Remembering Savitribai Phule, one of India’s earliest women educators, on her 119th death anniversary

Remembering Savitribai Phule, one of India’s earliest women educators, on her 119th death anniversary
Remembering Savitribai Phule, one of India’s earliest women educators, on her 119th death anniversary
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“Savitribai Phule (1831-97), struggled and suffered with her revolutionary husband in an equal measure, but remains obscured due to casteist and sexist negligence. Apart from her identity as Jotirao Phule’s wife, she is little known even in academia. Modern India’s first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a champion of women’s liberation, a pioneer of engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who took on the forces of caste and patriarchy certainly had her independent identity and contribution. It is indeed a measure of the ruthlessness of elite-controlled knowledge-production that a figure as important as Savitribai Phule fails to find any mention in the history of modern India. Her life and struggle deserves to be appreciated by a wider spectrum, and made known to non-Marathi people as well.” -  Braj Ranjan Mani, author

Savitribai Phule was probably modern India’s first woman teacher. But more importantly, she strived to dismantle caste in every way possible.

She was born in Naigaon village of Maharashtra’s Satara district on January 3, 1831, to Khandoji Nevse and Lakshmi. Savitribai went on to become an educator, a challenger to caste hierarchies and barriers, and a writer.

At the age of nine, Savitribai was married to Jotirao Phule, who was then 12 years old. A year after they got married in 1840, Jotirao, who believed that women must also be educated, began to teach her at home.

On January 1, 1848 she started possibly the first school for girls in India, in Bhide Wada, Pune. She was the headmistress of the school.

In an essay titled “The Stuff Legends are Made of” published in the book “A Forgotten Liberator”, author Cynthia Stephen writes: “The young couple faced severe opposition from almost all sections. Savitribai was subject to intense harassment everyday as she walked to the school. Stones, mud and dirt were flung at her as she passed.”

Undeterred, she began to carry a sari to school, and continued to teach. Eventually, she and Jotirao opened several schools for adults, agriculturalists and labourers.

In 1852, she started the Mahila Seva Mandal to fight for the rights of women. She organized a strike against barbers in Pune and Mumbai, putting pressure on them to stop shaving the heads of Brahmin widows.

Haunted by ‘The Gods on Earth’,

For two thousand years,

The perpetual service of the Brahmins,

Became the plight of the Shudras.

Looking at their condition,

The heart screams its protest,

The mind blanks out,

Struggling to find a way out.

Education is the path,

For the Shudras to walk,

For education grants humanity

freeing one from an animal-like existence

Her first collection of poems ‘Kavya’ was published in 1854.

Around this time, she also started in her own house, the Bal Hatya Pratibandhak Griha, a home for women who were sexually exploited and then fell pregnant.

Writing for CounterCurrents, Rahul Chirmurkar says: “They put up advertisements all over the city and at places of pilgrimage announcing it as a “way to avoid kalepani (life imprisonment in the Andamans)” and thus, the information about the shelter home spread. By 1873, 66 Brahmin widows had come to this shelter home from different places. They also adopted a child of a Brahman widow Kashibai (in 1874) who later grew up to continue the work started by them.”

During the famine, she and her husband started 52 free food hostels across Maharashtra. She also played an active role in the Satya Shodhak Samaj.

Savitribai’s life continued in this vein. She continued working for the rights of not just Dalit women, the Dalit community, Brahmin women, but also of labourers and the sick.

She died on March 10, 1897, in Pune, after she fell sick while serving those who had contracted plague during the epidemic. 

(Information for this article has been compiled from articles on CounterCurrents and from Dr. Ambedkar's Caravan website.)

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