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Social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar championed widow remarriage

A pundit in Sanskrit and Bengali, in 1850 Vidyasagar (ocean of knowledge) wrote the primer, Barnaparichay, which introduced generations of Bengalis to their mother tongue.

india Updated: May 16, 2019 07:26 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Kolkata
Vidyasagar,social reformer
Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay (1820-1891), popular in Bengal as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was an educationist, philanthropist, social reformer and a leading figure of the Bengal Renaissance who championed women’s education and widow remarriage in an orthodox Hindu society.(Samir Jana/HT )

Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay (1820-1891), popular as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was an educationist, philanthropist, social reformer and a leading figure of the Bengal Renaissance who championed women’s education and widow remarriage in an orthodox Hindu society.

A pundit in Sanskrit and Bengali, in 1850 Vidyasagar wrote the primer, Barnaparichay, which introduced generations of Bengalis to their mother tongue. The next year, he wrote Upakramanika to make Sanskrit intelligible to ordinary people.

Born in poverty in an orthodox Brahmin family, there are many anecdotes about him that are now folklore in Bengal, such as how he learnt the numbers by reading milestones on the way from his village Birsingha (now in West Midnapore district) to Kolkata.

He set up three dozen schools for girls, and also supported the famous poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), who is known for his liberal interpretation of the epic, Ramayana, and pioneered blank verse in Bengali.

The college where vandalism took place on Tuesday was established by the educationist in 1872 and became one of the first private colleges financed and run by Indians.

“Vidyasagar was one of the founders of Indian nationalism, a true hero of the Indian renaissance, and those who desecrated his bust have no idea how much they have hurt the sentiment and pride of the Bengalis,” said former Union culture secretary Jawhar Sircar.

“Far ahead of his age, Vidyasagar built several schools for girls in four districts of Bengal. He was against child marriage. He took the initiative and got the Widow Remarriage Act passed in 1856 by governor general Dalhousie,” said Raktima Dutta, a Presidency College alumna and retired teacher of South Point High School, who put up a Facebook post on the significance of the man to refresh the memories of her former students.

Since Tuesday’s vandalism, there has been a flurry of posts on social media, mostly in Bengali, recalling the liberal heritage Vidyasagar left behind.

“The college set up as Metropolitan Institution was renamed Vidyasagar College in 1917. Vidyasagar asked why students from Presidency College should occupy the first position in English. Subsequent to his resolve, students of Metropolitan Institution secured top positions in English,” said Left Front chairman Biman Bose, who was associated with a non-government organisation named after Vidyasagar for a number of years.

“I don’t have words to condemn the incident. What depths of degradation are left to be reached?” said poet Shankha Ghosh, a Jnanpith awardee.

The institution counts several luminaries among its alumni, including Swami Vivekananda (religious reformer), Ram Manohar Lohia, Jagjivan Ram (both politicians), Prafulla Chandra Ray (scientist), Nandalal Bose (painter), Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (creator of the fictional detective Byomkesh Bakshi) and Manna Dey (singer). Even Rabindranath Tagore studied in Metropolitan Institution (school) for a brief period.

“The education department will restore the damaged bust of Vidyasagar as well as (repair) the damage to other parts of the college,” said education minister Partha Chatterjee.

Vidyasagar College has three campuses, two in Kolkata and one in Salt Lake. About 3,500 students are on the rolls.

More than 100 km away from Kolkata, in the reformer’s native village Birsingha, Dilip Banerjee, the caretaker of Vidyasagar Smriti Mandir, a museum set up at his residence, said, “Every day I offer pronam to the man. Today, I offered him tears and prayed for forgiveness.” Pronam loosely translates as prayer.

First Published: May 16, 2019 07:26 IST