Ground breaker Grande Dame Jyotsna Brar inspires generations of women with her work in girls’ education
When a woman rises, she inspires hundreds of others like her to stand up. Behind every successful woman there is a tribe of strong women, who have led the way. The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women aims to encourage and shape women to take leadership roles in the industry. Through Shadow A Mentor module, they are inspired by groundbreaking women of our times. But there are women who have challenged the norms, shattered stereotypes and broken through the glass ceiling for years. In many ways, they were ahead of their times, and their stories serve as a guiding voice for women leaders of tomorrow. They are the Grande Dames of women empowerment, gender equality and justice in the country. Gritty Grannies, who with their courage and conviction were agents of change in India. One of them is Jyotsna Brar, a pioneer in the field of girls’ education in her own right. She established the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls’ Public School in Jodhpur in 1992 as a one-woman army, while her husband served the Army in Ladakh. Later, as the Principal of Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun for 16 years she nurtured a generation of women as they reached out for their dreams. A mentor, role model, and an inspiration, here’s the story of a true leader.
Setting up a girls’ school in Rajasthan in the early 90s must have been challenging. Doing it all by yourself is even more remarkable. Was it seen as questioning the status quo?
I was 39 when I set up the boarding cum day school and I reached Jodhpur in a train on my own. I found a place, set up the house by myself with an army sepoy for help. People couldn’t figure out where the “man of the house” was, and wouldn’t rent me their properties. Later my car fetched up and I was driving around in the city with little kids chasing me saying “a woman is driving the car!”.
My house had a little patch of sand and I decided to grow grass there. I found a variety of Australian grass, which thrived on brackish water. The elderly Rajput Estate Officer of my school was horrified to find me digging out rocks from the sand with a shovel, carrying manure and planting grass. Later he would be shocked to see me sitting in the IAS office in Jaipur to fight for recognition of our school.
Was it tough to get the permissions, dealing with bureaucracy and red tape?
In general, it worked because I reached out to people rather than waiting for them to accept me. I believed I was doing the right things - to start a school, plant some grass and be independent and unafraid. I decided that the grass must be the right one and it must grow well to prove it was possible to green the dune – literally and figuratively. I also found marvelous people who taught me a lot.
You were not only a woman in charge but an outsider to the region too. Was it easy to be accepted by the locals?
People who found me an alien weren’t wrong because I was. So I wasn’t offended. Instead I researched their traditions, beliefs, systems and began to speak their language. I was often afraid but I think I am stubborn. I talked many mothers into allowing their daughters to play games in the Sun, to travel out of town on school trips. The girls were of course on my side.
It was a happy day when I got the school children to present a pageant on their customs, clothing, legends and music. To the parents and locals it meant I was not trying to make aliens of their children. As far as being a woman in charge is concerned, I have never considered myself as a “woman” but a person. However I am deeply aware of the attitude towards women; from men and other women too.
How have you battled these attitudes and treatment accorded to women? Are there any things that you feel you could have done differently?
When I was heading Welham Girls’ School I noticed that the hard labour of carrying the bricks on their heads was always left to the women and the men were the so-called skilled ‘masons’ who sat in one place and applied the cement. One day I realised that the men passed lewd comments at a young girl on the site. I had them and the contractor in the office and laid into them.
I made it mandatory for the men to carry bricks too, and said that I would publicly shame them if such an incident was repeated. I wish I had done this sort of thing earlier. If we are in a position to influence anything going on under our watch, we must do it. I had the opportunity to counsel fathers about letting their daughters be themselves, and talk to mothers about involving their sons in their work.
You have been a role model for many with your actions, but who were your role models?
I come from a family where women studied and worked - my grandmother, mother, aunts, sister and cousins – have all been independent professionals. I had an aunt who had worked in Lady Mountbatten’s refugee camps at the time of The Partition in Punjab. I have met many army wives who are gutsy, cheerful and hardworking. I have been around several strong women, who are role models.
It is a legacy. But I have to mention that, I was brought up to be a strong girl too. As a student of literature I read a lot about all sorts of inequality and cruelty – including gender inequality. I lost my father when I was 17. As a young girl I knew it was tough to be a woman but I also believed I could be mentally tough to challenge stereotypes and also to accept.
But is there anything you have found hard to accept in your life?
It would have to be the sense of entitlement in people with political, societal or financial clout. It has had the power to make me angry, which I find difficult to deal with at times. But I realised that my anger is of no consequence to others so it’s a useless emotion. Instead I have used politeness with my stubborn belief in equal opportunity to good effect. I believe the patience to outlast has helped.
What is your idea of feminism?
For me, it was always about seeing myself as a person and not a gender. We ARE a different gender, and we can and must be quietly proud of that. But that doesn’t mean we need to keep proving ourselves as women. We need to prove ourselves to our own selves. We have to keep equipping ourselves to become the best we can be and keep making efforts towards it.
Any advice you would give to young women of today?
Just keep getting ahead. One has to accept and assess the environment one has to work in and then intelligently, deliberately, and compassionately go about changing what one cannot come to terms with. You will not please everyone and there will be things that are said behind your back. But what’s said behind one’s back can only be ignored. You cannot box with a shadow.
Jyotsna is right; you certainly cannot box with a shadow. But you can leave your footprints, for others to follow. Like she herself has.