Relatively little is known about the life and work of Gopal Krishna Gokhale compared to other popular Indian patriots. He was born in the village of Kothluk, Ratnagiri, Bombay Presidency on 9 May 1866 and was one of the first Indians to receive an English education, graduating from Elphinston College in 1884.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Viceroy used to hold Council meetings during the winter in Calcutta, which was the capital of British India. Members of the Council were nominated from all the provinces of India and Gokhale represented Bombay.
Although he was one of the youngest Council members, his speeches and discussions were widely admired, by both the Indian and British members. According to the Calcutta newspapers, his first Budget speech deeply impressed even the Finance Member, Sir William Jones. He was a leading moderate member of the Indian National Congress, deeply critical of the British Raj while admiring English social and political thought.
Among his admirers was a Bengali Brahmo lady named Sarala Ray better known as Mrs PK Ray. She was introduced to Gokhale at a tea party and he became a regular invitee at her Friday afternoon meetings at Ballygunge in Calcutta, where the two of them debated issues such as political reform versus social reform.
After a few years, he said, “Mrs Ray you are right — we cannot have political reform without social reform. They go together like the hand and foot of the whole man.”
When Sarala Ray met Gokhale, she was secretary to the Brahmo Girls’ School. In 1943, she wrote the following extract, “He always encouraged me and told me that there was a great field for work before every woman to uplift her sisters in India. In connection with this school work, I used to often ask him to correct and criticise my letters”.
Once she went to a very rich friend’s house to beg for a subscription of Rs.2, which was refused. She returned home to find Gokhale in her drawing room. He asked why she was looking so upset and, upon hearing the matter, proceeded to recount the tale of how he and other friends of the Deccan Education Society had vowed to work for only Rs.75 per month to build Fergusson College in Poona.
Gokhale was a multi-faceted personality with special attributes — he was an educator and taught English and mathematics at Fergusson College for 18 years, a politician of renown but with moderate views. He loved Bengal and is well known for saying that Bengal thinks first and the rest of India follows.
Gokhale died in Bombay on 19 February 1915. Tributes poured in. Ray wrote in her letter of 1943, “You children must be anxious to know why we called this school Gokhale Memorial. After Gokhale’s death almost all the provinces of India raised money to erect a memorial in his name. Bengal also collected some money, which lay idle in the bank for years. In 1920 when we were determined to start a girl’s school of a special type, I said to Sir R N Mookherjee, Sir BC Mitter, Lord Sinha and others that we women from the Mahila Samiti would like to open the school as a Memorial of Gokhale who used to think of Bengal as his “Second Home” and was a great advocate of schools for girls. They all agreed to this proposal and hence this name. As a memorial to Gopal Krishna Gokhale — the great patriot of India, we are serving the cause of education for our girls in the country.”
If comparatively little is elaborated on Gokhale, even less is known about Ray. What was she like, and what were her contributions to education?
According to Renuka Ray, “Sarala Ray was a dynamic woman with a magnetic personality who was able to sweep aside every obstacle and every impediment that stood in the way of her objective. Her ideas on education were well ahead of her times and being a perfectionist, she was determined not to make do with second best. She wanted to have land for the school premises in an area which the then government reserved for its own projects and certainly did not envisage allotting any of it for a school for Indian children. But to the amazement of many eminent men who helped over her project whom she had gathered together, she was able with the help of then director of public instruction, Mr Hornell to secure land in the vicinity of Victoria Memorial. She had already drawn up a very ambitious building plan.”
Renuka Ray proceeded to write, “But it was not only a question of brick and mortar and a beautiful building in the best surroundings… The technique and content of education and the teaching standards for the pupils was of the greatest importance. In her own words she wanted the girls to be good citizens, capable householders and ideal mothers. They must have an upbringing, which gives them the opportunity to show how worthwhile women of India could be. She selected the teachers for her school with a great deal of care and then set about a reorientation of their teaching methods.”
She was against educational practices such as learning by rote. Sarala Ray introduced subjects like domestic science, comparative religion and ethics while students learnt English, Hindi and Bengali, history, geography and the sciences. Music, drawing, sports and games were also considered important.
After her death in 1946, messages and tributes poured in from people like Sarojini Naidu, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Gokale was born in 1866 and 2016 is his 150th birth anniversary. In contemporary times, the Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School that Sarala Ray founded as a memorial to a family friend is a leading educational institution in Kolkata and will celebrate its centenary in 2020. 26 November is observed as the school’s founder’s day to mark the birth anniversary of Sarala Ray.
This year a number of old girls from the school have formed a Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School Alumnae Association and plan several events including a reunion and cultural programmes leading up to the centenary.