Goddess Kali, the embodiment of primordial feminine energy, deeply impressed Sister Nivedita
Dr Syed Tanveer Nasreen
Like her, guru Swami Vivekananda, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, or Sister Nivedita (1867-1911), reverently called the ‘White flower of nobility’, lived a very small span of mortal life. However, her contributions to Indian life and society can never be judged by the number of years she physically lived. Sister Nivetita continues to live in the heart of every nationalist and humanist Indian who looks forward to an equal world even more than hundred years after she passed away. Nivedita’s father, Samuel Richmond Noble was a pastor. Service to mankind is the true service to God, is a lesson Nivedita learnt from him, early in life. Margaret lost her father when she was only ten years old and was brought up by her maternal grandfather who was one of the front ranking leaders of the freedom movement in Ireland. These two gentlemen had a deep imprint on Nivedita which led her to combine the quests for spirituality and nationalism in her own life. Margaret Noble had already started her school in Wimbledon and was preparing herself for the service to humanity, when she met Swami Vivekananda in November 1895, in London. She could soon hear the calling within herself. The tremendous energy and constructive spirit that had so long been dormant in her now found an outlet. In her own words, she always had a “burning voice within, but nothing to utter”. The meeting changed her life; as she later estimated in a letter to a friend in 1904 that, “How often and often I sat down, pen in hand, to speak and there was no speech. And now there is no end to it! As surely I am fitted to my world, so surely is my world in need of me, waiting-ready. The arrow has found its place in the bow.”
Move to Kolkata
A determined Elizabeth had travelled to Kolkata in 1898 leaving behind all her material possessions, friends and relatives. She brought with her to India the vision to change, the resolution to execute and the dedication to serve humanity. Miss Noble was initiated to the vow of brahmacharya on March 25, 1898. This Nivedita herself regarded as her rebirth and devoted her life to make her new name meaningful. Following a short probation in the Indian ways of life, Sarada Ma’s “khuki‟ and spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita soon started a school for girls in the Bosepara Lane of Bagbazar, Kolkata in November 1898. The school was opened on the auspicious day of Kali Puja. Sarada Ma blessed and prayed for the school. Goddess Kali, the embodiment of primordial feminine energy deeply impressed Nivedita. Consequently, her monograph, Kali The Mother (1900), also had a deep impact on contemporary intellectuals, like Abanindranath Tagore who was the principal artist and creator of Indian Society of Oriental Art. He was also the first major exponent of Swadeshi values in Indian art, thereby founding the influential Bengal school of art, which led to the development of modern Indian painting. Along with the invocation of Shakti, the inauguration of the school on that particular day was also the first flicker of the lamp lit in the encircling gloom in Bengal at that time. The concept and theories of women empowerment as we understand today had not yet come into vogue. Whatever Sister Nivedita and her associates did, came directly from the heart, inspired by an ideal to serve humanity.
A Devoted Missionary
A missionary to the core, a prolific writer and mesmerising orator, Nivedita went from one house to another, requesting fathers to send their daughters to school. The pitiable condition of the Indian women pained her as she wanted every woman to have a voice of her own. Every woman, empowered by the divine grace of Shakti within herself, was to come forward and serve the society and the nation. It was never too late to start, she opined. There were thus many widows and adult women among her students. Along with the general curriculum, girls were trained in sewing, nursing and the elementary rules of hygiene in the school. In her services to those affected by the Plague epidemic in 1899, in her unfailing faith and conviction in the greatness of Indian culture and civilisation, in her support and inspiration to the nationalist movement, Nivedita implemented the call of her guru (Swami Vivekananda) to “Arise! Awake!” Most of all, in the thirteen years that Sister Nivedita spent in Kolkata, she wanted women to awake from the slumber of inactivity and participate in every phase of social and national life. For this, they primarily needed to be equipped with education. Sister Nivedita was thus the forerunner in implementing the discourses of women empowerment, even much before the theory came into vogue. In the course of the journey of the century after her, we have come to know about the theories and the possible ways they can be put into practice. We are also aware of the tremendous impediments in the process of women empowerment across the world. This has made Sister Nivedita all the more relevant in our lives, in the lives and lived realities of Indian women.
The tremendous potential with which she carried on the work of empowering women has today reached every corner of the country. In continuation of her ideal and commitment to empowerment, the Bhagini Nivedita Sardhasatabarsha Udjapan Samiti (Committee for the Commemoration of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Sister Nivedita) has taken up a year-long programme. The committee has been jointly constituted with the women members of the Kolkata unit of Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari Kolkata Nivedita Shakti, Sanskar Bharati and Vivekananda Vijnan Mission. The concluding ceremony of “Bhagini Nivedita: Indian Icon of Women Empowerment,” was recently held at the Sri Ramkrishna Institute of Culture, Golpark, Kolkata. On this occasion the committee organised district level competitions on recitation, quiz and painting in twenty places across the State of West Bengal. It was a very satiating experience to watch the auditorium thriving with the liveliness of the young girls, the enthusiasm and eagerness of their teachers and their guardians. This was the empowerment that Nivedita had envisioned for posterity. In a very colourful yet somber programme in the packed auditorium of the Institute, Prabrajika Nirbhikprana Mataji of the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission and Smt Sujata Nayek of the Vivekananda Kendra Kanyakumari inspired the students of new generation with the ideals, life and works of Sister Nivedita. The committee felicitated swimmers Sayani Das and Teherana Nasreen, both English Channel winners. Sayani Das spoke in details about the hardships she had encountered and shared the story of her success amidst great applause from the audience. The achievements of the Indian swimmers greatly motivated the younger generation. Danseuse and Professor of Rabindra Bharati University, Amita Dutt and Sunanda Mukherjee, former Chairperson, State Women’s Commission, West Bengal, also graced the occasion. It was an afternoon in which the city of Nivedita’s activities, recalled her services with gratitude and reaffirmed its conviction in carrying it to the future. The event hosted by the committee was indeed a befitting tribute to Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India
The writer is Professor of History, University of Burdwan, West Bengal