Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udhyogalaya in Vadodara
Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udhyogalaya in Vadodara

MCSU: A project for women's empowerment in Baroda, that was far ahead of its times

Vadodara, September 13, 2022

I have been a Baroda resident all my life. And written extensively on its heritage buildings, history and what have you. But I had never seen this little jewel of a building, winking from behind a camouflage of leafy bushes and old trees.

Built in 1938 (or thereabouts, architect was Shri Talwalkar who trained under the British architect Robert Chisholm), the Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udyogalaya (MCSU) is a double-storeyed red brick and wooden building with broad arched corridors and airy large rooms, that overlooks the Sur Sagar pond near the Akkalkot Maharaj Mandir, at the heart of the city, and has been a quietly working towards the upliftment and empowerment of girls and women for the last many decades.

I visited the building last week for Urja 2022, an exhibition of utility products, masalas and food items made by those supported by MCSU, crafts by expert artisans, premium designerwear, products from ethical brands, as well as those from the museum shop attached to the Fatehsinh Museum in the Palace campus.

Conceptualised and established in 1914 by Maharani Chimnabai II, the second wife of the far-sighted Maharaja Sayajirao III, who empathized with the unlettered, poor and socially disadvantaged women in her kingdom, the MCSU Trust’s vision of educating and empowering women to earn a decent livelihood and live with dignity continues to bear fruit.

In its initial decades, the skill training included basic literacy and numeracy skills strengthened by income-generating vocational training in tailoring and embroidery, expanding to book-binding, hand block-printing, and later to beauty treatments. In recent years, teacher training and computer courses have been introduced as well.

The Maharani’s detailed working model for women’s emancipation was certainly ahead of its time and continues to be relevant even today. But she needed money to put her dream into practice and the Maharaja was not one to easily loosen the purse-strings. He challenged her to get the consensus of the people first.

“Always ready to take a dare,” smiles Shrimant Radhikaraje Gaekwad, the present Maharani, “she graciously accepted the condition and organized what might have been the first fund-raiser in Baroda!”

Chimnabai, who was the first president of the All India Women's Conference (AIWC) in 1927, chose the Central Hall of the imposing Nyay Mandir building as a venue for her fund-raiser where she would create a "sensational sensorial experience" for art and music lovers and the culturally aware Baroda public of those days. The building was decorated beautifully with flower pots, lighting and fountains and the Royal Band played to an admiring and amazed audience.

Needless to say, the gala affair was a runaway success making a profit of a whopping Rs. 3,500. It also received a donation of Rs. 10,000, as promised by the Maharaja. 

In spite of the training institute being supported by the State, and personally by the Maharani at that, families of the girls and women that the training was directed at still refused to send their daughters to the institute. A forceful door-to-door drive was then organised with the involvement of the wives of officials in the Gaekwad Court, convincing families that their daughters and young widows in the family as well as the destitute women in the neighbourhood, that these women would be safe at the institute and as times modernized, they needed skills that would help them earn a living.

The Institute was first housed in Lal Bahadur’s Haveli in Mehta Pol near the Mandvi pavilion with an initial course in tailoring, wherein raw materials and equipment were provided to the students who were also given a monthly stipend of Rs. 2. As the students increased, training in lace-making and embroidery was added. Orders were accepted for preparation of spices, jams, pickles and traditional snacks as well.

In 1927, Maharani Chimnabai’s daughter-in-law, Shakuntalaraje Gaekwad became President of MCSU and wanted the Trust to have its own building. The Maharaja allotted a plot of land on the north side of Sursagar Lake for the institute building.

With more funding coming in from the George V Silver Jubilee Fund, Sir Sayajirao Diamond Jubilee Fund and other donors, the present building was finally designed and constructed in 1938 to meet the needs of the Udhyogalaya. In 1939, boarding facilities were started for students from nearby towns and villages and diploma examinations were held which gave it formal sanction and more students started joining.

Radhikaraje Gaekwad
Radhikaraje Gaekwad

Over the last few years, Radhikaraje has taken active interest in several of the unusual initiatives introduced over many decades and generally lying about lacklustre.

MCSU was one of those doing comparatively better and it has got a vital shot-in-the-arm with Radhikaraje introducing more vocational courses in Geriatric Care, Child and Infant Care amongst others as these skills are now in great demand with more working mothers and wives in formal employment. Courses in Banking, Spoken English and Personality Development will be shortly added to ease the students in employment/entrepreneurship.

Under the brand name of Padmaja, MCSU promotes a number of aesthetically designed hand-made products such as home linen, table décor and traditional and speciality packaged foods.

MCSU also offers 100% confidential and free online counselling to promote mental wellness amongst whoever needs help – this has been introduced in wake of the pandemic that has caused severe stress, depression, feelings of inadequacy and loss of control over one’s life.

Future endeavours at MCSU include two dream projects – Project Pink Line, and Satrangi. Project Pink Line envisions training women to be competent auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers and then placing them in agencies that drive children to and from school, work with senior citizens homes driving the elderly to the market, for medical check-ups, to meet friends as well as those solitary women travelers preferring the safety of being driven by a woman. This project will facilitate their driving lessons and licenses, and help with loans if they want to purchase their own vehicles.

The Satrangi project focuses on the LGBTQ+ community, beginning with the transgenders. MCSU has identified 250 transgenders in Baroda and the intention is to support them with dry rations, identify and help solve their core problems, groom and train them for vocations and find employment accordingly. In short, try and create an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusivity for the community.

MCSU is contemplating opening the Gajra Café where the LGBTQ+ and differently abled will be employed and where mainstream people can interact with them in an unbiased space.

As a sustained annual fund-raiser for these many philanthropic ventures, Radhikaraje has also introduced the Lukshmi Vilas Palace Heritage Garba a couple of years before the pandemic stepped in and halted such events. This year, the Garba has become indeed very big and will be organized at the historic Motibaug Cricket grounds, with the popular Sachin and Ashita Limaye at the mike.

Radhikaraje says, “I am only taking forward what my illustrious great great grandmother-in law did. MCSU is the outcome of out-of-the-box thinking by an enterprising lady who walked the talk and proved that women meant business!”

Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.

All photos courtesy of Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udyogalaya, Baroda.

NNN

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