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Sunday, November 8, 2009


Posted by
Venu K.M


Review of
The life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule
(Editors: Braj Ranjan Mani & Pamela Sardar)
(Pages:100; Price: Rs 200.00)

Published by:
Mountain Peak
Kanu Chamber,
C-2, Sanwal Nagar.
New Delhi-110049

Perhaps we get hold of the much sought after stuff in this tiny
edition . This is a few remarkable accounts by six authors on the
unique aspects of the lives and thoughts of the Phules , differently
highlighted in each essay . Some of the essays also tell us about a
few women and men without whose active support , the struggles might
not have taken the course as they did. Names of Jyotirao Phule and
Savitri Phule, the great fighters for causes linked to human
dignity and reason, not unheard by people outside Maharashtra
though, we seem to have had very little access to the details of their
personal-political lives. This volume helps in a big way to fulfill
the gap.

Certainly, Savitribai Phule is in focus in all these essays .
Translation of three letters penned by Savitri to Jyotiba in Marati
in 1856, 1868 and 1877 with the caption “Love Letters Unlike Any
Other” and a matching introduction by Sunil Sardar is one of them.
There is a section comprising few photos and illustrations depicting
Savitri Phule’s personal and public life. In another, entitled as
‘Poineering Engaged Writing’, Sunil Sardar and Victor Paul present
the translation of Savitri’s five poems written in Marati. These poems
show the fervor with which early reformers of modern era greeted the
agenda of education , particularly English education which had a
refreshing content entirely different from which constituted the
traditional idea of learning. There is a brief chronology of
Savitribai’s life , bibliography of her writings and a suggested list
of readings appended to the book. A wonderful essay authored by
Muktabai, a eleven year old dalit girl who studied at the Pune
school for girls set up by the Phules, is also part of this volume .
The essay first published in 1855 , is translated from Marati and has
been introduced by Braj Ranjan Mani under a separate caption.

In his detailed introduction to the book, the editor Braj Ranjan Mani
observes: “It is indeed a measure of the ruthlessness of
elite-controlled knowledge- production that a figure as important as
Savitribai Phule fails to find any mention in the history of modern
India. This is not to deny the works by Marati authors….Her life and
struggle, however, deserves to be appreciated by a wider spectrum, and
made known to non-Marati people as well..”
Commenting about the relevance of the Phule struggles, the editor
rightly points out : “..Their distinct brand of socio-cultural
radicalism was based on uniting all the oppressed, whom they would
call stree-shudra-atishudra”.

Questions initiated by extra ordinary visionaries would look so casual
and even ridiculous as they emerge in the first place. Nevertheless,
it is not until much later on a time scale that we are able to see
more to them; that what had happened was nothing less than history.
We then learn to ask similar questions by ourselves sometimes with
much lesser confidence and more or less in a timid voice .In a course
of time we even forget that these would never have reached our mundane
thoughts had them not been asked earlier with much personal courage
and strength of conviction by the markers of milestones in history.

The unrelenting nature of day to day struggles through which
Savitribai Phule together with her beloved life partner Jyotirao Phule
could almost upset an entire system of institutionalized privileges
and deprivations are amply highlighted in this compilation . The
Brahmanical village hierarchy was disproportionately more powerful and
firmly rooted in its ideology of exclusivity as against the modernist
interventions by Satyasodhak Samaj toward its reform. Through the
kind of educational activism motivated by the great values of
social inclusion and egalitarianism, Phules had to undergo moments of
the toughest challenge in their personal lives. Nevertheless, they
could sustain the extremely precarious dynamic of these struggles.
In these days of ‘post modern’ thinking, we often fail to look back
to the painful historical process through which major chunk of
population of this country comprising sections of Sudhras, Atisudras
and women could successfully voice their demands for inclusion as
dignified human beings.

Pamela Sardar in one of the essays gives a touching account of how
Jyotiba’s cousin , Sagunabai Kshirsagar played the role of great
mentor of the Phule couple.
As Jyotiba’s mother died when he was too young, Sugunabai who was a
child widow played the part of both his mother and mentor. There is a
narration about how Sugunabai intervened positively to change the
entire course of life of Jyotiba. Thanks to the help of her employer
Mr. John (a missionary ), an English Officer and another person called
Gaffar Beg(a Muslim scholar), she succeeded in reversing the
decision of Jyotiba’s father Govindarao to take back Jyotiba to the
family business of selling flowers even before completing his
schooling. Only Sugunabai’s foresight and timely intervention in
getting him readmitted helped. The persuasion by a Brahmin clerk
working in his shop was too strong to ignore for a shudra those
times: “..Your son would be of no use for business, and more
important, our Hindu Dharma does not allow a shudra to get education.
An educated shudra and his whole clan suffer in hell for seven

In another essay penned by Gail Omvedt, equally interesting and
touching touching account related to Savitribai’s mission of
educating girls of the lower castes is given. Savitribai suffered not
just constant verbal abuses from the Brahman women in the
neighborhood, but also had to carry two sets of clothing as she went
to teach in the school for girls in Pune (which was founded by the
couple in 1851). Brahmin women regularly threw dung at her and men
occasionally stoned her as she walked up to her school.!

Similarly, Cynthia Stephen writes in her piece: “The young couple
faced severe opposition from almost all sections. Savitribai was
subject to intense harassment everyday as she walked to the school.
Stones, mud and dirt were flung at her as she passed”. Cynthia goes
further to describe how the perseverance of the Phules succeeded in
spite of all these malicious deeds by representatives of the
Brahmanical mainstream. By gaining the goodwill of people from
different walks of life including a distinguished Muslim gentleman,
few scholars, officials and educationists the schools run by Phules
got firmly established in a short period of time. By 1852 November,
the educational department of the government even organized a public
felicitation of the Phule couple.
In the same essay, there is another interesting narration about how
two dalit men hired by the local Brahmans appeared with swords to
assassinate Phule at his home, and how terribly they were impressed
by the great personality. Following a brief course of dialogue with
these misguided people, Phule ultimately had these dalit men joining
the revolutionary plank of social reform..

The bold strides marched by Savithribai and her husband through the
Satyasodhak Samaj, in providing the most needed social space for
widows , children of unwed mothers subjected to ostracizing by the
Hindu culture, remarrying of young Hindu widows sans ceremonial
service of Brahman priests, educating women and the underprivileged
etc, would perhaps be unthinkable even for the present day reformers
in spite of being equipped by the unique constitutional mechanism of
Independent India.

Victor Paul in the essay titled ‘A Relentless Truth seeker’ lashes
out at the Brahmanical nationalists while juxtaposing their typical
attitude with that of the Phule couple’s preceding agenda of social
reforms in the pre independent India:
“(Nationalism in India….)While depicting the British period as a
shameful and forgettable episode in an otherwise glorious historical
and cultural saga of their nation , the nationalists conveniently
overlook the fact that they themselves were the great beneficiaries of
the plunder of the colonial era. Not surprisingly, almost all
nationalist intellectual exercises of the period, appear to be an
attempt to hoodwink the masses by blaming the British for all
uncomfortable and nefarious internal issues..”

Many of the vital aspects of reforms taken up by Jyotiba and
Savitribai remain to be fulfilled these days , despite the heightened
awareness on caste and Hinduism thanks to the teachings of Babasaheb
Ambedkar and by many others later. Unfortunately for many of us, this
state of affairs is much likely to continue as long as the agenda of
social reforms that constantly fails this country is far from being
acknowledged at a wider level. It is precisely at this juncture this
book has to tell us a lot both in first person accounts and otherwise.

It would be worthwhile to quote Gopal Guru :
” ..Dalits are expected to take the initiative in giving moral lead to
doing theory in the country. This orientation would thus remove the
cultural hierarchies that tend to divide social science practice into
theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras. Ultimately social science
in India would fullfill the fondest hopes by expanding the social base
of its conceptual landscape...”(How Egalitarian Are Social Sciences In
India?- EPW Article,2001)

- K.M.Venugopalan

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always want to defend peace, justice, peoples' right to love each other and live with dignity,struggles against parochial visions and hatred;instinctively a defender of socialist and democratic values