A chariot rolled across Tamil Nadu, introducing little girls of the state to the great visionary that was Sister Nivedita.
It was the Republic Day of 2018. I was in Karur – known for its entrepreneurship. Despite being a holiday, I saw a lot of activities. In my student days, events like Republic Day were a low key affair, held in schools where almost nobody attended except those who were forced to be part of the celebrations.
Now, clearly, things have changed.
I could see national flags pinned to the shirts of everyone. In Karur, this Republic Day was different. A unique rath (chariot-like vehicle) slowly entered the town with a number of girls dressed in black and white performing martial art in front of the vehicle as it moved forward. In it, a saffron clad statue of a woman was placed – a European woman at that.
Who was she and what was this procession all about?
Sister Nivedita – an Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda was born Margaret Noble on 28 October 1867. An educationist and a radical liberal of the true kind, she was deeply moved by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings and Vedanta. She became his adapted daughter and dedicated herself to the service of India.
That was 150 years ago when Bengal was the hub of her activities. So, why celebrate her in Tamil Nadu? And why is this relevant?
"Sister Nivedita is very relevant. In fact, her relevance has grown much more today. A girl can shape her own destiny. She is no play thing in the hands of either patriarchy or consumerist culture. A girl, studying in a school or a college today, needs to discover in her the girl Subramaniya Bharathi sang and envisioned. And who is more relevant to instill in the girl that vision of Bharathi than Nivedita?” Vanathi Srinivasan, the brain behind the Sister Nivedita 150 Rath Yatra, told Swarajya.
It is more relevant in Tamil Nadu. Of late, the state has not been in the news for all the right reasons, when it comes to gender issues. Eve-teasing and stalking, glorified by the Tamil film industry, have reached a dangerous proportion. In movie after movie, school- and college-going girls were shown to be stalked by roadside romeos, and the girls finally falling for them. Unfortunately, this promoted idea of romance has started yielding results. But, when these vulnerable girls don’t submit to the advances of their stalkers, they are getting their throats slit by their jilted lovers.
In their bid to be seen as liberated girls, they are going for the so-called romance of duets around the trees in place of their education and career. For them, modernity is romance with Westernised consumer culture, and not education with achievement for the individual, society and the nation.
The rath yatra addresses these issues, but in a very positive manner. The theme of the yatra is ‘Woman! How Great You Are’, with a special focus on Subramaniya Bharathi – the Tamil poet, who wrote about social justice and national liberation.
“Bharathi was initiated into women’s liberation movement by Sister Nivedita,” said Srinivasan.
“When Bharathi first met Sister Nivedita during the Calcutta Congress cession, she asked why he did not bring his wife to the meeting. Bharathi said that in India women were not taken to political gatherings. An upset Sister Nivedita reprimanded the poet, asking what moral right we Indians have asking for freedom (that was an inclusive we as she considered herself an Indian) when we keep our own womenfolk subjugated? That is when Bharathi accepted Sister Nivedita as his guru and started working for women’s liberation,” said Srinivasan.
“That was not an easy transformation,” said Ambai, an eminent writer, who has been working for decades in the male-dominated Tamil literary world. “His writings clearly show a painful slow transformation with occasional slips,” she said.
It was, however, Bharathi and his inspiring and fiery verses that drove the women liberation movement in Tamil Nadu. Every true social reformer after Bharathi was inspired by his writings. In fact, one can say with confidence that for every woman in Tamil Nadu who ever wanted to chart her own success path, the words of Bharathi were, and will always be, an inspiration.
“I came to know about Sister Nivedita and the Indian culture only through Bharathi. He was an ideal disciple of a great guru like Nivedita,” said Srinivasan. A big poster in a hall where the celebrations were taking place showed the verses Bharathi had written for Nivedita.
A dedication for grace divine and
A temple for love;
In the heart of my humble self
The sun dispelling darkness;
You come as rain
For the parched crops that is this great nation;
For us suffering in poverty
With no knowledge to prosperity
You come as noble wealth;
For the low shrinking enslavement
(deeply entrenched in us)
You come as the fire!
Mother Nivedita, I bow unto thee!
Celebrations marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of Sister Nivedita were held in many parts of the country, with Tamil Nadu being the only state which covered all the districts. The 30-day yatra commenced on 22 January 2018 from Coimbatore and ended on 22 February in Coimbatore, covering 3,000 kilometres across 27 districts of the state. The aim of the yatra was to target 2 lakh students, but surprisingly reached 3 lakh.
The yatra started on the day of Kali Puja last year, when Srinivasan outlined the idea of Sister Nivedita outreach programme to Swami Vimurthananda – another visionary monk at the Chennai Ramakrishna Mission. Soon, the rath was ready. Yatishwari Ramakrishna Priyamba, the president of Sri Sarada Ashram, Ulundurpet, headed the team as president and Dr C A Vasuki, director, Kongunadu Arts and Science College, Coimbatore, was the secretary. Srinivasan was the state coordinator.
Srinivasan narrated some moving incidents. Interestingly, 99 per cent of the parents had no knowledge about Nivedita. It was when their daughters started preparing for various competitions related to her – which were also part of the rath yatra – that they started to inquire about this great but forgotten personality.
In Namakkal, a girl wanted to address this issue by giving a talk about Sister Nivedita. Even though it was unscheduled, seeing the enthusiasm of the child, Srinivasan cut her speech short to allow this little girl talk. The girl said that as most parents do not know about Nivedita, she was educating them through her talk.
Srinivasan said that our education system is designed in such a way that people forget those who really contributed to the well-being of the society – except a select few.
“We are trying to address the pathetic situation through this programme. Just think about Sister Nivedita. She had contributed to social service, spirituality and national liberation movement. She designed India’s first national flag and guided Sri Aurobindo. She helped scientist J C Bose by acting as his secretary, and also in helping establish Bose Science Institute. All this she did as a single woman, and how cruel it is that today we have forgotten her,” Srinivasan said.
However, the situation is changing now, said Srinivasan.
“Sister Nivedita was an educationist. She wanted an education that helps students, infuse them with the quest for knowledge, provide them character and make them innovate,” she said and added that now we have a government that is open to this view of education.
“There is a great emphasis for kindling the spirit of innovation through Atal Tinkering Labs. Nivedita would have been happy to see such developments. But again, this is a task too great and too important to leave it to the state alone. We need to chip in as individuals and nation-building institutions and organisations,” she said.
Even as Srinivasan was talking to Swarajya, the students had started pouring in for the concluding ceremony of the yatra. The students, all college girls, had come to attend function, where they, perhaps for the first time, heard about a great woman, who had given everything to the nation – not as a means of evangelical charity but in the spirit of service. A single woman, who had contributed to art, education, science, spirituality and national resurgence – a woman whose life about which even if one girl among thousands of those assembled had learnt, it would transform the future of everyone around her.
“In Tamil Nadu, people believe in evil eye. A black spot is added to everything beautiful to ward off bad effects. It of course is a superstition, but it happened to us also. Dravidian organisations showed black flags to the rath, and we could only smile at their ignorance of history. They were opposing the very savants, who sowed the seeds for women’s liberation movement in Tamil Nadu. On the brighter side, it was a Muslim girl, who won the first prize in a competition on Sister Nivedita,” said Srinivasan.
Tamil Nadu has taken an innovative and positive step in the right direction – for the cause of women standing upright and contributing to the society equally as men. Surely, this should not be the end – it should go on to become a major movement – a real living memorial to the spirit of Nivedita and Bharathi.