Regular-article-logo Thursday, 21 September 2023

Bust kicks up dust

First lawyer and an honour

Amit Roy London Published 23.09.16, 12:00 AM
Cornelia Sorabji’s bust after it was unveiled in Lincoln’s Inn in May 2012.
(From left) Author Kusoom Vadgama, Rt Hon Lady Hale of Richmond DBE PC, the most senior female judge in the UK, and Richard Sorabji, the nephew of Cornelia

London, Sept. 22: Somerville, the Oxford college, today announced a law scholarship in the name of Cornelia Sorabji, the first female Indian lawyer.

In the process, a question has come up: did India pass up a chance to honour her around the time Lincoln's Inn, one of the most celebrated professional bodies of judges and lawyers in the world, did so?

"I said I will give you Sorabji's bronze bust free but they were just not interested," said London-based historian Kusoom Vadgama, who compiled and edited the well-received An Indian Portia: Selected Writings of Cornelia Sorabji, 1866-1954.

"Perhaps they will now," was the diplomatic comment from Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, Oxford, whose roll call of students includes Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

In New Delhi, Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave denied that such an offer was made and sought an unconditional apology.

Vadgama said she made the offer to the administration of "the Supreme Court of India shortly after my book was published in 2011, probably in 2012. I approached the Indian high commission but the high commissioner at the time told me, 'Why don't you write directly to the Supreme Court?' and gave me the name of the chief person there.

"I offered the bust since I had the mould - it costs £4,000-£5,000. I got a two-line reply and it said, 'It does not fit into our system', or something like that. I was very disappointed because I thought I would personally take it to the Supreme Court."

Vadgama added: "I offered the bust to the Supreme Court in London and they have it there." Vadgama said her offer to the Supreme Court in India still stood should there be a change of heart.

The Telegraph suggested to Vadgama that Calcutta might be a more appropriate place for Sorabji's bust since she practised in Calcutta High Court from 1924-1929. But Vadgama has her heart set on the Supreme Court in Delhi. "I want the unveiling done by Leila Seth (the first woman judge in Delhi High Court and former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh, and author Vikram Seth's mother)," Vadgama said.

Dave, the Bar Association president, said he went through the Bar records and said no such offer for a free bust was made at any point of time.

Dave said the Bar Association had last year organised a grand event on the Supreme Court lawns in memory of Sorabji. The event, he said, was attended by her family and a delegation from Oxford.

Prochaska confirmed Vadgama made a similar offer to Somerville College "but we requested a photograph instead because that would be more authentic. It hangs in our Law Room".

Somerville is also planning to celebrate Sorabji's 150th birth anniversary.

A Somerville team, led by Prochaska, was at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall today to provide details of the first "Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship in Law at Somerville College".

The winner, 27-year-old Divya Sharma, who was born and raised in Chandigarh and obtained her first law degree from the National Law Institute University in Bhopal, arrives in Oxford tomorrow.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of Indian postgraduate students accepted by Oxford have to give up their places for lack of funding.

Divya will spend a year studying for a post-graduate BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law). Enough funds have been raised to award her between a third and a half of the £36,000 she will need for tuition fees and the cost of living in Oxford for a year.

When Prochaska gave a talk on Cornelia Sorabji at the Supreme Court Bar Association, 300 eminent lawyers attended "but only nine were women".

"It makes me very happy to announce the Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship on a day when Oxford has been named the top university in the world," said Prochaska, referring to a list published today by the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

The principal was accompanied by Sara Kalim, director of development at Somerville, and Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, research director at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, who, between them, are attempting to make their establishment the "college of choice" for bright Indian men and women interested in the study of sustainable development in India.

According to a historical note provided by Kalim, "Cornelia Sorabji, the first female law student at Oxford in 1889, continues to provide a pioneering link between India and the University of Oxford. Cornelia Sorabji was not only Somerville College's first Indian student, but was also the first Indian woman to study at any British University.

"On her return to her home country, Cornelia Sorabji became the first woman to practise law in India and worked on behalf of women living in purdah. Her lifetime's work as a social reformer centred on support for the poor and for women at every level of society."

To mark Cornelia Sorabji's birthday on November 15, 1866, her nephew, Richard Sorabji, a philosopher, will deliver a lecture about his aunt.

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