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Savitribai Phule, arguably India’s first woman teacher and a forgotten liberator, was born on January 3, 1831. With the first school for girls from different castes that she set up in Bhidewada, Pune (the seat of Brahmanism). Krantijyoti Savitribai, as she is reverentially known by the Indian Bahujan movement, blazed a revolutionary trail. There have been consistent demands to observe her birthday as Teachers’ Day. Without her, Indian women would not have had the benefits of education.
In memory of this remarkable woman, here are letters that Savitribai Phule wrote to her life partner, Jyotiba – her comrade-in-arms in the struggle for the emancipation of India’s disenfranchised people.
Reproduced here are the English translations of three important letters – originally in Marathi and published in MG Mali’s edition of her collected works, Savitribai Phule Samagra Wangmaya, that Savitribai wrote to her husband Jyotiba over a period of 20 years.
The letters are significant as they encompass the wider concerns that drove this couple, the emancipation of the most deprived segments of society and the struggle to attain full human dignity and freedom.
This vision for a new and liberated society – free from ignorance, bigotry, deprivation, and hunger – was the thread that bonded the couple.
Theirs was a relationship of deep and shared concerns and each provided strength to the other. When large sections of 19th century Maharashtrian society was ranged against Jyotiba Phule’s reconstructive radicalism, it was the unfailing and shared vision and dedication of his life partner that was emotionally sustaining. These letters are a tribute to the couple and their tradition of radical questioning.
Below are translations from the original Marathi, with an introduction by Sunil Sardar.
The first letter, written in 1856, speaks about the core issue: education and its transformative possibilities in a society where learning had for centuries been the monopoly of the Brahmins, who, in turn, used this exclusive privilege to enclave, demoralise and oppress. Away at her parental home to recuperate from an illness, Savitri describes in the letter a conversation with her brother, who is uncomfortable with the couple’s radicalism.
The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jyotiba,
Savitri salutes you!
After so many vicissitudes, now it seems my health has been fully restored. My brother worked so hard and nursed me so well through my sickness. His service and devotion shows how loving he really is! I will come to Pune as soon as I get perfectly well. Please do not worry about me. I know my absence causes Fatima so much trouble but I am sure she will understand and won’t grumble.
As we were talking one day, my brother said, “You and your husband have rightly been excommunicated because both of you serve the untouchables (Mahars and Mangs). The untouchables are fallen people and by helping them you are bringing a bad name to our family. That is why, I tell you to behave according to the customs of our caste and obey the dictates of the Brahmans.” Mother was so disturbed by this brash talk of my brother.
Though my brother is a good soul he is extremely narrow-minded and so he did not hesitate to bitterly criticize and reproach us. My mother did not reprimand him but tried instead to bring him to his senses, “God has given you a beautiful tongue but it is no good to misuse it so!” I defended our social work and tried to dispel his misgivings. I told him, “Brother, your mind is narrow, and the Brahmans’ teaching has made it worse. Animals like goats and cows are not untouchable for you, you lovingly touch them. You catch poisonous snakes on the day of the snake-festival and feed them milk. But you consider Mahars and Mangs, who are as human as you and I, untouchables. Can you give me any reason for this? When the Brahmans perform their religious duties in their holy clothes, they consider you also impure and untouchable, they are afraid that your touch will pollute them. They don’t treat you differently than the Mahars.”
When my brother heard this, he turned red in the face, but then he asked me, “Why do you teach those Mahars and Mangs? People abuse you because you teach the untouchables. I cannot bear it when people abuse and create trouble for you for doing that. I cannot tolerate such insults.” I told him what the (teaching of) English had been doing for the people. I said, “The lack of learning is nothing but gross bestiality. It is through the acquisition of knowledge that (he) loses his lower status and achieves the higher one. My husband is a god-like man. He is beyond comparison in this world, nobody can equal him. He thinks the Untouchables must learn and attain freedom. He confronts the Brahmans and fights with them to ensure Teaching and Learning for the Untouchables because he believes that they are human beings like other and they should live as dignified humans. For this they must be educated. I also teach them for the same reason. What is wrong with that? Yes, we both teach girls, women, Mangs and Mahars. The Brahmans are upset because they believe this will create problems for them. That is why they oppose us and chant the mantra that it is against our religion. They revile and castigate us and poison the minds of even good people like you.”
“You surely remember that the British Government had organised a function to honour my husband for his great work. His felicitation caused these vile people much heartburn. Let me tell you that my husband does not merely invoke God’s name and participate in pilgrimages like you. He is actually doing God’s own work. And I assist him in that. I enjoy doing this work. I get immeasurable joy by doing such service. Moreover, it also shows the heights and horizons to which a human being can reach out.”
Mother and brother were listening to me intently. My brother finally came around, repented for what he had said and asked for forgiveness. Mother said, “Savitri, your tongue must be speaking God’s own words. We are blessed by your words of wisdom.” Such appreciation from my mother and brother gladdened my heart. From this you can imagine that there are many idiots here, as in Pune, who poison people’s minds and spread canards against us. But why should we fear them and leave this noble cause that we have undertaken? It would be better to engage with the work instead. We shall overcome and success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.
What more could I write?
With humble regards,
The Poetess in Savitribai
The year 1854 was important as Savitribai published her collection of poems, calledKabya Phule (Poetry’s Blossoms).
Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Pure Gems), another collection of what has come to be highly regarded in the world of Marathi poetry, was published in 1891. (The Phules had developed a devastating critique of the Brahman interpretation of Marathi history in the ancient and medieval periods. He portrayed the Peshwa rulers, later overthrown by the British, as decadent and oppressive, and Savitribai reiterates those themes in her biography.)
Apart from these two collections, four of Jyotiba’s speeches on Indian history were edited for publication by Savitribai. A few of her own speeches were also published in 1892. Savitribai’s correspondence is also remarkable because they give us an insight into her own life and into the life and lived experiences of women of the time.
The second letter is about a great social taboo – a love affair between a Brahman boy and an Untouchable girl; the cruel behaviour of the “enraged” villagers and how Savitribai stepped in. This intervention saves the lives of the lovers and she sends them away to the safety and caring support of her husband, Jyotiba. With the malevolent reality of honour killings in the India of today and the hate-driven propaganda around “love jihad”, this letter is ever so relevant today.
29 August 1868
Naigaon, Peta Khandala
The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba,
Savitri salutes you!
I received your letter. We are fine here. I will come by the fifth of next month. Do not worry on this count. Meanwhile, a strange thing happened here. The story goes like this. One Ganesh, a Brahman, would go around villages, performing religious rites and telling people their fortunes. This was his bread and butter. Ganesh and a teenage girl named Sharja who is from the Mahar (untouchable) community fell in love. She was six months pregnant when people came to know about this affair. The enraged people caught them, and paraded them through the village, threatening to bump them off.
I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under the British law. They changed their mind after listening to me.
Sadubhau angrily said that the wily Brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you. What else to write?
The last letter, written in 1877, is a heart-rending account of a famine that devastated western Maharashtra. People and animals were dying. Savitri and other Satyashodhak volunteers were doing their best to help. The letter brings out an intrepid Savitri leading a team of dedicated Satyashodhaks striving to overcome a further exacerbation of the tragedy as moneylenders’ trying to benefit. She meets the local district administration. The letter ends on a poignant note where Savitribai reiterates her total commitment to her humanitarian work pioneered by the Phules.
20 April, 1877
The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jyotiba,
Savitri salutes you!
The year 1876 has gone, but the famine has not – it stays in most horrendous forms here. The people are dying. The animals are dying, falling on the ground. There is severe scarcity of food. No fodder for animals. The people are forced to leave their villages. Some are selling their children, their young girls, and leaving the villages. Rivers, brooks and tanks have completely dried up – no water to drink. Trees are dying – no leaves on trees. Barren land is cracked everywhere. The sun is scorching – blistering. The people crying for food and water are falling on the ground to die. Some are eating poisonous fruits, and drinking their own urine to quench their thirst. They cry for food and drink, and then they die.
Our Satyashodhak volunteers have formed committees to provide food and other life-saving material to the people in need. They have formed relief squads.
Brother Kondaj and his wife Umabai are taking good care of me. Otur’s Shastri, Ganapati Sakharan, Dumbare Patil, and others are planning to visit you. It would be better if you come from Satara to Otur and then go to Ahmednagar.
You may remember RB Krishnaji Pant and Laxman Shastri. They travelled with me to the affected area and gave some monetary help to the victims.
The moneylenders are viciously exploiting the situation. Bad things are taking place as a result of this famine. Riots are breaking out. The Collector heard of this and came to ease the situation. He deployed the white police officers, and tried to bring the situation under control. Fifty Satyasholdhaks were rounded up. The Collector invited me for a talk. I asked the Collector why the good volunteers had been framed with false charges and arrested without any rhyme or reason. I asked him to release them immediately. The Collector was quite decent and unbiased. He shouted at the white soldiers, “Do the Patil farmers rob? Set them free.” The Collector was moved by the people’s plights. He immediately sent four bullock cartloads of (jowar) food.
You have started the benevolent and welfare work for the poor and the needy. I also want to carry my share of the responsibility. I assure you I will always help you. I wish the godly work will be helped by more people.
I do not want to write more.
(These letters have been excerpted with grateful thanks from A Forgotten Liberator, The Life and Struggle of Savitrabai Phule, edited by Braj Ranjan Mani and Pamela Sardar)