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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

Bessie Rischbieth in India

Western commentators often viewed the prospect of Indian independence through the lens of their attitudes towards Indian culture and way of life. Rischbieth found beauty where many of her contemporaries in the British world saw ugliness and cruelty. The idea of the East as a resource for global renewal shared among internationalists like Rischbieth involved in British world and Pacific internationalism stands in stark contrast to representations of India by Western humanitarians who considered Hindu culture and ways of life to be fundamentally backward. Most notoriously, in her book Mother India (1927), Katherine Mayo railed against Indian traditions which she considered characterised by the betrothal of girl children, the sati of widows, and cruelty to animals. Ironically, as Sinha points out, Indian nationalist opposition to Mayo’s internationally successful and sensationalist book provided middle-class Indian women with an unprecedented public platform, and led many, including Hannah Sen, Dhanavanthi Rama Rau, and Cornelia Sorabji, to seek out international venues through which to promote the liberal nationalist cause. These women became regular participants in international organisations like the Dominion women’s British Commonwealth League (BCL), founded in London in 1925 as a sub-group of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance.18

Bessie Rischbieth was also involved in the BCL19 as well as in the PanPacific Women’s Association.20 She was keen to work with representatives of ‘the East’ whom she considered to combine the best elements from their own civilization with those of Western modernity.21 (Fig. 5.1)

As a theosophist, Rischbieth admired Indian culture and modern Indian women.22 In 1930 she had attended the All India Women’s Conference held in Madras under the auspices of the Irish theosophist Margaret Cousins. She appears in the photograph in this chapter alongside Cousins; Dorothy Jinarajadasa, the English wife of the Sri Lankan president of the Theosophical Society and a founder of the Women’s Indian Association established by Annie Besant in 1917; and Sarojini Naidu, the Civil Disobedience activist also involved in the formation of the Women’s Indian Association. The ‘outspoken’ Naidu, who in 1925 had acted as the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress and presided over the East Africa Indian Congress in 1929, gave a keynote at the India Women’s Conference in London in 1930 where, according to Rischbieth, she ‘made a revolutionary speech... that India would have her freedom’. The flyer for

Group of Women, All India Women’s Conference, Madras, 1930. Rischbieth Papers. Ms 2004/11/569. Permission of the National Library of Australia

Fig. 5.1 Group of Women, All India Women’s Conference, Madras, 1930. Rischbieth Papers. Ms 2004/11/569. Permission of the National Library of Australia

the Women’s Conference, with her handwritten note on the back,23 is among Rischbieth’s papers along with photographs of her visit in the same year to the Sabarmati Ashram established by Gandhi in 1915 where she was required to spend part of her day hand spinning.

In a public lecture delivered on her return to Australia, Rischbieth named Mahatma Gandhi, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and the biological scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose as three of the most important men in the world. She also appealed to her audience to remember that the ‘British empire is not a White Empire ... [and so] to the British people as to no other people of this age comes the call to liberate the ancient culture of many races ... ’ Indeed, in the case of India, the ‘great struggle for selfdetermination’ was already underway as the arising nation sought to ‘reclothe itself in all its old traditional beauty’. A supporter of Dominion status for India, she added: ‘May India ever remain within the British Empire - free and untrammelled - the greatest link between East and

West, thus saving the best of each for the future civilization’.24 Although Rischbieth did not directly critique the White Australia policy, she called upon Australia to recognise the best in both British and Indian cultures in order to fulfil its destiny as a modern nation within the British Commonwealth.

Undoubtedly many Western women’s desire to be of service to India was integral to their search for careers as fellow modernisers of empire.25 But their aims to uplift the East also brought some to see their own countries through others’ eyes: that is, as sources of tradition as well as of progress. Nor was the West without its failings. A shift in attitude can be discerned, for example, in the pages of Jus Suffragi, the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance newspaper. In 1922, it reported on the Girl Guides and the YWCA seeking ‘to serve the girlhood of the East’ by training them in the virtues of Christian service.26 A few years later, however, reporting on the second Pan Pacific Women’s Conference held in 1930, it quoted Australian delegate Bessie Rischbieth’s conclusion that at this conference in the Pan-Pacific women from the ‘older countries’ of Asia were very interested in ‘our social and industrial problems’.27 Concerns about problems in Western countries reflected the global impact of Wall Street Crash of the 1930s and ensuing mass unemployment that spread also to India.

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