Indian art, culture, and science are getting global recognition today thanks to the foundation laid by these historic personalities who decided to do things differently.
Even as societies, cultures, governments, and mindsets have evolved through the years, there are significant moments in history that are untouched by modernity. Moments and events that shaped our very identities as citizens of this nation.
As we recall these events that have outlined India’s past as we know it, we celebrate 10 legendary figures behind them. They went beyond the call of duty and braved the odds to contribute to the country’s growth.
1. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
A scholar, a former Congress president, a freedom fighter, and India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s contribution to the Indian education system is unparalleled.
He set up India’s first IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). He also founded Sahitya Academy, Sangeet Natak Academy and Lalita Kala Academy to provide a common platform for the diverse literary and cultural heritage of India.
During his tenure, the importance of scientific education, higher study, and establishing more research institutes was emphasised.
2. Surendranath Banerjee
Racial discrimination wasn’t uncommon during British rule. When Surendranath Banerjee cleared the British-instituted civil service exam, he was dismissed due to his background. And later in 1869, he was dismissed again due to a dispute about his age.
Surendranath used adversity to fuel his zeal, and in 1876, he launched the ‘The Bengal’ newspaper. He then used this platform to address the topic of racial discrimination, and speak out against issues, such as the age limit of students appearing for the civil service exam.
In the same year, he went on to found the ‘Indian National Association’ where he propagated the same values.
3. Dhondo Keshav Karve
Known as the man behind India’s first university for women, Dhondo Keshav Karve’s work in the social field and the welfare of people has its roots in his childhood.
When his wife Radhabai passed away at the age of 14, Karve established the Widow Remarriage Association in 1893. He then went on to marry Godubai, another widow. Apart from this, Karve was vocal about social issues that plagued the community at the time, like untouchability. He persisted, in spite of being insulted by orthodox members of society.
In 1896, he set up India’s first school for widows at Hingane village and then a residential school for girls that trained them for jobs.
Even Gandhi often acclaimed the heroic nature of Karve’s deeds.
4. Sukhdev Maharaj
Back in the days when India strictly operated through a patriarchal system, the dance form ‘Kathak’ was only performed by a certain sect of people. It was a tradition that the women tawaifs, who assumed the status of entertainers, would perform the dance and male gurus had the power to transmit the art to others.
However, Sukhdev Maharaj, a Kathak guru himself, was firm that he would not have his daughters limited to housework, but rather engage in performing arts.
Since society did not see it fit for the girls to learn Kathak, Sukhdev taught his daughters the dance form himself. Sitara Devi, one of the daughters, went on to excel in the art and is known today as the ‘Empress of Dance’.
But her father, Sukhdev, was shunned from the community for this bold move.
5. Bhupen Hazarika
While Hazarika’s songs find their way to the radios across India, very few know that the legendary musician began his career at the age of 10.
Growing up listening to tribal music, Hazarika developed an inclination to sing. And his mother’s lullabies introduced him to Assam folk music.
He managed to impress Assamese filmmaker Jyotiprasad Agarwala, and even sang two songs in Agarwala’s film Indramalati – Kaxote Kolosi Loi and Biswo Bijoyi Naujawan – at the age of 12.
6. Jaipal Singh Munda
Jaipal Munda wore many hats in one lifetime. Under Munda’s leadership, the Indian hockey team performed stupendously in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, where they won the gold medal.
In addition to this, he was a firm believer in tribal rights. He began a campaign in 1938 for the rights of indigenous communities, which turned out to be successful in 1946 when he was elected to the Constituent Assembly from a ‘general constituency’ in Bihar.
He also helped to frame the Indian Constitution.
7. Lata Mangeshkar and SD Burman
When their ‘Thandi Hawaayei’ song was released in 1951, it was a hit that put the duo on the charts. Lata Mangeshkar and S D Burman’s musical harmony was one that touched many hearts through their journey together.
Lata ji has often written about Burman ji as a ‘father figure’ and recounted how he has shaped much of her musical career.
“He would coach me and sing in his typical folksy style with the regular voice breaks, and reiterate the parts that I felt uncomfortable rendering,” she once said.
8. Prithviraj Kapoor
An Indian actor and one of the founding figures of Hindi cinema, Prithviraj Kapoor attempted to throw light on communal harmony through his play ‘Deewar’ in 1945.
However, it was met with staunch opposition from the Muslim League, and the British government refused to grant permission to showcase the film. The condition placed was that if Kapoor could obtain clearance from the Muslim League, the play would be allowed to be opened at the Royal House.
Kapoor managed to get the clearance by submitting only the application, without the last rejection page! The play not only did well but went down in cinematic history for its storytelling.
9. Homi Bhabha
In the iconic picture, JRD Tata, Homi Bhabha and Niels Bohr can be seen. This was clicked during an International colloquium on Function Theory in 1960.
Bhabha firmly believed in the power of science and this was reflected in a letter he sent to his father while he was studying at Cambridge.
“I seriously say to you that business or a job as an engineer is not the thing for me. It is totally foreign to my nature and radically opposed to my temperament and opinions. Physics is my line. I know I shall do great things here. My success will not depend on what A or B thinks of me. My success will be what I make of my work. Besides, India is not a land where science cannot be carried on.”
10. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Kamaladevi’s role as an Indian social reformer and freedom activist is acclaimed. She is known as the ‘Culture Queen of India’, as she worked to revive the languishing arts and crafts of the people. She even travelled to the remotest parts of the country for the purpose.
She encouraged people to use local materials and even today, nearly 30 million are still affected by the cottage industry.
Following the Partition, she worked on creating a safe space for refugees from the Northwest Frontier province, and this led to the city of Faridabad.
(Edited by Pranita Bhat)