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Das [née Sarbadhikari], Krishnabhabini (1864–1919), author and social activist, was born in 1864 in a traditional Hindu zamindari household in Chowa, Murshidabad district, Bengal, the only child of Joynarayan Sarbadhikari. It was not usual to educate girls in the village and Krishnabhabini's initial lessons in the ‘three Rs’ were under the tutelage of her father. At the age of ten she was married to Debendranath Das (1857–1909), the youngest of three sons of Babu Srinath Das, a vakil in the Calcutta high court and a friend of the social reformer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. Krishnabhabini had no formal education but her husband, Debendranath, who was a star pupil himself, tutored his wife in their Calcutta home. Though her father-in-law was conservative Debendranath and his brothers were progressive: his eldest brother, Upendranath, created a family crisis when he married a widow in 1869, and his middle brother, Jnanendranath, a lawyer, was an ardent supporter of women's education and emancipation.

Debendranath, the typical nineteenth-century Bengali gentleman or bhadralok, went to England in 1876, intending to qualify for the prestigious Indian Civil Service. Unfortunately he was declared to be over-age under the new rules passed for such aspirants and was unable to take the examination. Krishnabhabini, already the mother of a young child and five months pregnant with their second when her husband left, probably sold some of her gold ornaments to fund this trip. Tragedy struck while her husband was away and their first-born child died. Debendranath's father ostracized his son on his return in 1882 and Krishnabhabini opted to join her husband. The orthodox patriarch Srinath Das did not allow the parents to take charge of their now five-year old daughter, Tilottama, who remained in his custody. Debendranath decided to return to England, taking Krishnabhabini with him, and from September 1883 she lived in England for seven years. While her husband taught Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, and Persian to students preparing for the Indian Civil Service examinations and also lectured on Indian history, culture, and religion, Krishnabhabini, encouraged by her husband and enthused by her curiosity, spent long hours at the British Library, reading and researching.

In 1885 Krishnabhabini's travelogue, Englande Bangamahila (‘A Bengali Lady in England’), the first such Bengali travel document authored by a woman, was published in Calcutta. Writing at the height of British imperialism, she referred to her modest literary efforts to render a fair and objective eye-witness account of British life, customs, and institutions for a dual readership of Bengali women confined within their homes and young women planning to venture abroad. The publisher, Satyanarayan Sarbadhikari, kept the name of the author anonymous and introduced the manuscript with his own comments. The verse epigraph on the title page indicated that the account, a comparative critique of two cultures and ways of life, was expected to be a clarion call for arousing India's nationalistic spirit, inspiring the country to wake up from its slumber and imbibe ideas of progress, freedom, and modernity. It is significant that Krishnabhabini, during her stay in England and for several years after her return to India with her husband in 1890, wore European dresses and moved around independently on public transport such as horse-drawn tramcars (introduced in Calcutta about 1880).

While Krishnabhabini and Debendranath were in England, they had news that their ten-year-old daughter, much against their wishes, was being married into a conservative, wealthy family. On their return Debendranath was disinherited by his father, and he and his wife were exiled from their family home. They were also left heartbroken not to be allowed to meet their daughter at her in-laws' mansion. Debendranath took up a job as a teacher in remote Barishal and Krishnabhabini wrote articles on women's education, emancipation, and social uplift in various Bengali journals. They dedicated themselves selflessly to social causes: her husband set up an educational institution (the Century School, later upgraded to a college), while she actively canvassed for zenana education and women's rights, and established homes for widows, orphans, and fallen women.

Krishnabhabini was shattered when she lost her husband and daughter in quick succession in 1909, after which she led a changed life. She abandoned her English gown and wore the traditional weeds of the Hindu widow. She continued her social work and was involved by Sarala Devi Chaudhurani in the Calcutta chapter of the first Indian women's organization, Bharat Stree Mahamandal, set up in Allahabad in 1910 to work for women's education and improvement. Nevertheless the militant activism and writing of her early days tapered off into silent and dedicated service, an ascetic lifestyle, and personal surrender to religious traditionalism. Her book of autobiographical poems, Jibaner Drishyamala, dedicated to her husband, was published in 1910. About the same time she published her husband's autobiography, Pagaler Katha, and a collection of her daughter's poems. She sustained herself on the royalties from books written by her husband and rent from a property gifted to her by her father-in-law after Debendranath's death. With minimal needs she set aside only fifteen rupees for monthly expenses, the rest being disbursed among the needy. Her death on 27 February 1919 in Calcutta was mourned by a cross-section of women who owed her their social and intellectual emancipation.

Krishnabhabini Das's personal trajectory represented the travails of middle-class womanhood in colonial Bengal. Her travelogue, book of poems, and published essays placed her in the public social sphere where women's emancipation was a central issue. Her stay in London gave her the opportunity to explore the status and role of Western women in the domestic and public spheres. Her conviction that education was a key factor in liberating women and the nation positioned her activism in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century context of social reform and nationalism in Bengal and India.

Jayati Gupta

Sources  

K. Das, Englande bangamahila (Calcutta, 1885) [A Bengali lady in England]; repr. S. Sen, ed. (Kolkata, 1996) · K. Das, Jibaner Drishyamala (Calcutta, 1910) · D. Das, Pagaler Katha (Calcutta, 1910) · K. Das, Krishnabhabini Daser Nirbachita Prabandha, ed. A. Chattopadhyay (Kolkata, 2004) [Selected essays by Krishnabhabini Das] · The Modern Review (April 1919), 413 · H. Bannerji, ‘Fashioning a self: educational proposals for and by women in popular magazines in colonial Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 26/43 (26 Oct 1991), WS50–WS62 · H. Bannerji, ‘Textile prison: discourse on shame (lajja) in the attire of the gentlewoman (bhadramahila) in colonial Bengal’, The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 19/2 (spring 1994), 169–93 · T. Sarkar, Hindu wife, Hindu nation: community, religion, and cultural nationalism (2001) · J. Gupta, ‘London through alien eyes’, Literary London Journal (March 2003); www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2003/gupta.html, accessed on 30 March 2012 · S. Sen, Travels to Europe: self and other in Bengali travel narratives, 1870–1910 (2005) · G. Forbes, ‘Education for women’, Women and social reform in modern India, ed. S. Sarkar and T. Sarkar (2007), 83–112 · N. Chaudhuri, ‘Krishnobhabini Das's Englande Bangamohila: an archive of early thoughts on Bengali women's nationalism and feminism’, Journal of Women's History, 20/1 (2008), 197–216 · N. Chaudhuri, S. J. Katz, and M. E. Perry, eds., Contesting archives: finding women in the sources (2010), 135–55

Likenesses  

Larcher, portrait, pencil, repro. in Modern Review, March 1919, 413