MEMORIAL CHARITABLE TRUST
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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.
was one such extraordinary lady who fought against the male bigotry in
and became a light of knowledge who illuminated the lives of millions of women in
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.
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
are acquired due to the family business).
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
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
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.
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
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
suffered many such set backs. But none of it faltered her resolve.
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.
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
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
their body to fill their stomachs, and sent them into the shelter of the
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
Death: 10th March, 1897