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A century of memories — alumni reflect on 100 years of Bethune College Sammilani

Former students of the 140-year-old Bethune College, Asia’s first women’s college, talk about their bond with the institution as students, faculty members, and more

Udita Chakraborty | Published 12.01.24, 04:47 PM

Video by Amit Pramanik and Somak Sarkar

Standing at 181 Bidhan Sarani Road, in Kolkata’s Maniktala area, Bethune College boasts of a legacy that few other colleges in India could ascribe to themselves. As one enters its premises, two things immediately catch your attention — the heritage buildings and the greenery that wraps itself around these hallowed structures. Not surprisingly, the office of Bethune College Sammilani (the alumni association of the college) is inside the Bethune College Archives building — a place that stores more than 140 years of history of the college.

It began with a school for girls, established by English lawyer and educator John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, after whom the institution is named. About 30 years later, Bethune College opened its doors to its first women students on the same campus.

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Bethune College’s alumni association is housed inside the college archives building

Bethune College’s alumni association is housed inside the college archives building

Amit Pramanik

Just like the archives that document the college’s remarkable history, members of Bethune College Sammilani also find themselves to be chroniclers of the college’s developments, hurdles, and constant commitment towards imparting quality education to women. These former students have been associated with the college in many roles and their personal histories have become intertwined with that of the college. Founded in 1921 by Gertrude Marian Wright, and initially known as the Old Students’ Guild, this association of brilliant women turned 100 years old in 2021.

The Sammilani met at the end of 2023 for a Bijoya Sammilani, where My Kolkata joined some of the members on a trip down memory lane as they spoke about their college days and association with the alumni community.

The Bethune College Sammilani’s members of different generations, at the Bijoya Sammilani in 2023

The Bethune College Sammilani’s members of different generations, at the Bijoya Sammilani in 2023

Soumyajit Dey

‘Bethune College has been instrumental in the formation of our personalities’

Kumkum Chattopadhyay, current president of the Sammilani, was seven years old when she first stepped into the premises of Bethune School. She graduated from the college in 1973 and eventually returned as a professor.

One of her memories from college is of the old ‘stable’ building. “In the earlier days, women would come to college in horse-drawn carriages and this building was the stable for the horses.” She remembers attending classes in the red, tin-roofed building in the ’70s.

The old stable building was reconstructed in the late 1990s, and currently houses the auditorium and computer department

The old stable building was reconstructed in the late 1990s, and currently houses the auditorium and computer department

Amit Pramanik

Being a part of the alumni association has allowed Chattopadhyay to meet the former students of the college and sometimes proved to be a much-needed respite from college work. “I take great satisfaction in my lifelong association with Bethune College. This esteemed institution has played a pivotal role in shaping our personalities, and I consider myself fortunate to be a member of such a distinguished community,” she said.

Dr. Kumkum Chattopadhyay, batch of 1973

Dr. Kumkum Chattopadhyay, batch of 1973

Amit Pramanik

Chattopadhyay is grateful to have been entrusted with the position of president of the Sammilani. “Throughout the years, we have endeavoured to contribute to the college by establishing various awards for both current and former students. The affection and respect we receive from the college community are truly heartening, and I am confident that this bond will endure and strengthen in the years to come," she said.

‘Every corner of the college holds a special place in my heart’

For Sima Kundu, treasurer of the Sammilani, studying and teaching at Bethune College was a dream. She joined Bethun’s political science faculty in 1987 after completing her MA and PhD from Calcutta University. “During my doctoral studies, passing by the college, I dreamt of teaching there. That dream came true, and after 25 years of teaching, I retired in 2013. Bethune College is like family, and my bond with the campus, students, and educators is unparalleled,” she said.

The most iconic building on campus — the main Bethune School building

The most iconic building on campus — the main Bethune School building

Amit Pramanik

One of her earliest memories is from the time of admission, when her proud father asked the faculty to guide his daughter who was a good student. “Shovona di (Shovona Sengupta, former department head, political science) told my father, ‘she will have to prove the fact that she is good,’ and I have always tried to do justice to that.”

Dr. Sima Kundu, batch of 1972

Dr. Sima Kundu, batch of 1972

When asked to pick what is most special about the college, she found herself in a quandary. “Every part of the college, from corridors to trees, is special. Bethune College is my second home, where I’ve experienced the beauty of mornings, afternoons, and evenings,” she reminisced.

‘Bethune College, to us, is not just a seat of education but a sacred pilgrimage site’

“Bethune College, to us, is not just a seat of education but a sacred pilgrimage site. There is no greater religion than education,” said Minakshi Sinha, distinguished retired professor of the Bengali department and well-known theatre actress.

She credits Bethune College for her love for the stage. She enrolled in the college in 1956, and has been an integral part of the college community in various roles for about 63 years. Having performed on stage in India, Bangladesh, and England and having won multiple awards, she affirms that none of that would have been possible without Bethune. She still returns to the college stage during every reunion.

Dr. Minakshi Sinha, batch of 1960

Dr. Minakshi Sinha, batch of 1960

“Bethune College is where my passion for literature blossomed. Under the guidance of principal Mrinalini Emerson, I discovered my love for acting. My foundation in acting and teaching, as well as the values instilled in me to be a good human being, all trace back to the college. Our reunions are special, with notable figures like Suchitra Mitra, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, and Sabitri Chatterjee being honoured. These relationships are treasures, all made possible by the nurturing environment of Bethune College,” she said.

One of the oldest members of the Sammilani, she looks back on the day when actress Sabitri Chatterjee was moved to tears during a tribute given by the alumni. “She shared how she (Chatterjee) would be engulfed in sadness, regretful she couldn’t study here when she passed by the college on her way to Star Theatre. She had never imagined she would be honoured by us — it was a moment beyond her belief.”

Inside the Bethune School hall stands a bust of John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune

Inside the Bethune School hall stands a bust of John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune

‘I hope to continue working with the alumni association as long as I can’

For some members of the Sammilani, like Dr. Sumitra Chaudhuri, the current secretary of Bethune College Sammilani, being part of the Sammilani came with reconnecting with the college.

“I graduated in 1966 with Chemistry honours from the college. Then for a long time, I was not in contact with my alma mater, but when I came back as a member of the alumni association, I started liking the work that I was doing and the people that I was working with. I hope to continue working with them for as long as I can,” said . Chaudhuri about her association with the alumni.

Dr. Sumitra Chaudhuri, batch of 1966

Dr. Sumitra Chaudhuri, batch of 1966

This commitment to a lifelong dedication to the college is perhaps also what brings together Sima Kundu, Kumkum Chattopadhyay, and Minakshi Sinha and Sumitra Chaudhuri and other members of the Sammilani, who are all from different generations.

An inspiration for future students

The Bethune College Sammilani has for years worked in big and small capacities to uphold the legacy of their alma mater. Among its significant accomplishments is the successful endeavour to obtain the entrance certificate from the University of Calcutta for Chandramukhi Basu, a pioneering alumna. Sunanda Ghosh, 1957 graduate, former head of the political science department, and one of the oldest members of the Sammilani, played a crucial role in this groundbreaking research.

Dr. Sunanda Ghosh, batch of 1957

Dr. Sunanda Ghosh, batch of 1957

“Many opposed bringing my research to light, but with assistance, including that of my daughter, I persisted. Chandramukhi Basu was permitted to take the entrance exam, yet the examining school stated that Calcutta University had not approved it. Although Calcutta University eventually allowed Kadambini Ganguly to sit for the exam after two years, they overlooked Chandramukhi Basu's prior examination,” said Ghosh about her research, which demonstrates that the rules at the time did permit women to take exams. Perseverance and protest made sure that the certificate was acquired in 2013.

Sima Kundu, who had accepted the certificate from the university during the convocation ceremony in 2013 as the president of the Sammilani, said that thinking of the moment still gives her “chills”.

The alumni association — through books, special lectures and milestone accomplishments — contributes substantially to the progress of the college, noted Anushila Hazra Bhattacharya officer-in-charge of Bethune College. “They are a very good example for our present students. Our students are inspired by them,” she signed off.

Last updated on 12.01.24, 04:47 PM
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