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How Kadambini fought patriarchy and became a doctor in British India

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On February 20, 1888, Florence Nightingale wrote to a friend: “Do you know or could tell me anything about Mrs Ganguly, or give me any advice? She has already passed what is called the first licentiate in medicine and surgery examinations and is to go up for the final examination in March next. This young lady, Mrs Ganguly, married! after she made up her mind to become a doctor! and has had one, if not two children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in!! and did not miss, I believe, a single lecture!!”…..

These days we talk of feminism and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, at almost all meetings, seminars and lectures. But imagine a woman from Bengal, who defied patriarchy and went on to become the first Indian graduate under British rule, even the first woman to get a medical degree from abroad, when our country was reeling under captivity! And her journey was not smooth at all. Like many women of India today, centuries ago she too was ridiculed by a society through caricatures and cartoons, depicting her as a ‘fallen woman’ and her husband as the ‘hen-pecked’ one.

But Dr Kadambini Basu Gangopadhyay was not to be put down. She was the first woman to pass the Calcutta University entrance examination and went on to become a graduate. Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini were the first Indian women to pass graduation under British rule. Then she went on to become a doctor, earning a medical degree from abroad. She was the first woman doctor of South Asia. The British allowed her to try out western treatment on Indians and in other South-east Asian countries that were under colonial rule. In those days, Ayurveda and homeopathy were the primary treatments available to Indians. But Kadambini revolutionised the medical scene in Bengal by bringing western medical treatment to the women, who needed it. During her education in Medical College, she was even awarded a scholarship of Rs. 20 by the British.

Though the usual proverb goes behind ‘every successful man there is a woman,’ in this case it was the other way round. He married Dwarkanath Ganguly, a widower, who was also a school teacher. However, her marriage was turned down by their families and friends. Even Dwarakanath’s close friend Shivnath Shastri, did not attend the wedding. They all boycotted the ‘bride who was well-educated and was out of the house to attend to patients.’ Kadambinihad to face a lot of criticism, at a point even ridiculed on newspapers!

A cartoon was printed on ‘Bangabash’ by editor Mahesh Chandra Pal, showing Dwarkanath as the chained one, being dragged down by his wife, Kadambini. She was compared to ‘Sairini,’ one who is a fallen woman, and not the ideal ‘Bangali bou,’ who took no care of the household. Isn’t it something that many women even today in India face? But Kadambini was not to accept such ridicules face down. With her husband’s support, she made the editor of Bangabash, a pay a fine of Rs. 100 and made him suffer 6 months in jail.

This was an unprecedented thing that Kadambini could do. Later, she joined active politics, and was the first woman in Congress to demand representation of women. A group of six women led by her, joined the Congress at Bombay. Among them was Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister, Swarnakumari Devi and her daughter, Sarla Devi Chaudhurani. Kadambiniwent on to become the first female speaker in the Congress session. 

Above all these she was also a mother of five children and a practising doctor. She often went on calls to attend women patients who were not allowed to come over to hospitals. Famous American historian David Koff writes, “Kadambini was the most independent Brahma woman of hertime, and was way ahead of other Brahma and Christian women of Bengal.” Even Rabindranath Tagore came to her house before Maghotsav to share song lessons. Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, often joined with his violin. Kadambini liked young Upendrakishore and he married her daughter Bidhumukhi.

Independent and liberal Kadambini was never even financially dependant on her husband or sons. Till her last breath she earned her own living. Post death, Rs. 50 was found in her purse. It was her last income from a complicated surgery she had performed on that day.