The British Empire Library

Constance Prem Nath Dass: An Extraordinary History

by Nina David and Amrita Dass

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Something that foreign visitors to the sub-continent don't often get to see, unless they are teachers, are its prestigious private schools with their smartly uniformed students, endowed sports facilities, formidable reputations and intensely loyal alumni. To be invited to such a school is to step back into a world that has almost vanished in.

The majority of these schools were established by foreigners, British, American , and in the case of La Martiniere Colleges , a Frenchman. There was opposition at first, particularly towards education for girls, and when the American missionary, Isabella Thoburn opened a small class room in the Lucknow bazaar, she had just six pupils. As the school expanded it continued to be supported and governed entirely by the Methodist Episcopal Church from the USA. It was not until 1939 that Constance Prem Nath Dass was appointed as its first Indian principal, and this remarkable woman steered what had now become the Isabella Thoburn College through the difficult period of the war and of increased agitation for independence from Britain. She is known even today, more than forty years after her death, as 'the incomparable Constance' , a woman who overcame prejudice from many quarters, both foreign and native. After a happy love-marriage and the birth of six children in ten years, she became a widow, but refused to let grief overcome her and began lecturing in English literature. She had already studied at Goucher College in the States, again a highly unusual experience at the time for a young Indian woman. On her return to India before World War One she enrolled at Allahabad University and stood first in its MA examination, the first woman in northern India to do so.

This biography is co-authored by two distinguished academic doctors, one of them the grand-daughter of Constance. Inevitably, it is something of a family history, but there is more than enough to interest historians of Indian education. The College was by no means isolated from the events of the 1940s and some students went to Calcutta to help at relief centres during the Bengal famine. A whole cache of photographs and letters was found during research for the book, providing added interest. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Nina David and Amrita Dass
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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