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A Homage to Neeraben

With the death of Neera Desai, an era in women's studies in India has in a sense passed. Her contributions were not limited to her scholarship and to the development of the women's study centre at the SNDT University, Mumbai. She also stood out for her unstinting support to young scholars all over the country, to women's organisations and the women's movement.





A Homage to Neeraben

Maithreyi Krishnaraj




grew with it. Women’s studies changed us and we changed women’s studies as our understanding grew, and the fact that a totally new area had emerged, threw open vistas of exploration, ideas and

With the death of Neera Desai, an era in women’s studies in India has in a sense passed. Her contributions were not limited to her scholarship and to the development of the women’s study centre at the SNDT University, Mumbai. She also stood out for her unstinting support to young scholars all over the country, to women’s organisations and the women’s movement.

Maithreyi Krishnaraj (maithreyi_krishnaraj@ has been researching issues relating to gender for many years.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 5, 2009

o everyone, she was always “Neeraben”, a kind of benign mother figure, who protected and carried with her, the brood of women’s studies scholars. I do not believe in hagiography because that makes her into a unidimensional figure and misses out on the struggle she had in the challenges of the period, the challenges she faced in remaking herself in ever new roles. Like most of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. She was not a “saint” endowed with unfailing wisdom, preaching to us but a very human being with human frailties and excellences, angry sometimes, forgiving at other times, and hence, easy to relate to as one of us. Most of all, she had a caring nature. One misses the dhoklas and tea that always awaited us when we had meetings arranged at her house. She opened her doors to meetings of various groups.

What is remarkable is how she learnt all the way. I joined the SNDT women’s studies “unit” as it was then, a small one room place, heroically managed by the honorary director of the unit. Both Neeraben and myself grew in women’s studies and

vol xliv no 36

theorisation. Above all, underwriting the whole enterprise was a deeply felt concern for bringing true equality for women. I am still uncomfortable with the new notion of “empowerment” that by-passes the question of gender equality.

Feminist Consciousness

Not many people know of the history of how the unit blossomed into a full-scale research centre gaining recognition across the country and abroad. It was the outcome of a set of fortuitous circumstances, a period in history, when the time had come. International conferences of the United Nations had placed women’s issue centre stage. But what was amazing was that Neeraben long before all this flurry of activity began, had identified research and documentation of women’s status as an important area of concern for a women’s university.

In a symposium held at the university to celebrate the golden jubilee of the SNDT university in 1966, Zakir Hussain declared that “whatever else these educated women would do, they would be housewives and mothers on whom

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    september 5, 2009 vol xliv no 36

    would largely rest the responsibility of running the enlightened home and of moulding the future generations of the country.” While the perceived function of women’s education had widened, the idea remained that women’s education was primarily to make them better mothers and wives. Most members who attended this symposium had endorsed this view. Neera Desai’s voice was alone among these voices of the experts. She pointed out the dilemmas. I paraphrase her words freely to reflect the essence of what she upheld. All laudable objectives mentioned by the experts in education cannot be pursued unproblematically. The values a girl was supposed to imbibe through education such as self-respect, rationality, objectivity, application of knowledge for a desired social change, a new selfhood as a citizen, irrespective of any other consideration contradicted with the actual situation of girls in the family and society because the survival of the family depended on women subordinating their interests to that of the family.

    Her working paper on that occasion emphasised that women’s education should help develop among women a sense of social purpose and competence to play one’s role in social and national development. She had proposed that a women’s university should not only advocate courses for promoting careers for women, but investigate how women fared in the country. This was before the Indian Council of Social Science Research formulated the programme of women’s studies, before the path-breaking “Towards Equality”1 Neeraben arrived at a period of history with her own background of an open acknowledgement of her feminist consciousness. She was never afraid to declare she was a “feminist”. Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya had taken umbrage at Neeraben’s “feminism”. Kamladevi was among those who believed socialism and nationalism would get divisive, if women asserted their rights as a separate issue.

    Thus early on, Neeraben had not talked of women’s studies as a mere academic enterprise, but as a tool for the development of women for themselves and society. In this perspective, she held great store by women becoming aware of their rights, of their subordination and promoting action in many spheres. She was critical of the so- called ideal family in India and located women’s oppression precisely within this sacrosanct family. In a book that she prepared for Sparrow recently, the title is Feminism as Experience. It is based on hundreds of interviews she had done to explore women’s experiences. Interestingly Neeraben’s own “feminist consciousness” did not arise out of any personal, painful experiences within the family. It was, I surmise, her engagement with the national movement as a young girl and her MA thesis on women that prepared her for women’s studies.

    Women’s Studies Movement

    The setting up of a unit for women’s studies was aided by a benign and caring matriarchy at SNDT. Beginning from Premlila Thackersey, who nurtured the women’s university in its inception to later by Madhuri Shah, who in her position as chair of the University Grants Commission (UGC) helped transform the women’s studies unit into a centre. Jyoti Trivedi made the state government take up the UGC granted posts so that the centre had full-fledged permanent faculty. This matriarchy had another crusader in Kamilini Bhansali, who as vice-chancellor, helped the centre throughout her regime not only through negotiations with UGC and the state government, but also through appreciative acknowledgements of the contribution that the staff of the SNDT Research Centre made. The research centre at this time was indeed the flagship of the university. The tremendous rapport Neeraben built with this matriarchy was as much responsible for what she achieved as her own efforts. This is not to belittle her own efforts or her achievements but to highlight the milieu in which she began. It is rare to get this constellation of favourable star alignments. As times changed and new outsiders came to SNDT, there has definitely been less support. Partly perhaps with its establishment in many universities, thanks to another member of the matriarchy Armity Desai, women’s studies was no longer a novel enterprise.

    The point of the story is to say it was a tide in the affairs of women’s studies. The setting up of the Centre for the Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi by


    Vina Mazumdar, who was on the advisory committee of the SNDT Centre gave further fillip to Neeraben’s efforts. After all the women’s studies movement was a political enterprise and needed leaders.

    I, as a close collaborator from 1975, learnt much from Neeraben. We differed temperamentally in many ways. I was more at ease in conceptualisation, but had less understanding of political nuances. Often I would dash off angry letters to ICSSR or UGC for withholding grants and she would restrain my impetuosity. In the 17 years I worked there, she gave me space to do what I liked and what I was good at. More than anything else, the combination of action and research, the contact with women’s movement that I gained from her support and example enriched me. I recollect how we underwent many difficulties in travelling to the Chandwad Conference organised by Sharad Joshi, where lakhs of women from rural areas had gathered. There were times, however, when I expected fulsome praise but she would withhold it but tell someone else about how well I articulate issues. She admired my writing but often I also felt an undercurrent of unease in her as my behaviour appeared intimidating. She had great insights, but I had the gift of the gab. I got quick promotion to eventually took over as director and professor thanks to her support. She wrote, I know, extensively in Gujarati to which I have no access.

    Unforgettable Moments

    Her contribution to women’s studies is not just what she did at SNDT or what she wrote but her unstinting support to young scholars all over the country, to women’s organisations and women’s movement.

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    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 5, 2009 vol xliv no 36

    september 5, 2009 vol xliv no 36


    Her outreach was vast. She was active in the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS). In fact, IAWS was launched at SNDT during the first conference. Neeraben grew gentler, more accepting of me and others as years passed. Her own insecurities melted away as she became accomplished and grew more confident.

    In the early years, she was often impatient with juniors. Through all the years she had also this other side, where she was a kind host and humane. Because we were in the same department, there was an undercurrent of a mild rivalry, but this phase did not surface when she retired. I on my part also had a certain ego regarding my intellectual ability. It was as time passed that I began to sense Neeraben’s contribution to capturing essential elements in any situation. There were many occasions when she came over to comfort me. During the first conference, I was at work long hours in SNDT, while my very young children were left at my sister’s. I stayed at the SNDT guest house as she did. Once I fainted due to overwork, someone reported to her, she came and briskly whisked me away. When I had a fracture and I was staying at Borivali, she came all the way to see me. When I was leaving for the United States, as my son who had cancer and had only a few days to live, she came to see me off at the airport. Most persons who met her felt this “motherly” quality.

    Her failings? Sometimes I felt she was too cautious to take a stand – too circumspect. She opted for conciliation rather than confrontation. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am the political innocent. However, when occasion demanded she could exercise authority. I remember two occasions. I did my PhD under her and she left me totally free to do it the way I wanted to. At the viva with the external examiner, the examiner went into much criticism of the methodology of the thesis. Neeraben burst forth. “Leave all this aside. Tell me. Are you passing this thesis or not?”

    I usually accompanied Neeraben to all conferences and we stayed together in the same room. At the Nairobi Conference in 1985, many delegates from India went off to tourist spots and we were not informed. I felt crestfallen. Neeraben said “Do not


    worry. The two of us will do it on our own”. We hired a jeep and took a tour of Amboseli park in Nairobi.

    On another occasion, we went on a tour supported by a grant from the National Council of Research on Women to women’s studies centres that had built archives. At Chicago, in the South Asian Studies Centre, an American lady began talking a lot about her knowledge of India. Neeraben snapped “Look we have come here to learn about this centre and how it built archives and not hear personal stories”. The lady was taken aback at this firm rebuke and promptly sat down.

    In a sense an era of women’s studies has passed. The baton is now with younger women to carry it forward, but with the same spirit of comradeliness and dedication to restore to women their rightful place in society.


    1 I was about to say “seminal” but after I imbibed feminist consciousness learnt not to say “seminal”. Unfortunately, we cannot say “vaginal” or “uterine” or “ova”. Patriarchal language is against us.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 5, 2009 vol xliv no 36

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