It was December 7, 1856. The Sepoy Mutiny was still some months away. But another revolution was brewing in the neighbourhoods of native Calcutta. On that day (12 Agrahayan, 1263, according to Bengali calendar) every road in the town seemed to lead to House No. 12, on Sukeas Street. A wedding was taking place at the house of Raj Krishna Bandhopadhyay, a professor of Presidency College. There was a large, excitable crowd on the streets and the palanquin carrying the bridegroom faced utmost difficulty to proceed through the gathering. In the ensuing jostling quite a few people fell into the open drain along Sukeas Street, emerging mud-caked. Apprehensions of riot had led the organisers to seek help from the police. And right through the entire route of the palanquin, constables were deployed a yard apart. A group of influential people, mostly Derozians including Ramgopal Ghosh, Harachandra Ghosh, Sambhunath Pandit, Dwarakanath Mitra and so on escorted the palanquin till the marriage venue and leading them was a Brahmin, a man of small stature yet standing tall because of his ideals. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who led the crusade for remarriage of Hindu widows was right at the forefront, transforming the act passed in July 1856 from just a scrap of paper into reality. The first legal remarriage of a widow, ten-yearold Kalimati was being held with Srischandra Vidyaratna, a colleague of Vidyasagar at Sanskrit College. Among the luminaries and leading Derozians present on that day were Raja Digambar Mitra, Peary Chand Mitra, Kaliprasanna Singha and Ramtanu Lahiri. We get a vivid account from the writings of Shibnath Shastri, a prominent Brahmo leader who witnessed the event as a child as well as from newspaper articles.
Though the marriage taking place on that particular day was indeed the first remarriage of a widow after the legislation was passed, Dakshinaranjan Mukhopadhyay, a key member of Derozio’s Young Bengal had already done the unthinkable. He had married the queen of Burdwan, Basanta Kumari, the widow of King Tejchandra, two decades before the enactment of the legislation. Mukhopadhyay, a Brahmin had married not only a widow but outside his caste, that too, for love. The then police magistrate of Calcutta had stood witness to the civil marriage between the duo. Predictably, it had created a huge scandal in the native society and eventually forced the couple to settle in Lucknow. But even before this scandal rocked the society, Raj Ballav Ray of Vikrampur, Dacca, had tried to marry off his minor widowed daughter but failed because of vehement opposition by the pundits of Nadia. Both Dakshinaranjan and
Raj Ballav belonged to the moneyed class and hence could get away even after going againts society.
However, moved by the plight of the Hindu widows in general, Vidyasagar felt that remarriage of Hindu widows should be made legal. After spending hours cooped up in his chamber in Sanskrit College, day and night reading manuscripts, he finally found in Parasara Samhita what he was looking for. His assertion was that according to the Shastras, widow remarriage was canonical. Despite severe opposition from key personalities of the then Hindu society such as Radhakanta Deb of Sovabazar, the Bill defined as a legislation enacted to “remove all legal obstacles to the marriage of Hindu widows was passed as Act XV of 1856 on July 19, 1856.”
According to Shibnath Shastri, initially the matter was limited to arguments between pundits and educated milieu. When finally, the egislation was introduced protests followed but Vidyasagar was unwilling to rest the matter with the enactment of a mere legislation. His decision to marry off a widow rocked the entire society.
The marriage was not without hiccups. The bridegroom, Pandit Srischandra Vidyaratna, was the younger son of the famous kathak (village bard), Ramdhan Tarkavagish of Khantura, in 24-Parganas while the bride, Kalimati Debi was a child-widow who hailed from the Palasdanga village in Burdwan district. The marriage day was initially fixed on November 27, 1856, but as reported in the Bengali periodical Sambad Bhaskar and The Englishman, Srischandra, fearing social persecution, developed cold feet. However, the bride’s family was steadfast in their resolve. A suit demanding adequate compensation was instituted against the bridegroom in the Supreme Court. Newspapers like Sambad Bhaskar and The Englishman tauntingly criticised the pusillanimous attitude of Srischandra while praising Lakshmimani Debi, the bride’s mother, herself a widow, for being firm on the marriage. Later on, the bridegroom was persuaded by his friends, particularly Vidyasagar. Some say that Vidysagar’s friend, Madanmohan Tarkalankar was the matchmaker of this union. He knew both the parties and encouraged them to form the alliance. Sris Chandra became the Judge-Pandit of Murshidabad in place of Madanmohan arkalankar
since the latter had become a deputy magistrate. So it might be possible that he induced Srischandra
to enter this union. Despite the turbulence caused in the society and faced with stiff opposition, Raj
Krishna Bandhopadhyay made the arrangements of the marriage in his own residence.
Tattabodhini, a magazine for the educated class filled its coloumns with reports of first widow emarriage. From its reports we come to know that Vidyasagar gifted the bride her nuptial sari and ornaments and defrayed other expenses of the marriage.
Apart from spending money on remarriages, he also had to pay for expenses of many poor families ostracised by the Hindu society. He contracted a debt of half-a-lakh rupees. Widow remarriages followed in Presidency Town, Hooghly and Midnapore. During this period he had to face vile taunts whenever he was in public space and also threats of assault and even murder but stood rock solid on the issue. However, there was staunch support from elsewhere. Weavers of Shantipur wove saris with couplets like “Sukhe thakuk Vidhyasagar chirajibi hoe/ sadare koreche report bidhaba der hobe biye. (Long live Vidyasagar. May he live happily for sending report on remarriage of widows).”
While history is silent on the marital life of Kalimati and Srishchandra, their marriage was definitely a revolutionary step for women in the entire country.