Kamila Tyabji’s Oxford Education and Crisp Saris Makes Heads Turn

In the late 1940s, an Indian woman was making her mark in the courtrooms of London. Kamila Tyabji’s Oxford education and crisp saris sought to break the stereotype of Indian women. She was also the first woman to practise in the Privy Council Chamber. However, years of staying in England did not make her lose her fondness for the sari or her affinity to India, where she returned to start the Women’s India Trust (WIT) in 1968, leaving behind a successful career in law.

Born on February 14, 1918, Tyabji studied at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, after which she joined St Hugh’s College at Oxford to study law. She was the granddaughter of Badruddin Tyabji, who was associated with the Congress in its initial days and who had famously granted bail to Lokmanya Tilak in 1897. Her father, Faiz Tyabji, was a distinguished lawyer and social reformer and made available for his children the best education possible.

Tyabji took forward her family’s tradition of strong and independent women when she did not yield to her parents’ wish of having her come back to Mumbai after finishing her studies. Instead, she built a successful practice in London, excelling in insurance cases. Her sojourns to court became the talk of the town and she was credited with having introduced ‘brilliant silken saris to the sombre monotony of London’s law courts’.

Her love for sari was legendary to the extent that she chided Indian women who did not choose to wear the garment. “I will never discard the sari. It is the most beautiful dress for a woman,” she told a Reuters correspondent in London in late 1930s.

But despite her love for the Indian dress, she did not restrict herself to moving around only in Indian circles. She mingled well with the British intelligentsia where she was noted for her pointed arguments in the Privy Council Chamber. Her social diary was wide and diverse, which reflected her deep desire to understand the British society and people.

Of course, Tyabji’s decision to stay back in London did not go down well with her family, especially her parents, who were very unhappy with her decision. Being the youngest in the family, she was a pampered child and her brother Badruddin Tyabji Junior (who joined the Indian Civil Service) has noted in his book that ‘getting her own way in everything had become a habit, almost a necessity for her’. Ultimately, the family yielded to her wishes and she stayed put in England. In fact, in 1938, when her brother came for a visit she took him to meet Dr S. Radhakrishnan, who was in Oxford at that time.

Though a prominent member of the British Indian community, Tyabji always encouraged Indian students to freely mingle with the other communities and not align themselves only with Indians. In those days, she appeared on radio and television and chose to remain single. Her ‘Guardian’ obituary noted her reason for not marrying: “All the men are too frightened of me to marry me.” The ones who were not afraid were turned down. Legend has it that Sir John Kotelawala, Sri Lanka’s third prime minister, had proposed to her but she had declined.

What finally prompted her to quit her charmed social circle of London and come back to India was the famine that hit Bihar in the early 1960s. She decided to join Jayaprakash Narayan and work for grassroots women.

After studying the law, politics could definitely have been her calling. After all, Tyabji had sailed on the same ship as Indira Gandhi for Oxford, and she had a family background in politics – even her mother, Salima was a member of the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1937. Yet, she consciously chose to stay away from that arena.

Social activism is how she chose to make a difference. And it is as the founder of the Women’s India Trust (WIT) that she is best remembered. With a capital of Rs 10,000 (US$1=Rs 48.7) she started WIT, an organisation that did pioneering work from Panvel, a few kilometeres away from Mumbai. It began by training marginalised and unskilled women to stitch sari petticoats. The idea was to make them economically independent. Today it also runs a nursing home, kindergarten teachers’ training classes and other vocational skill enhancing programes.

Tyabji’s formal training in law meant she also kept up with the burning social issues of her times. She conducted a study on the types of polygamy in India, as the issue was intimately connected with the women she sought to support. The Shah Bano case and the Uniform Civil Code also kept her busy and she did not feel shy about voicing her opinion and concerns.

So close was she to the subject of women’s empowerment that she was chosen to represent India at the United Nations on the status of women. But, for her, these foreign trips were also about scouting for potential markets and consumers for WIT products. In fact, it was her dedication and enthusiasm that propelled WIT products towards foreign markets.

Today, WIT continues to grow and in its quest to help as many less privileged and unskilled women as possible, it has broadened its activities. Apart from the food processing units, there are departments dedicated to tailoring, screen printing, toy making, and block printing. Keeping in mind the lack of formal education, many girls and women are given professional training so that they can become financially independent in time.

A whole range of products, from chutneys, jams, marmalades and fresh fruit squashes to greeting cards, gift envelopes, home linen, paper products, toys, mobile covers and wallets are made by these women and exported to countries such as Spain, Germany, the UK and Australia. WIT’s cloth and slipper bags are also used by top hotels across India.

Tyabji passed away on May 17, 2004, but just as her saris had made heads turn in London, WIT products, in their own way, have also carved a niche in today’s crowded and competitive market. Says the current chairperson of WIT, Dolat Kotwal, who has been with the organisation for almost two decades, “I met Kamila Tyabji in 1993 and started volunteering at WIT. I am still at it today. It was inspiring and fun to work alongside her for almost 20 years.”

She remembers Tyabji as a woman of unflinching faith. Says Kotwal, “On one occasion we were so short of working capital that I suggested we should sell a small section of the office. She firmly ruled that out saying, ‘we must only increase our assets, grow and expand’. She was certain that funds would flow for good work. And she was so right, her faith was steadfast.”

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