Book Title: Savitribai Phule: Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy
Author: Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta
More than a century and a half before the Central Government launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme with the objective of empowering the girl child, social reformers Jyotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule set up India’s first school for girls at Bhidewada, Pune, in 1848. Later, the couple established a home for pregnant widows so that they could give birth and live without the fear of being ostracised by society. Indeed, the Phules were way ahead of their times. They confronted the rigid caste system based on the principle of chaturvarna — the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. They championed the cause of ‘education for all’ and led a crusade against social ills. The British supported their efforts, but it did not take long for the Phules to realise that the rulers’ encouragement was not driven by egalitarian motives. The British were keen to educate a section of the Indians so that they could get ‘cheap labour’ to run their administrative affairs. It was the power of education that this couple put to good use to fight colonial oppression. The author observes: “The spark lit by Jyotirao, Savitri and their friends and supporters fired the flame of nationhood as educated Indians grouped, coordinated, rebelled and eventually reclaimed independent India!”
The school started by the Phules in Bhidewada soon ran into trouble on multiple counts. As the girls were the children of Mahars and Mangs, they were not allowed to drink water from nearby water sources. Savitri and her colleague-friend Fatima Sheikh were determined not to let the children go thirsty. So, they started buying water for them. However, the funds available were not enough to run the school on a long-term basis. Hence, the school had to be closed for a while. Sadly, this development made the Brahmins rejoice. Some even celebrated in the notorious Bavan Khani, the 52-room house that was set up in the mid-18th century during the reign of Balaji Baji Rao. Their celebrations did not last long as the Phules managed to reopen the school. Several other schools run by them had to face similar challenges, but the couple was equal to the task.
The curriculum at these schools was different from that of institutions run by the Brahmins; this was one of the reasons why the latter saw themselves under threat from reformers like the Phules. It covered a broad range of subjects, including the history of the Marathas, the geography of India and Asia, grammar, arithmetic and basic writings on socioeconomic problems. The lower castes, in particular, were also taught to read the Marathi textbooks used in government-run vernacular schools.
In 1852, the education department of the British government inspected the schools set up by Jyoti, Savitri and their associates. Their report said: “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.”
The book also highlights the role of Savitri’s teacher Cynthia Farrar (an American missionary) and mentor Sagunabai Kshirsagar in shaping her vision. Cynthia taught girls without insisting that they convert to Christianity. She created an enabling atmosphere for Savitri, Fatima and hundreds of other girls to express themselves. Sagunabai was a revolutionary feminist in her own right.
Savitri was presumably the first woman in Indian history to light her husband’s pyre. In 1897, when a bubonic plague spread across Maharashtra, she selflessly cared for the ill. She carried a 10-year-old boy from a Mahar settlement in Mundhwa to a clinic on the outskirts of Pune. The boy survived, but Savitri caught the infection and passed away at the age of 66.
Her life story, narrated in short chapters with copious notes, makes for an inspiring, compelling read. Savitri deserves to be revered as one of India’s female icons. Hopefully, this book will help in undoing her historical neglect and bringing her out of her husband’s giant shadow.