(Last Updated on : 04/09/2009)
Vidya Gauri Nilkanth was a social reformer, educationist, writer and woman of remarkable intelligence, integrity and simplicity. She was well read in Gujarati and English Literature. She considered it her mission to uplift and empower women. In those days, majority of the women confined themselves to the home-centered roles of daughters, sisters, daughters-in-law, wives and mothers and they were prohibited from being educated as society was prejudiced that educated women would not prove effective in their traditional roles. She wanted to prove to the society that women were capable of higher education and through education only women can be better wives and mothers. She wanted to break the barrier to women's education. She regarded education as a lamp that would remove darkness and ignorance.
Vidyagauri was born on 1 June 1876 in Ahmedabad. She was the daughter of Gopilal Dhruva and Balaben. Her father was a petty judicial officer who had a transferable job and was posted to small towns of Gujarat. Her mother stayed in Ahmedabad for the education of her daughters, Vidyagauri and Sharda. They were sent to a school in Ahmedabad, where Vidyagauri studied till class VII. As there was no high school for girls at this time in Ahmedabad, Vidyagauri and her sister Sharda had to join the Anglo-Vernacular classes in Mahalakshmi Teachers' Train-ing College.
While Vidyagauri was in school, she was married to Ramanbhai, son of the social reformer and educationist, Vidyagauri. When married, she was only 13 and her husband was nine years older to her and she considered him as her teacher and held him in high regard and respect. They wrote articles and books together and jointly edited a magazine, Jnansudha. With her husband's support she attended the Matriculation examination. Three years after matriculation, Vidya Gauri and her sister joined the Gujarat College. In the Intermediate Arts Examination of Bombay University, Vi-dyagauri stood first in Logic and opted for moral philoso-phy and logic for her B.A. She took eight years to complete the course. She was advised by many to give up her studies. They asked, "What is the point of a woman passing the B.A." But Vidyagauri was determined to continue her studies. She graduated standing first in the entire University for which she obtained a Fellowship in Gujarat College. She and her sister, Sharda Mehta, thus became the first two Gujarati Hindu women graduates.
Vidyagauri became an active member of the Ladies Club, which was started in Ahmedabad. The club had Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and Christian members. This brought Vidygauri into the public arena. When the Indian National Congress annual session was held in Ahmedabad, Vidyagauri and Sharda sang Vande Mataram from the dias.
Vidyagauri started tailoring classes for poor Muslim women under the sponsorship of the National Indian Associ-ation. She also organized adult education classes and various activities for the War Relief Fund during World War I. For her active role she was honored with the title of M.B.E (Member of British Empire). Again, she was awarded the Star of India for her public services. She returned this award when Gandhiji was arrested during the Salt Satyagraha.
Vidyagauri started the Ahmedabad Branch of the All India Women's Conference. She was an active member and President of this Branch for many years and presided over the Lucknow session of the AIWC. She was associated with numerous educational institutions such as the Maganbhai Karamchand Girls' High School, the Diwalibai Girls' School, Ranchhodhal Chhotalal Girls' High School and the Vanita Vishrams which provided secondary education to women who were widows or dropouts from school because of marriage. She started in Ahmedabad the Lalshanker Umia Shanker Mahila Pathshala, which was later, affiliated to the SNDT (Karve) University. She taught English, Psychology and Philosophy in this college. Vidyagauri was the Honorary Secretary and then Presi-dent of the Mahipatram Rupram Anath- ashram, an orphanage. She was also the member of Victoria Jubilee Hospital, Ranchodhlal Chho-talal Dispensary and various other charitable and philan-thropic organizations. She presided over the 15th session of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad. She was also very keen in establishing libraries all over Gujarat.
She was a prolific writer and contrib-uted to women's magazines such as Gunsundari, Streebodh, Sharda, etc. She, with her sister translated R.C.Dutt's The Lake of Palms .Her own essays and articles have been published in Forum, Narikunf and Jnansudha.
Vidyagauri devoted her whole life for upliftment of women. Girls who wanted to marry outside their caste, widows who wanted to re-marry, women whose hus-bands or in-laws ill-treated them, all came to her for help and advice. She actively sought the implementation of the Sharda Act and also worked for the Hindu Code Bill. She did not aspire for any honor or position or power but did all the work out of genuine concern for the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed.
When her diamond jubilee was being observed in Ahmedabad, Gandhiji said, "No celebra-tions are enough for Vidyaben because she is an ornament of Indian womanhood. The more we can honor her, the better. She is an ardent reformer but at the same time maintains our traditions".