Swarnalata Barua, the only daughter of Raibahadur
Gunabhiram Barua, the reputed writer and historian of the Arunodoi era,
was born in February, 1871. Her mother was Bishnupriya Devi, a nice woman
with sweet words. She was brought up under the umbrella of love of her
parents in an atmosphere conducive to learning. Born in the seventh decade
of 19th century and nourished by the thinking of both oriental
and occidental, she was also influenced by the ideas of renaissance.
In 1894 Bethune School was established in Calcutta.
Iswar Chandra Bidyasagar was the secretary of this school for several
years. The daughters of many reputed persons were admitted to this School.
Many women could enlighten themselves with modern education due to the
untiring effort of some liberal minded men who worked hard for the noble
cause of women education.
The period of Swarnalata’s student life was a period of
transition in the history of India. There was a revolutionary change in
Bengal in socio-political, cultural and education sphere. Anandaram
Dhekial Phukan and his successor Gunabhiram Barua awakened the mind of
Assamese people by highlighting the changes of the contemporary world that
happened due to the influence of western education. These men of rare
merits in their short span life worked for the noble cause of developing
the language and literature of the country. They also tried to make the
society up to date making it free from superstition. Padmawati Devi
Phukanani and Swarnalata Barua witnessed the noble deed of these two great
souls and the sacred blood of these patriots passed through vein of their
Swarnalata was brought up in the close association of
the parents who were liberal minded, well wishers and free from prejudice.
Gunabhiram supported the widow remarriage not only in precept,but by
example. He had full support to the measures taken by Bidyasagar for
initiation of social reform through women liberation and widow remarriage.
Being the witness of two cases of widow remarriage, Gunabhiram wrote in
‘Aronodoi’ January, 1857 ‘Oh God, when will we have the lack of witnessing
this type of happy incident.’ He could feel deeply the life long suffering
of a widow and wrote an article in ‘Arunodoi’ with the title ‘Bidhaba
Bibah’. He wrote that the men failed to realize the suffering of a widow.
He was shocked to see the affliction of a widow in Assam. As a part of his
reformative measure, he himself had his second marriage with Bishnupriya,
the widow of Parasuram Barua after the death of his first wife
Brajasundari Devi, the sister-in-low of Anandaram Dhekial Phukon. It is
worth mentioning that this was the first register marriage in Assam.
Gunabhiram, as an ideal father is hardly comparable to
anyone. In his address to the parents advising them not to make any
discrimination between boys and girls, he wrote that parents cannot repay
the debts of their children simply by providing them with food and cloth,
but they must be given proper education. The girl should also be brought
up with care and should be gifted along with property to learned, good
natured bridegroom. (Arunodoi, July 1853). Gunabhiram was very much
conscious of his only daughter’s education. Jnandabhiram, his youngest son
wrote in his autobiography,’ MOR Katha’ about his father‘s anxiety of
Swarnalata’s education. At that time there was not a standard girls’
school in Nowgaon. My sister, Swarnalata was made to receive education
from an Assamese teacher at home. After this she was admitted to Bethune
school of Calcutta in 1880. I am surprised to see the courage of my
parents. It is not a matter of joke to keep a nine years old girl in such
distance place like Calcutta. But the teachers, as well as the friends,
showed affection to my sister. She was the first Assamese girl there’.
Miss Lips Combey or Miss Mitre wrote a letter ‘I am feeling so sorry to
leave Swarna that I give the name Swarna to my calf.’ At that time the
system of communication between Assam and Calcutta was very bad. It took
nearly ten days to reach Calcutta.
In spite of lots of inconveniences, Swarnalata started
her education in Calcutta and she was there for near about seven years
from 1880 to 1886/1887. At that time her father Gunabhiram was E.A.C of
Nowgaon. Bishnupriya, the mother of Swarnalata sometimes used to stay for
some months in Calcutta with her daughter. Jnanadabhiram wrote in his
autobiography about his stay in 65 Maniktola Street, Calcutta, with his
mother for the education of Swarnalata.
Swarnalata’s childhood and adolescence passed in an
atmosphere which was full of high thinking. Gunabhiram was the centre of
attraction for the Assamese residing in Calcutta. Sahityarathi Laksmi Nath
Bezbaroa mentioned the attitude of the intelligentsia of Calcutta and the
Assamese people staying there towards Gunabhiram in his autobiography ‘Mor
Jivan Soaran’. There was a frequent assemblage of the man of reputation
including scientists, lecturers and doctors etc. Gunabhiram had his
association with Tagore family which was the centre of literature, fine
art, and culture of Bengal. Babu Durga Mohan Das, the advocate of the high
court, Dr Bipin Bihari Sarkar, Ananda Mohan Basu, barrister and first
wrangler of India, Dr Mohini Mohan Basu who later on came to be known as
Sir Jagadish Basu, Dr Kadambini Ganguli, Principal Umesh Chandra dutta ,
Brahmananda Keshab Chandra Sen etc. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was very
intimate to their family. Dr Kadambini Ganguli was very close to Barua
family. She was gifted with a pair of silk ‘mekhela Chadar’ (two pieces of
dress worn by Assamese woman) by Gunabhiram Barua just before she had gone
to the exhibition of Chicago with the following words ‘ I have given you a
pair of dress worn by Assamese woman. Wearing this, you can show there
what type of dress is worn by Assamese women’. It can be well understood
that Swarnalata was developed intellectually at the close association of
such a pleasant company.
Due to the selfless dedication of their forefathers to
the development of Assamese language Kuranabhiram, Jnanabhiram, Swarnalata
and Padmawati became patrons of literature. It is for the inspiration of
Gunabhiram that Padmawati Devi, his niece wrote ‘Hitshadhika’ and
Bishnupriya Devi wrote ‘Niti Katha’. His daughter was also inspired to
write ‘Arhi Tiruta’ and his son Karunabhiram edited a news paper named ‘Larabandhu’.
The date of composition of ‘Arhi Tiruta’ was probably
within 1886-1894. She wrote article in Assamese periodical ‘Assam Bandhu’
edited by Gunabhiram. Twelve issues of ‘Assam Bandhu’ (1885-1887) were
published. Swarnalata started writing probably from the time of her
staying at Bethune school. Later on she used to write in ‘Bijuli’ also.
That she wrote in ‘Bijuli’ was known from a letter of Jnanadabhiram Barua
to Jitendra Bujarbarua.
Swarnalata was married to Dr Nanda Kumar Rai (M.B.B.S
from Ebinburgh). It is known from the writings of Jnanadabhiram Barua that
Swarnalata’s marriage was arranged with Kabi Guru Rabindranath Tagore, but
his father Maharshi Debendranath Thakur made objection to this marriage
when he heard of the widow marriage performed by Gunabhiram Barua. After
three years of their conjugal life Dr Nanda Kumar Rai had premature death
on 31st March, 1890 leaving two daughters and his wife. That
was the day of retirement of her father Gunabhiram Barua and the sad
demise of his son-in-low was a bolt from a blue for him. Barua family was
seriously disappointed by a series of disturbance after this unexpected
accident. Gunabhiram came to Calcutta and settled there permanently.
Swarnalata also came back to her father’s house taking the daughters with
her. In the affectionate shelter of her father she started to engage
herself with literature, but destiny forebode her to do so. Her mother
Bishnupriya Devi died on 26th March 1892 and after one year her
elder brother Karunabhiram also left this world. In the subsequent year
i.e. in 1894, her father, the only centre of shelter and solace, left her
leaving her in great remorse and disappointment. At that time Swarnalata
was only twenty three years old. She had to shoulder the responsibility of
her daughters and her brothers Kamala and Jnan. Bezbarua mentioned the
names of the fathers that took care of Gunabhiram’s children among whom,
the family of Durga Mohan Das, Rajani Nath Rai and Basu were worth
mentioning. Even Bezbarua himself took care of Gunabhiram’s children and
grandchildren. After the death of her faher, Swarnalata was taken along
with her brothers by her elder brother –in-low Rajani Nath Rai to his
residence known as ‘Retreat’. After observance of the rights and rituals,
Swarnalata along with her children was put in ‘Brahma Girls’ school
following the advice of the well wishers. Kamala and Jnan were sent to
‘Brahma Boarding School’. Destiny was still against Barua’s family and it
was proved by the death of Kamala on 30th November, 1994. All
the well wishers were very much worried of the future of Jnanadabhiram and
Swarnalata. They sent Jnandabhiram to England and necessary arrangements
were made for Swarnalata’s second marriage with Khirod Chandra Rai
Choudhury which was solemonised on 14th February, 1889. Khirod
Chandra Rai was the principal of Hugli College. Later on he settled in
Cuttack. He also engaged himself in the study of literature. In 1831 Saka,
he published the monthly literary journal named ‘Mrinmoye’. But no trace
of creative work done by Swarnalata was found after her marriage. Probably
it was due to the untimely burden she had to shoulder due to the death of
her father and husband. Besides, her creativity shrunk in absence of her
parents who acted as catalysts in her creative power. Her complete energy
was exhausted in the upbringing of her brother Jnandabhiram Barua and her
own two daughters.
Swarnalata’s married life with Khirod Chandra Rai was a
happy one. Bezbarua, along with his wife, received hospitability in
Swarnalata’s residence in Cuttak. Bezbarua mentioned the loving reception
of Swarnalata to Bezbarua family in his autobiography. One of the
daughters of Swarnalata died early and the other one had her establishment
in her life and she was Mrs. P.C. Rai of Cotton College.
Swarnalata left his earthly abode in 1932. She must be
kept alive in the literary history of Assam for contribution she had made
by writing a book like ‘Arhi Tirota’ and also by writing article in ‘Assam
Bandhu’. Unfortunately, nothing remains o the book. Had it been preserved
in the state library of Assam, the theme and structure of ‘Arhi Tirota’
could be known. Still as a worshipper of Assamese language Swarnalata
Barua will remain as a source inspiration for the women writer of the
later part of the twentieth century as well as the early decade of the 21st
century. We offer our tribute to this sacred soul.