Tag Archives: Partha Sircar

Indian athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics (image from Sportskeeda.com)

India Has So Few Medals at the Olympics

This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. Find part 1 here!

The previous article illustrates that of the many individuals who have represented India in the Olympics, relatively few were competitive. This is by all accounts, rather disappointing, considering India’s huge population and its exposure and intimate association with the Olympics for over 100 years.

The above frustration was relayed by so many of us as we watched the quadrennial spectacular in Rio de Janeiro with great interest. It was given added fillip when the inimitable Dipa Karmakar (the Produnova vault was on everyone’s lips!) just missed medaling as we all watched.  The frustration was assuaged only slightly near the end of the Games with the bronze for Sakshi Malik in women’s wrestling and later by the silver by PV Sindhu in badminton. But the sentiment lives on. It may further be noted that Pakistan has won only 10 medals so far (since 1952), eight of them Field Hockey. And Bangladesh has so far (since 1972) won none – the most populous country in the world without an Olympic medal.  

One wonders about this pervasive shortcoming for the entire subcontinent. The oft-cited reason is the lack of sufficient facilities, training, and economic incentives. For the most part, I do not fully agree. I am thoroughly convinced that to be an Olympic medalist you most of all need to have superior “inherent natural ability” (talent). I submit that without superior talent, any amount of training, facilities, or opportunities will not an Olympic champion make.  And in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there apparently is a severe dearth (not total absence) of talent needed to succeed in the sports currently competed in the Olympics. And that unfortunately does not include cricket. 

Of the children of Indian origin who grew up in the US, genuine success in sports is few and far between – in sharp contrast to their glaring successes in Spelling Bees, Math Olympiads, and Chess. This is in spite of them being afforded the same opportunities as all others. The common reason put forward is that they predominantly have a white-collar background. 

However, the situation is not much different in the UK, which has a much larger proportion of a working-class population from the Indian subcontinent. But the only one coming close is Bengali-Kolkata mix, Neil Taylor, who represented Wales in Euro 2016. While on soccer, I contend that if we had talent in the game, we would have had a presence in the English and European leagues like so many from Africa. We have been well exposed to the game for well over a hundred years. However, our best, Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and Masood Fakhri of Pakistan earlier could not establish themselves in the English league. Mention may be made of war-torn Iraq, whose soccer team not only qualified for the Olympics but drew all its three group matches, including with Brazil, the ultimate gold medalist.

The source of talent in sports is not easily defined in specific terms. Different skill sets are required for different sports, and thus, different physical attributes. For some sports it is easy to identify – you have to be tall for basketball and well-built for American football. But for other sports, it is not readily apparent. There is more to physical attributes than height and weight. They involve myriad characteristics like upper body strength, speed of hand and foot, reaction times, lung capacity, wrist strength, hand-eye coordination, length of arms, and size of palms. Also, the ability to withstand pain and fatigue may be part of talent, though that might not strictly qualify as a physical attribute. Take a look at  Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming legend. He has been described as having a freakish physique with a large wingspan, high lung capacity, and flipper feet.

The racial/ethnic element in Olympics sports success clearly jumps out at me in no uncertain terms

2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)
2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)

The superior success of black athletes from the US, the Caribbeans, Canada, or England in the speed events of track and field — the sprints, horizontal jumps, the hurdles — does not escape anyone.  They are known to have a common West African ancestry for the most part.  Significantly, countries in West Africa like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, who have similar ancestry, have also produced some world-class sprinters and long jumpers. By contrast, the success of the same people in the longer distances, the throws, the high jump, and pole vault are a mere shadow of their success in the speed events.

Ethiopians and Kenyans from East Africa surely belong to a different stock with their primacy in the middle and longer distances (they cannot run distances shorter than 800 meters it seems!). Incidentally, other small countries in the region like Somalia, Djibouti, and Burundi have also been competitive in these distances in the Olympics.

It also appears that the Mongolian races stand out for their extremely fast hand-foot combinations. They are so overwhelming in low-weight boxing, badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. I have to note that many successful boxers are from India (Mary Kom is the best of them!) and from the impoverished northeast, where the Mongolian racial characteristics are so prevalent. It is hard to think there are better training and facilities there than in the rest of India. There seems to be some special talent in weightlifting and wrestling in Turkey, Iran, and contiguous countries like Azerbijan and Kazakastan. Finally, there is the example of the little island of Fiji with a population of less than a million winning a gold medal in rugby in 2016. Thirty-eight percent of the Fijian population is of Indian origin — there was not a single Indian on the Fijian team –all were what they call native Fijians (of Melanesian and some Polynesian origin).  

Many of my above observations may not be tenable as increased globalization takes hold and new technological advances appear on the scene. Changed political and economic situations may also dictate newer realities. Predictably, there will be increased exposure to different sports for different segments of the population along with better training. I am reminded that before the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the unforgettable victory of Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia in the marathon, and the exploits of Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and others from 1964. Kenya and Ethiopia, which so overwhelmingly dominate the middle and long distances of track and field, were absent from our sports consciousness.  

Similar must have been in baseball before Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major league in 1947, which opened up the huge talent pool for the racial diversity in baseball. Similarly, there was the arrival of China into the Olympic fold in 1984 and before that in the Asian Games in 1974.  It was a quantum shift in the Olympic scene. Similarly, it is possible that new technology and changing situations, such as the advent of artificial surfaces unsuited to our style of play, exodus of Anglo-Indians from India, and more nations taking up the game seriously, all may have resulted in the loss of the primacy in Field Hockey for India and Pakistan.   

I seriously wonder if such changed situations discussed above will usher in much hope for increased Olympic success for India. After all, India has had reasonably long exposures to the outside world in all the major Olympic sports like soccer, field hockey, track and field, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing, and often had decent opportunities to show their mettle. We have, sometimes, competed creditably in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, but repeatedly came up short in the larger arena of the Olympics. This, I would attribute largely to a lack of sufficient talent.

To many, insufficient or inadequate training, facilities, and economic incentives are the prime causes for India’s ‘abject failure’ in the Olympics over the years.  The issue needs to be examined more closely, beyond this blanket statement.  In 2014, India won 57 medals (11 gold) in the Asian Games and 55 medals (14 gold) in the Commonwealth Games. In 2018, India won 70 medals (16 gold) in the Asian Games and 66 medals (20gold) in the Commonwealth Games. The medals tell me there is a reasonable amount of training and infrastructure out there and that our talent level is good enough to succeed in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, but insufficient for Olympic medals.


Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)
Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)

The case of Dipa Karmakar is instructive. For one hailing from Tripura, a remote corner of the country, she could still avail herself of adequate gymnastic facilities and a capable coach in Mr. Nandi. Dipa went thru the ranks from junior to senior (no lone wolf!), reflecting a reasonable infrastructure behind her, however inept. Mr. Nandi has hailed the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for its help.

Sakshi Malik’s experience in her Haryana village with all its backwardness and prejudices did not stop her from acquiring a competent coach from Karnataka, trained by SAI. Along with the SAI, which has its presence in every state, there are sports institutes in many parts of the country, such as in Patiala and Gwalior, turning out players and coaches.  There is the admirable facility for badminton run by the former All England Champion, PV Gopichand, which has turned out Olympic medalists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu among others. 

So, we do have our coaches and our facilities, however insufficient and inept.  We have also to appreciate that for a vast and poor country like India, our utilization of our limited resources for sports have to be balanced against bigger priorities such as infrastructure development, industrialization, alleviation of poverty, justice and crime prevention, defense of the country, education, good governance. All these surely cannot be compromised for mere Olympic medals.

I am curious how our training and financial incentives compare with other similar developing countries on a per-capita basis, something not easy to put one’s hands-on. Instead, I chose three countries at random: Brazil, Thailand, and Nigeria in three continents to find out their Olympic medal hauls.

Brazil had won 24 gold, 31 silver, and 57 bronze.

Thailand had won 9 gold, 7 silver, and 13 bronze.

Nigeria had won 3 gold, 8 silver, and 12 bronze (including a gold and a silver in soccer and a gold in Men’s 4×400 meters relay). 

These countries are by no means economic powerhouses.  It is therefore very unlikely that their sportsmen would have better facilities and economic prospects than in India to spur the pursuit of their sporting careers. 

The Olympics have just begun in Tokyo. I, an Olympic fanatic am already in front of the TV watching the grand extravaganza, albeit in front of empty stadiums. Success or failure of Indians will only flash fleetingly in my mind. I will root for whoever seems hopeful and can bring us some medals. They have been so few and far between!

In the meantime, I keep on hoping like many of us for cricket to be included in the Olympics in the future. We would definitely be contenders for the gold.

Go back and read part 1!

Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at psircar@yahoo.com.


India at the 1948 Olympic Games in London (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

India at the Olympics

This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. 

Like millions of others, I am eagerly looking forward to the resumption of the 2020 Olympics after an unfortunate postponement from last year due to Covid-19. It starts on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan a rare break from the quadrennial routine. Only thrice earlier (1916, 1940, and 1944) were the Games canceled and it was due to the two World Wars. 

The Modern Olympics, a brainchild of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inaugurated in Athens, Greece in 1896. The Baron was surely fired up by grandiose visions of reviving the Ancient Olympics in Greece which had come to an end in 393 AD. The venue of Athens was appropriately chosen to remind all about this ancient heritage.

The Olympic Games, which has grown into a mammoth sports spectacle, had rather humble beginnings. In the First Olympics, there were only nine sports: Athletics, Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Wrestling, and Weightlifting. Fourteen countries were listed (some with one competitor.). Greece had a large contingent (169), followed by France, United States, Great Britain, and Germany. In 2016, there were 11,000 competitors from 107 countries. Presently, the total number of sports stands at 28.

India, as a nation, first made its appearance in the Olympics in Antwerp in 1920*.  They sent 6 competitors: four athletes and two wrestlers. Since then, India has sent teams to all the following Olympics. It has been a particular attraction to see the Indian team march during the opening ceremonies along with all the other countries. The men in turbans and the women in sarees are a joy to watch. In 2021, India will send its largest-ever contingent of 69 men and 55 women who will compete in 18 sports, including Men’s and Women’s Field hockey and Rifle Shooting. 

*In the 1900 Paris Olympics, Norman Pritchard, a British resident of Calcutta, won two silver medals in Track and Field (200 meters and 200-meter hurdles).

India has won a total of 28 medals over the years. Its crowning glory has undoubtedly been in Field Hockey, where it won 11 medals (including 8 golds).  Its last medal was a gold in 1980.

List of Olympic Medals Won By India

Medalists at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Left to right: Sushil Kumar (silver), Akzhurek Tanatarov (bronze), Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (gold) and Liván López (bronze). (Image by Akira Kouchiyama on Flickr and under Creative Commons License 2.0)
Medalists at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Left to right: Sushil Kumar (silver), Akzhurek Tanatarov (bronze), Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (gold) and Liván López (bronze). (Image by Akira Kouchiyama on Flickr and under Creative Commons License 2.0)

Field Hockey: 11 (Gold: 1928 – 1936, 1948 – 1956, 1964, 1980;  Silver: 1960; Bronze:  1968, 1972) 

Freestyle Wrestling: 5 ( Silver: Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2012;  Bronze: K. D. Jadhav, Bantamweight, 1952; Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2008; Yogeshwar Dutt, 60 kg 2012; Sakshi Malik, Women’s 58 kg, 2016)

Shooting: 4 (Gold: Abhinav Bindra, Men’s 10m Rifle, 2008; Silver: Rajyavardhan Rathore, Men’s Double Trap, 2004; Vijay Kumar, Men’s 25 Rapid Fire Pistol, 2012; Bronze: Gagan Narang, Men’s 10m Air Rifle, 2012)

Track and Field: 2 (Silver: Norman Pritchard, 200 meters and 200 meters hurdles, 1900)

Badminton: 2 (Silver: PV Sindhu, Women’s Singles, 2016; Bronze: Saina Nehwal, Women’s Singles 2012)

Tennis: 1 (Bronze: Leander Paes, Men’s Singles, 1996)

Weightlifting: 1 (Bronze: Karnam Malleswari, Women’s 69kg, 2000)

Boxing: 2 (Bronze: Vijender Singh, Middleweight, 2008; Mary Kom, Women’s Flyweight, 2012)

I have also presented below a list of competitive competitors, in my opinion, but did not win a medal. They are often separated by inches, milliseconds, or the third places of decimals and on a given day, they may have made it to the podium.  

List of Individual Athletes Who Were Competitive But Did Not Win a Medal

Track and Field: Milkha Singh (4th in 400m, 1960); Gurbhachan Singh Randhawa (5th in 110m Hurdles, 1964);  Sriram Singh (7th  in 800m, 1976); Shivnath Singh (11th in Marathon, 1976); PT Usha (4th by one-hundredth of a second in Women’s 400m Hurdles in 1984);  Anju George (5th in Long Jump, 2000); Krishna Punia (6th in Women’s Discus Throw, 2012); Vikas Gowda (8th in Men’s Discus Throw,  2012); Lalitha Babbar (10th in Women’s 3000m Steeplechase, 2016).  

Women’ Gymnastics: Dipa Karmakar (4th in Vault, 2016)

Tennis: Sania Mirza (4th in Mixed Doubles, 2016); 

Shooting: Abhinav Bindra (4th in Men’s 10m Rifle, 2016)

Notable near misses — much-heralded fourth-place finish by the recently deceased Milkha Singh in 400m in Rome, PT Usha missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Olympics in Women’s 400m Hurdles, and Dipa Karmakar’s nearest of misses after landing the legendary Produnova Vaul — will forever be etched the memories of all Indian Olympic aficionados.

I do not recall anyone in men’s or women’s swimming making the grade, but I am aware of several wrestlers who came close to medals in the 1960s or 1970s. 

As for team sports, apart from our legendary run in Field Hockey, the only competitive team may have been the 1956 football team which finished fourth; this was back when Olympic football was still strictly limited to amateurs. 

Read the second part of this story! Other Indian Olympic candidates to look out for: Deepika Kumari and Bajrang Punia.

Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at psircar@yahoo.com.


Har Gobind Khorana receiving NIH lecture award. (Image from the NIH)

Innovative Americans: South Asian Contributions

This article is intended as an appreciation and a tribute to America, our adopted country, for its unusual penchant for inventions and innovations which have left a deep impact worldwide and for the future.

I was suddenly given to ponder over which peoples’ innovations, thinking outside the box, had the greatest impact the world over and were most unique. I quickly realized that history is in the eyes of the beholder. 

To the ‘sophisticated’ among us, usually drenched in the Eurocentric classics, the world’s progress seems to have been greatly stunted after Greece and Rome.

Then there are the Anglophiles who think everything significant started in England: the parliamentary system running parallel with royalty, the English language which ‘civilized’ the world from Africa to India to the Americas to the computers, the steam engine, the railways, and the judicial system (innocent until proven guilty!). They also gave us cricket and possibly football (soccer) and tennis. Of course, they also invented color prejudice. 

The Chinese gave us paper, gunpowder, and noodles.

And we, Indians, did not stop after the Vedas. We gave the world Yoga and the all-important ‘zero’. If you are of the Hindutva bent of mind, you surely like to think Indians were into aviation and guided missiles several millennia before the Wright Brothers – our Puranas say so. Of course, Indians were pioneers in plastic surgery, as proudly proclaimed by our beloved PM Modi in a session of the Indian Science Congress, citing the example of Lord Ganesh’s replaced elephant head.

But to me, all this pales in comparison to the acumen for inventions and innovations of the Americans – ushering in a paradigm shift in the world we live in today. All this happened, more or less, within the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Americans’ penchant for inventions seems to defy all boundaries starting from Edison’s light bulb to the gramophone, airplanes, telephone, television, computers, and IT. The present addiction to the small screen seems to have originated in America. So also for the most part, big screen a la Hollywood was America’s gift to the world. And who else would have thought of a 102-story building all the way back in 1934? Or a glitzy gambling mecca in Las Vegas?  

Edison and his phonograph

Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company gave the world the concept of assembly–line manufacturing.  The result was the vision of a car for every family, which revolutionized our ideas of travel and transportation and ushered in the Automobile Age. The Automobile Age provided the inspiration for the development of high-speed motor travel along with a web of freeways for hundreds of miles, complete with road signs, motels, gas stations and, let us not forget, highway patrols.  

The computers and the revolution in communications and information technology are examples of American innovativeness – from the early days of Hollerith and card punching systems to the development of the microchip capable of storing tons of data in a thimble. Starting with the iconic IBM, American companies like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft have become household names. Developments seem to come by leaps and bounds, branching off in different directions from computers with immense computing power and the ability to store humongous quantities of information to small chips ushering in convenient desktops and laptops. 

Thanks to Google and other search engines, we have all the information we need with a click of a button, allowing us to dispense with big libraries and stacks of books and other documents. Word processing has spelled a death knell on the typists but opened up much for the rest of us. Everyone seems to have a little cell phone these days, even little kids and texting has become so common. Letter writing has given way to e-mail. 

Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter have become household names and have caused quite a dent in our daily lives.  Now we can order groceries and other merchandise through the computers and get delivered at our doorsteps. We were afforded added admiration for these developments in the recent lockdown for Covid-19 which has been with us for over a year now. Thanks to all the developments many could work on the computers from home avoiding a major calamity all over. One dreads to think where we would have been if the Covid-19 hit us twenty years earlier when much of these developments were not yet in place. Incidentally, the huge presence of persons of subcontinental origin in computer, information technology, and related industries cannot be missed. Many have made huge contributions in the field. And some have made it to the highest levels like Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and Arvind Krishna, the new CEO of IBM.

Sundar Pichai in Vietnam (Image by Nguyen Hung Vu under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

American universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia have been fountainheads of innovative thinking and have been at the forefront of pathbreaking research and developments. America outstrips all other nations by a huge margin when it comes to the number of Nobel Prize winners. Nobel Laureates of Indian origin, Har Gobind Khorana (Medicine), Subramanya Chandrasekhar (Physics), Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Chemistry), and Abhijit Banerjee (Economics) all did a major portion of their work while in this country and were US citizens. Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize also did a major part of his work in the US.

Americans, I am sure, were the first to think of fast foods and franchises – MacDonald’s was such a seminal idea followed by other icons like Burger King and KFC. And who else could have thought of exploiting a commercial angle to amour and bring about Valentine’s day or to parental relationships, bringing about Father’s Day and Mother’s Day? Thank God (or whoever) that at least twice a year, the children are reminded of their parents. And with all that and their predilection to excessive usage of natural resources, they gave birth to the realization that our planet’s natural resources need to be protected and nurtured.  Thus was born the environmental protection laws, idea of recycling, discouraging the usage of fossil fuels and the penchant for clean air and clean water.   

And that brings me to my favorite: Sports.  Basketball and volleyball were both invented within American shores and are popular today the world over. So was baseball, their national pastime, which is slowly getting popular outside: in Japan, Korea, and Latin America. And American Football too was their invention; forget that it has some vague roots in the English game of rugby. Who else could have conceived of twenty-two huge fat men banging ‘systematically’ on each other in an effort to advance a funny-shaped ball to the end zone?  The game is interspersed with timeouts to accommodate the TV ads. But may be the biggest innovation in the game is the cheerleaders: skimpily yet colorfully dressed dancing girls dazzling the arenas and the TV screens. Many of my friends new to the country and to American Football got first attracted to the game because of these cheerleaders. And finally, how many of you are into WWF wrestling? I was once quite a fan and my young nephew in India, an otherwise intelligent man, is addicted to it. There is fighting, faking, shouting, drama – what not? It may be America’s greatest innovation of all.

Makes one really wonder what today’s world would have been like without the last one hundred and fifty years of American innovation.

Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.


Early Women’s Education in Bengal and India


Indian society seems to have always been riddled with bewildering contrasts: the opulence and development of Mumbai and Bangalore with poverty in rural India; the high philosophy of the Vedanta with the pervasive idolatry, superstitions, and rampant caste prejudices; the widespread Islamophobia with our past two Muslim Presidents. The history of women’s education is another example.

Most of our grandmothers in the early parts of the twentieth century were married off by the age of twelve or thirteen, putting an end to their formal education. In sharp contrast, many of our grandfathers were college educated – some were lawyers or doctors. Yet, a generation before that, in 1882, Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly, passed the examination of the bachelor’s degree in arts from University of Calcutta in India. Their formal degrees were handed during the convocation of the University in 1883. They were the first two graduates of the entire British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. (Some interesting facts on this issue are presented in the Appendix at the end of the article.) The first woman graduate from Bombay University was Cornelia Sorabjee in 1888.

Women’s education in Bengal and India lagged significantly behind the great strides taking place like the Bengali Renaissance and the opening of the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. However, for women, the mainstream Hindu society was mired in prejudices and superstitions. For girls to be married off by the age twelve or thirteen, receiving an education was often considered an anathema, sometimes even a sin. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, liberal Indian minds (obviously men) imbued with western thoughts and values started feeling the serious deficiency. Some of these men, among the British administrators, also felt the need to spread women’s education.

English men and women established several women’s schools. Surprisingly, they all gathered the reputation of wishing to convert girls. These girls were therefore made to stay away. Finally, a lawyer named John Drinkwater Bethune established possibly the first and most influential school for women’s education in Calcutta in 1849. It was a seminal institution with a strong mandate for secularism (meaning non-Christian).

But old traditions and habits die hard. There was still great resistance from orthodox quarters. As an example, a noted Bengali poet of the time named Ishwar Chandra Gupta well focused the spirit of public indignation. My rough translation of the poem is presented below:

All our lassies, smacking their fingers and books in their hands will spiral down to infamy;

With knowledge of ‘A, B’ and dressed like memsahibs, and surely muttering in their foreign lingo;

Wait a few more days my brothers, surely you will not miss the sight;

Of them driving their own carriages to GorerMath(1) for unrestricted fun and frolic

(1) The large open space in Calcutta, aka the “Maidan,” is a worthy counterpart of Hyde Park in London.

After time, the Brahmo families led the way towards a slowly broken down resistance. In 1888, the Bethune School of 136 students had 87 Brahmos, 44 Hindus, and 5 Christians. Bethune College was started in 1979 with Kadambini Bose as the only student. There was also a burst of publications of Bengali periodicals like Prabashi and Bharabarsha which contributed heavily to the enrichment of the Bengali women’s minds, if they were lettered. They could read them in the confines of their ‘shoshurbaris,’ often clandestinely.

Now back to Chandramukhi and Kadambini. Chandramukhi Bose was a Bengali Christian born in Dehra Dun in 1860. In 1876, because of the discriminatory official stances towards gender, she had to be given special permission to appear for the F.A. examination. As the only girl to appear that year, she had ranked first. Knowledgeable of this fact, the university held a series of meetings to decide whether her results could be published. Only the university’s changed resolution in 1878 allowed her to study further. Along with Kadambini Ganguly, she then moved to Bethune College for the degree course. After her graduation, she was the first woman to pass MA from theUniversity of Calcutta and from the British Empire in 1884. Beyond this feat, Chandramukhi Bose became the first Principal of Bethune College in 1888, retiring in 1901 due to ill health. She married Pandit Keswaranand Mamgayen in 1903, and died in Dehra Dun in 1940. Her two sisters, Bidhumukhi and Bindubasini, were two of the earliest graduates of Calcutta Medical College in 1890 and 1891, respectively.

The life of Kadambini Ganguly (nee Bose) was even more eventful. Kadambini was born in Bhagalpur, Bihar in 1861, the daughter of a Brahmo reformer. After obtaining a B.A. degree in 1883, she married Dwarkanath Ganguli. She also entered the Calcutta Medical College the same year. In 1886, she qualified as a medical doctor, one of the first two Indian women doctors qualified to practice western medicine (the other was Anandi Gopal Joshi – more on her later). Kadambini went to the United Kingdom in 1892 and returned to India after qualifying in LRCP (Edinburgh), LRCS (Glasgow), and GFPS (Dublin). After working for a short period in Lady Dufferin Hospital, she started her own private practice. Astonishingly, she held the dual responsibility of raising eight children as well as a professional practice. In addition, she and her husband were actively involved in female emancipation and social movements. She was one of the six female delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress in 1889 and even organized the Women’s Conference in Calcutta in 1906 in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal. Kadambini Ganguly died in 1923.

(I have read somewhere that the first ten female graduates of Calcutta University were all Brahmos or Christians – no mainstream Hindus) 

Anandi Gopal Joshi was born in an orthodox Marathi Brahmin family in 1865. She was married at the age of nine. At fourteen years old, Anandibai gave birth to a boy. But the child lived only ten days because necessary medical care was unavailable. This situation proved a turning point in Anandibai’s life and inspired her to become a physician. At the age of nineteen, with the help and inspiration of her liberal minded husband Gopalrao and some American benefactors, she could enroll in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. While in America, she contracted tuberculosis. Nevertheless, she graduated with an MD on March 11th, 1886. Anandibai returned to India in late 1886. She was appointed the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital in Kohlapur, Maharashtra. Anandibai died early next year on February 26th, 1887, before turning twenty-two.

The history of women’s education in Bengal would be incomplete without mentioning two girls schools of a different genre and different perspective. One such school is theMahakali Pathshala established in 1893 by Mataji Gangabai, a Maharashtrian ascetic and reputed cousin of the famous Jhansi Ki Rani. Mataji Gangabai was driven by the desire to ”impart religious and moral education ….to Hindu girls on strictly orthodox Hindu principles with the objects among others of regenerating Hindu society by educating Hindu girls in Hindu ways and infusing into them Hindu female etiquette…” This was surely in response to the western-biased education in existing institutions that struck at the roots of conservatism prevalent in those days, attracting younger generations who had no genuine idea of Hinduism and its rich heritage. The school was blessed with a visit from Swami Vivekananda in 1897; Vivekananda left with very favorable impressions of the school. Mahakali Pathshala (as Adi Mahakali Pathshala) is still in existence.

The other school is the much more well known Sister Nivedita Girls School. This unique school is the only educational institution for girls that was inaugurated by Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, in the presence of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda, and others on November 13th, 1898. The school, which has already received much praise, was the first school to have a significant number of young, married women. It seems they were very thankful for the unexpected opportunity. They looked forward to their classes by finishing their household chores in a hurry. Fortunately, the school is still in existence.


I have collected a few snippets from the internet regarding information on early female graduates from the universities of London, Oxford and Harvard, which I present below.

“University College London was the first to admit female students on the same grounds as men in 1878, while the first female graduate emerged from the University of Wales in 1896.”

“The university [Oxford] passed a statute in 1875 allowing its delegates to create examinations for women at roughly undergraduate level. The first four women’s colleges were established due to the activism of the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women (AEW). Lady Margaret Hall (1878)[32] was followed by Somerville College in 1879; the first 21 students from Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall attended lectures in rooms above an Oxford baker’s shop.”

“They turned to an innovative solution, developing an institution of their own, one located near Harvard that would offer female students instruction by Harvard professors, “the same courses they taught men in the Yard.” The “Harvard Annex” opened its doors in 1879. By 1890 more than 200 women were being taught by 70 men.”