On Thursday 17 November, the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development (OICSD) at Somerville College, in partnership with the High Commission of India in the UK, invited over one hundred guests to India House to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the pioneering lawyer Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954).
Sorabji arrived at Somerville College in 1889, supported by fund-raising in India and Britain, to become the first woman to study law at Oxford, and eventually the first woman to practise law at the bar in both India and the UK. She worked with immense personal courage, on behalf of sequestered women in purdah in India, who had had no lawyer to stand up for their rights before, and she became well known also as an international journalist and campaigner.
The guests who gathered to honour her memory included distinguished lawyers, senior judges, entrepreneurs, historians, writers, editors, journalists, members of the Parsi community (the Sorabji family were of Parsi origin) and Somerville alumni. Among the Somervillian representatives present were Principal, Dr Alice Prochaska; Honorary Fellow Lady Hazel Fox; Research Director of the OICSD Dr Alfred Gathorne-Hardy; Director of Development, Sara Kalim; Cornelia Sorabji Scholar, Divya Sharma and HSA Advocates Award Scholar, Navya Jannu.
The Acting High Commissioner, Mr. Dinesh K. Patnaik spoke in detail about the exemplary life of Ms. Sorabji, who overcame all odds to become the first woman to study at Bombay University where she won first-class honours. Next to speak was Lord (Karan) Bilimoria of Chelsea – entrepreneur and representative of the Government of India on the OICSD’s Implementation Committee, who has recently celebrated 10 years in the House of Lords.
The past and current deans of the Oxford Law Faculty (Professors Timothy Endicott and Anne Davies) spoke about Sorabji’s legacy to Anglo-Indian law and society. Somerville’s new Indian law scholars Divya Sharma and Navya Jannu spoke eloquently: fitting heirs to the legacy of this great pioneer. Professor Sir Richard Sorabji, her nephew and biographer, gave an endearing picture of her life at Oxford and afterwards, with Lady Sorabji and their two daughters also present.
Following the speeches, the audience were invited for a dinner in Nehru Hall, where Mr Dinesh K.Patnaik offered some inspiring words on Sorabji:
‘Cornelia Sorabji was a personality who opened doors in the world. She was a first woman lawyer to study in Oxford. In India, she fought when everybody tried to stop her. She got a scholarship to come to Oxford when the UK wanted to deny it from her. She is somebody who always has broken values. But today was not a celebration of the woman Cornelia Sorabji; it is the celebration of womanhood, it is a celebration of those who never give up, who keep striving and fighting.’
Reflecting on the great success of the evening, Dr Alice Prochaska said:
‘Somerville College can be proud of the legacy of courage and public service that Cornelia Sorabji embodies, and which the College is carrying forward through its Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and its Cornelia Sorabji scholarship programme. We are also deeply grateful to our donors and supporters who make it all possible.
‘It was a wonderful evening at India House, with the splendid hospitality of the Indian High Commission, and the heart-warming personal support of the Acting High Commissioner Mr Patnaik. We celebrated the 150th anniversary of Cornelia Sorabji in fine style.’
Today, many gifted Indian student lawyers find they cannot afford to study at Oxford. The Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship in Law provides the opportunity for a trainee Indian lawyer to study at Oxford’s Faculty of Law and live at Somerville College. It is awarded to a candidate with an exceptional academic record who wishes to return to India and serve their country.
The Law Programme is based at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, which provides a thriving postgraduate and postdoctoral programme for talented Indian graduate students who seek to lead change on their return to India. The College is actively seeking further funding support for future recipients of the scholarship. For further details, or if you are interested in supporting the scholarship, please contact Development Director, Sara Kalim.
To read press coverage of the event, please visit the following links:
https://www.asian-voice.com/Student/Education/First-female-Indian-Barrister-Cornelia-Sorabji%27s-150th-birth-anniversary-celebra and PDF version.