It is the summer of 1851. Under the scorching, relentless sun, a woman walks the streets of Pune. In each lane she crosses, some people hurl abuses at her, “This woman is a curse to our religion,” while others fling dung and even stones. Undaunted, the woman walks on. Her sari is stained but she is prepared for such an eventuality. When Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher in British India, reaches school, she changes into a spare sari before beginning her class.
Savitribai was considered a threat by a number of her fellow citizens in the nineteenth century. Wife of the revolutionary Jotiba Phule, she championed the causes of women’s education and Dalit rights along with her husband. She not only wholeheartedly supported her husband’s charitable endeavours but also remained his friend and intellectual companion. A philanthropist and an educationist, Savitribai was a prolific Marathi writer as well.
Born in 1831 in Naigaon, a small hamlet in what is now Satara district in Maharashtra, Savitribai was the only daughter of the poor, low-caste family she was born into, and had three younger brothers. Her father, a peasant, had limited means but was a respectable man in the village. This was a time when educating a girl was frowned upon, and Savitribai was never sent to school. She spent most of her childhood at home helping her mother with household chores.
It is reasonable to assume that her family, like most others of its kind in nineteenth-century India, would have been routinely subjected to discrimination. Perhaps it was her own experience of discrimination coupled with the education she subsequently received that led to her becoming a radical non-conformist.
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Savitribai married Jotirao Govindrao Phule, better known as Jotiba, when she was nine years old and he thirteen. Jotiba’s paternal aunt Sagunabai, who had raised Jotiba as her own child since his mother’s death, put together the match. Jotiba’s father was a poor low-caste farmer as well and wanted his son to carry on working on the family farm. But Sagunabai insisted on him being sent to school. Savitiri’s first teacher was her husband.
Even at thirteen, Jotiba was ahead of his time, already an ardent supporter of women’s education. He began to informally teach Savitribai at home and after a few years got his friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar to continue her education. After six years of rigorous home tuitions, Savitribai, along with another young woman, Fatima Sheikh, was sent to Mrs Mitchell’s Normal School at Pune. She was fifteen. Soon after, she moved to Ms Farar’s institution in Ahmednagar where she trained as a teacher.
A year after completing her training, Jotiba opened a girls’ school, with Savitribai as headmistress. Her first batch had only nine students but it was a good start; all nine were from the “shudra-atishudra” community, which sat at the lowest rung of the caste ladder. The Phules sought to revolt against the inhumane treatment meted out to women, “shudras” and “atishudras” by educating them about structural exploitation. Having been denied the right to education for several centuries under an oppressive caste system and yet hesitant to accept the newly available Christian missionary education, the “shudraatishudra” community must have felt right at home when two people from their fraternity established a school that provided free education.
Inspired by Jotiba’s aunt Sagunabai, who had started a school in the Maharwada ("untouchables" colony) in 1846, the Phules began their first in Bhidewada, in a haveli owned by Tantyasahab Bhide, a rich lawyer in the service of Maharaja Scindia. The school functioned for six months but had to shut down due to lack of funds. Eventually, a bigger house was found and the school reopened. In just ten years, Savitribai had gone from being an uneducated child bride to a headmistress running her own school.
The first few years were not easy as both Savitribai and Jotiba worked without drawing a salary. Newspaper reports of that time point out: "Often, this couple did not even have the time to eat food." Additionally, Savitribai had to face a lot of criticism; people would often jeer at her as she walked to school. There are a few myths surrounding the many gauntlets Savitribai had to run in order to exert her right to study and to teach other girls.
A year after the first school was inaugurated, the Phule couple was ousted from their family home and Jotiba’s father Govindrao shunned by his community. His neighbours would often complain that if his daughter-in-law continued to teach, his family name would be tainted and she would become even more deviant. Govindrao asked his son and daughter-in-law to either leave home or desist from their rebellious acts. The young couple chose to leave.
These difficulties, however, did not bog the Phules down. They opened a second girls’ school at Rasta Peth, Pune. The haveli for this school, owned by a Muslim man, was bigger than the one which housed their first school. They later opened a third girls’ school at Bataal Peth, Pune. The subjects included grammar, maths, geography and the history of the Marathas.
The opening of these three schools won the Phules a lot of support. Major Candy, an educationist and the chairman of Pune University, sent books for the students. In November 1852, the education department of the British government felicitated the couple and the following year publicly examined the institutions. This report states: "The prejudice against teaching girls to read and write began to give way…the good conduct and honesty of the peons in conveying the girls to and from school and parental treatment and indulgent attention of the teachers made the girls love the schools and literally run to them with alacrity and joy." Major Candy also recorded in his journal that the girls studying in the three schools were intelligent and quick-witted.
Jotiba and Savitribai were a formidable team, their ultimate aim the unity of all oppressed communities. They were the first in modern India to launch a fullblown attack on the Brahminic casteist framework of society. In time they also included Adivasis and Muslims, and fought hard for their emancipation as well.
Savitribai was the means through which Jotiba realised his vision. She, a woman who had seen poverty, caste discrimination and life without education, was the perfect role model for her students. It was because of her powerful influence as a teacher that one of her Dalit students, eleven-year-old Muktabai, wrote a powerful essay that was published in Dyanodaya, a popular Bombay-based newspaper. She wrote, "Formerly, we were buried alive in the foundations of buildings... we were not allowed to read and write…God has bestowed on us the rule of the British and our grievances are redressed. Nobody harasses us now. Nobody hangs us. Nobody buries us alive..."
Another student, a boy named Mahadu Waghole, wrote about the relationship between Jotiba and Savitribai: "If she saw tattered clothes on the body of poor women, she would give them saris from her own house. Due to this, their expenses rose. Tatya (Jotirao) would sometimes say to her, One should not spend so much. To this, she would smile and ask, What do we have to take with us when we die? Tatya would sit quietly for some time after this as he had no response to the question. They loved each other immensely." Even though the Phules were constantly engaged in making others’ lives better, Savitribai took great care of Jotiba’s health and personally cooked all his meals.
Their relationship was based on respect for each other’s individual identities, which is why it survived the toughest of times, particularly their failure to conceive a child. Jotiba was under a lot of pressure from his family to remarry for the sake of an offspring but he stayed committed to Savitribai. He wrote: "If a pair has no child, it would be unkind to charge a woman with barrenness. It might be the husband who was unproductive. In that case if a woman went in for a second husband how would her husband take it? Would he not feel insulted and humiliated? It is a cruel practice for a man to marry a second time because he had no issues from his wife." These were radical thoughts for that time.
Much later, the Phules adopted a son and raised him as their own. Jotiba had rescued and brought home a young Brahmin widow who was pregnant and contemplating suicide. She bore a son whom the Phules adopted and named Yashwant.
Savitribai respected Jotiba not just as a husband but also as her teacher. He had given her a new lease of life, armed her with an education and helped her stand on her own feet. This is why in her letters to Jotiba, she addresses him thus: "The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba, Savitri salutes you!" The letters provide a glimpse into her belief in their mission to educate oppressed communities. In one letter, Savitribai responds to one of her brothers who admonished her for defying caste and religious norms: “The lack of learning is nothing but gross bestiality. It is the acquisition of knowledge that gives the Brahmins their superior status…my husband is a god-like man. He is beyond comparison in this world, nobody can equal him. He confronts the Brahmins and fights with them for teaching the untouchables because he believes that they are human beings like others and they should live as dignified humans. For this they must be educated. I also teach them for the same reason.”
Mama Paramanand, a sage who had encouraged the King of Baroda, Siyaji Gaekwad, to extend financial help to the Phules, wrote, "In very adverse situations, Jotirao educated his wife and through her, educated the Brahmin girls, and that too, in the very fort of the orthodox and much against their will… More than Jotirao, his wife deserves praise. No matter how much we praise her, it would not be enough. How can one describe her stature? She cooperated with her husband completely and along with him, faced all the trials and tribulations that came their way."
While education was their main aim, the Phules also engaged with several other charitable efforts. A young Brahmin widow working as a cook in the house of Jotiba’s friend was raped by a neighbourhood shastri. The widow, Kashibai, became pregnant and the shastri refused to take responsibility. When all efforts to abort the baby failed, she gave birth to a son. Afraid of the social stigma attached to conceiving outside of wedlock, she killed the baby. The police filed a case against Kashibai and she was later sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Islands. Saddened by this, the Phules set up a home for the welfare of unwed mothers and their children. They advertised the facility by distributing rather provocatively worded pamphlets in Pune’s Brahmin colonies. This earned them the ire of a lot of Brahmins but also saved the lives of many pregnant widows at a time when upper-caste Hindu widows were not allowed to remarry and were shunned by society. Apart from this, the Phules had established a night school for peasants and workers a few years previously, which had also done surprisingly well; many workers from oppressed communities were admitted.
The high point in their social activities was the establishment of the Satyashodhak Samaj. The Samaj was different from other movements that made up the "Indian Renaissance" as it did not focus only on the upper castes. To Jotiba, truth was universal and emancipatory. Accordingly, the aims of the Samaj included educating backward communities about their rights as human beings and helping them liberate themselves from Brahminical slavery. The Samaj instituted a marriage ceremony with no Brahmin intermediary. This was a bold step that challenged the authority of Brahmins who had for ages presided over religious ceremonies. Savitribai took the lead here and helped a girl, the daughter of a close friend, marry a young widower she was in love with. Despite opposition, the wedding happened without a Brahmin presiding over it. This was perhaps one of the first civil weddings in British India. The second wedding garnered even more opposition but Jotiba had already arranged for police protection and it took place unhindered. Their son Yashwant too married a woman of a different caste at the age of sixteen. This was the first recorded inter-caste marriage in British India. Much before the date, Jotiba and Savitribai invited Radha, Yashwant’s betrothed, to stay in their household so that the young couple could get to know each other better and test their compatibility. During this time, Savitribai personally tutored Radha and sent her to school. This was a revolutionary step in a society that believed in marrying off children without their consent.
The famine of 1875 wreaked havoc in Maharashtra and the Phules extended all possible help to the victims with the help of Satyashodhak volunteers. Their relief efforts extended well beyond the two years of the famine. They also started as many as fifty-two boarding schools to educate and feed children who had been orphaned.
Savitribai was a revolutionary on par with her husband, spearheading many progressive movements in her individual capacity. She started the Mahila Seva Mandal, which worked for the awareness of women’s rights, and rigorously campaigned against the dehumanisation of widows and advocated widow remarriage. She also spoke against infanticide and opened a rehabilitation centre for illegitimate children. Savitribai also organised a successful barbers’ strike denouncing the inhumane practice of shaving widows’ heads. She also never shied from bringing her reformations to her own home: she opened the water tank in their house to the "untouchables". This symbolic act challenged notions of purity and pollution inherent to the caste system.
Apart from being a teacher and a philanthropist, Savitribai was also a pioneer of modern Marathi poetry and the first woman to be published in modern India. She had made a conscious decision to compose poetry in traditional Marathi forms such as the abhang (without an end), a folk form usually used to sing praises of the god Vithoba, and used by saint-poets such as Tukaram to denounce various societal evils. Her abhangs were lucid and effective in calling out societal injustice. Most of her poems focus on the evils of the caste system and the need to abolish caste slavery. For instance, "Go, Get Education" urges the oppressed to free themselves from the clutches of religious slavery:
In another poem, "English the Mother", Savitribai articulates how important it is to learn English in order to annihilate caste. She also condemns the Peshwa rule (the dynasty that ruled major parts of Maharashtra in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) and echoes the views of Jotiba who regarded it as autocratic and responsible for perpetuating the caste system.
Savitribai even wrote essays on issues like alcohol addiction and debt traps. In "Karz", she vehemently denounced the practice of borrowing money to celebrate festivals as it led to massive debts. She wrote of how the poor got entrapped in religious superstitions . She was also an excellent orator and many of them were published during her lifetime. In one of them, she said, "The Shudras are irrevocably blinded due to lack of education. The Shudra does not understand his happiness, he considers his sorrows to be his blessings. For 2000 years he has been bearing this burden." It was a burden that she, along with her husband, had tried to shake off.
When Jotiba passed away in November 1890, Yashwant objected to Jotiba’s cousin lighting his funeral pyre, arguing that this right belonged to the heir to Jotiba’s property. Accordingly, it was Savitribai who led Jotiba’s last journey, walking ahead of the procession. She lit the pyre, an act that invites censure even today. In nineteenth-century India, this was probably the first time a woman had performed death rites.
As an ode to Jotiba’s exemplary life, Savitribai wrote his biography in verse, titled Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar or The Ocean of Pure Gems. She also edited and published four of Jotiba’s speeches on Indian history. Savitribai continued to carry forward the vision she had shared with Jotiba. She took over the leadership of the Satyashodhak Samaj and was elected president.
When another dreaded famine hit Maharashtra in 1896, she once again threw herself into relief work. The famine also brought with it the highly contagious plague and she worked to feed over 2000 children every day during the epidemic. However, because she came in close contact with the patients, Savitribai also contracted the disease and died on 10 March 1897.
Savitribai’s life reads like an endlessly inspiring storybook; the stuff of legend. She was the only woman leader of 19th-century India who understood the intersectionality of patriarchy and caste and fought hard against it. Known as Kaku (paternal aunt) by all her students, Savitribai was a loving but fiercely revolutionary soul who transformed many lives.