Behramji Merwanji Malabari (1853 – 1912)

A Tribute to Behramji Merwanji Malabari (1853 – 1912) on the occasion of his death centenary

By Marzban Jamshedji Giara

He was born at Vadodara on 18th May 1853. His father’s name was Dhanjibhai Mehta who was in the service of the Gaekwar government. As his father died, his mother remarried her relative Merwanji Malbari. He adopted his stepfather’s name. Merwanji owned a shop in Surat selling sandalwood and other goods from the Malabar Coast and hence was known as Malabari. He passed matriculation exam in 1872. He came to Bombay at a young age and served as a teacher in Fort Proprietory School in 1876. He was married to Dhanbaiji at age 21 and had three sons and two daughters.

He was the first Parsi poet to write in pure classical Gujarati language. He published small Gujarati poetry books ‘Nitivinod’ the pleasures of morality in 1875, Wilson Virah, Sarode-i- Ittifaq ghazals and poems in Hindi as also a collection of English poems ‘Indian Muse in English Garb’ in 1876. He was a bilingual poet and author fluent in both English and Gujarati.

He took up the task of translating in various Indian languages Max Mueller’s Hibbert lectures on Hindu religion and philosophy delivered in 1878 and collected funds for the same from various princely states and published Gujarati translation of these lectures Dharmani utpatti tatha vruddhi vishena bhashan in 1881 at Bombay. His English translation of Professor Max Mueller’s “Origin and Growth of Religion” was published in 1881 at London.

In 1879 he purchased a weekly publication ‘Indian Spectator’ and wrote articles which made him famous among the people and the government. This publication was edited by him till his death. (except for a brief period of two three years after 1901). He became famous as a critic of the government through his paper. He wrote in simple English ‘Gujarat and the Gujaratis’ in 1882 and ‘The Indian Eye in English Life’ in 1885. He also brought out books and magazins such as ‘Anubhavika’, ‘Sansarika’, ‘Aadmi ane teni duniya’.

In 1887 he was made a Fellow of Bombay University and a Justice of Peace. In 1900 he was presented Kaiser E Hind gold medal for his public services during the famine. He was the first to be awarded this medal. Dayaram Gidumal wrote a biography of Behramji Malabari in 1888 when Malabari was only 40 years of age. Malabari was influenced by Wordsworth and Tennyson as also by Premanand and Akha.

In February 1889 he wrote extensively about raising the age of girls for marriage which gained sympathy of the people of India. The pundits and shastris of Benares and Mathura listening to his lectures on social reform started accepting the fairness of his arguments. In 1890 Lala Baij Nath, B.A., Chief Justice of Indore published his magazine ‘Social Reform in the North’. In August 1890 Mr. Malabari published a book in England “An Appeal from the daughters of India”.

He chose journalism as his career and devoted his life to fighting the evils of child marriage and enforced widowhood among the Hindus. He was a fearless journalist. He travelled extensively throughout India and made three trips to England. He was vociferous in his struggle to get infant marriage and correlated evils abolished. Seeking women’s emancipation he advocated, “If new India is to be blessed with a generation of free and enlightened sons, a nation to manage its own affairs the Hindus of today might to see in their midst a race of free, enlightened mothers”. Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak advised Malabari to look after the interests of women in his own community but Malabari relentlessly persisted in his efforts and succeeded.

He made great efforts to establish a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients at Dharampor on the road to Simla. He became famous for raising the issue of freedom of Hindu widows to remarry, which was debated throughout India. His successful campaign from 1884-1891 resulted in passing the Age of Consen

t Act in 1894. His stand was based on the principles of justice and humanity. His invaluable “Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood” published in 1894 was the vade mecum of social reformers.

In 1898 Miss Mennant, a well known French scholar considered him a great reformer and Indian leader and published his life sketch in French language. This book was translated into Gujarati by Dr. Mrs. Manekbai Dadina, daughter of Dadabhai Navroji and published by her. The next year Dr. Manekbai published another book titled “Behramji Malabari, great poet, philosopher, politician, social reformer, travel writer, and alleviator of others’ misery”. In the same year he edited a new monthly review “East and West” on political, commercial, educational and social subjects.

During one of his voyages to England, his English friends arranged to present him a purse of £ 5000. The contributors for this purse included eminent gentlemen and ladies and a former Viceroy and Governors. When Mr. Malabari came to know, he declined financial help. Countess of Jersey expressed an opinion “I have not seen a self sacrificing man”. He played a leading part in establishing ‘Seva Sadan’ for making Indian women industrious and useful. For the upliftment of destitute women, he established Seva Sadan in Bombay on 11th July 1908 on the model of the Y.W.C.A. Eminent British officials and ministers used to seek his advice. He campaigned vigorously against child marriages and enforced widowhood both in India and England. There were demands for appointing him a Sheriff as also conferring a knighthood both of which he declined to accept.

He died in Simla at the age of 60 on Roz Bahman Mah Bahman 1281 Yezdezardi 10th July 1912. When the hearse passed the Commander-in-Chief’s bungalow the Gorkha regiment reversed arms and paid their last respects.  He was friendly with almost all the Viceroys and Governors and when he died His Majesty King George V wired to the Viceroy as follows: “Please convey to the family of Malabari the sincere regret with which the Queen and I have heard of the death of our old friend. His death will be a loss to the country”.The Seva Sadan Society of which he was the father and founder resolved: “Womanhood in India, especially destitute, and widows has suffered an irreparable loss in his passing away” A similar resolution was passed by the TB Sanatorium at Dharampor.

He was a simple humble man. None would by his appearance believe that he was a great social reformer and versatile writer.

His marble bust which was presented by his friends was unveiled by Lady Wilson, wife of the Hon’ble Governor on 24th January 1928.is at the Malabari Memorial Hall at Seva Sadan, Gamdevi, Mumbai

Plaque in Hall at Seva Sadan reads: 

“The Malabari Memorial Hall was erected at a cost of Rs.88,475/- and formally opened by H.E. The Right Hon’ble Sir Leslie Jame Wilson, P.C., G.C.I.E., C.M.G., D.S.O., Governor of Bombay on 6th March 1914-  K. P. Davar & Co. Architects”.

Those interested in knowing more about this great social reformer may refer to the following books:

  • 1. Dayaram Gidumal Behramji Merwanji Malabari, a biographical sketch with an introduction by Florence Nightingale, Bombay 1892
  • 2. R.P. Karkaria Forty years of progress and reform being a sketch of the life and times of Behramji Malabari, London, 1896.
  • 3. G.A. Natesan – Behramji M. Malabari: A sketch of his life and an Appreciation of his work (1914)
  • 4. Sardar Sir Jogendra Singh   Malabari: Rambles with the Pilgrim Reformer 1914.
  • 5. Phiroz Beh
    ramji Malabari –
    Malabarina kavyaratno with an introduction by A. F, Khabardar 1917
  • 6. H. D. Darukhanawalla – Parsee Lustre on Indian Soil Volume I
  • 7. Parsee Prakash Volumes
  • 8. Hormazdyar S. Dalal – Behramji Malabari – A Gunijan
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  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Congratulations to Mr. Marzban Giara for reminding us of the death centenary of a very versatile and talented Zarthushtrian in the form of Mr.Behramji M. Malbari. While the article amply outlines his career as a social reformer and an erstwhile editor of many periodicals, let not his social and political involvements overshadow a very important acheivement of his. He was an outstanding poet who graced the Gujarati language with many outstanding poems in traditional and classical Gujarati languages and has been hailed in several Gujarati publications as one of the greatest Gujarati poet of all times. A literary critic once stated that no Indian has ever praised the greatness and grandeur of the state of Gujarat more majestically and with greater humility than Mr. Malbari. Let his literary achievements in the Gujarati language be equally known.

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    Congratulations to Mr. Marzban Giara for reminding us of the death centenary of a very versatile and talented Zarthushtrian in the form of Mr.Behramji M. Malbari. While the article amply outlines his career as a social reformer and an erstwhile editor of many periodicals, let not his social and political involvements overshadow a very important acheivement of his. He was an outstanding poet who graced the Gujarati language with many outstanding poems in traditional and classical Gujarati languages and has been hailed in several Gujarati publications as one of the greatest Gujarati poet of all times. A literary critic once stated that no Indian has ever praised the greatness and grandeur of the state of Gujarat more majestically and with greater humility than Mr. Malbari. Let his literary achievements in the Gujarati language be equally known.