Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.

–Mamata

All Dolled Up: Golu Festival

When we were young, Navaratri was one of the most exciting festivals. Several reasons: first, it was the only festival which stretched for so many days; then, for the girls, it involved getting dressed up every evening and visiting neighbours, friends and relatives; it meant different interesting prasads every day; and importantly, there was an ‘official’ ban on studying on the day of Saraswathi Puja, when all books, musical instruments etc., had to be kept at the altar.

The highlight of Navaratri for South Indians is Golu, the display of dolls.  The first step involves the putting up of the ‘golu padi’ or steps on which the dolls would be arranged. Some houses had modest 3-step set-ups, while others had up to nine steps (always in odd numbers). Households brought their their engineering skills to full play—sometimes steps were made of trunks ingeniously stacked to form a stair case, and covered with a cloth. Some constructed temporary arrangements from year to year. Others had permanent dismantalable steps which were stored away in some attic and assembled every year.

Popular leaders in Golu. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition

Then the dolls would be unpacked. Wooden ones, clay ones, porcelain ones, you name it. Those whose dresses were worn-out would need new clothes. Others needed a lick of paint or minor repairs. There was a particular order to arranging these dolls, with gods on the top steps, saints and famous people below them, and regular ordinary everyday people and scenes below these. There used to be sets—e.g., village scenes, scenes from the Ramayana, occupations, musicians, etc. Every year, each family also bought a few new dolls.

Golu dolls
Kumbhakaran being woken up. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition.

Below the steps on the floor, would be garden scenes, or most coveted, a ‘thopakulam’ (pond). Again, family ingenuity would come into play here. What container would hold the water (usually a large shallow tub); how it would be concealed (that involved importing a lot of sand or mud into the house!); what would float in it—ducks and other birds, flowers (real or plastic), etc; and the scene around the pond, including benches, trees, people strolling around, and when there was a particularly enthusiastic family, twinkling street lights.

Hi-tech was very much part of the display. Not just the lighting, but setting up elaborate working train sets or car racing-tracks instead of a traditional pond, and running the trains was a favourite.

And then, every day, elaborate rangolies had to be made, as well as prasad including the mandatory sundal (legumes like chana, lobia etc. cooked with coconut etc.).

For the little girls, it was about pulling out all the pattu-pavadais (silk longskirts), reviewing which would be worn on which day, which had grown short and needed to be let out, begging mothers and aunts to buy them blingy ornaments, and deciding whose house to visit when. We also had to prepare songs—every Aunty would ask every visitor to sing, and after the mandatory coy no’s, we would all sing the songs we had prepared. It must have been torturous to the listeners because most of us couldn’t hold a tune to save our lives. But everyone would applaud most politely, and then we would be given our vatala-paaku, fruit and packets of sundal wrapped in newspaper, and depart to the next house. The highlight of course was to savour the sundals—all of them used to taste delicious, partly because there was a limited quantity in the packages we were given.  We would discuss the relative merits of the doll display for days, and neighbourhood reputations were made or unmade based on the displays and sundals.

Such were the excitements of our simple lives. And so are memories made and traditions continued.

–Meena

Both pictures were taken at the Exhibition of Dusshera Dolls, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore.

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Usha Mehta

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.

Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life. 

Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.

In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.

The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.  

On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.

The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.

After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.

Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.

Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.

–Mamata

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A Thousand Flowers Bloom on my Table: Millefiori


When I was young, visits to my father’s office were looked-forward to treats. And one of the things that fascinated me were the beautiful, colourful glass paperweights that lay on the table, doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., keeping papers from flying in the wind created by the fan.

With bright colours and intricate designs, each one was different from the other. And of course, I always wondered how the fantastic shapes got into the glass dome.

It was only recently that poking around in a drawer, I re-discovered one of these. And I decided to read up on them.

Appropriately, the technique is called ‘millefiori’, Italian for ‘thousand flowers’ and is a kind of glass mosaic. The technique was probably invented in ancient Egypt and can be traced back to Ancient Roman Times. Samples have been found dating back to the 5th century. But the process got lost somewhere and was revived only in the 19th century by Murano glass artists. Vincenzo Moretti is credited with this, and is said to have put in years of painstaking trial and error to perfect the art. The term ‘millefiori’ itself first found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 1849. It was around this time that it became a rage in Europe, and factories came up in Italy, France and England, making paperweights, beads and marbles. France was at the center of the blossoming creativity. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the Paris Expo of 1878 gave a fillip to the popularity of this craft. However, the trend petered out in a few decades but some artists still carry forward the tradition, creating works to suit modern sensibilities.

Millefiori paperweight
Millefiori paperweight

The first step in the technique is to create Millefiori canes by layering molten glass of different colours into a pattern in a cylindrical shape. Then the cylinder is pulled by two glassmakers walking away from each other, pulling it to create a long rod. When the rod is sliced, the pattern is seen. Each such slice is called a murine. Many murines are arranged in a pattern and cased in glass, resulting in the beautiful products, ranging from paperweights, vases, rings, pendants, decorative plates, ashtrays and even playing marbles. It is a craft requiring not just an aesthetic sense but also great skills of working with glass, and precision. While flowers are the most common patterns, there are paperweights with geometrical shapes, insects, etc. too.

Today, these weights are collectors’ items, auctioned by the likes of Christie’s.

Alas, the one I have dug out is chipped at the bottom, so unlikely to make me my fortune. But it sure gives me joy every day when I look at it on my table. As precious!

—Meena