“Awake, arise and educate, smash traditions – liberate!”
Savitribai Phule writes this line in her poem, ‘Rise, to learn and act‘. She had published her assertive works Kavya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1854 and 1892, respectively. Her poetry encompasses the tribulations she overcame, for the act of Savitribai Phule writing itself was a revolution back then. Furthermore, her books weren’t some rose-tinted narrative of songs praising some unseen divine. Her poems and speeches urged the oppressed to resist their agonising reality, they induced the conviction to learn and the self-respect to resist tyranny.
In her poem, ‘Should they be called Humans?’, Savitribai Phule contended against the exploitation of women where she writes, “The woman from dawn to dusk doth labour, the man lives off her toil, the freeloader.” A cursory observation of the oppressor caste narrative would show how even the most so-called progressive men are remembered without their wives being ever mentioned.
However, the marriage that Savitribai Phule had with Jyotiba Phule was based on equality. In the letters she wrote to Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule deliberates on social issues with her husband with complete authority and insight, two best friends who together not only combated injustice but also ameliorated the correct path for all. Their statues, their slogans celebrate them both with equal respect and reverence.
Born in 1831 in Naigaon, Savitribai Phule was an illiterate nine-year-old when she and Jyotiba Phule had been married, owing to the prevalent customs. A Bahujan woman from the Mali caste, which is now categorised as an OBC, Savitribai Phule together with Jyotiba Phule initiated social reform across umpteen spheres of life.
Jyotiba Phule was sent to a school where boys received education. Jyotiba Phule and his friends started teaching Savitribai Phule at home, and later she also completed teachers’ training programs. Consequently, Jyotiba Phule, at the age of 21, and Savitribai Phule, at the age of 17, together opened the first school for girls in India in 1848. Savitribai Phule faced all kinds of harassment when she went to teach, so-called upper caste men and women would throw cow dung, mud and rotten eggs on her in the streets and consequently, she had to carry two saris. Once when a well-built oppressor caste man threatened her asking her to stop teaching Dalits, people gathered but didn’t help her. Savitribai Phule had then slapped that man.
The curriculum at the schools run by Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule included diverse teaching methods and modern forms of education. While even the most progressive of dominant caste narratives, when speaking of female education tend to tie it around educating women to be better homemakers, managing home accounts and providing childcare and nutrition — basically moulding women to serve others, Savitribai Phule educated women to be self-reliant, to excel in Science, Math and Arts and utilise their potential to fulfil their dreams. She urged the Shudras and the Atishudras to denounce exploitative superstitions that the dominant castes made them perform. In her poem, ‘Farming is Divine’, she manifests the hypocrisy of the oppressor castes by writing:
“They who toil in the fields are the outcastes, they produce the food on which feast the upper castes…”
Savitribai Phule went on to become the first female teacher and headmistress in India, the first modern poetess of Marathi, and together with Jyotiba Phule opened several schools for girls, opened their well for Dalits, taught peasants and workers, opposed child marriage and sati, fought for widow remarriage, opened an infanticide prevention centre in their house and provided famine relief. Savitribai Phule commenced a Mahila Seva Mandal, to fight for women’s rights where members from all castes had to sit on the same mat — defying the prevalent casteist norms. Savitribai Phule also saved intercaste couples from being lynched by going and taking their stand.
Savitribai Phule and Jyotiba Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj for equal rights, weddings and debates, discussions and reforms, where she also chaired the events—a revolution at that time. When Jyotiba Phule died, Savitribai Phule herself lit the pyre.
Savitribai Phule’s poetry is progressive, assertive and at the same time, questioning, and playful. In both the personal as well as the political, she broke free of the subjugated conditioning of women done by dominant caste patriarchy. Her romantic poems assert female desires, actions and fulfilment. She affirms that women have agency over their bodies.
When the bubonic plague had struck the world, the British colonisers had made it mandatory for oppressor caste doctors to treat patients belonging to all castes and communities. However, the oppressor caste doctors refused to touch and treat patients belonging to the Shudra and Dalit communities. Savitribai Phule and her adopted son Dr. Yashwant Rao had opened a clinic and treated everyone. While carrying a Mahar boy from the Dalit Mahar settlement to her hospital, Savitribai Phule caught the disease and passed away on March 10, 1897, while the patient was saved. Both Savitribai Phule and her son lost their lives to the pandemic. If so-called upper caste doctors who had resources and protective facilities would have treated Bahujan patients, Savitribai Phule would not have passed away in that incident. This is not a medical death, this is a murder of a legend at the hands of the so-called ‘upper castes’.
Savitribai Phule was not ahead of her time, Savitribai Phule was right on time. Right on time to bring in an empowered, educated and enlightened society. Except that the oppressor castes failed her, and continue to fail her. Yet, Savitribai Phule is not dead, for she can never die. She is here in every pen that every woman holds in this country, for she taught us that education is meaningful only when it does not stop at the individual. Exactly how she had written:
“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.”
Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.
Featured image credit: Siddesh Gautam/@bakeryprasad