For more than a century, Davar’s College of Commerce and Secretarial Studies and Practices at Fort has been an affirmative force behind the empowerment of Mumbai’s women
Passing through the Fort area is like taking a glimpse at the city’s rather pretty poignant past. As façade after façade of Victorian gorgeousness vies for attention, it is easy to miss out on a modest buffcoloured building with an unassuming sign that reads ‘Davar’s College of Commerce’.
URMI CHANDA-VAZ | Mumbai Mirror
Davar’s College of Commerce at Fort
A few hundred metres from where the Flora Fountain receives many adoring double takes from passers-by, this British era edifice continues to quietly build upon history. Quietness is perhaps the most apt adjective to describe this educational institution, for very little is known of it, despite its centurylong legacy.
Movers and shakers
By the turn of the last century, Bombay, as the city was then called, had become the British Raj’s golden egg-laying goose, thanks to its accessible ports and cotton textiles and other manufacturing industries. The Industrial era had arrived and thrown open work opportunities to residents and migrants alike. The business agglomeration economies and labour pools made the city an attractive location for public and private sector offices.
These offices needed a skilled workforce – and who better than an industrious Parsi to find a solution?
Established in 1900, Davar’s College of Commerce and Secretarial Studies and Practices is a private college run by the Davar family, whose most illustrious member is known more for his dancing shoes than his graduate robes. Though not groovy in the same way as Shiamak Davar, his grandfather, professor Sohrab Davar and his father Dr Nani Davar were movers and shakers in their own right. Professor Sohrab Davar had the vision of and played a pioneering role in introducing the first secretarial training facility in India. His son, Dr Nani Davar made his vision a reality by establishing the institute, thereby “providing an exceptionally strong foundation of education dedicated solely to the commerce industry. He was brilliant in his foresight to realise the importance of trade and commerce and the technical knowledge required to put that extra edge to personal business acumen”.
Davar’s College of Commerce, Banking and Language Studies was set up by SR Davar to prepare men and women for the workplace as trade and business boomed in India’s financial capital
Khorshed DP Madon (seated, second from left) went on to become the principal of the college after her father SR Davar
Principal SR Dawar with students from Punjab. Davar would take students from India to England by sea for the exam. Classes were held on board the ship
Students from south India in 1924 with Principal SR Davar
The 2014 batch of students
The courses on offer at the Davar’s College now
This 118-year old college started as one of commerce but kept adding more faculties, such as the Personal Secretarial Course, Executive Assistant Diploma Course, and Computers and Management to suit the demands of the time. It is currently led by their principal, Puran N Davar, who at the sprightly age of 97 continues to actively oversee its management.
A sum greater than its stereotypes
Secretarial practice was once serious business, unlike Bollywood’s long-held stereotype of a low-cut top wearing, short hairsporting, poor Hindi-speaking secretary. However, there may have been some truth in the depiction of mostly Christian and Parsi women in these roles, progressive as they have always been and particularly invested in education.
Dr Kurush Dalal acknowledges the college’s contributions, not only as a historian, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist, but also as a member of the Parsi community.
“This college has made a very silent contribution to women’s emancipation,” she says. “In the period between the 1960s and 1980s the secretarial, shorthand and typewriting courses offered here empowered a large section of urban Indian women by preparing them for a workplace that needed secretarial employees. Many of these women then went on to more senior jobs in the managerial side of the offices they worked in. This was a silent revolution in its own way. When there were few, if no avenues for women to get into the corporate workspace in urban Mumbai, this was one greatly empowering way.”
Betty D’Souza (69), who studied in Davar’s College and went on to make a career in secretarial practice, is one such example. Circa 1970, after a young D’Souza finished her higher secondary, she signed up for a two-year Secretarial course at this reputable institute. But her choice was motivated by not just job prospects but by affordability. “Education wasn’t as accessible or affordable back then,” she recalls. “We didn’t have any electronic resources then, or even so many libraries. One had to buy books and they were expensive. This course was more feasible in every way, not to forget extremely useful.”
A well-rounded course at Davar’s college, in which fundamentals of commerce, book-keeping, accountancy and even grooming were taught in addition to shorthand and typing, gave one a comfortable edge over the steno-typist.
“These additional things we learnt in the course helped us take on new responsibilities and grow in our careers,” she says. “After the advent of computers, when the role of the secretary became redundant, I moved up to supply chain management.”
Thousands of women like Mrs D’Souza found employment in government and private organisations, where they became the discreet forces that powered them.
Fighting for relevance
One of the corollaries of India’s struggle for freedom was the emancipation of women. Christian missionaries, social reformers, and progressive communities joined hands across the country to slowly draw women out from the mire of patriarchy and oppression. In the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, “Poona” became the flashpoint of an educational revolution when Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and his wife, Savitribai Phule started schools for girls/ women and the lower castes in 1848. Half a century later, Davar’s College was established and open to both, men women, a little further in the capital city. From primary to graduate and professional studies, it was indeed a big leap in educational access for women.
Having access was one thing, but it was probably Gandhiji’s public invocation to the nation’s women to get out on the streets and join the cause of Independence in 1930, that helped break that final taboo. At long last, women were acknowledged as men’s equal peers in nation-building. It was time for them to step up in their role in economy building too, the path to which was paved by institutions like Davar’s College.
Undoubtedly, the college has seen many men graduate from its precincts too, but its role in the skilling and empowering of women, and making their narrative relevant is indubitable. “Over the years, there has been a noticeable shift in the gender ratio of students,” says Silloo Chinigar, director, Davar’s College. “When the college opened, most takers of the executive assistant and secretarial course were men. But the ratio definitely stands reversed today.”
The college is, however, fighting for its own relevance today. “Executive assistance has encompassed a number of other jobs in the management, where we used to have very large batches of students in the past; with the advent of many of opportunities, the number has reduced,” she says. While the college finds ways to redeem itself with measures like corporate training, here’s a hat tip to these unassuming heroes who helped redeem thousands of Mumbai’s women.