They labelled her "the grandmother of women's studies" and that is a description she easily fit into. Till today, no one who is researching, writing on or studying gender and women's studies can work without encountering Vina Mazumdar's numerous concepts, ideals and scholarly treatises. Her passing on 30 May this year has left a void in the map of the women's movement in India. At a time when the position of women in India and their collective struggle to rid themselves of the shackles of a patriarchal society are so prominently at the centre of public discourse, Mazumdar's personal and academic legacy deserve more attention and study than ever before.
Mazumdar is considered one of the major pillars in the history of the women's movement in India. Despite the depth and width of her scholarship that is traced back to a history of academic brilliance, gift of oratory, outstanding debating skills, Vina-di, as she was affectionately called, remained firmly rooted to the ground and never wore the airs of intellectual arrogance that make many scholars difficult to approach and access. She was perhaps the first Indian woman to combine academic scholarship with activism within the women's movement.
Born in 1927 in a middle-class Bengali family in Bengal as the youngest of five children, Mazumdar's uncle was the noted historian R C Mazumdar. She was educated in Calcutta, Benares and Oxford. She completed her D.Phil. from Oxford University and taught Political Science in the Universities of Patna and Berhampur, and was an Officer in the UGC Secretariat besides being a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.
She was also Member Secretary, Committee on the Status of Women in India and later was appointed Director, Programme of Women's Studies, Indian Council of Social Science Research from 1975 to 1980. Mazumdar was founder-Director of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, from 1980-1991. Thereafter, she became Senior Fellow at CWDS and JP Naik Fellow, ISCCS for two years. From 1996, she became Chairperson, Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi.
Vina Mazumdar, the rebel
Noted journalist Pamela Philipose says Mazumdar was shaped by pre-independence India. Among the many challenges she faced, a major one was domestic upheaval caused by professional choices. Add to this the backlash from entrenched hierarchies, most notably during her courageous attempt to breathe fresh life into the stagnant academic scenario of the University of Berhampur in Orissa.
According to noted journalist Pamela Philipose, Vina was shaped by pre-independence India. Among the many challenges she faced, a major one was domestic upheaval caused by professional choices. Pic: Wikipedia.
She goes on to describe her involvement with the women's movement where she acknowledges her learning experience in her interactions with rural women during the course of her activism. She decided to set up the Centre for Women's Development Studies in 1980 to initiate focussed scientific research on women stemming mainly from women's lived experience.
In an interview to Akshaya Mukul in Time Crest in 2010, Mazumdar said, "I have feminist friends, all educated, who have very little contact with poor women. Thanks to Phulrenu (Guha), Lotika (Sarkar) and I learned to see the state from the perspective of dispossessed women. This pushed us into doing action-oriented research in places like Bankura and Medinipur, which is still on. But in these two places, the relationship was reversed. We went to teach them about their rights in the Constitution and ended up being their students. We learnt about farming, migration for work and their daily struggles. My whole perspective got turned upside down. It taught me humility. The poor and the weakest fight harder for survival, so they deserve more."
These comments offer a glimpse into the philosophy of one of the few Indian women who pioneered the women's movement in India.
Mazumdar fought her first battle in Oxford in the 1940s. It involved the principal of St. Hughes College where she was a student and the Oxford University authorities. "I wanted to do history. But the university said I have to take Latin too. But my Principal was clear that there was no need, since I had already passed Latin during the entrance test. There was a takkar (fight) between the university and my college." A compromise was struck and Mazumdar finally took up study of the modern greats.
Interviewed by Akshaya Mukul after her autobiography was published, she said, "I never regretted it because it helped me understand why there is a difference between constitutional guarantees to women and their real condition. Why it is that only a few like me, or Lotika-di or Leela Dube had freedom while a large majority of women had none. By writing this book, I also wanted to explain that Indian Women's movement was not imitating feminist movements of the West."
Many men among her peers in universities called her a 'bulldozer.' She met her husband Shankar Mazumdar, a classical musician, in Patna and the two married in 1952 and had four children - three daughters and a son. "I picked up smoking from my husband and it stayed on," she writes in her autobiography adding how the two would also share a nightcap everyday "which was disrupted only if I was out of town or if there was an argument at home."
Vina Mazumdar, the scholar
Feminist scholar and researcher Vibhuti Patel recalls that in 1972, when the Indian Government agreed to honour the UN mandate to prepare a status report on women, Vina Mazumdar was appointed as member secretary on the Committee on the Status of Women in India. "Her contribution while preparing the landmark report Towards Equality (1974) as a researcher backed by analytical rigour to explain material and ideological conditions that determined women's predicament in India made her a most sought-after scholar-activist during the 1970s till the beginning of the New Millennium," states Patel.
"She was one of our most loved and revered teachers," says Kalpana Dasgupta, former librarian of National Library, Kolkata, who studied under Mazumdar at Patna University for her MA. "Her teaching methods were very different from traditional classroom teaching. When we met again more than a decade later and I became a full-fledged librarian, Vina-di had become a formidable exponent of women's studies and wanted me to take my first step into this field by preparing an annotated bibliography of English language documents on women's issues."
"While I was preparing the Bibliography, Vina-di gave me the opportunity to interact with the distinguished members of the committee on the status of women in India, which was in the process of preparing the report Towards Equality that is still considered the most comprehensive documentation on women's issues in the Indian context."
Mazumdar had a holistic and harmonious approach towards the women's movement and the women's studies movement, which she considered as one and did not believe in making distinctions between. According to her, the two were not only complements of one another but each also influenced and furthered the agenda and cause of the other.
At the Centre for Women's Development Studies, the concept of bureaucratic hierarchy was absent and interactions would always unfold "a happy group of people working together, sharing the same dream to make a difference in the women's movement," reminisces Kalpana. Among her students who became famous later are BJP leader Yeshwant Sinha and former Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey. Sitaram Yechury is her son-in-law while CPI (M) leaders Prakash and Brinda Karat were also very close to her.
But the greatness of Vina Mazumdar is that she commanded respect even from those who differed with her on ideological terms; not even the greatest dissenter could
have two opinions about her indomitable spirit to fight for justice and women's rights without any personal agenda. The last word goes to Vibhuti Patel who
writes, "Her charm lay in her electrifying persona, her ever-smiling face conveying optimism, her down-to-earth approach, her ideological sharpness, her
story-telling laced with wit and most important, her courage of conviction combined with honesty of purpose."