South Delhi Polytechnic for Women, Lajpat Nagar, has been imparting Vocational Training to women for more than 50 years. Having begun with a handful of students in 1963 it has now grown into an institute with as many as 18 departments with training programmes in different disciplines.

Thus has this institution continued in its mission of empowering women, providing them the opportunity to develop and excel their respective talents. With rigorous vocational education in the hands of a dedicated team of teachers, these women are trained and sent out as professionals and entrepreneurs in their own right.

This year’s annual Art Exhibition, Yaadon-ki- Pukaar, in memory of Ashima Chaudhury, on display in the Campus Gallery told us that the first vocational course that flagged off the Polytechnic itself, was the Secretarial Training Programme ~ at a time when it was the most commonly adopted vocation for women as they were stepping out to work outside the home, facing all the pitfalls of having to learn on the job.

The Polytechnic envisaged the advantages of sending them out as trained confident professionals. With a plethora of courses, Fashion Design and Merchandising, among them, is one of the most popular departments, leading to employment, placement and empowerment of women in large numbers.

It would be prudent to mention here that it was this Polytechnic that pioneered the field of Fashion Design in the Capital, the first to launch it as a vocational professional programme under its founder-director, the late Ashima Chaudhuri in 1974.

Born at Balaghat on 28 August, 1939, at the central-most point of India’s map, as Ashima smilingly put it, in metaphoric terms, she always capitalised on the central core of her treasured values. Born the youngest daughter of Dr and Mrs A R Shah, she was Ashima Shamima Chaudhuri, before becoming Mrs Dr B Chaudhuri by marriage.

After her schooling in Sind of undivided India and England, Textile Design at Slade School, and then Royal College of Art, London, Ashima’s father decided to bring the family back to Delhi, where she began teaching Textile Design at the Polytechnic at Kashmere Gate, Delhi that furthered as the Maharni Bagh Polytechnic.

At the personal front she continued with creative designing exhibiting at Triveni, AIFACS, as also supplying industry, including to private units in Panipat, Fabindia, also assisting Shona Ray and Charles Fabri to set up sections of the National Museum and Chandigarh Museum.

The realisation that if women were very academic they could join medicine, engineering or law; but those who were not, only had mundane options like being a telephone operator and the likes.

This vast catchment of women with great capabilities, passion and potential were waiting untapped. It was then that she foresaw, with inputs from Gandhian thinking and idealogy, that even in cities, Vocational Training for Women would be the New India’s big answer for women to get professional and independent, and contribute to their family, society and country at large.

It was then that the seven student outfit in her Defence Colony Barsati had to expand, with Textile Design, Secretarial Practice and Home Science; moving premises to South Extension, was followed by Fashion Design and Merchandising, Holistic Health and Fitness (before the term “Wellness” ever came into being!); Management, Advertising, PR and Business Studies, Beauty Cosmetology and Hair Styling, and countless others over time. The atmosphere comes charged with brisk purposefulness as students and teachers go silently about their business.

It was she who roped in our well-known, much loved artist-printmaker Anandamoy Banerjee, now Dean and HOD Fine Arts, as her second-in-command, never to let him quit, through his extensive studies and work abroad, in fact, enabling and encouraging him to do so, even as he continued as faculty with the Poly.

She could recognise a good thing when she saw it, and deploy it to advantage. Banerjee’s eminence influences the kind of intake the Poly enthuses among admission seekers. Daughter Reyhan, herself a medical doctor like her father, manages the legacy after Ashima’s demise on 14 August, bearing her mother’s torch alongside of medical practice. Reportedly, admissions to the polytechnic open soon.

Invited to set up so many pre-eminent institutions across the sub-continent, the principal consultant behind UNDP, NIIFT, NCERT, CBSE and way across the sub-continent, it is more than a little mystifying, not to find a Padmashree/ Padmabhushan prefixed to the worthy Ashima name. Who did she rub on the wrong side within the corridoors of power, one wonders…