Maharishi Dhondo Keshav Karve was 104 years old when he passed away in 1962. Before that, to mark his centenary year, the government released postage stamps bearing his visage and bestowed him with the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. In another tribute to the social reformer’s long and illustrious life, a road stretching across 5 kilometres in South Mumbai was named “Maharishi Karve Marg” after independence.
Formerly known as Queen’s Road, the stretch is extensive enough to have Churchgate, Marine Lines and Charni Road railway stations fall within its spread, housing a diverse section of the city. While a part of it remains staunchly colonial, other areas have made way for modern Mumbai’s construction rush. The section along Oval Maidan is a picture postcard painted in history. Though the nomenclature “Queen’s Road” no longer stands, the nameplates and the art deco architecture of the buildings overlooking sprawling grounds betray their continuing affinity to a pre-1947 past. With names such as “Windsor House”, “Queen’s Court”, “Fairlawn”, the mansions of yore now have practising lawyers and doctors as residents.
In a city notorious for its fast-depleting green cover, the stretch is densely leafy. The trees coupled with the understated charm of the buildings could conjure an image of calmness, but with the city’s busiest railway stations and establishments of officialdom located in this road’s vicinity, tranquillity is not one of its virtues.
Beyond this stretch, the road has retained little that can evoke the aura of heritage. The portion at Churchgate is dotted by saree showrooms. Interestingly, Kala Niketan still identifies its address as “Queen’s Road” on the hoardings displayed outside its store.
The road was named Maharishi Karve in a tribute to his lifelong commitment to social reforms, which particularly concerned women’s rights. Born in 1858 in Ratnagiri district, Karve’s childhood experiences shaped his outlook as a social worker. He was married at the age of 14 to Radhabhai. Less than two decades later, he lost her to complications during childbirth. He emphasised his advocacy of widow remarriage by marrying Godubai, who had lost her husband at the age of 8. “Hingne Stree Shikshan Samstha”, an initiative started by Maharishi Karve to shelter and educate widows, is now known as “Maharishi Karve Stree Shikshan Samstha” and has affiliated campuses in different parts of Maharashtra.
His role as the founder of the first women’s university in South East Asia is the most revered aspect of his legacy. Established in 1916, the SNDT University made its humble beginnings in Pune with a college comprising five students. “Due to lack of financial resources, it was difficult to develop the college into a university. Maharishi Karve then approached Sir Vithaldas Thackersey. He donated Rs 15 lakh. It was only because of this that the university became a reality,” says its Vice-Chancellor Professor Shashikala Wanjari.
Sir Vithaldas Thackersey was a businessman in the erstwhile province of Bombay. The university was soon named after his mother, Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey, and went on to be known by its acronym “SNDT”. In 1936, the headquarters of the university was set up in Churchgate, Mumbai. Not surprisingly, its campus in Pune is located on Karve Road.
“His legacy was about empowering women. He wanted women to be educationally strong and stand on their own feet. Even today, it is so tough to work in the area of women’s issues. And if you go back to the way of life 100 years ago, you would know how worse it was,” Prof Wanjari says.
Retired Naval Officer Vikram Karve has fleeting memories of time spent with his renowned great-grandfather during the latter’s sunset years. “I remember visiting Maharishi Karve a number of times in his home at Hingne, now called Karve Nagar, in Pune in the Hingne Stree Shikshan Samstha he had started. Since he was more than 100 years old, he would sit on an armchair and play with me,” Karve says.
Vikram Karve spent six years living in Empress Court, a building which is a part of the heritage precinct on Maharishi Karve Marg. Currently a resident of Pune, the descendant often visits his former home located on the road.
An accidental symbolism continues to be at play near Charni Road, where Maharishi Karve Marg merges into a route named after Raja Ram Mohan Roy, another reformer far ahead of his times.