Mahila Seva Samaja: A school built for breaking taboos

Mahila Seva Samaja: A school built for breaking taboos

The main school building.

International Women’s Day, held earlier, has been observed since 1911 as a day to promote women’s rights and celebrate their achievements.

In Bengaluru, Mahila Seva Samaja, a school established by women expressly for the upliftment of women, has been an exemplar of high-achieving, enabled women since almost as long.

The saga begins in October 1913 when Parvatiamma Chandrashekar Iyer established an organisation called Seva Sadan Society. Its objectives were ‘to promote measures for the benefit and advancement of Indian women, including the organisation of educational, medical and philanthropic work and the training of women to take part in such work.’

Rangammal Aravamuda Iyengar served as its Honorary Secretary and Treasurer.

Another 10 women, equally capable, made up the Management Council.

Many of them were the spouses of well-regarded scientists, merchants and people in the higher echelons of the Mysore administration, including J S Chakravarti, V S Sambasiva Iyer, A M Thangavelu Mudaliar, and others. Most of the husbands, including Parvatiamma’s husband Justice K S Chandrashekhar Iyer, Rangammal’s husband G Aravamudu Iyengar, and a few other men comprised the quaintly-named Gentlemen Helpers Committee that helped the organisation in its early years.

Seva Sadan Society began in a rented house in the Fort area with just six women who were taught arithmetic, sewing, English, Kannada and other subjects, free of cost.

Renamed as Mahila Seva Samaja in 1915, the society took a special interest in the upliftment of widows, who in those days were particularly oppressed.

It’s said that Parvatiamma went from door to door, asking about young widows who could join the Samaja’s classes so that they could lead a life of dignity and self-respect.

Her labours bore fruit. The number of students doubled in Mahila Seva Samaja’s second year and in 1915, it already had 27 students and was fast outgrowing its rented bungalow.

There were teachers, tailors and superintendents to be accommodated, a library and reading room to be developed, further classes planned, besides sports and other recreational facilities to be provided for the students.

Accordingly, the Samaja applied to the Mysore government for a free site and for help with construction costs.

‘The work of the Samaja is of public utility and importance’, wrote the plucky Parvatiamma, adding cheekily that since ‘the women’s movement has not hitherto come in for any large patronage at the hands of the State,’ she hoped the government would support the cause generously.

And of course, they did. In December 1916, the Maharaja’s government granted the Mahila Seva Samaja a plot of about over 2 acres, free of cost.

This was augmented with additional grants of land given a few years later.
In the early 1920s, the Mahila Seva Samaja became a school for girls. A few years later, it began admitting boys too. Today, the school is a modern, fully co-educational institution with 1600 students, and offers both CBSE and SSLC boards.

It is still run by a committee comprising only women. Sandhya Jaiprakash, a member of the Managing Committee, smiles and explains, “Women are better administrators, and we multitask very well.” Adds Padmini Gokhale, Vice-President, “Women understand children well, we can do whatever has to be done.”

You can sense the school’s women-centric history and focus even today. The walls are lined with black and white photographs of the founders and past administrators, all of them women. Among this galaxy of female achievers are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, taken during his visit to the school in 1927. Everyone is proud of this event, particularly since Gandhiji himself praised the school for contributing enthusiastically for the service of the poor.

The school is also fiercely protective of its administrative block which once housed classrooms. Inaugurated by Annie Besant in 1920, it is an unpretentious two-storeyed structure, strongly vernacular in character. A simple porch marks the entrance. A projecting cornice with dentil mouldings marks the division between the two floors. A similar moulding adorns the junction between the first floor and the terrace. The parapet is decorated with a floral motif. Though both storeys have rectangular windows, the window mouldings are semi-circular on the first floor and rectangular on the ground floor.

Inside, the large, impeccably maintained central hall, wood from the doors, the flat Madras terrace roofs and the period furniture gleams and glows softly. The high ceilings and small rectangular ventilators ensure that rooms stay cool even in the midday heat. The building still retains its terracotta tile floors.

In 2015, this building received an INTACH Heritage Award.

(The writer has authored ‘Discovering Bengaluru’ and is the convenor of INTACH Bengaluru Chapter.)

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