Gowd Kiran Kumar
At a time when it was a taboo to see women in public spaces, Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) spearheaded a silent movement for the empowerment of the disenfranchised in the 19th century. Dedicating her life to the emancipation of oppressed, Savitribai Phule struggled for the rights of the marginalised majority – women, dalits, adivasis, backward classes and minorities. Brahminical hegemony side-lined her life history by not discussing it in academic spaces.
Savitrima challenged the then existing Brahminical social structure in three ways –by challenging the dominance of Brahminical knowledge base; second by questioning the patriarchy system, and third by opposing the dominance of Sanskrit. She strongly advocated the use of English language as a tool for the emancipation of the oppressed. No other social reformer in the 19th century worked on these three challenges faced by Indian society. She was seen as an organic intellectual in Gramscian terms. An activist and writer, her poetic works reflect her creativity in raising various issues through them. She asked readers to break the brahminical dominance.
Her brother was the first to be liberated by Savitri ma, convincing him to change his casteist mind-set. Slowly she started working from ground level by requesting parents to send their daughters to the first girls’ school established by her along with her husband, Jotirao Phule. Hence, Savitribai Phule was considered to be first women teacher of India. She was an easy target for criticism by the upper caste fanatics because she was a woman and from the backward classes. Cow dung and mud were thrown at her by the upper caste men, but nothing discouraged her from the mission of emancipation of the oppressed, in spite of several attacks – physical and mental. She considered every child as her own and nurtured them in the proper way. This is reflected in the image of universal motherhood bestowed on Savitri ma. Her pedagogy of teaching was participatory, innovative and radically different from the then existing one-way, rigid and restrictive mode. She encouraged students to think creatively. The results were interesting. 11-year-old Muktabai, a Dalit student of Savitribai, published an article on the plight of Mangs and Mahars in the newspaper Dyanodaya, in 1855. This may perhaps be one of the earliest of Dalit women’s writings on their issues. She continued to inculcate modern values in students and her followers.
Savitribai wanted to bring social change from the grassroots level. She attacked the then existing social norms and customs. Thanks to her husband Jotirao Phule’s initiative, this was rooted in radicalised thinking. She started coming to the ‘public spaces’ that were denied to women. She opened her well to the shudras and ati-shudras. Savitri ma became a teacher by educating the girl child when male teachers showed no interest in girls’ or women’s welfare; as a teacher she introduced many new innovative teaching ideas like participatory methods, encouraging creative writing skills, reaching students through poetry, etc. All these were clearly mentioned in the Pune records. Savitri ma expanded her influence on others, and she started changing the old norms. She encouraged inter-caste marriages and gave shelter to such couples, thus attacking the entire caste system along with her husband. She urged barbers not to shave the heads of widows and was successful in convincing them to protest against such religious practices. She denounced norms and customs by lighting fire to her husband’s funeral pyre.
She was actively involved in building institutions like schools (1948-52), Mahila Seva Mandal (1852), infanticide prohibition home (1853) night schools for workers and peasants (1855), orphanage homes (1863) and food hostels during the famine in Maharashtra (1875-77). Hence, she worked on wide range of a issues – girls’ education, health, women empowerment and famine relief. These institutions were meant for the oppressed sections, who were widely neglected and discriminated. In 1893, she led the Satyashodak Samaj, which was initiated by Jotirao Phule.
Savitribai’s literary efforts – Kavya Phule (Poetry Blossoms) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Gems) reflect the blending of her creative thinking and social concern. She urged the oppressed to get education and fight against the Brahminical dominance. In 19th century itself, Savitribai anticipated the English language as a global language and recommended English education to the Bahujans.
Her modern values like educating women and oppressed for emancipation, advocating the English language, breaking the traditional evil values and customs like widow remarriages, inter-caste marriages; and opening of wells to Dalits, etc., raising her voice for women in public and private spaces, maintaining cordial relations with other religious minorities were considered to be crucial elements in her approach towards modernity.
Women breaking the double burden i.e. Brahminical caste system and patriarchy in the 19th century might be considered as a significant step for social revolution in the country. Savitribai Phule was considered as the most neglected liberator of the country, and has not been given proper space in Indian history. Historians, who are expected to be free from bias and prejudice, did not have enough courage to represent the truth. Instead, they gave a much-distorted picture to the public that did not reveal the valiance of the First Lady Teacher of India.
It is time to celebrate her Birth Anniversary as the National Teachers’ Day by including Phule’s history in school textbooks so that future generation will be aware of their dedication to the social empowerment and will be an inspiration for ‘annihilation of caste’ and ‘gender equality’. We need academic centres to do research on her and Jotirao Phule’s literary and social works in various universities and to share the results with the general public. Her works and contributions are still relevant today. We need to take inspiration from Savitribai Phule and take forward her legacy to bring equality in the society.