India’s first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a champion of women’s liberation, a pioneer in engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who undertook on the forces of caste and patriarchy is largely a unknown figure outside the Dalit movement.
savitri-phuleSavitribai Phule (1831-97) was wife and companion of Mahatma Jotiba Phule with whom she struggled and suffered in an equal measure but remains obscure in Indian history due to the castiest and sexist negligence.
FIt is indeed a measure of the ruthlessness of the elite-controlled knowledge-production that India’s first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a champion of women’s liberation, a pioneer in engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who undertook on the forces of caste and patriarchy is largely a unknown figure outside the Dalit movement.
Savitribai’s role in the anti-caste and women’s struggle is unique. She emerges as the only woman leader among all social movements in nineteenth century India who linked patriarchy with caste.
She opened her own well for the untouchables. She started a women’s association, worked for raising women’s consciousness about their human rights and other social issues. Being a woman, she easily recognized the double downtroddenness of most of the women as she saw the gender question in relation to caste and brahmanical patriarchy. She campaigned against victimization of widows.
She advocated and encouraged widow remarriage. She canvassed against infanticide of ‘illegitimate’ children. She went on to organize a successful barber’s strike against the prevailing practice of shaving of widows’ heads. She did all this taking grave personal risks. Many of these misogynistic practices have now receded in the background. But in her time, they tormented and destroyed countless women.
Savitribai’s struggle encouraged and inspired a whole generation of outstanding campaigners for gender justice in Maharashtra – Dr. Anandi Bai Gopal Joshi, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai Ranade, and many other have been inspired by her efforts.
Savitri was still a teenager when she got involved in the educational activities with her husband, playing an equally important role in founding and running schools for women and Dalits, despite the opposition from the orthodoxy. On her way to school to teach girls, often, stones, mud and dirt were flung at her by those, both men and women, with orthodox beliefs who opposed education for women. She braved this onslaught by wearing an old sari to school, and carried an extra sari to change into after she reached the school. Finally, the pressure on her was eased when she slapped one of her tormentors on the street.
Once the opponents of female education realized that the Phule couple would not easily give in, they steeped up their opposition. Intense pressure was brought by the brahmans on Phule’s father, Govindrao, to convince him that his son was on the wrong track, that what he was doing was against the Dharma. Finally, things came to head when Phule’s father told him to leave home in 1849.
In her life and her death, she embodied the noble and the sublime. Not grandiloquent words and great ideals in abstract, but her day-to-day public life, her suffering with the suffering people makes her majestic.
Savitribai was only 18 and Jotirao was 22 years old when Joti’s father turned them out of their own home. Just imagine two young people in love, taking on the home and world not for their romance but for liberating the shackled and the crushed- with a majestic belief that every woman, every child and every man has a right, a divine right, a natural right, to get educated and to remake their life. What is more remarkable, they kept alive this revolutionary spirit throughout their lives, setting a benchmark in social and political engagement that has few parallels anywhere.
Savitribai Phule was a top leader of the Satyashodhak Samaj. She headed the women’s wing of the Samaj and after the death of Mahatma Phule she assumed the leadership of the Samaj on the request of many Satyashodhaks who reposed their faith in her for her integrity, commitment and long involvement in social activism. She led the Samaj from the front during the famine and plague epidemic of 1896-97. She died on March 10 1897, while she was nursing a plague affected child. She got infected while serving the affected people.
In her life and her death, she embodied the noble and the sublime. Not grandiloquent words and great ideals in abstract, but her day-to-day public life, her suffering with the suffering people makes her majestic. Few people know that Savitribai Phule was a trailblazing poet of modern Marathi and an intensely committed writer.
Her writings give the impression of an ignited mind that wanted to kindle a similar spirit in other people’s lives. She edited for publication, four of Jotiba’s speeches on Indian History. A few of her own speeches were published in 1892. Savitribai’s correspondence is also remarkable because they give us an insight into her life and into women’s experiences of the time.
In her essay Karz (Debt), she condemned the idea of celebrating festivals by borrowing money and thus being burdened by heavy debts. She also wrote on addiction, explaining how it ruined the lives of the addicted and their families themes that are still relevant in the 21st centuries.
Poems by Savitribai Phule
Translation from Marathi: Sunil Sardar, Victor Paul
Rule of Peshwa is gone
Mother English has come.
Forlorn and dark ourhopelessness
Ominous fears of heaven and abyss.
In such a dismal time of ours
Come Mother English, this is your hour.
Throw off the yoke of redundant belief
Break open the door, walk outin relief.
Learn to read and write, O mydear one
Opportune times! Mother English has come.
Manu’s ways are evil and mean
Poor and depressed we have all been.
They’ve cheated, befooled, looted us all
They’ve gone with English Mother’s footfall.
Brahman’s rule is now in ashes
Under the English whips and lashes.
It is all for the good of the poor
Manu’s dead at English Mother’s door.
Knowledge is poor man’s refuge and shade
It’s akin to comfort mother made.
In English rule we’ve found our joy
Bad days gone, Mother English abhoy!
English is the inheritance of none
Persian, Brahman, Yemeni or Hun.
We have true Indian blood in our veins
Cry out aloud! And shout! Mother English is OUT!
Go, Get Education
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work-gather wisdom and riches.
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animals without wisdom.
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken.
You’ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the brahman’s scriptures fast.
Khalid Anis Ansari