On her 192nd birth anniversary, a look at the life of Savitribai Phule, India’s first woman teacher
GS I: History
Dimensions of the Article:
- Who was Savitribai Phule?
- The loud opposition to Phules’ schools
- Phule’s role as a social reformer, beyond education
- Savitribai’s literary works
Who was Savitribai Phule?
- A Dalit woman from the Mali community, Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra’s Naigaon village.
- Married off at the tender age of 10, her husband Jyotirao Phule is said to have educated her at home.
- Later, Jyotirao admitted Savitribai to a teachers’ training institution in Pune.
- Throughout their life, the couple supported each other and in doing so, broke many social barriers.
- At a time when it was considered unacceptable for women to even attain education, the couple went on to open a school for girls in Bhidewada, Pune, in 1848.
- This became the country’s first girls’ school.
The loud opposition to Phules’ schools
- The Phules opened more such schools for girls, Shudras and Ati-Shudras (the backward castes and Dalits, respectively) in Pune, leading to discontent among Indian nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
- They opposed the setting up of schools for girls and non-Brahmins, citing a “loss of nationality”, and believing not following the caste rules would mean a loss of nationality itself.
- The opposition to the couple was so hostile that eventually Jyotirao’s father Govindrao was forced to kick them out of his house.
- Savitribai herself faced great animosity from the upper castes, including instances of physical violence.
- But this would not deter the work and the schools came to be hailed as a success.
Phule’s role as a social reformer, beyond education
- Savitribai Phule advocated inter-caste marriages, widow remarriage, and eradication of child marriage, sati and dowry systems, among other social issues.
- The Phules also adopted Yashwantrao, the child of a widow, whom they educated to become a doctor.
Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha
- Along with Jyotirao, Savitribai started the Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha (‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’) for pregnant widows facing discrimination.
- This was inspired by a turn of events wherein a young Brahmin widow was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andamans after she killed her newborn child.
- The man who had raped the illiterate widow refused to take up any responsibility for the child, driving the widow to infanticide.
- In 1873, the Phules set up the Satyashodhak Samaj (‘Truth-seekers’ society’), a platform open to all, irrespective of their caste, religion or class hierarchies, with the sole aim of bringing social equity.
- As an extension, they started ‘Satyashodhak Marriage’ – a rejection of Brahmanical rituals where the marrying couple takes a pledge to promote education and equality.
Balyata Pratibandak Gruha:
- The couple also set up ‘Balyata Pratibandak Gruha’, a childcare centre for the protection of pregnant widows and rape victims.
- Urging women to break free of caste barriers, Savitribai encouraged them to sit together at her meetings.
Husband’s funeral procession
- At her husband’s funeral procession on November 28, 1890, Savitribai again defied convention and carried the titve (earthen pot).
- Walking ahead of the procession, Savitribai was the one who consigned his body to the flames, a ritual which is still predominantly carried out by men.
- Setting an extraordinary example of living a life of compassion, service and courage, Savitribai became involved in relief work during the 1896 famine in Maharashtra and the 1897 Bubonic plague.
- She herself contracted the disease while taking a sick child to the hospital, and breathed her last on March 10, 1897.
Savitribai’s literary works
- Savitribai Phule published her first collection of poems, called Kavya Phule (‘Poetry’s Blossoms’), at the age of 23 in 1854.
- She published Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (‘The Ocean of Pure Gems’), in 1892.
- Besides these works, Matushri Savitribai Phlenchi Bhashane va Gaani (S’avitribai Phule’s speeches and songs’), and her letters to her husband have also been published.
-Source: Indian Express