Google brings the untold stories of India’s female pioneers

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The Art & Culture platform of search engine giant Google has recently made available the unheard stories of India’s female pioneers via a new series of virtual exhibitions.

In partnership with feminist publisher Zubaan Books, the project titled Unheard Stories introduces the world to enterprising royals, grassroots activists, poets, scientists and more.

With over 1,800 works of art, photographs, and videos sourced from 26 cultural institutions across India, the project highlighted the rich history of women in India.

In a statement, Luisella Mazza, head of operations at the Google Cultural Institute, said: “This project is an effort to recognise the impact of Indian women in history and their impact on culture…

“It is our ongoing effort to make important cultural material available and accessible to everyone and to digitally preserve it to educate and inspire future generations.”

Here are some of the pioneers to discover:

Savitribai Phule

Savitribai Phule was a trailblazer in providing education for girls and for ostracized portions of society. She became the first female teacher in India (1848) and opened a school for girls with her husband, Jyotirao Phule. She went on to establish a shelter (1864) for destitute women and played a crucial role in grooming Jyotirao Phule’s pioneering institution, Satyashodhak Samaj, (1873) that fought for equality of all classes. Her life is heralded as a beacon of women’s rights in India. She is often referred to as the mother of Indian feminism.

Dr. Rakhmabai

Dr. Rakhmabai Bhikaji was a pioneer in the field of medicine and women’s rights in the 19th century. Her efforts to be granted the right to choose was instrumental in raising the age of consent for women in 1891. She went on to study in the London school of Medicine for Women in 1889. When she came back to India to work in a hospital in 1894, she became India’s first practicing lady doctor.

Jahan Ara

Jahan Ara Begum represents an important era in the role of women in India’s cultural history. The daughter of Shah Jahan and sister to Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, she could have been easily lost in the annals of history. But it was impossible to overlook the visionary that she was.

Proof of her genius lie in the pages of Munis-ul-Arwah and Sahibiya as well as the lanes of the bazaar she built which is now known as Chandni Chowk in present-day Delhi.

Begum Zeb-un-Nissa

Zeb-un-Nissa was the eldest child of the emperor Aurangzeb. To call her multi-talented would be an understatement. Highly intellectual, she was an accomplished scholar and had an enviable library. She was also trained in the use of arms and was a talented musician.

Since Aurangzeb was highly orthodox, she would write poems secretly. She took up the pen-name of “Makhfi”, meaning “The Hidden One” and went on to write 421 ghazals and several rubais which were posthumously compiled in Diwan-e-makhfi.

While her personal life was shrouded in myths and mysteries regarding her spinster status and her role in the state matters, she remained a benevolent figure for her subjects. The princess who was once a trusted aide to her father was later imprisoned by him for the last twenty years of her life.

Begum Samru

Begum Samru was the only Catholic Indian ruler. She ruled the areas around present day Meerut in the 18th and 19th century. A skilled diplomat and a master strategist, her journey from a nautch girl (court dancer) to a Begum is truly astounding.

Born as Farzana, she was of Kashmiri descent and caught the eye of Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a European mercenary when she was 12. She inherited the mercenary Army from him and proved a worthy Commander-in-Chief. She built a beautiful palace for herself in Chandni Chowk, which is currently being used by the State Bank of India as its office.

She later converted to Christianity and built a magnificent Church in present-day Meerut which attracts tourists till date. An icon for female empowerment, she lived her life defying gender and religious norms.

Mah Laqa Chanda

Mah Laqa Bai, born Chanda Bibi, was a poet, a warrior, an adviser and a courtesan in that order. Most importantly, she was the woman who would single-handedly redefine being a woman in 18th century Hyderabad.

She accompanied the Nizam into battles dressed in male attire. Her delicate beauty and strong mind enabled her to rise to a position unthinkable for a courtesan.

Apart from her life at court, she was an accomplished poetess. She was the first woman to publish a Diwan (collection of Urdu ghazals) titled Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa with 39 ghazals.

An accomplished Kathak dancer and is considered to be the inspiration for the famed Umrao Jaan Ada.

Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum

Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum was a ruler par excellence in the history of the Bhopal state. She ascended the throne at the age of six under the regency of her mother. To say that she spent her entire life in the service of the state, would then, not be a hyperbole.

She was officially recognized as the Begum of Bhopal after her mother’s death in 1901. The Begum made education, especially education for girls her priority. Through a series of reforms in military, taxation and public works, she built the very core of the princely state.

Her greatest legacy, though, is the institution of the famed Aligarh Muslim University. She was the Founding Chancellor of the institute and is till date the only female to hold the post. She was also a pioneer in the field of Public Health advocating vaccinations and inoculations, improving the sanitation and hygiene of the state. This came at a time when both education and medical care were not considered vital topics of consideration. A true visionary, she authored biographies and books on education and health.

A ruler who struck a fine balance between popularity and efficiency, the Begum of Bhopal has left an indelible mark in the emancipation of women in Indian history.

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