Maharashtra was a significant crucible for the social reform movement, which was a precursor to the national movement. Most reformers were men taking up the cause of women’s emancipation. But some women were not content to be mere recipients of men’s charity.
They struggled against social norms, translated their ideals into practice and held their own in public life. Their struggles and achievements were overshadowed by the dazzle of male social reformers’ powerful personae, until feminist historians like Meera Kosambi drew attention to their contributions: Retrieving, translating and interpreting.
Foremost among these remarkable women was the charismatic Pandita Ramabai. A distinguished Sanskrit scholar, she challenged the Hindu orthodoxy that justified women’s subordination. She converted to Christianity, became a public figure and wrote powerful tracts on women’s freedom.
Kosambi was among the early scholars who delved into the life of Pandita Ramabai, contextualising her biography within the Hindu patriarchal structure of social reform. In Kosambi’s meticulously researched writings, these pioneering women come alive, luminous and determined: Ramabai Ranade, who, not content to be Mahadeo Govind Ranade’s wife, became a women’s rights activist herself; Anandibai Joshi, the first woman doctor in India; Anandibai Karve, a child widow who later married the educationist Maharishi Karve and worked for women’s education; Parvatibai Athavale who worked for reform in widows’ social status; Rakhmabai, the child bride who embodied the age-of-consent debate in Maharashtra after she challenged the principle of restitution of conjugal rights; Kashibai Kanitkar, the first major modern woman writer in Marathi.
Kosambi chose to work as an intensive and individual researcher, devoted to her craft and her subject. She could ferociously defend her field, as noted writer and scholar Vidyut Bhagwat discovered.
For her, these 19th century women were unqualified heroes, unsung in the struggle against patriarchy. She was not inclined to inflect the category of woman with caste, class and other forms of differentiation, a journey that feminism the world over has made in the last few years.
She recreated this inspiring era and sensitively translated many of their writings, making their words and insights available to the non-Marathi public. Her Pandita Ramabai Through Her Own Words: Selected works (2000), and her translation of Returning The American Gaze: Pandita Ramabai’s The Peoples of the United States – Ramabai’s 1889 travelogue – are key examples.
Her Feminist Vision or Treason against Men? Kashibai Kanitkar and the Engendering of Marathi Literature (2008) includes substantial translations of Kashibai’s writings, again with an insightful introduction.
Kosambi’s early training was in sociology, and she was associated with the Universities of Pune, Stockholm and Rutgers. Her early work was on Urban Studies. From 1992 to 1997, she was Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at SNDT Women’s University, when her serious work on women’s history began.
Veena Poonacha, her successor, recollects her thorough command over Marathi sources, dedication to rigorous scholarship and commitment to the intellectual content of women’s studies.
RCWS is the first women’s studies centre in India. It had been helmed earlier by formidable personalities like Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishnaraj who had shaped the centre, among other things, as a forum for the feminist movement to interact with scholarship.
Kosambi’s engagement with pure scholarship was not always in sync with this emphasis on outreach. She had her critics in the world of feminist scholarship. But, as Usha Thakkar, a former colleague points out, by the 1990s, earlier ideas on the relationship of scholarship and social transformation were changing.
Kosambi remained academically productive after her retirement, writing a rich slew of books. She moved into the early 20th century with Women Writing Gender: Marathi Fiction before Independence (2012), Mahatma Gandhi and Prema Kantak: Exploring a Relationship, Exploring History (2013) and Gender, Culture and Performance: Marathi Theatre and Cinema before Independence( 2014).
She also translated, edited and brought out a book of the writings of her grandfather Dharmanand Kosambi, a pioneering scholar of Pali and Buddhist studies whose life became a mission to spread ideals and principles of Buddhism.
At the Goa Arts and Literary festival, she reminisced that she had felt her grandfather peering over one shoulder as she wrote the book, and her father, the polymath statistician and illustrious historian Damodar Kosambi, peering over the other.
“I am proud of the surname Kosambi, but it also brings a heavy burden of expectation which is impossible for me to meet… Academic dynasties are a difficult business,” she said.
Kamala Ganesh is a sociologist based in Mumbai