Celebrating a life
A recent exhibition on Anasuya Sarabhai, popularly known as Motaben,
paid a tribute to the courageous woman, who worked
selflessly for the uplift of the less fortunate

Kingdom I do not seek; nor heaven or rebirth. All I desire is to be able to serve those who are unhappy and alleviate their suffering.

The Bhagavata Purana, IX-21-12

The exhibition I saw recently at the India International Centre in Delhi — moving in content, elegant in presentation — was a tribute to the one person who lived her life by the above-cited words: Anasuya Sarabhai. In many ways, it could be seen as an act of homage of one icon — Ela Bhatt, founder of that great voluntary organisation, SEWA — to another, for Elaben has always seen herself as someone who has followed in the achingly simple but distinguished footsteps of Anasuya Sarabhai. Each of them adopted and fought for causes, each of them in her own fashion.

Anasuya Sarabhai in England.
Anasuya Sarabhai in England.
from the Sarabhai Archives
Anasuya Sarabhai (Motaben) as a child.
Anasuya Sarabhai (Motaben) as a child. Photograph from the Sarabhai Archives

To go back to the life that Anasuya led — Motaben is how she was affectionately addressed, the word ‘mota’in Gujarat meaning only senior or elder — is to travel back to another time, as it were, for values were different then as were her circumstances. Born in 1885 in the affluent Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad, she and her younger brother, Ambalal — who was later to become the real founder of the fortunes and the great prestige of the family — lost both their parents when she was only nine; the children were brought up by an uncle, but it was she who mothered her brother and a sister, who was barely one-year-old then; at the age of 13, she was married off, but the marriage did not work and she was back with her own family. The accounts one reads of the bond that existed between her and Ambalal — ‘Bhai’ is how she always called him — are moving. The affection and the respect they had for each other lasted a lifetime, the brother always protective and she always giving of herself.

Having been denied the opportunity to study by her uncle, and by nature somewhat of a free spirit, she went off in 1912 to England with the full support of her brother. Her studies there got cut off by the need to return to India for family reasons, but she had absorbed much while she was abroad. In the account of her life that was recorded by her niece, the immensely gifted Gira Sarabhai, she came under the influence of the Fabians, listened to lectures by Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb and Chesterton, walked about in the streets unaccompanied, participated in the Suffragette movement, learnt ballroom dancing, and smoked heavily: "Abdulla No. 8, Ladies Cigarette, was my great favourite", she recounted.

There is a photograph of hers in the exhibition, wearing an uncommon dress — long-sleeved and collared shirt, a wrap-around sari like dress, around her neck a necktie with a fringe — which tells one a lot: things moving in different directions.

But everything was going to change soon. Once back, she wanted to ‘find herself’. Working for women was one option, and her brother, a big textile mill-owner by this time, supported her in every way; working with the poor was another. She opened a school, took poor students in, regardless of caste, bathed them and taught them. But what became a life-changing experience were a sight and a conversation.

In her own words: "One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I had already gotten to know some of them so I was no longer afraid of them. I called them, even though I did not know them well, and asked them, "What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’ They said, "Behen, we have just finished 36 hours of work…We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home."These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery women faced!" She decided that she must do something to change this situation.

The more she learnt about the state in which the mill workers lived and worked — the grinding poverty, the feeling of exploitation, the sheer sense of powerlessness — the more determined did she become to organise them. 1914 was the year: the plague that had decimated many in Ahmedabad was just over, and anger in the workers was mounting. Better wages, better working conditions is what they were legitimately demanding.

A view of the panels in the exhibition.
A view of the panels in the exhibition. Photo: Somnath Bhatt

Motaben moved into the forefront of their incipient agitation; a notice to all the mill-workers was issued under her signatures; the strike commenced. Her brother, Ambalal-bhai, was the head of the Mill Owners’ Association and when he got to know that she was at the head of that agitation, he was furious. But Motaben was unmoving. The strike went on for 21 days at the end of which negotiations began.

By this time, Mahatma Gandhi, who was very close to the Sarabhai family, had also appeared on the scene and turned gradually into a mentor for Motaben. The mill-owners had finally to yield and bend. Soon afterwards, there was the Kheda satyagraha and another 21-day strike. Unemployed as the workers were, they busied themselves building an ashram for Mahatma Gandhi, with Motaben playing a prominent part: carrying bricks and sand. Many things followed: Motaben grew into a symbol of selfless service over the years, a fearless icon. Because of her, at least a part of the world had begun to change.

There is much to narrate about her life, but it all comes alive in visual form in the exhibition that I started talking about at the beginning, grainy images, fading prints, and all. One sees Motaben as a child posing for a fancy studio portrait, poring over a book as her Bhai dozes off in his high children’s-chair next to her, standing wrapped in a men’s long coat in cold England, talking to the suffragettes, sitting next to Gandhi in a group photograph, addressing gatherings of workers, growing old; one also sees the miserable surroundings in which the mill workers and their families lived: naked and hungry children; bleary-eyed workers fatigued from work. It is all very moving.

For Elaben Bhatt, who visualised and mounted this exhibition, it has been an act of homage. But for those who come to see it, it offers inspiration. I could see this in the eyes of young boys and girls from a nearby school who were visiting: reading the texts with care bordering on reverence, seeing with wide-eyed wonder images of a courageous woman who, brought up in the lap of luxury, gave it all up for a cause, excitedly drawing each other’s attention to some face, some meaningful detail.