Saturday, October 4, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Light of learning atop a hill in Shimla
Aruti Nayar

The old building of St. Bede’s College, Simla: It was set up in 1904 to raise the standard of education in north-west India
The old building of St. Bede’s College, Simla: It was set up in 1904 to raise the standard of education in north-west India

THE first thing that strikes one about St. Bede’s College is the picturesque, almost idyllic, location of its campus. Nestling amidst spruce, fir and oak trees that have witnessed hundred years of the college’s growth, the institution has been a learning ground for numerous ex-Bedians who became "ladies from girls." As a small college housed in a single block with only 15 students, initially set up to impart the TTC or the Teachers’ Training Certificate, its aim was to raise the standard of education in north-western India. Bede’s is now a sprawling campus with six buildings that house 1400 students and 66 teachers. It has grown not only in size but also significance. Belonging to the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, founded by St. Claudine The’venet, Bedewas set up in 1904 by Reverend Mother St. Clare. A young educationalist, her conviction was that keeping young people happy kept them good. She overcame all the obstacles that came in the way of setting up the institution because of her belief "difficulties are made to be overcome..."

The first Principal of the college was Mother St.Gregory Canty (1904-932). Up to 1958, the Principal of St. Bede’s was British. The college witnessed two world wars and the struggle for Independence. The European students gave way to girls from royal families and to those from affluent families living abroad to local girls who were enrolled in the ‘50s.


The exhibition in the college library of the college’s archives is not only a trip down memory lane for ex-Bedians and visitors but also a reconstruction of history. Earlier principals are seen wearing frilly caps and trailing habits and students wearing crinoline skirts and hats. If there are pictures showing a bomb extinguishing workshop in progress, there is a pretty tablecloth embroidered by the TTC students of 1928, called "In perpetuity" with the embroidered autographs of all the students.

The library, that started off with 200 books, has more than 2,000 titles now and has been computerised. It is a treat to see rare books on display, some of them dating back to the 15th century. For instance, Christmas with the Poets, a collection of songs, carols and descriptive verses from the Anglo-Norman period to the present, dates back to 1647. Embellished with 53 gold inlaid illustrations it was published by Ward, Lock and Tyler, Warwick House, London. The pictures as well as signatures in the visitors’ book include those of eminent visitors to the college like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Jacqueline Kennedy, the Beatles, Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi with Sanjay and Rajiv. One realises that as a student, the importance of the institution had not sunk in. It was just the sense of belonging that was overwhelming.
It was Sister Agatha, the dynamic Irish principal who infused life into an institution which was on the verge of closure. As she remembers her tenure, she says her guiding principle has always been love and not discipline that she gave students and which was returned to her in ample measure. Looking back at her tenure, she says though the environment matters and Bede’s ambience certainly is captivating, it is people who are of prime importance. She managed to get the affiliation of the college with Panjab University first and later with Himachal Pradesh University and raise funds.

Further progress was overseen by Sister Rose, warm-hearted and with her roaring trademark laughter. She ticked off girls with as much apnapan as she hugged them. Sister Collete, who was as gentle as she was friendly and soft-spoken and the present Principal Sister Melba, gracious and charming—all stress upon the need to impart an education that is holistic and extends from the classroom to life. From gauche, socially awkward, impressionable girls to young women with a definitive personality, social skills and values that will see them through life is what the staff at Bede’s ensures. Perhaps that is the reason that for most girls who pass out of convents, there is no rupture and college remains an extension of school. Not many seem to mind this lack of unlimited freedom, as is the case with other colleges where students are largely left to their own devices.

Along with the phenomenal growth of the institution not only in terms of newer courses, increased students’ strength, benchmarks in academic performance as in consistently good results every year, is the contribution towards personality development. The college badge symbolises the lamp of wisdom, open book of knowledge (learning is an ongoing process and one is a student throughout life), unity stresses the need for unity for students and the spray of lilies towards the side portrays purity in thought, deed and word not for ourselves alone but for all those whose lives we might impact. After all, the motto, designed by Mother St. Clare was Non Nobis Solum or Not for ourselves alone. Skills are of no use unless they are used to guide us through the eddies and troughs of life and in spreading the light of love into lives other than ours.

The most significant aspect of St. Bede’s is the manner in which the students and the staff relate to each other. They encourage them to participate in activities that will help them to realise their potential. That is why it is sad that the institution that gave so much to so many girls should face a financial crunch now. Only if the state steps in to save the situation can we hope it will survive hundreds of years ahead and continue like a lighthouse of learning.

Talking to Ma’am Devi, the librarian who guarded the library with as much diligence and ferocity as she inculcated the reading habit in each of us, brings back memories of those formative years.

Walking through the tree-lined roads, sitting on the iron benches or sitting in the parlour in Marion Block, the oldest building, memories form a collage. Whispered secrets, shared laughter, suppressed giggles and unshed tears, friendships that survived the upheavals of life and above all an innate strength that has helped one face life head-on. Many Bedians would join me in saying: "Thank you St. Bede’s we owe a lot to you."