Jamia’s first women


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SHE was called Jamia’s Khatoon e Awwal ‘Jamia’s Woman Number One’. It was another woman, a younger contemporary, who described her in these words. Their lives overlapped for ten years, from 1933 to 1943. I call them Jamia’s invisible architects, mostly forgotten today. To name them, Gerda Philipsborn and Saliha Abid Husain. Who were they? What brought them to Jamia? What did they build? Almost ninety years after Saliha and Gerda’s arrival in Jamia I am trying to discover the links, join the dots and tell their story.

Saliha was my father’s younger sister. She was born in 1913 in Panipat, a centre of learning renowned for its Sufi tradition. Bright, studious, principled, she was brought up in a family that was at once liberal and deeply religious. She personified this perceived contradiction. Her family believed and practised gender parity which they derived from teachings of Quran. She got maximum benefit of this ethos. The man she married also subscribed to the same ideas. Abid Husain was one of the triumvirate who built Jamia, the others being Zakir Husain and Mohammad Mujeeb. Radhey Shyam Pathak, Jamia’s Hindi teacher saw them as the Sangam and described Abid as Saraswati; Zakir Husain and Mohammad Mujeeb were Ganga and Jamuna, respectively.

Of the three Abid was probably the most erudite. Child of a modest family of Daipur village in Kannauj district, he took a quantum leap in the academic world when he translated Goethe’s Faust and Wilhelm Meister from German into Urdu. Today, almost a century later, scholars have woken up to the fact that he was the best translator from German to Urdu. At the time there was too much to do and too few resources to do it with, for Abid Husain to think about and savour the high benchmark his work had created in Indo-German-Urdu literature. But more about that later, let me first discover the multi-layered personality of his wife, Saliha.

Theirs was a semi-arranged marriage, in the sense that she was given the right to refuse. Abid Husain was much older than her and as a teenager he had been married to a first cousin by family agreement. He did not live with his first wife. For Saliha, the deciding factor was his close friendship with her brother whom she adored and idealized. Abid had just returned from Germany with a PhD in Philosophy having earned plaudits from the renowned teacher and hard taskmaster, Prof Eduard Spranger. From the village the baraat went to Aligarh where her brother Saiyidain lived at the time. Saliha arrived in 1933 in the original Karol Bagh campus of Jamia, a modest institution running in hired buildings plus a few rooms for staff members, two of which constituted her home. Later the campus moved to Okhla, a basti on the banks of the Jamuna, far away from the hub of Delhi.


With a monthly income of Rs 75 (the triumvirate had pledged to draw no more than that) managing a household was a challenge. Besides Saliha and Abid there was a stream of boys and girls from Daipur who came in twos and threes to study in Jamia; the boys mostly in the hostel and girls in their home. Money orders had to be sent to needy relatives including a monthly stipend for Abid Husain’s first wife, known to the family as Shaf’at Behn.

Saliha Abid Hussain.

Gerda Philipsborn. (Photo courtesy Kulan Amin

It was not until many years later that I saw Jamia. As a child when I came with my parents for our weekly visits to Saliha’s house in Jamia, I realized the import of frugal living. While everything was neatly ordered in her home, there was a quiet air of restraint; even at meals we were careful to take small portions. That practice of restraint was familiar because we knew it in our own home in Lutyens Delhi. Father’s salary supported a large household plus there were family members in the staff quarters. Jamia’s privation, for us children, was stark since there was no running water, no electricity. Along the dirt road which led to staff houses there were bajri (red gravel) paths lined with kikar and bubool trees. Water was pulled from the hand pump in the inner courtyard, plus from a well in the backyard. At night there were oil lanterns for every use, eating, reading, toilet or just sitting around. Saliha hovered over her favourite brother and his wife, attending to their every comfort so they repeated their visit the following week!


Saliha, newly married, had just arrived in Jamia when something happened which in retrospect seems nothing short of a miracle. It’s hard to give it a name; a fresh breath blew into Jamia’s arid landscape across the ocean. From Berlin in Germany, arrived a woman in her mid-thirties, a German Jew named Gerda Philipsborn. The story of the German-Jamia connection which began in the ’20s now reached a semi climax.


To begin at the beginning we have to rewind to Munich, Germany; the year is 1921. Two young men arrive to pursue higher studies in Berlin University, at the time a vibrant centre of learning. The tall handsome Pathan is Zakir Husain from Qaimganj in Farrukhabad. Small built, bright and serious is Abid Husain from Daipur, Kannauj. They are joined by a third, Mohammad Mujeeb, of slight built, effervescent, irreverent, from Lucknow. All three are from UP. They find rooms in Schwaner House located in a well-to-do neighbourhood. The best part of living there was the feeling that they were among ‘family’, not in a foreign land. Annelis Schwaner, the daughter of the house and later wife to Alfred Ehrentreich, became a lifelong friend to all of them.

Sarojini Naidu’s older brother Virendranath Chattopadhay, known as Chatto to his friends, also lived in Berlin with his sister, Suhasini Nambiar. She used to arrange evening parties which Mujeeb describes in his biography of Zakir Husain, ‘to bring the right kind of Germans and Indians together.’ It was in this hospitable home that they met a woman who would very soon change their lives and become integral to the institution they were about to build: Gerda Philipsborn, an accomplished linguist, musician, painter and philanthropist. Something sparked between her and these Indian students. By this time the third had also joined the duo. Mohammad Mujeeb was from a well-off family of Lucknow who had been packed off to Oxford for graduation by his exacting father. From Oxford he came to Berlin for training in printing.

Lodged at the large Schwaner house, he shared his allowance with his friends as need arose. These three were invited to Nambiar gatherings where art, literature and philosophy was discussed in animated circles; most prominently with Gerda. For some unknown reason the gatherings came to an end but the end itself became a beginning. Mujeeb recalls Zakir picking up the phone to dial ‘Fraulein Philipsborn’. Thereby began a relationship which would last a lifetime, at least Gerda’s life. She accompanied them everywhere, as a group or only with Zakir Husain. Mujeeb writes, ‘In her company he saw the best of everything – concerts, plays, operas, art exhibitions, schools.’


While imparting German culture to them, this beautiful vivacious woman, in turn, listened to their plans of building an institution with a fresh new vision. In this connection he went with her on excursions to study ideas and institutions which had sprung up in Germany after the war. Mujeeb does not say whether he actually met the great Kerschensteiner but writes that he studied his works as well as those of Rickert, Dilthey, Schleiermacher. German education and pedagogy greatly impressed him. In all this his guide and pathfinder was Gerda.

From old family photos and archives I got a whiff of what life held for them in Berlin. Most of what I saw is from the Mujeeb Family Archives. Three young men in those heady days in Berlin. With groups of friends in parks, forests, homes and hearths. Rigorous academic regime was laced with fun and adventure. From the photographs it was evident that the three had different trajectories. Zakir handsome, thoughtful, vibrant; Abid serious, cerebral, shy; and Mujeeb bright, dapper, joyful. Gerda, along with her sister and few friends watched them with growing fascination. The three had quickly learnt the language and became fluent German speakers. Mujeeb who had come from Oxford to learn printing began working with Zakir on his dream project of publishing a pocket edition of Ghalib’s Divan.

With his flair for languages, Mujeeb’s German became fluent. Zakir was a born linguist. Abid Husain with grit and hard work mastered the language enough to undertake the gigantic task of translating literary classics from German to Urdu like the masterpieces of Goethe. Those were days of hard work and moderate play; Gerda was not a bystander but partner. Jamia existed right there in their midst. In her heart it found a niche; teaching small children, new pedagogy, uncharted pathways in a new country. She would have expressed her desire to join their team.


The men were flattered by the attention of this flower of Berlin. Being practical, each in his own way, they gently discouraged her. Zakir Husain used all arguments to discourage this interest. They had just returned from Austria where Hakim Ajmal Khan and Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari had arrived on a mission. There they had pledged to return to India and dedicate themselves to this new institution. Jamia was born in 1920 from the passion and fervour of freedom, led by students and teachers of Aligarh University. Famous words of Maulana Mahmood Hasan Asir e Malta (Prisoner of Malta) who was brought on a stretcher to make the inaugural speech (read out by Shabbir Ahmed Ansari) echoed in three young hearts as they braced themselves for hard days on their return.

No one had anticipated that telegram which arrived one morning in 1932, addressed to Zakir Husain. At the time many German Jews, artists, intellectuals and others were fleeing fascism in Germany. Gerda could have gone anywhere along with her family and friends, but she chose India. Gerda arrived on the shores of Bombay and took the first train to Delhi, on her way to Jamia. How and what Zakir Husain would have said to his family and colleagues before he set out for Bombay to receive her is not recorded anywhere. The only record is that she arrived on one day and the very next day she took charge of the new Kindergarten. That was January 1, 1933; when she formally became Jamia’s Rukun (staff). She was the lone woman Life Member of Jamia’s Council.


I looked at list after list of Members (both during her lifetime and after her) recorded in Abdul Ghaffar Madholi’s Jamia history but could not find the name of a single woman. In spite of her unique position, only minor accounts of her stay in Jamia exist in various books written by staff members and students. Other than a precious booklet by the Sughra Mehdi, there is no exclusive account of her life in the institution. Her letters from Jamia I was told are in possession of her family in Germany. The archives which I have seen belong to the Mujeeb collection. They include her song books and German classics. That combined with a few incidents recounted in different narratives is all the literature available for one who deserved being remembered as ‘Jamia’s Woman Number One’.

Almost the day she arrived she took charge of the small children. From looking after their personal hygiene, their aesthetics, their learning, she was their mother and warden. Many incidents of her devotion to her wards are anecdotally recounted. Three siblings, children of a teacher, joined the hostel soon after losing their mother. Gerda’s care and love for the small boys is recounted by their father; one can read between lines to decipher his tears of gratitude. Her learning of Urdu was due to her little teachers, the children, who in turn learnt German words.

Another account is of her visit to Lutyen’s Delhi where she collected toys from the German Embassy for her children who had seen only paper cut-outs and paints, never such toys. The story climaxes when she reaches Jamia in a tonga filled with toys only to realize that she had no money to pay the driver. It does not end here. She goes to the Jamia treasurer who admonishes her for not taking advance permission because he too has zero cash. He then runs to borrow cash from a local shopkeeper.


How the Jamia community come to value and ultimately love the woman who was initially referred to only as German Mem Sahib was a miracle. When her colleagues saw her hardship, they offered small comforts within their reach. She refused saying, you don’t consider me one of your own! She took up small part-time typing work in a German firm. Her wages were deposited with the bursar, earmarked for her KG children. From the vantage of almost a century this reads like a piece of fiction. It is a must-make film; it is a book or books that need to be shared with the world through English translations. That huge lacuna needs to be filled.

Gerda and Saliha two women, products of two cultures, distinct, different, distant; nothing in common. Not language, not dress, not belief. There was however one factor which brought them close, their love for Jamia. More than that was their common belief in the ‘human family’, which transcended geographies, even religion. While I can identify where Saliha got hers, I don’t have enough information about Gerda to trace hers.

Saliha came from a reformist family. Her great ancestor Maulana Altaf Husain Hali wrote Musaddas e Hali (Ebb and Tide in Islam) exhorting Muslims to wake up from their lethargy and return to the simple origins of Islam; he was also South Asia’s first feminist poet. Her father Ghulamus Saqlain started the journal Islam aur Asr e Jadeed, a wakeup call for Muslims. Among her siblings was her brother Saiyidain and her first cousin Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. It was the same zeal for reform which found expression in their writings, films, and life practices.


In Jamia, Saliha was on home turf, what she was able to do, despite hardships of Jamia life, was done within the comfort of home and support of an understanding husband. In Gerda’s case there was nothing familiar. Alien turf, simplest living, conservative colleagues. Somewhere she must have seen the entrenched Muslim Jewish dichotomy, plus intense patriarchy. This stark location of an upcoming institution was as different as could be from Berlin; the woods, gardens, ballets, symphonies, literary gatherings. And above all, the new language. Her language was spoken only by her three friends. These three who had blended into the milieu of her Berlin must have been too busy in the struggle of institutional survival.

Different accounts by eyewitnesses like Abdul Ghaffar Madholi and Ghulam Haider, and chroniclers like Sughra Mehdi reveal that she had special access to Zakir Husain. She protected his time in whatever way she could to minimize disturbance because he could never say ‘no’. From various narratives it is evident that Zakir Husain had his door open to whoever wanted him. For one brought up with strict discipline of time management, this ‘time profligacy’ had to be curtailed. There are remarks in various accounts that no one really minded this control; but the complexity of their relationship must have been a challenge for both.

Of Saliha, I have personal memories; principled, affectionate, generous, slightly judgemental. Assiduous worker, no pushover; as children we were in slight awe of her. She recounts that something drew her to Apajan, a woman 18 years her senior. She writes, ‘I don’t know what she saw in me, perhaps she felt I could help her mission.’ And what was her mission? One of her missions according to Saliha’s and other accounts was to bring Jamia women out of the homes into the mainstream of institutional life.


One instance was the visit of the Turkish ideologue Halide Edib Khanum on campus. Halide, a towering intellectual and educationist was close to Hakim Ajmal Khan and Dr Ansari. The day she was to arrive in Jamia, Gerda urged Saliha to bring faculty wives and daughters to the lecture in the main hall. Saliha, in her forthright manner shot back. ‘There is no separate enclosure where we will sit.’ Gerda, who had by now become entrenched in the Jamia landscape as everyone’s ‘Apajan’ arranged a separate enclosure where women could be seated. Halide gave eight extension lectures under the Jamia Urdu Academy. Her seventh lecture on Turkish women was chaired by Sarojini Naidu. Abdul Ghaffar Madholi writes that the lectures were attended by Hindu Muslim Christian, even Englishwomen.

In 1933, the year Gerda and Saliha began their Jamia life, was established Anjuman e Khwateen; its first chair was Begum Asifa Mujeeb and first secretary Saliha Abid Husain. In the same year on the Foundation Day a Women’s Jalsa was held with Begum Mohammad Ali in the chair. Speeches explaining why Jamia was conceived were made by her and Saliha along with a fund-raising appeal. Madhauli records Apajan’s joy when 400, 500 women took part in this event.

During the war, being a German citizen, she was taken to Ahmednagar Jail. Jamia biradari was most distraught and some visited her there. When she was released, they were overjoyed and celebrated her return. Another long-lasting contribution was a magazine for children, Payam e Biradari, a precursor to the famous Payam e Talim. Its branches were opened in other states, and even in other countries. Pen friendships began among children bringing several countries close to Jamia. Poetry, prose and art competitions between these children was her idea of creating a global village, many decades before the expression was coined.


From Saliha’s own writings I glean that it was a relationship which was consistent over ten years until Gerda passed away in 1943. Saliha who was many years junior, found herself listening and following Apajan. Her persistence to get women to participate added grist to Saliha’s hereditary feminism. Women, most of them, including herself, were in burqa but were urged to come out to Jamia events. Soon they began to organize their own events which were often led by Saliha. To name a few of their activities, mehfils, milads, majlises mushairas, plays, bait baazi. These were women exclusive events; but they also began to enter gatherings which were traditionally only for men.

The story of Gerda Philipsborn and Saliha overlapped only for ten years. Having given the best years of her life to Jamia, Gerda died in 1943 surrounded by her loving colleagues and students, but far away from her own family and home. Saliha lived for another 34 years after Gerda and16 years after Abid Husain passed away. She wrote over 50 novels and short story collections, was in high demand at literary gatherings all over the country. Jamia remained her lodestar, her karmabhoomi where she stayed as the centre of a large family who hovered around her until the end, though she was herself childless, a deprivation she recalls in her writings.


When the end came, she was with her own people, most prominent of them, her husband’s niece Sughra who became her child and her literary heir. It was Sughra Mehdi, Professor of Urdu at Jamia who completed her incomplete writings, wrote her biography in several pieces and carried on her tradition. And Gerda? While she achieved what she had set out for, she never saw her own people again but like Saliha she too was surrounded by people who had become her very own.

Zakir Husain’s book Talimi Khutbaat (Addresses on Education) was ready for the press. He dedicated it to Gerda as she was dying, with words which are loaded with meaning – in one sense they encapsulate their relationship.



The last part of the book has just arrived. What I have said and how I said it owes largely to you. If you allow me, I will dedicate this book to you. At this time you are in intense pain. With your love and dedication, you have created a place in the hearts of entire Jamia, the extent of which you may not realise yourself. If your pain could be shared, they would happily distribute it among themselves and not let you to bear it alone. But all this is in no human hand. Our prayer is that whoever has given this pain will also give you strength to bear it and acceptance to one and all. We pray this trying moment become bearable.

Your Friend,

Zakir Husain, 11 March 1943

Zakir Husain did not want to leave her side and go to receive a promised grant for Jamia. She forced him to go which he did with great reluctance leaving her in the caring hands of Jamia colleagues. She waited for Zakir and for good news about Jamia. The news came and she smiled with relief in the midst of intense pain. In his inimitable manner Mohammad Mujeeb writes of her last moments. ‘On April 14, 1943 her breathing had become uneven. She had many visitors, more than usual. After a few hours she gained consciousness and found four or five people standing around her bed. ‘You have come here. Why? Today must be grand finale of the National Week’. We convinced her that the finale had taken place the day before. She was relieved, then she smiled and closed her eyes. That was the end. Jamia was sunk in mourning.’


As I wrote this piece, I periodically looked at a formal photograph of a beautiful and demure Gerda as she sat with Dr M.A. Ansari, Khwaja Hasan Nizami and senior leadership of Jamia. Dr Zakir Husain, Prof Abid Husain and others stood behind the seated row. The photograph bears no date, but it could be the mid-thirties.

Gerda lies in Jamia’s qabristan. Her ‘epitaph’, if I can call it that, was written by another woman, a woman who never saw her, not on her gravestone but at the end of her small book. It is poetic justice that Sughra Mehdi, spiritual daughter of Saliha Abid Husain, should write it.

‘What Apajan did for Jamia proves one inexorable fact. No matter what differences exist in geographies, culture, language, if we do good work in partnership and with true hearts, then all differences melt away.’