Sister Nivedita’s house

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Margaret Noble, better known in India as Sister Nivedita. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The house where Sister Nivedita lived, 16 Bosepara Lane in North Kolkata, is being renovated and turned into a museum and research centre. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

The house that was her home in Kolkata was for decades practically unnoticed by the public.

AT Bagbazar, one of the older neighbourhoods of Kolkata, there stands a nondescript house. No. 16 Bosepara Lane is the only single-storey house on the street and that is all that seems to set it apart from the other houses. Yet it is a house literally steeped in history. This was for a while the home of Sister Nivedita, one of the most well-known disciples of Swami Vivekananda, and the site of a school for women that she started in 1898.

The house, which in its day was host to luminaries such as Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh and Jagadish Chandra Bose, is finally being renovated. It will be made into a museum and a research centre focussing on Sister Nivedita’s work in the fields of art, science, culture, education, and the nationalist movement. The restoration work is being done by the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India. The Ministry of Culture, Government of India, has allocated Rs.1.35 crore for the restoration.The eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya told Frontline: “The endeavour to set up a museum on Sister Nivedita is one on which the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission is to be congratulated…. A theme that merits attention is her contribution to the cultural and intellectual domain. She discovered, so to speak, the significance of the Bengal School of painters. She recognised the nation-building role of paintings by Abanindranath Tagore—including the famous portrait of Bharat Mata, and it was Nivedita who articulated the personality of a new India in the face of the European hegemony over contemporary Indian imagination.”

Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble in Dungannon, Ireland, on October 28, 1867, she became a follower of Swami Vivekananda after meeting him in 1895. She came to India in 1898. Swamiji initiated her into his order and gave her the name “Nivedita”, or the “Dedicated One”. She came to live at No.16 Bosepara Lane in November 1898, and in the same month opened the school. It was while living in this house that Sister Nivedita became a household name in Calcutta (now Kolkata) when a devastating plague broke out in the city in March 1899. She took the lead and worked relentlessly to nurse the victims and bring the epidemic under control. Later that year she accompanied Swami Vivekananda on his tour of England and America. When she returned in 1902, she put up at the adjacent house (No.17), and reopened the school for girls. As the number of students in the school began to increase, Nivedita once again rented her old quarters (No.16) and used it for the school. She became deeply involved with India’s freedom struggle and was of immense help to underground revolutionaries. In fact, it was she who advised Aurobindo Ghosh to leave British India and take refuge in a French colony. Accordingly, Aurobindo first shifted to Chandannagar in Bengal and subsequently to Pondicherry (now Puducherry). On October 13, 1911, she breathed her last at the age of 44.

The restoration process of her house began when the State government acquired it in 2013 and handed it over to the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission. With the restoration work nearing completion, the focus now is on setting up the museum. Pravrajika Asheshprana, the spokesperson of the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, told Frontline: “The house itself is a historical site. But we have some of Sister Nivedita’s writings, her letters and photographs, with which we can try and recreate the past and bring the history of the house alive. We will decide whether to do this through electronic devices or through artwork. Many of her personal belongings may also be put on display, for example a small crystal thunderbolt which she always kept in her hand when delivering lectures, her manuscripts, her letters, photographs, and so on.” Sister Nivedita was a prolific writer. Her most famous books are “The Master as I saw Him”, “The Web of Indian Life”, “Studies from an Eastern Home”.

The house that was her home in Kolkata was for decades practically unnoticed by the public. Yet as the news of the upcoming museum surfaced, popular interest in the house and Sister Nivedita was rekindled. Pravrajika Asheshprana said: “There is so much enthusiasm now that we have to practically keep people from entering the house. Sister Nivedita has taught Indians about India. One can see her influence in all facets of life, including art, culture, industry and spirituality. She has given so much to this country, now it is time to give something back to her. The future generations have a lot to learn from Sister Nivedita’s life and sacrifice, so that subsequently they too can pass on this knowledge.”