In most countries, the life of an elite and sophisticated woman giving up her career as a classical soprano to preach nonviolence to bandits and kidnappers deserves significant study and attention. Yet in India, the woman in question, Khurshedben Naoroji, is largely unknown. Historian Dinyar Patel tells her forgotten story.
Writer Ramachandra Guha once described the world of Indian biography as “a naked closet”. Oddly enough, most Indian scholars avoid writing life stories. A new delivered, with contributions from many of Guha’s students and colleagues, help fill those empty shelves with remarkable characters.
One of them is Khurshedben Naoroji, born in 1894 to an elite Parsi family. His grandfather, Dadabhai Naoroji, was the first Indian nationalist leader and the first Indian to sit in the British Parliament.
In her youth, Khurshedben lived in the upscale areas of Bombay (now Mumbai) and became an accomplished classical soprano. Family and friends have nicknamed her “bul” or nightingale.
In the early 1920s, she moved to Paris to study music, but found herself culturally adrift in Europe until she crossed paths with another expatriate woman, Eva Palmer Sikelianos.
Sikelianos, a New York aristocrat, had settled in Athens where she became one of the main architects of a revival of classical Greek culture.
Their conversations about Greek and Indian musical traditions resulted in the establishment of a non-Western music school in Athens.
Khurshedben left classical music behind in Paris and flourished in Greece, wearing Indian saris and performing impromptu concerts of Indian music.
Remarkably, “Mother Greece” – as she referred to the country – helped refocus her energies on Mother India. As Sikelianos biographer Artemis Leontis notes, Khurshedben spoke nostalgically about India and joining Mahatma Gandhi’s movement to break free from British colonial rule. When Sikelianos requested his help for the first Delphic feast, Khurshedben declined the offer, returning to Bombay instead.
Soon she moved to Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat where she encouraged Gandhi to expand the participation of women in nationalist activities. Gandhian activism, she told a newspaper, brought “the great awakening of women” – and women “were not going to stop their work so well started”.
For Khurshedben, this work quickly moved to an unusual place: the North West Frontier Province (NWFP – now in Pakistan and called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Deeply conservative and plagued by tribal melee and banditry, the area was about as far away from its Bombay as it could get. Maybe that’s what drew her to this place.
It is not known how or when she first traveled to the border, but by the early 1930s this elite Parsi woman was a well-known figure in NWFP politics. she befriended Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi” which led a nonviolent pro-nationalist movement among the Pashtuns.
Whenever she upset the authorities, Khurshedben happily submitted to British imprisonment, once writing to Gandhi from a prison in Peshawar (a city in present-day Pakistan) that “the fleas and I were keeping each other warm.”
As Khurshedben spent more time in the NWFP, she understood a thorny political challenge.
Gandhi had encouraged her to promote Hindu-Muslim unity and to support the Indian National Congress. This was impossible, however, as local Hindus remained terrorized by Muslim dacoits – bandits who carried out kidnapping raids in neighboring Waziristan. These bandits, who terrified British and Indian police officers, fueled community tensions.
For Khurshedben, the answer to this dilemma was obvious – she would approach the Dacoits, encourage them to renounce banditry and embrace Gandhian nonviolence.
His fellow NWFP congressmen – all men – were mortified. Despite their protests, at the end of 1940 she began long walking tours through the desolate countryside, meeting and conversing with the locals. She advised women on the evils of banditry, turning mothers or daughters of dacoits against the practice.
The bandits were puzzled as to how to treat this brave woman who had rushed to their camps. Some have expressed remorse over their activities, but at least once Khurshedben has written to Gandhi about being nearly shot. “Bullets were whistling in the sand near me,” she recalls.
Remarkably, his approach has yielded results. By December 1940, kidnappings had dropped, improving community harmony. Even the local British authorities, her former prisoners, now congratulated her.
But a challenge remained.
A group of kidnapped Hindus was being held in Waziristan, a place British police did not dare to go. Khurshedben decided to go even though she was aware of the risk to her life: and if she was captured alive, she told Gandhi that the dacoits would demand a ransom or “cut off her finger or her ear.”
Unfortunately, she could not reach the kidnappers. British authorities arrested and imprisoned her before she crossed the border into Waziristan. She cycled through prisons until 1944. Obviously, this elite Bombay woman was too great a danger for the British Raj.
Khurshedben never returned to the NWFP. In August 1947, she witnessed the agony as the region was torn from undivided India; a few months later Gandhi lay dead.
Information about Khurshedben’s life almost completely disappears thereafter. After India’s independence, she worked for various government commissions and even resumed her singing career before passing away, most likely in 1966.
In a sense, the story of Khurshedben is not unique. Thousands of remarkable life stories like his remain to be told, with scattered and moth-eaten archives patiently awaiting a storyteller.
This is especially the case for women, including nationalist colleagues from Khurshedben. There is plenty of room for them in the bare closet of Indian biographies.
Dinyar Patel is the most recent author of a biography of Dadabhai Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, which was published by Harvard University Press