Margaret Noble, better known in India as Sister Nivedita, was an educationalist, reformer, Indian nationalist, and Kali devotee. From the perspective of the cultural and social networks connecting Indians and Britons in the period, though much of Nivedita’s work for Indians was carried out on Indian soil, it is significant that she kept these links alive by frequent travel between Britain and India, writing Kali, the Mother (1900) on board a ship to England. She also first felt the call of India in London at a presentation given by the Swami Vivekananda, when he suggested her work might lie amongst Indian women. Margaret Noble was a help to, and a supporter of the transnational, India-Britain careers of a number of her Indian friends, and British friends to India, including J. C. Bose, R. C. Dutt, E. B. Havell, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. It is not surprising that images of networks, webs and palimpsests form part of the warp and weft of Nivedita’s writing, as they did of her transnational imagination.
Margaret Noble met the Swami Vivekananda (Narendra Datta) at a discussion group in London, hosted by Isabel Margesson. Already a seeker after new sources of spiritual truth outside Christianity, Margaret Noble was profoundly struck by his presence, and the ‘dignity’ of his religious philosophy, and he by her enthusiasm and capacity for commitment to a cause. He straightaway suggested she might have a role working with and for Indian women, though it wasn’t till 1897 that he formally invited her to India.
Margaret Noble arrived in India in early 1898 and was initiated into the Ramakrishna Order, where the Swami presided, spending the next year founding a girls’ school and working for plague relief. Swami Vivekananda gave her the name Nivedita, the Dedicated. However, within two weeks of the Swami’s death and the removal of his restraining influence, Nivedita formally separated herself from Ramakrishna Order to pursue the political work for which she had long prepared herself, believing as she said in a speech at this time that ‘the one central fact is the realization of its own nationality by the [Indian] Nation’.
Between 1902 and 1906 she worked broadly speaking at three levels of political mobilization: she advised and was advised by moderate nationalists like Gokhale; she worked openly with more extremist nationalists; and she collaborated with the secret revolutionary movement led by Aurobindo Ghose. Following the Muzzafferpur assassination attempt in 1907, Nivedita travelled to Britain for a period of retreat from public life, though she renewed her contacts with people like Stead and Prince Kropotkin. On her return to India, Nivedita worked more tirelessly at the cultural level of national self-realization for India, writing on Indian arts and crafts for the Modern Review, and helping to promote the national art movement at this point located in Calcutta.