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A school that challenged the claustrophobic orthodoxy of 'purdah' (IANS Special Series)

Sunday - January 13, 2019 3:46 pm , Category : EDUCATION
Jaipur, Jan 13 (IANS) Located in the heart of the capital of Rajasthan, this all-girls school, started by an erstwhile queen, began a silent revolution in 1943 when the region was steeped in the claustrophobic orthodoxy of the ‘purdah' system for women.
With an objective to liberate girls from the clutches of purdah system (the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a veil or curtain), the Maharani Gayatri Devi School has been able to realise the dream of the queen after whom the school was named.
The school, which has now completed 75 years of its existence, helped its students become financially independent and step out into the mainstream world with confidence.
Not only has the school liberated girls from the purdah system, graduates of Maharani Gayatri Devi School have made a mark in all streams be it politics, Army, administration services, sports and even art and culture, says Colonel S.S. Sangwan (Retd.), Administrative Officer of the Maharani Gayatri Devi School.
A student of this very school, Meira Kumar, served as MP five times and also served as Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 2009-14. Rajnigandha Shekhawat (1980 batch) has been a well-known sufi singer; Savitri Candy from 1959 batch became the first lady from Rajasthan to join the Indian Foreign Service in 1967.
Apurvi Chandela (2003 batch) won gold medal in Commonwealth Games while Shagun Chaudhary became the first woman to qualify for Olympics trap shooting event.
Even today, the school stands tall when it comes to grooming talent. Manashvi Katta, Yashasvi Katta and Manvi Gargoti were selected for Juniors IPL Cricket and Vasundra Chandrawat has been selected for International Karate Tournament to be held in 2019 in Bangladesh, Sangwan says.
Started by Rajmata Gayatra Devi, the seeds of the idea of the school were sown when Jaipur's king Sawai Man Singh brought home Princess Ayesha (formally Gayatri Devi) of Cooch Behar as his bride. The well-educated queen, with her global outlook and exposure, was sad to see girls spending their lives in purdah.
When the king, who was concerned that Jaipur was far behind other states and provinces when it came to girl education, sought advice from her queen to find a solution, she suggested a school for girls. The idea was that once girls go to a school, there will be no purdah in a few years.
The queen herself made door to door visits asking the elites to send their daughters to school since at that time education for girls in the desert state was an unheard of idea. Initially, there were 24 girls on its rolls.
"The parents were apprehensive of sending girls to schools. Hence the queen promised a ‘purdah' bus for their girls. This highly curtained bus had a teacher escorting each girl into the waiting bus. The curtains were immediately fastened to the windows," says Jane Himmeth Singh, a first-batch graduate of the school.
"There was also a curtain between the driver's cabin and the rest of the bus where the girls, teacher and the maid sat," she said.
Going down memory lane, Singh said: "We were introduced to a uniform. The senior girls' uniform was a blue saree with maroon pallu (veil) and blue blouses. The juniors' uniform was maroon pleated skirts with buttoned down straps, blue blouses, white socks, black buckled shoes and maroon ribbons.
"While taking measurements, the tailor used to stand on other side of the curtain while our teachers took our measurements and called out the inches. Also, the fathers and brothers were not allowed in the school till 1950," she said.
Till 1976, Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls School was the only girls public school in India.
Eventually its uniform evolved to a chic tunic, replete with tie and belt; sports were played in divided skirts which soon became shorts. In winters, there were blazers.
The first principal, Miss Lutter, brought in first Rajasthan Olympics for girls and started literary and debating activities, and drama and photography competitions which exposed girls to the new world.
"Even after 75 years, the school maintains its rich legacy, perfectly blending the progressive approach and traditional values to ensure the girls have a strong foundation," Sangwan says.
"Following cosmopolitan approach, our girls sing Christmas carols and learn to celebrate each and every festival without getting biased or inclined to any particular creed. The discipline is yet another perceptive which we focus upon," he adds.
Laxmi Singh, MGD's most loved teacher, says: "What makes this school different is the family system being followed here among students. Everyone calls their elders as ‘jija', meaning elder sister, which binds the students in a value system."
Arushi Sharma, a 2009 graduate serving as the Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax, Mumbai, says: "When I had joined the school in 1996, I was a shy, withdrawn and an afraid young girl. When I left the school, I was a boisterous, forthright and fearless young woman being a successful swimmer, debater and a theater artist all at once."
Captain Navita Kashyap, a 2012 graduate, says: "The education I got outside the classroom, in the sports fields, during the various debates and cultural fests made me realise my calling."
Archana S. Mankotia, Principal of the school, says: "With a huge historical legacy, the principals from time to time have tried to infuse modernity and progressive attitude among girls which the erstwhile queen had once dreamed."
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Archana Sharma can be contacted at archana.s@ians.in)

--IANS arc/vv/tb/mr

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