With Independence, a new ‘modern’ women’s college, Miranda House, began to take shape in Delhi in 1948, a college tied to a modernising new nation and its women citizens.
Earlier, in 1924, Indraprastha College had been established and was Delhi’s first women’s college. IP college had been started by a group of philanthropists and theosophists, and was rooted in the nationalist idea of educated wives and mothers leading to enlightened households, reform in the domestic sphere.
“What was different about a college which sprang up in the first years of the Nehruvian era was a certain aspiration to stretch beyond the boundaries of paternalism towards the idea of citizenship for women in a modernising India,” write Uma Chakravarti, Radhika Singha and Ramya Sreenivasan in a 1998 article titled, ‘Miranda House at Fifty: An Overview’ in a volume ‘Reliving Miranda: 1948-98’.
“Related to this was the hope of finding a professional career as well — in teaching, in the civil services, in the media. These notions gave a certain legitimacy to the fostering of female individuality at the inception of this institution, a theme which had carried very ambivalent overtones in earlier nationalist discussions about women’s education,” they added.
Unlike most other Delhi University colleges, Miranda House was not started and governed by a private trust. It was then Vice-Chancellor Maurice Gwyer’s project and is a college of and by Delhi University. Its creation received a lot of support from the government of newly independent India and its foundation stone was laid by Lady Edwina Mountbatten on March 7, 1948. In a famous anecdote which had been recounted by the college’s first principal Veda Thakurdas, Gwyer had told her that she could give people three responses to questions on why he had named the college so: people thought Carmen Miranda was his favourite actress; his daughter’s name was Miranda; and that Miranda from ‘The Tempest’ could be a good example for the students of the college. “Miranda, isolated from the world on that uninhabited fairy island and so fondly reared up and schooled by her father, the only human being she had seen, when she meets a man for the first time takes him for a ‘Thing Divine’ and exclaims in amazement ‘How beauteous Mankind is; O brave new world that hath such people in it.”
Before it became a college, Miranda House, an old colonial bungalow close to the current site of the college, was a post-graduate hostel for women. In the initial years, this bungalow became the residence of Principal Thakurdas. In a piece in the college magazine in 1952, Thakurdas wrote that when the college started with 33 students on July 26, 1948, the college building, designed by Walter George, was not yet ready, so classes were held in her residence.
Of the very first day of the college, she wrote, “Although there was a heavy downpour of rain since early dawn, to my great surprise and delight, all the thirty three students who had been enrolled during the admissions held on 22nd, 23rd and 24th July turned up for lectures at my residence at 9 am: some of them were absolutely drenched and had to change into my clothes!… After roll call we had two lectures. The students sat on the floor in classes held in my drawing room and office, and verandahs.”
Later that year, the number of students grew to 108, of whom 49 were in residence, and the next academic year began with 406 students in the rolls. Among the early subjects taught were English, History, Philosophy, and Math: it later went on to pioneer science courses for women in DU with B.Sc. General classes beginning in the campus in 1963, and other science courses were introduced over the next decade. According to Shweta Sachdeva Jha, Associate Professor at the college who is leading the Miranda House Archiving Project, many of the students in the early years seem to have come from affluent, English speaking backgrounds and the college had a veneer of an elite institution.
As an institute founded in the immediate aftermath of Independence, echoes of the Partitions also rang through its early years. Jha talks about how Thakurdas herself had come to India during the Partition.
“Veda Thakurdas, a Punjabi Christian lady, was the principal of a women’s college in Lahore [Islamia Women’s College]. She has written about how she had a very difficult time during the Partition. Somebody who later became a part of the ministry in Pakistan and his wife managed to get her a ticket and onto a train and she came from Lahore to Delhi,” she said.
Some of its earlier students too had joined after crossing the border. In an article on her days as a resident in Miranda House, Rati Bartholomew, who had come from Lahore and would later go on to become a teacher and theatre personality, drew similarities between the warm, friendly relationships between faculty and students in Miranda House and Kinnaird College, where she studied in Lahore before her displacement.