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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Savitribai Phule: Mother of Modern Education for Indian Women | First Indian Woman Teacher | Pioneering Marathi Poet

You owe her. But do you know her? Savitribai Phule, the Mother of modern education. If you are an Indian woman who reads, you owe her. If you are an educated Indian woman, you owe her. If you are an Indian schoolgirl reading this chapter in English, you owe her. If you are an educated international desi woman, you owe her.”

– Excerpted from ‘Savitribai and India’s Conversation on Education’ by Thom Wolf and Suzana Andrade, published in ‘Oikos Worldviews Journal’ (2008).

Wondering who Savitribai Phule is? Wondering what her contribution to Indian history is? Her contribution will leave you stunned and awed. And wondering why she is so little known today. A woman like her is born once a century and should be treated as a national icon. 

Savitribai Jyotirao Phule was an Indian social reformer and poet. Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule, she played an important role in improving women's rights, as well as the rights of other oppressed people like the dalits, in India during British rule.

She was the first female teacher of the first women’s school and the first female educationist in India, one of the pioneers of Marathi poetry and one of the foremost emancipators of Indian women and dalits.

Savitribai Phule: Pioneering Indian Educationist and Social Reformer

Savitribai broke all the traditional shackles of 19th century India to herald a new age of thinking. Shackles of gender and caste, being as she was a dalit woman at a time when both being a woman and a dalit was to be condemned to a life of abuse and exploitation. She can be legitimately hailed as the mother of modern Indian education for women and their struggle for rights. Let’s read about her remarkable life of courage and initiative.

Early Life and Marriage

Savitribai Phule was born on January 3, 1831 in Naigaon, Satara district, Maharashtra. She belonged to a family of farmers. Her parents were Khandoji Navse Patil and Laxmibai. At the age of nine, she was married to twelve-year-old Jyotirao Phule in 1840. 

Jyotirao Phule is regarded as one of the most important figures of the social reform movement in Maharashtra and India. He is most known for his efforts to educate women and the lower castes. Jyotirao, then known as Jyotiba, was Savitribai’s mentor and supporter throughout their married life. Under his influence, Savitribai adopted women’s education and their liberation from a male-dominated society as the mission of her life. She worked towards tackling some of the then major social problems including widow remarriage and removal of untouchability. The couple worked ceaselessly to abolish discrimination and unfair treatment of people based on caste and gender. Savitribai Phule worked as an equal partner in the mission of uplifting the poor and oppressed people.

As a new bride at the age of nine, when Savitribai moved to her marital home in Pune in 1840, her most prized possession was a book that had been given to her by a Christian missionary. Impressed by her thirst for learning, Jyotirao Phule, her husband, then all of 12, taught her to read and write, little knowing that this would lay the foundation for a whole new chapter in Indian history.

Jyotirao Phule's introduction to an English education, his reading of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man and his exposure to Christian missionaries in India laid the foundation for his revolutionary thoughts on education, especially with regard to women's empowerment.

He needed female teachers to help him in achieving his goals of social reform, chiefly educating women. He believed that education was necessary for the restoration of social and cultural values. So he taught and trained his wife as a teacher. Slowly the news of his teaching his wife reached his father who threatened to drive him out of his home, fearing attack from orthodox elements.

When the choice before Savitribai was either going away with her husband or staying back with her in-laws, she preferred to be with her husband. Savitribai supported her husband in every social struggle he launched. Yet she had her own distinct personality. Jyotiba and Savitribai were also opposed to idolatry and championed the cause of peasants and workers. They faced social isolation and vicious attacks from people whom they questioned. {After his demise, Savitribai took over the responsibility of Satya Shodhak Samaj, founded by Jyotiba for the purpose of spreading social awareness. She presided over meetings and guided workers.}

In order to impart professional teacher’s training to his wife, Jyotirao Phule sent Savitribai to a training school for teachers (Ms. Farar’s Institution at Ahmednagar and Ms. Mitchell’s school in Pune) from where she passed out with flying colours, along with a Muslim lady Fatima Sheikh. In times when women were treated no better than cattle, Savitribai Phule earned the distinction of being the first Indian woman to become a teacher.

Savitribai and Jyotirao had no children of their own and adopted Yashavantrao, the son of a widowed Brahmin. Yashwantrao’s background is extremely interesting and we shall see it soon. Only then can the remarkable courage and sensitivity of the Phule couple be understood. 

Educationist and Social Reformer

Savitribai worked as both an educational and a social reformer, especially for women. Her contribution in these fields is immeasurable.

 “The first Indian to place universal, child sensitive, intellectually critical, and socially reforming education at the very core of the agenda for all children in India”,
is how Wolf and Andrade describe her in their paper.

The couple then founded the first women's school at Bhide Wada, Narayan Peth, in Pune in 1848 (almost a century before India gained freedom).

Savitribai Teaching Young Girls

Initially 9 girls from different castes enrolled themselves as her students. (In those days, education was believed to be the preserve of Brahmins, and children from other castes and communities were denied the right to an education. It is stunning to discover that the Phule couple were so well-educated and used their education to teach and empower thousands of others.)

Savitribai used to go to school early in the morning. Orthodox society was not ready to accept this “misadventure’ as women’s education was frowned upon in those days and it was even more unthinkable that a woman should step out of her home and go to work!

She continued teaching girls despite all opposition from society. Whenever she went out of her house, groups of orthodox men would follow her and abuse her. She carried a change of sari with her every day as these men would throw rotten eggs, cow dung, tomatoes and stones at her. But, her husband constantly supported her and encouraged her to continue with her efforts. It can be verily said that just as there is a woman behind every successful man, there is (or ought to be) a man behind every successful woman.

Women who cite harassment as a reason to quit what they want to do can learn a lot from Savitribai,” feels Sushama Deshpande, actor, writer and director of Marathi theatre. A journalist by training, she has written and directed the play, ‘Vhay, Mee Savitri Bai’ (‘Yes… I am Savitri Bai’), based on the life and works of the educationist. Today, 24 years later too, the play inspires and enthralls audiences across the world. “Theatre journalism, as I call it, is my way of reaching out to women from all walks of life and telling them how strong they are through stories like that of Savitribai’s,” she says.

Savitribai opened another school for adults the same year. By 1851, she was running three schools with around 150 girl students. In 1852, she opened a school for untouchable girls in Naigaon (a formidable task even today for any woman in free India).

Today, government programmes like the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’, the Right to Education Act and the midday meal scheme that incentivize education, may seem like modern concepts, but even 150 years back, Savitribai had set a precedent – she gave stipends to prevent children from dropping out of school. She was the teacher who inspired a young student to ask for a library for the school at an award ceremony instead of gifts for herself. A poet and writer, Savitribai had motivated another young girl, Mukta, to write an essay that became the cornerstone of ‘Dalit literature’. {More about this can be read in the section on Savitribai’s Legacy.} She even conducted the equivalent of a parent-teacher meeting to involve the parents so they would understand the importance of education and support their children. Her schools imparted vocational training as well.

Eventually she was honoured for her contribution and educational work. In 1852, the couple was felicitated by the British government for their work in the field of education.

Helping Widows

Along with educating women, Savitribai also took on the responsibility for the health and well-being of young widows, a most exploited group in those days.

During the 19th century, arranged marriages before the age of maturity was the norm in the Hindu society of Maharashtra. Since mortality rates were high, many young girls often became widows even before attaining maturity. Due to social and cultural practices of the times, widow remarriage was out of question and therefore prospects for the young widows were poor. The 1881 Kolhapur gazetteer records that widows at that time used to shave their heads, and wear simple saris and had to lead a very austere life with little joy. Savitribai and Jyotirao were moved by the plight of these girls. They organized a strike against the barbers to persuade them to stop shaving the heads of widows.

Often, these helpless women were easy prey for sexual exploitation by male members of the extended family. Widows who became pregnant would resort to suicide or killing the newborn for fear of being ostracized by society.

Once, Jyotirao stopped a pregnant lady from committing suicide, promising her to give her child his name after it was born. Savitribai accepted the lady in her house and helped her deliver the child. Savitribai and Jyotirao later adopted this child and named him Yashavantrao.

{Just think of how rape survivors and their children are treated even today and you will get an idea of how courageous the move to shelter and support rape survivors was in those days!

Another thing that struck me here was the amount of trust between the husband and wife that Jyotiba could bring the widow home knowing his wife would welcome her and Savitribai could welcome a strange woman brought home by her husband. How many modern couples have this kind of trust in their marriage? }

Yashvantrao grew up to become a doctor. This particular incident as well as another incident in which a young widow Kashibai was sentenced to ‘Kalapani’, rigorous imprisonment in the Andamans, for killing her newborn, shook them so much that the couple took serious steps to redress the problems of widows. Savitribai and her husband established a center to take care of pregnant rape survivors and deliver their children. The care center was called "Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha" ( Infanticide prohibition house). 

A poster from 1863 read something like this: “Women who conceive out of wedlock should go to the home of Jyotirao Govindrao Phule for their confinement. Their names will be kept confidential”. Savitri ran the home and considered all the children born in the home her own.

Just reflect that this was during the mid-19th century when society was highly orthodox and widows were considered unwanted. One can imagine the plight of widows who were abused and became pregnant, because for such women, life has not improved much even today in the 21st century. How revolutionary must Savitribai have been to think beyond social conventions and reach out to the downtrodden sections of society despite severe societal pressure to give up such reforms!

Helping the Untouchables

Moved by the treatment of the untouchables, who were refused drinking water meant for the upper caste, the Phule couple opened a well in their own house in 1868 for these communities. Compare this with present-day India, where, even after almost 200 years, dalits still strive for water rights.

Tiffany Wayne has described Savitribai as "one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to world feminism in general, as she was both addressing and challenging not simply the question of gender in isolation but also issues related to caste and casteist patriarchy."

Other Reforms and Reaching Out to People

Savitribai and Jyotirao were always there for the community. In 1877, their region was hit by a severe drought. The couple launched the ‘Victoria Balashram’ and aided by friends and funds collected by going from village to village, they fed over a thousand people every day.

Stories of Savitribai’s personal generosity are legendary. No one visiting the Phule home would go empty handed. At the very least they would be assured of a meal. She would give away her saris too, if she saw anyone in torn saris. Extremely hands on, she looked after all the young widows who came to their house to have their babies. She also personally nursed husband Jyotirao to health when a stroke paralysed him.

Yashwant, her adopted son, trained as a doctor and eventually joined his mother in all the good work she did. Setting an example for others, she conducted her son’s wedding under the ‘Satya shodhak samaj’, or the truth-seekers society, with no priests, no dowry and at very little expense. She even brought her son’s fiancĂ©e for a home stay before the wedding, so she could get familiar with her soon-to-be home and family. Moreover, she took on the household chores so the young woman had time to study.

It can be well and truly said that Savitribai realised the true meaning of women’s liberation long before it became fashionable. She started ‘Mahila Seva Mandal’ in 1852, which worked for raising women’s consciousness about their human rights, dignity of life and other social issues.

Savitribai broke yet another taboo when she led the funeral procession of her husband. Even today, the Hindu last rites are considered to be the sacred privilege of men alone. When Jyotiba passed away in 1890, warring relatives tried to wrest the rights of performing the last rites away from Yashvantrao, faulting his parentage. Savitribai took the ‘titve’, or the funeral mud-pot, herself and led the procession.

A Legend Passes Away

Savitribai Phule and Yashvantrao opened a clinic to treat those affected by bubonic plague in the area around Pune in 1897. The clinic was established at Sasane Mala, Hadapsar, near Pune, but out of the city in an area free of infection. Savitribai personally took patients to the clinic where her son treated them. She is said to have personally fed hundreds of children during the epidemic. While caring for the patients, she contracted the disease herself. She died from it on 10 March 1897.

Every Indian woman who is educated today owes Savitribai a debt of gratitude,” sums up Sushama Deshpande, whose play has now been adapted by many and is performed extensively to packed houses. She adds,

“Not a single performance goes by without a few women coming backstage to tell me how watching the play has helped them find solutions to their personal problems. She epitomises the aspirations of women even 150 years after she burst on the scene.”

Savitribai’s Legacy

  •           Savitribai could express herself in the most radical and eloquent terms. She was the first Dalit woman, in fact, the first Indian woman whose poems* were noticed in the British empire. Two books of her poems were published, Kavya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar. Her poems and writings, which stressed the necessity of English and education, are still an inspiration to others.
  •           The Government of Maharashtra has instituted an award in her name to recognize women social reformers.
  •           In 2015, the University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University in her honour.
  •           On 10 March 1998, a stamp was released by India Post in honour of Savitribai Phule.

*Here is a famous poem by Savitribai.

Go, Get Education
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work—gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animals without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You´ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.

Savitribai's greatest literary contribution is her collection of poems titled Kabya Phule (Poetry's Blossoms) which she published in 1854. This pioneering work has value as a historical document recording those times, as it covers subjects as varied as education, nature and, most importantly, the caste system, where the poet exhorts the subjugated to throw off the shackles of the caste system. Savitribai followed this up with another anthology in 1893. Titled Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Gems), this collection is a biography of Phule that reiterates his critique of the brahmanical constructs of the times, and the decadence and exploitative nature of the Peshwas. Again, this is in complete contrast to the way the Peshwas are glorified in most history books.

The Phules had the amazing ability to convert their revolutionary thoughts into words. Savitribai's essay on debt, 'Karz', deserves special mention here, as, in it, she condemns the practice of incurring loans to celebrate festivals, thereby placing the borrower in a debt trap.

Savitribai's remarkable influence through her teaching and writings is evident in an essay by her 11-year-old student Muktabai, which was published in the paper Dyanodaya, in 1855. The essay is called 'Mang Maharachya Dukhvisayi' {Grief of the Mangs and Mahars, two dalit groups that were exploited in the Maharashtra of those times}. The essay is deemed to be among the earliest surviving documentations by a woman writer of the atrocities committed against untouchables, and is gripping even in English translation. Its questioning of the discriminatory practices of the Hindu religion reflects anger, frustration, bewilderment and incisive thoughts. The essay reveals the 'potential explosiveness' of education that the Phules were so keen to create.

The school Savitribai had set up is now a part of Pune’s ‘heritage’ walk, a reminder that her legacy needs to be carried forward for the generations that follow.


Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were among the first in modern India to present a major anti-caste ideology and evolve a brand of socio-cultural activism based on uniting the oppressed including women and dalits. It should be a matter of great interest to feminists and historians that even in the 19th century, here was a couple from a backward class background who understood that it was as important to address the subjugation of women as the oppression of dalits.

While Jyotiba got belated recognition as the father of India's social revolution, Savitribai, who struggled and supported her husband through all the trying times, was condemned to obscurity on account of caste and gender discrimination. Even academics identify her only as Jyotirao Phule’s wife. Though there have been a few Marathi authors who wrote and highlighted her achievements, her life and work has largely been restricted to a Marathi audience, whereas it deserves wider dissemination.

Women of the Indian society are not aware of the contribution of Savitribai Phule, who dared to pursue the noble profession of teaching in the ‘Dark Age’. The time when women were mere objects-to-be-used, education for women was considered no less than a punishable crime; she dared to speak against the unpardonable boundaries imposed on women in Indian society. She ignited millions of lives, for which today’s women and everyone should be grateful to her.

Please feel free to share your views about this article and the reasons you feel women achievers / reformers / leaders are often relegated to the footnotes of history.

Article Category: Miscellaneous

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