Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Sarojini Naidu’s Father

Legends and Anecdotes of Hyderabad- 39

Sarojini Naidu’s Father
By Narendra Luther

Normally, individuals are identified by their parents. But in some cases the children become so renowned that their parents get to be known with reference to their children even if they have an eminence of their own. This is also what has happened in the case of Sarojini Naidu’s father, Dr. Aghornath Chattopadhyay.

Aghornath Chattopadhyay was born in 1851 in Brahmamnagar village of Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh. His father, Ram Charan was a Sanskrit scholar. Aghornath was a brilliant student and was awarded the Gilchrist scholarship to go to England. He won the Baxter Prize in Physics and the Hope Prize in Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh. He was the first Indian to obtain a degree of D.Sc. from a foreign university. He knew a number of languages like Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, French, German and Russian. Jagatguru Sankaracharya bestowed on him the award of 'Vidyaratna' for his learning in Sanskrit.

He married Varada Devi who was also a poet in Sanskrit.

First principal of Nizam College

Salar Jung I who became the Prime Minister of Hyderabad in 1853 was keen to modernize various aspects of the administration of the state. For that purpose he recruited a good number of persons from British India with western education. In 1877, on a visit to Europe, he invited Aghornath to Hyderabad to promote the spread of education through the English medium.

Arriving in Hyderabad in 1878, Dr.Chattopadhyay he started a school with English medium. In 1881 he established the Hyderabad College which later came to be known as the Nizam College. Aghornath was its first principal.

Social Reformer

Aghornath and his wife Varada Devi were also interested in female education and they were instrumental in setting up the first school for girls in Nampally. They championed the cause of emancipation of women and were against child marriage and in favour of widows’ remarriage. It was largely because of his efforts that the Special Marriage Act of Hyderabad was enacted. He also believed that the elementary education of the child should be imparted in its mother tongue. He therefore set up a society for teaching various subjects in Urdu. It conducted examinations, which were open to all Indians. On the basis of the certificates issued by it, students were able to get jobs easily.

He was also in favour of inter-communal marriages. This philosophy was implemented in an ironic manner by a number of his children -- including Sarojini Naidu. The famous Andhra reformer, Kandukuri Veerasailingam was a contemporary of Aghornath and solemnized the inter-caste marriage of Sarojini Devi at Madras.

The Chattopdhyays kept an open house. It was, according to his son, Harendranath Chattopadhyay “a museum of wisdom and culture, a zoo crowded with a medley of strange types – some even verging on the mystique”

Aghornath was also an alchemist. According to some he had acquired a capability of turning base metals into gold from some sadhu, and Mrinalini, his grand daughter says that she has seen one coin turned into gold by him. According to her, Aghornath’s plan was to make gold worth 40 crores rupees that way and to use them for free and compulsory universal education in India.

Though a government servant, he remained a social activist. When the Indian National Congress was established in 1885 he along with his friend, Mulla Abdul Qayyum joined it and strengthened the movement and its objectives.

Protest and Demotion

When the Chanda Railway Project was mooted and it was proposed to raise funds for it from England, Dr.Chattopadhyay opposed the move. For this he was banished from Hyderabad in 1882 and sent away to Calcutta. Later, on the intervention of the Viceroy he was recalled to Hyderabad but was demoted to professorship. He remained under a cloud for six years. Later he took premature retirement but inspite of adverse circumstances, continued his educational and political activities. When Bengal was divided into two in 1905, Dr.Chattopadhyay was in the forefront of the protest functions against that.

Aghornath was a person of liberal outlook. Though himself a Brahmin he extended his patronage to a number of young men and women of other communities, Jamaluddin, the famous wit of Hyderabad stayed with him when he first came from Madras to Hyderabad. He must have sharpened his sense of humour from that association.

Most of his eight children made a mark in different fields. His eldest daughter, Sarojini Naidu, the ‘Nightingale of India’ is well known. She became President of the Indian National Congress and later, governor of U.P.

His eldest son, Virendranath was a revolutionary. He started the Anti-imperialist League in Germany and spent all his life fighting against imperialism. Another son, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya was a well-known poet and interested in fine arts particularly music. He also acted in a number of films. He married Kamla Devi who did a lot of work for the revival of ancient and traditional crafts of India.

Sunalini Devi was a Kathak dancer and became a film actress. Another daughter, Suhashini Devi joined the Communist Party of India married a fellow Communist, R.M. Jambekar and started the New Work Centre in Bombay.

Dr. Aghornath was a many-splendoured personality and he jumped into national causes without hesitation. He ignited a spark of enlightenment in a feudal state in the 19th century and suffered for it. Sarojini Naidu, called him ‘a magnificent failure’.

Dr.Chattopadhyay expired in 1915. It is indeed a pity that a man who contributed so much to learning, social and cultural advancement and communal harmony is all but forgotten. One of his grandchildren, Mrinalini, daughter of Ranendra Nath and a spinster of 70, now lives in Hyderabad.