A great social reformer who was instrumental in the field of women’s education in India and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule’s peer in his Satyashodhak movement
Those who are born in unpleasant conditions and get used to the unpleasantness become ordinary mortals, but those who become aware of the unpleasantness and have the courage to fight for one’s rights to change the unpleasantness become extraordinary. SavitriBai was one such extraordinary lady who fought against the male bigotry in India and became a light of knowledge who illuminated the lives of millions of women in India.
SavitriBai was born in Naigaon village in Satara district to mother LaxmiBai and father Khandoji Navse Patil, who was the village chief.
The British sovereignty was an emerging power at the time of SavitriBai’s birth. The atmosphere in the country was therefore one of suppression, helplessness and servitude. Yet, till then, most of the people in the country had adapted themselves to the British reign. At the same time some orthodox Hindu upper caste people were suppressing the lower castes under the pretext of God and religion.
Women were mere objects of desire and use in the Hindu community at that time. Women had no right to an education, and it was even considered a sin for a girl to be educated. She had no say in anything, nor could she ask for something, or had the right to refusal. Their only purpose in life would be to stay within the picket fence drawn around them by the men in society and keep working within that fence their life like an automaton and wear themselves out.
These were the wretched circumstances in which SavitriBai was born, where freedom for women was but a remote dream. But in an age where even the meaning of bondage is difficult to understand, SavitriBai started on her eminent work without even consciously realising it. The young SavitriBai was a guardian of the meek; she taught a lesson to a bully who wrenched a flower from a weak boy and squashed a snake who she caught snatching a bird’s eggs. Thus she displayed the courage that she would require later to fight against the power mongers of religion.
SavitriBai was merely nine years of age when she was married and her husband, JyotiRao Phule all of thirteen. Yet in those times, both were considered over age for marriage! This over aged couple was married in 1840 (Falgun Vadhya 5, Shake 1765).
SavitriBai’s father-in-law was basically from Phursungi with the last name Khirsagar But the Peshwa gifted him a horticultural land in Pune, because of which he migrated to Pune and started a horticultural business. This was why he acquired the last name Phule (Phul = flower. Many last names in India are acquired due to the family business).
SavitriBai’s husband JyotiRao lost his mother at a very young age. His maternal cousin sister Saguna (lovingly called SagunaAau by JyotiRao, Aau=mother) nurtured him. SagunaAau worked as a nanny of a British officer’s son. She therefore understood and was even able to converse in English. She used this knowledge to inspire JyotiRao. JyotiRao was thus attracted towards education.
SavitriBai had been given a book by a Christian missionary before her marriage which she brought with her to her in-laws house. This shows the attraction she had for words and books despite being uneducated.
These two bright spirits who were pining for education had become one through the union of marriage. In one incident, JyotiRao wounded a higher caste boy on his head when the boy trod upon the name that JyotiRao had written on the ground using flower buds. This battle got extended into the families. The boy’s father complained to JyotiRao’s father on which JyotiRao was reprimanded by his father. To this, JyotiRao questioned him - whatever wrong that boy does is excusable, but me educating myself is a sin? This question made Savitri aware of her husband’s ambition to learn. She encouraged JyotiRao by telling him that he should not take back the step (towards education) that he had taken, and that she too thought that he should be educated. She, in fact, challenged him into setting forth on the path of learning. JyotiRao too found a new venture: he taught himself and then taught SavtriBai. SagunaAau’s too joined them in learning. Both women suitably educated themselves and created a new chapter in the realms of India’s history.
SavitriBai setup a school for SagunaAau on 1st May 1847 in a backward community. This was their first school. SagunaAau started teaching there happily and enthusiastically. A year later when a school was started in Bhide Wada in Pune, SagunaAau was called there to teach. The first school stopped working abruptly. There was still a lack of acceptability for education in those days; it was said colloquially that he who studied would send his succeeding seven generations to hell. To counteract this myth, the people were told that the white (British) officers had discovered through flying their airplanes that he who does not study sent his fourteen succeeding generations to hell. People would send their children to school at least out of the fear of hell.
The first women’s school was started in Bhide Wada on 1st January 1848. This was the first women’s school in the entire nation started by a native. SavitriBai began handling the school administration as a Headmistress. She later started two – three other schools in Pune and managed them for a while.
Initially the school had only six girls, but by the end of 1948 the count had reached forty – forty-five girls. This successful school was welcomed by the orthodox Hindu religion high caste power mongers with a public outcry against the school saying the religion had drowned, the world would drown, and that evil had come.
These orthodox people heavily opposed the school, even going to the extent of throwing dung on SavitriBai. Some bullies even threatened to physically assault her. But a Savtiri who had squashed a deadly cobra at a young age was not one to be scared of mere mortals. This quest to spread education continued through squashing all manner of opposition. She had to leave her home. SagunaAau resigned. SavitriBai suffered many such set backs. But none of it faltered her resolve.
SavitriBai realised that along with education it was necessary to work on other social fronts, to build up the self esteem and confidence of women. She also campaigned against some cruel social practices. Many girls who were married off young would be widowed by the age of twelve – thirteen. After the death of their husbands, either they would have to take Sati (a practice of burning the widow on the funeral pyre of the husband) or their head would be clean shaven to make them ugly and unattractive to other men. These helpless women, with no rights to denial, would be easy targets for depraved men. The resultant pregnant widows would be scared of being ostracized by the society and the suppression that the bastard child would have to suffer, and would resort to suicide or aborting the foetus or killing the new born.
To counteract this situation, JyotiRao started a home for the pregnant widows and orphaned children to stop this carnage. SavtriBai ran the home capably. She considered all the children in the orphanage like her own. She adopted a child born in this home to a Brahman (upper caste) woman named KashiBai.
To stop the shaving of widow’s head SavitriBai campaigned to awaken the better judgment of the society. She strived to bring a law for re-marriage of widows. SavitriBai handled many such issues with creativity and great aplomb.
SavitriBai’s struggle is behind the successful stories of women capably managing careers panning that of a State Transport Bus conductor to space travel. The great souls struggle to stem the rot in society and give every human being the right to live. In this struggle, they do not give a thought to their own life. JyotiRao and SavitriBai are two souls in this same lineage who sacrificed their own personal happiness for their social cause.
SavitirBai had a major role in the SatyaShodhak movement too. She continued to work for the cause even after the death of JyotiRao in 1890. She also spread her ideologies through the medium of literature. She published two collections of her poetry, KavyaPhule (Flowers of Poetry) and Baavankashi Subodh Ratnakar. Later, her speeches too were published.
She became an ideal of great work for the people in society that were willing to wrangle amongst themselves during the drought. She saved the women who were willing to sell their body to fill their stomachs, and sent them into the shelter of the SatyaShodhak movement. Great leaders like Pandita RamaBai and Gaikwad Sarkar came forth to help her in her cause.
The plague created havoc in Pune and its vicinity in the year 1896 – 97. This so far unknown disease took the lives of many. On realising that this disease was contagious, the British came up with an innovative plan: the moment a diseased was discovered, the person would be kidnapped and would be never seen again. It was never known whether they were left to their natural deaths or were just killed.
SavitriBai could not bear this terrible condition of the people. She started a hospice in the farmhouse of Sasane near Pune for the diseased. She herself would personally give courage to each of the diseased. She would visit each affected household and give them courage.
Unfortunately while caring for the diseased, she ignored her own health. In the process of giving courage to the diseased, she caught the plague herself. This extraordinary woman finally merged her life with that of the society that she struggled so hard to reform to such an extent, that she ended her life in that flow. This source of knowledge, who invoked the self esteem and confidence in Indian women, invoked humanity in a society who thought nothing of burning alive women on funeral pyres, contributed to the freedom movement through the spread of education, walked hand in hand with the great social reformer JyotiRao Phule in his cause, fell victim to deadly plague and breathed her last on 10th March, 1897.
1. Saadhvi SavitriBai Phule – Phulvanta Zodge, Chinar Publication , Pune
2. Tya Hotya Mhanun – Dr. Vijaya Wad, Anushri Publication
3. Article in the Marathi daily Sakal