spent at IP College in the early 1990s still bring her immense joy. “I had finished school at 16, so I was younger than all my classmates at college. I was a trained dancer, but no one knew, so when I performed at the annual festival ‘Shruti,’ my teachers were shocked. They encouraged me to rehearse and participate in fests at other colleges,” said Raut.

From sauntering to Majnu Ka Tila for a quick meal at Tib’s Dhab’s, a coffee at Madhuban, a cafe near college, to wolfing down bread pakora with “extra chocolate-powder wali coffee” in the college canteen – Raut’s stories hold in them the ultimate north campus experience.

“But the best thing was that our teachers were feminists, independent thinkers,” she said. “And they wanted us to be that too. What more can one ask from a college?”

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