A unique university in Rajasthan is teaching women how to fly
Banasthali Vidyapith, an 83-year-old institution in Tonk district, trains women in aviation, nanotechnology and pharmacy
Sakshi Gaur slides her palm along the smooth contours of the wing of the Cessna 152. Hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, she taps the body of the aircraft, alert to any odd sound it might make. “This ensures there are no scars on the plane’s body, or any cracks on the navigation lights," she says.
The 19-year-old is an aviation student in one of the country’s largest women-only residential universities, Banasthali Vidyapith, 75km from Jaipur, in Rajasthan’s Tonk district. Established in 1935, the 850-acre campus is marked by 18 buildings that house 28 disciplines. Apart from offering traditional courses like science, law and design, the university also offers aviation science, robotics and nanotechnology. It has its own aviation school, Banasthali Vidyapith Gliding & Flying Club (BVGFC), with an airstrip. Each student is expected to take up at least one physical activity, such as horse-riding, cricket or badminton.
Gaur busies herself with every pilot’s essential pre-flight routine: checking the propeller, the chassis, testing each tyre’s shock-absorbing capacity with her foot. “This is to see whether the aircraft can handle the load when it lands," she says. It is only when she is fully satisfied that she walks away.
Gaur is the only girl in her family studying aviation. Her father wanted one of his children (he has two older sons ) to pursue aviation—but Gaur, closest to him, chose to fulfil his dream. “I would have liked to become a fighter pilot like Avani Chaturvedi," she says as she looks at the plane, referring to the 24-year-old from rural Madhya Pradesh, who, in 2016, became the first woman to be inducted as a combat pilot in the Indian Air Force (IAF). “I can’t though. I am 5ft, 2 inches, and the minimum height requirement for a female fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force is 162.5cm (5ft, 3 inches). So I’m going to fly commercial airlines."
Chaturvedi graduated from Banasthali Vidyapith in 2014, from its on-campus aviation school, which first began training female pilots back in the 1960s. “At a time when it was considered unreal and absurd for women to drive cars in the country, we were teaching girls how to fly," says Siddharth Shastri, the grandson of the founder, Pandit Hiralal Shastri. He has more reason to be proud: On 19 February, Chaturvedi made history again, becoming the country’s first woman to fly a fighter aircraft solo.
Born two years after independence, Siddharth, the vice-president of Banasthali Vidyapith, meets us in a high-collared white kurta-pyjama and black Nehru jacket. We are standing in an open courtyard hemmed in by a row of matchbox mud huts painted powder blue, with lime green windows. Locally, this place is known as “old Banasthali"—“the place where it all began," whispers Shastri, acquiring the air of a storyteller.
In 1927, his grandfather Hiralal Shastri, who served as Jaipur’s state secretary in the home and foreign department, relinquished his post to relocate his family to a remote village called Banthali (today known as Banasthali) in 1929. These one-room mud huts were the first structures he built. “He wanted to help the farmers by educating them, to make them socially and politically aware by fighting against evils like the caste system," says Siddharth.
Hiralal’s daughter, Shantabai, was also socially driven. A child herself, she spent her days teaching children from the village. “One day, Shantabai approached my grandfather and asked him whether he could help her build a room where she could teach the children," rather than teaching in the open, says Siddharth. Hiralal considered his daughter’s request a child’s whim. To distract her, he told her that if she managed to sculpt mud bricks, he would help her build a room. In three months, Shantabai had 300 handmade bricks, fashioned with the help of children from the village. Hiralal built his daughter a schoolroom.
In 1935, at the age of 12, Shantabai succumbed to an illness. Trying to stave off her husband’s depression, Hiralal’s wife, Ratan Shastri, told him: “You’ve lost a daughter, but you have the daughters of many friends. Why don’t you bring them here and train them as you would have trained Shanta?"
This was the genesis of Banasthali Vidyapith.
There would be countless obstacles in the way. “At that time, many Indian families believed educating a girl had no purpose—it was a waste of time and resources. This was the monolithic mindset my grandfather had to fight," says Siddharth. Hiralal went door to door, trying to convince parents to send their daughters to Banasthali. “In 1935, Banasthali started with just seven girls," says Siddharth. “Today there are 16,000 girls studying here. The institute offers education at the school, undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate levels."
Banasthali Vidyapith has drawn girls from all parts of the country, from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and the North-East, opening the gates for women even from rural India.
The aviation school
It’s the first week of February when we visit. The sky is turquoise. Seema Verma, the dean of the Banasthali Vidyapith Gliding & Flying Club, runs her fingers through her cropped hair. It’s 8.30 in the morning and we’re standing a few metres from a 3,600ft-long unmetalled runway. “We’re lucky," she says, tilting her head towards the sky. “The sun is out and there is clear visibility. It’s a great time to fly."
In the distance, a second-year aviation science student is seated inside the cockpit of the Cessna 152, performing the customary pre-flight checks. She is preparing for her first solo flight. Watching her, hawk-eyed, is Banasthali’s chief flying instructor and head of training, Captain Amit Dahiya. He has been training aspiring pilots at the institution for two years and is aware of the obstacles his students could face. “Aviation in India is particularly male-dominated," he says.
Banasthali provides 5-10 hours flying for free to students who wish to acquire a student pilot licence. While the cost of pursuing a commercial pilot licence (CPL) is Rs20-35 lakh; at Banasthali, it costs Rs17 lakh. Each hour of flying costs about Rs10,000, and the students need at least 200 hours of flying in order to get a commercial licence.“This is still a huge investment from the parents’ side," says Captain Dahiya. “A lot of Indian parents don’t want to spend so much training their daughters. There are exceptions, of course, but the conventional belief is that the girls will ultimately get married."
Meghali Tyagi’s parents, however, have always encouraged their 20-year-old daughter. “Flying was a lifelong dream," Tyagi says. “But when I learnt the amount my parents would have to pay, I didn’t want to pursue it." A second-year student, she lives in an on-campus hostel. Tyagi wakes up well before dawn to wash and iron her clothes. She wolfs down her breakfast and then makes the 15-minute walk to the aviation school, reporting every day at 8.30am sharp.
“My mother pushed me to become a pilot," she continues. “She said: ‘You don’t worry about the money, you just fly. You are not flying—it is me who is flying through you.’ "
Rooted in history
As Siddharth walks us into a small hut in old Banasthali, the sun begins to set. A few metres away, a campus shop has begun to play a peaceful Sanskrit mantra. Inside, black and white portraits of Siddharth’s grandfather and grandmother rest on a plinth that is covered by a white cloth. On the wall hangs an iconic photograph: an image of the members of the constituent assembly. Hiralal sits to the far right, smiling.
The students of Banasthali made their own contributions to the freedom struggle. During the Quit India Movement, says Siddharth, young women from the institution took to the streets and walked shoulder to shoulder with the protesting men. It became, he adds, one of Nehru’s favourite institutions.
Siddharth adds that Nehru encouraged Hiralal to apply for government grants so that Banasthali could grow, giving more girls opportunities. “Nehru would be extremely happy when he would visit Banasthali," says Siddharth. “It was here that he found the kind of India he imagined—one that thrived in unity and diversity. The girls came from everywhere—belonging to different religions, castes and classes. In fact, he once told my grandfather, ‘I talk of national integration, but it is in Banasthali that I find national integration realized’."
Today, Banasthali Vidyapith is a deemed university, inaugurated in 1983 by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
School of automation
The automation classroom is filled with unfamiliar thrums when we walk in. Within a 12x10ft glass room, a 20-year-old is standing before a powerful 5-tonne robot with a mounted arm, the KR-16. An orange wireless smart-pad rests in her palm; she is using it to “instruct" the bulky KR-16 to write on A3-size paper. Her classmates huddle behind her, watching intently as the machine glides the marker across the page, drawing a vertical line, two adjoining semi-circles and a horizontal line above them to construct a letter. The machine is writing in Devanagari.
“The girls are teaching it how to write," says Shaily Sharma, the dean of the Bajaj School of Automation. The KR-16 was originally programmed to perform welding, lifting, and handling material, but the students have trained it to do other things. “It recently drew our institution’s logo as well," says one of the students, Vidhushi Bisht.
In 2011, Sharma and other members of the university’s engineering school decided to revisit the curriculum for the students, and identify structural inadequacies. “We were worried that the course was gradually losing impact," she admits. The school was providing basic theoretical knowledge, but was unable to give the girls hands-on experience. “So we decided to create an environment within the school that would be somewhat similar to the industry culture."
In 2015, the school reached out to Bajaj Auto Ltd with a blueprint of its automation project. Bajaj came on board, partially funding the project and financing a hostel for the engineering students. It has also allotted Rs1 crore per year for student scholarships. The school has procured robots and other machines from Bosch, Festo, TAL India Ltd and Siemens Ltd.
Robotics is another field in India that is dominated by men. This does not deter the girls at Banasthali though. Ankita Srivastav, chirpy and exuding confidence, sits beside her classmate Soumya Mehrotra. Both are third-year BTech (electronics and communication) students. Srivastav’s interest in technology took root a few years ago, when she came across cellphones for the first time. When it became clear this was the line she wanted to follow, Srivastav’s father spent weeks researching a good institute.
“He found a prestigious institute in Agra, known for its technology department," Srivastav says. “But he learnt, by word of mouth, that they taught boys and girls differently. Sometimes they would teach the boys in practical labs, make a video of it and show it to the girls. This meant that the girls were not given practical lab experience. But he wanted me to have the best education possible. He eventually learnt about Banasthali, and here I am."
“The thing is, here you’re allowed to make mistakes," says Mehrotra, whose focus is security and technology. She plans to become a technical security assistant in the air force. “Our teachers are not interested in the ‘perfect’ end result of a project; they are more concerned about what and how we learn while working on a project."
The first step
As evening sets in, the weather is reasonably pleasant. In the distance, a group of girls are playing badminton. On a stage-like platform, a handful of girls seem to be preparing for a play. We cross the horse-riding ground, where students in track pants and protective headgear trot by on their horses. Overhead, a Banasthali Vidyapith plane flies across the sky.
The confidence of this community of women is palpable. They are passionate about their areas of study, their professional ambitions. What is the future of this institution and what does it envision for the modern Indian woman?
Later, we sit down with Banasthali’s vice-chancellor, Aditya Shastri (Hiralal’s grandson and Siddharth’s cousin), for tea. Aditya, a large bespectacled man, waves his hands occasionally as he speaks. “If you analyse the 80 years of the institution’s history, the first 25 years were focused on going door to door, bringing the girl child out of her home and into school. By the 1960s, quite a few girls started coming to the school (but they would leave early, due to marriage)—so from 1960-85, our mission was to retain them," he says, leaning back into his chair. “From 1985-2010, we focused on the emerging areas, particularly those traditionally considered male domains: management, engineering and entrepreneurship. For the next 10-15 years, our agenda is now to develop leadership qualities—to encourage our students to ‘think big and think beyond’."
There have been critics who argue that Banasthali Vidyapith nurtures its girls in a sanitized world, a cocoon which does not prepare them for the harshness of a patriarchal world.
“Gender sensitization is an important part of our educational programme," says Siddharth. “While we tell our girls that men and women are complementary and must support each other, we also tell them that they should build a strong sense of self. They must keep their identity intact." This is why the institute offers accompanying programmes like business entrepreneurship and financial management.
Classroom education is only one dimension of the holistic education Banasthali offers. It customarily invites female role models from various fields to speak. “These role models are high achievers, those who have also managed to maintain a balance between family and work life," says Siddharth. “For the girls, these role models are important. You cannot teach these things from textbooks and classroom lectures."
Over the years, Banasthali Vidyapith has produced illustrous alumna, such as Avani Chaturvedi, Meira Kumar (the country’s first woman Lok Sabha speaker, and a 2017 presidential candidate), Asian marathon champion Sunita Godara (1992), Kamla Beniwal (Gujarat governor, 2009-14) and Hollywood film editor Anuradha Singh.
While there are a handful of women-only residential universities within the country, including the Mody University of Science and Technology in Laxmangarh, Rajasthan, and Assam Women’s University (the state’s first women-only university), Banasthali Vidyapith is one of the largest, with an array of unconventional programmes.
Although the institute offers support to its girls, the onus of carving their own identity is solely on them. “Ultimately, it depends on us," says Meghali Tyagi. “In life, we will come across many shackles that will attempt to stop us—but it is up to us to break them. Unless we put our best foot forward and keep marching, we cannot succeed. We have to take the first step."
Few illustrious graduates of Banasthali Vidyapith
Avani Chaturvedi, 24
She made history by becoming the first Indian woman to fly the fighter jet MiG-21 Bison solo on 19 February. Chaturvedi is also one of the country’s first three women fighter pilots.
Anuradha Singh, 45
A Hollywood film editor, Singh has worked on films like the Academy award-winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Million Dollar Arm’, ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ and ‘West Is West’.
Sunita Godara, 58
An Asian marathon champion (1992) and Arjuna award winner, Godara also carried the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Binny Yanga, 1958-2015
Yanga was a Padma Shri award-winning (2012) social activist and a member of the erstwhile National Planning Commission of India.
Meira Kumar, 72
Kumar is the country’s first woman speaker of the Lok Sabha (2009-14), and was a 2017 presidential candidate.
Kamla Beniwal, 91
She served as the governor of Tripura in 2009, becoming the first female governor of a North-East state. She also served as the governor of Gujarat from 2009-14, and as governor of Mizoram in 2014.