India was introduced to aviation in the year 1910 – this much is known.

According to most records, humans took the skies for the first time at an exhibition headlined by British aviator Walter Windham in Allahabad on December 10, 1910. Other reports disagree. They suggest the honour went to Giacomo D’Angelis, an Italian hotelier who flew an aircraft of his own design in Madras in March 1910. Who among them was actually the first? There is no consensus answer. It remains a lasting question in the hazy history of Indian aviation, which holds another enduring mystery: the identity of the first Indian woman to fly in an airplane in the country.

Records suggest the distinction is held by someone by the name of “Mrs NC Sen”, who sat as a passenger on one of the exhibition flights at the elite Tollygunge Club in Kolkata in December 1910. But when exactly did she fly? And who really was Mrs Sen?

Now, an aviation enthusiast in Mumbai believes he may have the answers to these questions. Debasish Chakraverty, who has been researching the Tollygunge flights for more than a year, claims that Mrs Sen was a passenger on a short rehearsal flight that took off from the Kolkata club grounds on December 19, 1910 – exactly 108 years ago.

As for the identity of Mrs Sen, Chakraverty’s research has narrowed the search down to two possible women: either Nirmala Sen or Mrinalini Devi Sen (née Luddhi), both daughters-in-law of noted Bengali philosopher Keshub Chandra Sen.

The Belgian pilots

A financial investor by profession, Debasish Chakraverty inherited his passion for aviation from his father, a former Air India pilot. For the past two years, he has been urging government officials to erect a plaque to commemorate the 213 people who died when Air India’s Emperor Ashoka crashed off Bombay on New Year’s Day in 1978.

Chakraverty’s search for “Mrs NC Sen” began with his research on the early days of flying in India, particularly the flights at the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata.

Towards the end of 1910, two Belgian aviators – Baron Pierre de Caters and Jules Tyck – had chosen to showcase their flying in India. Caters was already the first man to fly in Belgium, and he and Tyck travelled by ship to Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) with two biplanes – aircraft with two wings placed one above the other. “Their intention was to fly the planes in Bombay,” said Chakraverty, “but when the senior bureaucrats in the city didn’t show interest, they transported the planes to Calcutta.”

A magazine photo of the arrival of the Belgian biplanes. Photos courtesy: Debasish Chakraverty
A magazine photo of the arrival of the Belgian biplanes. Photos courtesy: Debasish Chakraverty

The Tollygunge Club agreed to host exhibition flights by Caters and Tyck, and accordingly, the duo assembled their small planes in preparation for the shows. On December 28, 1910, in the presence of a large audience assembled on the grounds of the Tollygunge Club and an even bigger crowd in the streets outside, Tyck flew his Henry Farman biplane over the city for at least 45 minutes. Caters displayed his skills by taking his Humber Somner aircraft for a few short flights, taking a different passenger with him each time.

Hunt for Mrs Sen

Chakraverty first came across a mention of Mrs Sen when he was reading about the Tollygunge flights in a 1912 edition of Flight magazine. The article described Tyck’s flight of December 28, 1910, as the “first public flight in India” (a claim contested by records of the Allahabad flights earlier that month). It also carried a group photograph of Caters, Tyck and officials of the Tollygunge flight – a group of men posing in front of the biplane, with one regally-dressed Indian woman standing in the middle. In the caption, the woman was described as “Mrs Sen (sister of the late Maharaja of Cooch Behar, and the first woman to fly in India)”.

The group photo from Flight magazine, with Mrs Sen in the centre.
The group photo from Flight magazine, with Mrs Sen in the centre.

Intrigued, Chakraverty tried to dig records of Mrs Sen’s full name and identity. In 1910, the Maharaja of the princely state of Cooch Behar was Nripendra Narayan, but according to history books, he did not have sisters. Chakraverty’s search dead-ended there, until an unexpected breakthrough earlier this year.

In July 2017, the current management of the Tollygunge Club discovered – through Chakraverty – that the club’s grounds had hosted one of the first flights in Indian history 108 years ago. The Times of India in Kolkata published a feature on this happy discovery in June this year, and within weeks, Chakraverty received an email from British aviation enthusiast Dennis Read, who had come across the article online.

Read, who lives in Colwall, England, is an avid collector of relics and souvenirs from the early history of flying. He told Chakraverty that in 2017, while browsing through the auction site eBay, he had stumbled upon a programme (invitation and schedule) of the “Aviation Meeting” at the Tollygunge Club on December 28, 1910.

The first page of the flight programme that Dennis Read acquired at an online auction last year.
The first page of the flight programme that Dennis Read acquired at an online auction last year.

“The seller [on eBay] reported finding the programme within the pages of a book titled India by Mortimer Menpes, which he had obtained in Guernsey,” Read told Scroll.in. The programme, he said, had belonged to an English woman named Mrs Mabel Bates, who was one of the passengers Caters had taken for a joyride. On the reverse of the programme Read found a handwritten note by Bates, describing her experience and listing the names of other passengers who had flown with Caters around that time. The name Mrs Sen was at the top of the list, against the words “went up last week”.

The handwritten note by Mabel Bates on the reverse of the programme.
The handwritten note by Mabel Bates on the reverse of the programme.

Based on Read’s discovery, Chakraverty gathered that Mrs Sen had flown in Caters’s plane at least a week before December 28. He then began to look for records of earlier flights, and came across at least four references. “In a 1910 edition of Flight magazine, there was a mention of Caters carrying out one or more practice flights on December 19, 1910,” said Chakraverty.

He also found archives of three French newspapers – Figaro, dated December 22, 1910, Le Temps, dated December 23, and Gil Blas, dated December 26 – all carrying news of the practice flight on December 19 and making references to Mrs Sen. In the first two, Mrs Sen was described as the “belle-soeur”, or sister-in-law, of the Maharani of Cooch Behar.

Since the hunt for the Maharaja’s alleged sister had gone nowhere, Chakraverty concluded that the Flight magazine of 1912 must have made an error. Mrs Sen, it seemed, was a relative of Suniti Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar and the daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent Bengali philosopher and social reformist.

Down to two options

Keshub Chandra Sen had five daughters and five sons, and the Maharani’s sister-in-law was most likely to be the wife of one of his sons. While one of the five sons was single, two others had married European women. That left the last two sons: Nirmal Chandra Sen, who had married a woman named Mrinalini Devi Luddhi, and Saral Chandra Sen, who had married a woman called Nirmala Sen, often referred to as “Nellie”.

If “Mrs NC Sen” was a reference to Mrinalini Devi, the “NC” in her name would have been her husband’s initials. This is possible, given that married women are often identified by their husbands’ names. However, Chakraverty believes Mrs NC Sen could just as well have been Nirmala “Nellie” Sen, who came from a distinguished and Anglicised family of lawyers.

“Her father Purna Chandra Sen had been the advocate general of Burma,” said Chakraverty. “Evidence also points to Nirmala “Nellie” Sen as NC Sen, given the Bengali custom of having the middle name as part of the last name. Hence ‘Chandra Sen’ would be viewed as the last name, which would make ‘NC Sen’ Nirmala Chandra Sen, thereby ruling out Mrinalini Devi.”

Saral and Nirmala Sen had five children, and two of their daughters went on to earn fame in the fields of film and music: Sadhana Sen became a dancer, singer and actress in many Bengali films in the 1940s, while Nilina Sen (later known as Naina Devi), became a prominent thumri singer.

“There is no way to have irrefutable proof that the first Indian woman to fly was Nirmala Sen, but logical deduction and process of elimination seem to point to her,” said Chakraverty.

Scroll.in was unable to trace any of the descendants of Keshub Chandra Sen to solve the final mystery of Mrs NC Sen’s identity. Meanwhile, Chakraverty hopes that the Tollygunge Club will install a plaque to commemorate the first flight by an Indian woman.

Debasish Chakraverty.
Debasish Chakraverty.