SISTER NIVEDITA : AN ICON OF INDIAN HISTORY
The Irish-born educationist, author, social activist and thinker Margaret Elizabeth Noble (1867-1911), also known as Sister Nivedita was a significant contributor to the field of women’s education and empowerment, promoter of science and art but above all Sister Nivedita is remembered for awakening national consciousness amidst the people of India. To introduce her in a line and highlight her contribution to India, it would be fair to use Abanindranath Tagore’s words : “Amongst the foreigners who loved India, Nivedita’s place is the highest”. Sister Nivedita not only endorsed, encouraged and appreciated Indian Art but also plunged herself into the whirl-wind of discovering and reconstructing Indian Art, thus making art an essential tool in awakening and invigorating the national consciousness of India.
Becoming of Sister Nivedita : Margaret Elizabeth Noble was born in 1867 to a Irish family. She got her religious learnings form her father, who taught her that service to mankind is the true service to God. Margaret was educated from Halifax College where her Headmistress taught her about personal sacrifice. At the age of 17, she started teaching at a school in Keswick and later went on to teach children at an orphanage in Rugby. Margaret Elizabeth Noble was inspired by the ideas of Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and with the German philosopher Friedrech Frobel - both of them emphasized the importance of pre-school education. In 1892, Margaret opened her own school at Kingsley Gate, where she used methods to teach kids, that were considered unconventional in that era.
Margaret arrived in India at the age of 30. She travelled to India in a ship called Mombasa. In November 1895, when Margaret Elizabeth Noble was only 28 years old, she met Swami Vivekananda for the first time. Her meeting with Swami Vivekananda in a winter of 1895 changed Margaret’s life completely. Being influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s principles, belief and speech; Margaret Elizabeth Noble saw the ‘Guru’ in him. In turn, Swami Vivekananda also recognised Margaret’s intellect, her universal mindset and potential to be the bridge between people from different social pathways. In Calcutta, Swami Vivekanada taught Margaret about the history, culture and traditions of India. She vowed to lead her life as a Brahmacharini on 25th March 1898 and was given the name ‘Nivedita’ by Swami Vivekananda. Thus, under the guidance of Vivekananda, she took on a new path with a new identity : ‘Sister Nivedita’, meaning - the dedicated one.
Within a few days of arrival in India, Sister Nivedita met Sarada Devi (wife and spiritual companion of Sri Ramakrishna) on 17th March 1898 and their meeting resulted in a friendship that lasted till the former’s demise. Sarada Devi used to call Nivedita “Khooki” (little girl), surpassing all language and cultural barriers. Thus, Nivedita had close association with Ramakrishna Mission.
Art as a tool for building national consciousness : For Sister Nivedita, national consciousness was about awakening and pride in all spheres – science, history, art, religion, literature. Promoting the finest minds across industry was her approach to build the nation. Sister Nivedita thus shaped the discourse of nationalism, through engaging with people, recognising their potential and enabling them. She felt deeply concerned about the western view that Indian art was influenced by Helenic art and thus not original. In a bid to challenge the prejudiced opinion, Nivedita together with Ananda Coomaraswamy and E.B. Havell, led the movement to revive Indian art. The concept of art as a signifier of national and civic identity appealed to Sister Nivedita as early as 1880. She was inspired by the art and craft movement in Britain, that sought to preserve the traditional and indigeneous artistry of the common people in the progress of industrialisation. When she arrived in India, our country was a British colony. Sister Nivedita’s empathy for the culturally and intellectually colonised country came naturally and later reflected in her words : “Never lower your flag to a foreigner. Try to be the greatest authority in the particular branch of research, that you have chosen for yourself. India must be recognised as the first here”. Sister Nivedita had learnt from Swami Vivekananda about the inmost and intricate specialities of Indian art to which the Indian artists and art-critics of that time were hardly aware. Sister Nivedita made E.B. Havell, Abanindranath Tagore and Ananda Coomaraswamy understood her special vision of Indian aesthetics and the philosophy of art, which Nivedita imbibed from her master Swami Vivekananda. She believed that the rebirth of ‘indianness’ in art was essential for the awakening of the motherland and held prolonged discussions and active interactions with the young students about the same.
Nivedita’s contribution to the history of Indian art : Sister Nivedita’s role in the history of Indian art, has been understated and overlooked for the longest time. In a country “full, full, full of artistic talent”, she tried to send a clear message to Indian art-students to desist from the existing practice of aping the Western art and strived hard to elaborate and establish the idea of Indian art, with its indigeneous roots as the binding force. The Bengal School of Art, under the mentorship of Abanindranath Tagore began as an avant garde and nationalist art movement in the early 20th century. The vision was to look towards the ‘east’ or the traditional art of India for inspiration and with a conscious attempt to move away from the style of Western Art. Distinguished practitioners of the Bengal School of Art such as Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Surendranath Ganguly, K. Venkatappa, Samarendranath Gupta, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Mukul Dey etc. were mentored and supported by art-luminaries like E.B. Havell, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Gaganendranath Tagore, O.C. Ganguly, Sir John Woodroffe, Kakuzo Okakaura, Yokohama Taikan and others. They were also mentored by Sister Nivedita, who took great interest in the work of the young group of artists, encouraging them to exhibit their paintings and pointing out to them what she perceived to be their artistic flaws. Thus, Sister Nivedita remained the vibrant centre of this art movement. In 1909, on the request of a visiting artist Christiana Herringham, Sister Nivedita convinced Abanindranath Tagore to send his students to the caves of Ajanta to copy its frescoes. It was her way of igniting respect for Indian art, within the young students and believed these could influence their art in future. It could also be looked upon as her way to ‘save art’ by documenting it. Sister Nivedita personally met their expenses of boarding and lodging and even visited them during the assignment. It is widely believed that Sister Nivedita was the inspiration behind Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic artwork ‘Bharat Mata’. According to Nivedita, “From beginning to end, the picture is an appeal in the Indian language to the Indian heart... It is the first great masterpiece in a new style. I would reprint it, if I could by tens of thousands and scatter it broadcast over the land, till there was not a peasant’s cottage or a craftman’s hut, between Kedarnath and Cape Comorin, that had not this presentment of Bharat-Mata somewhere on its walls. Over and over again as one looks into its qualities, one is struck by the purity and delicacy of the personality portrayed”. Abanindranath Tagore, who painted ‘Bharat Mata’ was motivated by Sister Nivedita’s book ‘Kali, the Mother’.
The pen was mightier... Apart from encouraging novice artists, Sister Nivedita worked on the promotion of Indian art by contributing several essays to various magazines and periodicals. Sri Ramananda Chattopadhyay, the editor of ‘Modern Review’, who became the chief exponent of Indian art movement, regularly published the illustrations by young artists of Bengal School of Art to promote them. Sri Ramananda Chattopadhyay acknowledged that it was Sister Nivedita who opened his eyes to the brilliance of local Indian painting. Nivedita was Ramananda’s chief advisor and without her guidance he would not have been able to take Indian artwork to the public. Sister Nivedita was always eager to critique and revise history, ethnography, the arts – all in a bid to advance, inspire, promote India’s culture. This was her way of serving the nation. Her major works include : ‘Kali, the Mother’, ‘The Web of Indian Life’, ‘Cradle tales of Hinduism’, ‘Myths and Legends of the Hindus and Buddhists’ ‘The Master as I saw Him’, ‘Notes of some wanderings with Swami Vivekananda’.
Sister Nivedita’s contribution to other aspects of Nation-building : Sister Nivedita had a multi-dimensional personality. She worked hard for the welfare of Indian people and also for the education and empowerment of women. She even introduced the newer ideas of art, handicrafts and drawing in the academic curriculum. She was pivotal in organizing the 1905 anti-partition movement and gave herself completely to the Swadeshi Movement. She even designed the Indian flag to take to rallies – which was embroidered by her students.
Sister Nivedita also actively participated in the Indian Nationalist struggle. She did not believe that non-cooperation and passive resistance could be the soul means to achieve the independence. Therefore she supported Sri Aurobindo’s concept of aggressive nationalism. Bipin Chandra Pal, the extremist leader was her friend and she regularly contributed articles to his newspaper ‘New India’.
As part of Nivedita’s mission to promote the finest minds of India, she financially supported the research work of the well-known scientist Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose and helped taking his words to a global audience. Nivedita even helped to edit Jagadish Bose’s manuscripts and also wrote about him in numerous journals and magazines, thus attracting the attention he merited.
Nivedita later opened Sister Nivedita Girl’s School after a voyage to the West, in order to collect funds for the same. In her memory many schools and colleges have been named after her.
Influence of social-activist Sister Nivedita on Indian nationalist Movement : Sister Nivedita was a social-activist and educator, who worked a lot to uplift our nation during the freedom struggle. She is one of the most iconic women in Indian History, who played a major role in the nationalist movement. Devoting her life to nationalist movements in India, Sister Nivedita started working on her own and maintained a direct relationship with many young revolutionaries of Bengal. In a lecture dating 1902, Sister Nivedita said, “If India had no unity herself, no unity could be given to her. The unity which undoubtedly belonged to India was self-born and had its own destiny, its own functions and its own vast powers; but it was the gift of no one”. Thus, Nivedita inspired the youths to fight for India’s freedom through her lectures. It is also said that Nivedita provided financial support and even leveraged her contacts to get information from government agencies, to forewarn the freedom fighters.
In 1905, Sister Nivedita designed a flag for India, which had two crossed thunderbolts on a red background. She introduced the song ‘Bande Mataram’ in her school as a prayer. Nivedita provided support to Annie Beasant and was close to Rishi Aurobindo, one of the main contributors of the early nationalist movement.
Sister Nivedita’s life came to an end : In the month of October in 1911, Sister Nivedita visited Darjeeling with Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose and his wife. At Darjeeling, Nivedita was hit by a fatal blout of blood-dysentry and breathed her last on 13th October 1911, at the age of 44. Her funeral rites were performed according to Hindu tradition.
In her memory, a cenotaph was raised at the cremation spot at Darjeeling with a single sentence that summarises Nivedita’s life. Inscribed on her tombstone, are the words – “Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.
Remembering Sister Nivedita with legacy :
1) A neglected memorial – The memorial, erected in 1925 is in a dilapidated condition with weeds and undergrowth, having taken over due to lack of maintainance and historical awareness.
2) A bridge – Nivedita Setu, over river Hooghly, connecting Howrah and Kolkata, is named after her.
3) A stamp – On the 100th birth anniversary of Sister Nivedita in 1967 (the stamp was issued in India in honour of Sister Nivedita).
4) A Fellowship of Research – A National Fellowship Award for Eminent Scholars is awarded annually in her name by The Indian Council of Social Science and Research – The Sister Nivedita National Fellowship for Studies in Social Culture and Religious Tolerance.
5) A commemorative plaque in her native place – In December 2007, a blue commemorative plaque was erected at Scotch Street, Dungannon (Ireland) by the Ulster History Circle in her honour. The ceremony was attended by the representatives of the Indian Constulate and South Tyrone Borough Council, Dungannon.