Lettered Empowerment

The biography of Constance Premnath Dass—the first Indian Principal of Isabella Thouburn College, a premier Methodist institution for the higher education of girls in Asia, is indeed an extraordinary history of a woman who chose education as an instrument of change. By doing this she not only carved a niche for herself in society but also gently led hundreds of young women to pass through the portals of enlightenment by studying in an institution that gave them lettered empowerment and through its motto “we receive to give” prepared their future role in society.

Constance was born on April 22, 1886 in Ferozepur in Punjab to Rai Bahadur Maya Dass Malhotra and Mohini Chandula. Rai Bahadur’s first wife had left him when he converted to Christianity in 1862. Constance inherited an elite home, intellect and beauty which she enhanced with education. During her studies Constance broke many stereotypes, acquired national and international education. Constance can truly be described as a ‘new woman of new India’. She travelled hundreds of miles from Ferozepur to Lucknow, something unthinkable in those days for a girl, to study in the famous IT college. Incidentally IT college was set up in the same year that Constance was born.

Constance married Prem Nath Dass and with his encouragement and support even after marriage she continued her intellectual pursuits. She stood first in the Allahabad University’s MA (English) examination—the first woman to achieve this distinction. She was honoured with the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa award in 1911 on graduating from the Goucher College, Baltimore, USA.

Thereafter, as a mother of six children, Constance resumed her teaching career in 1928. The sudden death of Prem Nath in 1931 ended a perfect marriage and left her shattered. She faced with fortitude the difficulties of widowhood while ably managing her home and professional commitments. It was during this time that she realised her true aspirations of becoming an educationist and serving India’s women. She served as the Vice-Principal of Isabella Thoburn College (1933-38). Constance pursued her MA in Education at the Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. Two honorary doctorates followed from the Boston University and Goucher College, respectively.

Her impressive scholastic qualifications were rare for women of that era. She served as a vice-principal of the college for five years before being elected as the first Indian Principal of the IT. Her term from July 1939 to 1945 coincided with Second World War. She welcomed eminent leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Subhash Chandra Bose to address the students and goaded them on to wholeheartedly participate in the national movement.

Following her retirement in 1945, Constance was invited to USA and Canada as a “distinguished representative of the best in India today”. Her talks on the changing status of women in India, universal education and India’s position in world politics received wide acclaim. Those who had the fortune of knowing Constance were not left untouched by her humane qualities and those who did not still looked up to her for bringing about this great transformation in lives of women.

It took her distinguished granddaughter Dr Amrita Das and co-author Dr Nina David to record the great journey of an extraordinary women from 1886 to 1971. Published by Bloomsbury 207 pages are in reader friendly font and the purple book cover gives a bright look. This biography is a must read for all those who believe that education is the most powerful medium to change lives and transform society. Constance being an inspirational, teacher, iconic education leader and an accomplished home-maker her biography sends out the message of striving to attain perfection.

 

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