Heroes And Sheroes Of Plural India: Savitribai Phule



This article is part of a series called “Heroes And Sheroes Of Plural India” under #AnHourForCommunalHramony campaign to celebrate the Heroes and Sheroes who struggled to shape modern India in all its plurality.  Today we celebrate Savitribai Phule “The First Lady of Indian Women’s Education”. All are welcome to contribute an hour of your day, in celebrating these Heroes and Sheroes of plural India

The story of the access to modernity and education for Indian women cannot be told without first mentioning Savitribai Phule, the wife of the social revolutionary Jotirao Phule, later known as Mahatma Phule.  Born in the year 1831 to Khandoji Nevse, and Lakshmi, she was married at 9 to Jotirao. Her intelligence and interest in learning caused her husband, who was just three years her senior in age, to start schooling her himself.

Ten years before the birth of  the celebrated Pandita Ramabai, (a Brahmin woman who later converted to Christianity, one of the modern era’s earliest women Sanskrit scholars, and intellectual, intrepid writer, publisher, social worker and path-breaking campaigner for women’s rights) was born, Savitribai Phule, a woman from the Shudra community had earned for herself the distinction of being the first woman teacher in the country.   During her long and illustrious career in public service, she also published two books, including a volume of poetry, headed the Satyashodak Samaj after her husband and mentor Jotirao Phule passed away, and had broken out many new paths in contravention with tradition.

The Phules lived at a time in Maharashtra where the religious, political and social structures were closely enmeshed, and under the control of the Brahmin priestly class and  corrupt and venal kings. According to Phule, the highly restrictive casteist structures of society militated against the majority working class-lower caste interests and exploited their labour, ignorance and religious fervour. The position of women of all classes was indeed very low, violent and inequitable. They were devalued as individuals and only treated as chattels, providing domestic, including economic and sexual labour in their family setting.  No public role for women could ever be imagined.

That Phule himself was educated is a miracle, since he was from a Shudra caste (Mali or gardener) and education was not easily accessible to non-Brahmins anywhere in India, and even more so in Maharashtra where the Brahmin Peshwas held power. Phule’s intelligence and eagerness to study had caused two of his neighbours, one a Muslim teacher and another a Christian, to encourage his father to put him in school where he did very well.  In the year 1840 he was married, as was the custom of the day, to Savitribai even before he turned 13.[1] The next year he was admitted to the Scottish Mission School in Poona, which was in the English medium. This exposed him to an English education and he read Thomas Paine’s famous book ‘The Rights of Man’, which had a powerful impact upon him. He was inspired by the work of the missionaries, who worked in India, by Shivaji, George Washington, and Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation in Christianity[2]. He had a friend, Sadashiv Govande, who along with Walvekar, another friend, became the core team to work on a number of innovative ideas for social change.  Jotirao had revolutionary thoughts about education, especially of women, and insisted upon Savitribai taking the time off from her household duties to become literate, and became her first teacher.

The Phule couple faced severe persecution from society as a result of this initiative – according to the tradition, justified by some of the religious texts, women were not to receive education, because then, it was believed “They would start writing letters to all.  The food her husband ate would turn to worms and he would die an untimely death”.  But Phule was undeterred.  Earlier, he had lost faith in Hinduism and considered embracing Christianity.[3]

While there is no record of his ever having converted to Christianity, he was certainly a believer in one God, and that doing good was virtue, and doing evil was sin. And freeing people from the bondage of Brahminical tryrrany and the caste system was his first and most important goal. To this end, he began to work on several fronts.  He published the first and most important and original critiques of Brahminical religion, campaigned for better access to education and employment for the non-Brahmin classes, and most important of all, propounded the need for the oppressed masses of India : the Shudra-Ati shudras – to come together to change their conditions. In so doing, he set off reverberations that still vibrate in India’s heartland, having inspired Babasaheb Ambedkar in the 20th century and several political mobilisations in the 21st Century as well.

His life work included the formation of a society called the Satya Shodak Samaj – Society of Truthseekers, after being convinced that the existing reform movements in Hinduism were insufficient to bring the kind of social change he wanted to see. He formulated a belief in one God, who was the creator and was interested in the full liberation of all his creatures.  His religious vision was propounded towards the end of his life as the “Sarvajanik Satya Dharm”.  The title he gave to the creator was Baliraja, picking up on the oral tradition and the people’s belief system in a righteous ruler who was also called Yeshwa or Yeshwant – the Successful One. And Phule’s dearest dream was to see that the women of India would be able to enjoy their full rights as human beings. And what better way to achieve this than to empower them through education?

He told his friend Sadashiv Govande, who was employed in the Department of Education, “The Lord was pleased to excite in me a desire to better to better their condition through means of education. Female schools were more necessary than male ones..” [4]

Savitribai was Jotirao Phule’s first and most important ally in the fulfillment of this vision. She stood unwaveringly by his side in this quixotic-sounding scheme. Schools for girls had already been started in India : “The earliest efforts to educate girls among modem times were made by Christian missionaries. The first girl’s school was started by the American missionaries in Bombay city in 1824 and by 1829 they had a school with 400 pupils. The same mission started two girls schools in Ahmednagar in 1831. The church missionary society’s first school was started in 1826 and in the course of next ten years it opened elementary schools for girls at Thane, Bassein and Nasik. Margaret Wilson, wife of Rev. John Wilson of the Scottish missionary society opened a girls school in Bombay city. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson started several more girl schools in Bombay city. The girls who went to these schools were usually Christians, orphans or from low castes and poor families.[5] ‘Many of the mission schools offered presents in cash. Girls were given Rs 45/- worth of presents as dowry when the girls got married after leaving school. In addition they also got the Bible and two other prayer books”[6]

But the fact was that very few girls actually went to these schools because they were run by missionaries.  There were no schools for girls in the public system nor by other Indians.  Phule decided to start schools for girls from the shudra-ati shudra community so that parents of girls could send their daughters to the institution with an easy mind. But there were no women teachers – all the women teachers were Christians or missionaries. In 1846-47, she and another lady, a Muslim, Fatima Sheik, studied in a formal school in Ahmednagar and passed in flying colours.  So he decided that his wife Savitribai would train as a teacher and run the school.

Savitribai internalised the vision and philosophy of Phule, and was an ardent supporter of his work. When Phule was the victim of a public humiliation in the marriage procession of a Brahmin friend’s marriage, he rushed home and shared the pain and shame he felt with his father, who however, accepted the mainstream practice of caste discrimination, and tried to console him saying it was ordained in the scriptures.  But surely Savitri showed, by her actions and by the effort she made to study, work and cooperate with him in all his activities, that she was truly his soul-mate.  They inspired each other to better things.

Savitribai, the teacher

A building was found in Pune to house the school, and it started in 1848, with Savitribai as its headmistress and nine students.  Sadashiv Govande sent books from Ahmednagar. It functioned for about 6 months and then had to be closed down.  Savitribai continued to study for a few months longer under Keshav Shivaram Bhavalkar, a friend of Phule’s and teacher at a Poona government Marathi school. Another building was found and the school reopened a few months later in Pet Joona Ganj. The young couple faced severe opposition from almost all sections. Savitribai was subject to intense harassment daily as she walked to school.  Stones, mud and dirt was flung at her as she passed.  She was abused by groups of men with orthodox beliefs who opposed education for women. She braved this onslaught for many weeks. Her response was “ God forgive you.  I am doing my duty.  May he bless you.” But later, fed up with the intense pressure she almost gave up. But Phule encouraged her. She went to school wearing an old sari, and carried an extra sari with her to change into after she reached the school. Finally, the pressure on her eased when she was compelled to slap one of her tormentors on the street, after which she was left alone.  Later a peon was employed to escort her to and from the school.[7]

Once the opponents of female education realized that Phule would not turn aside from his goal they stepped up their opposition. Pressure was brought by the Brahmins on Phule’s father, Govindrao, to convince him that he was on the wrong track, that what he was doing was against the scriptures.  Finally things came to a head and the young couple had to leave home in 1948, causing serious financial difficulties. Though she was a modest woman, she preferred to stay by her husband’s side, braving the opposition and countering the pressure in her own quiet way.

By now, their educational initiative had won some support.  Necessities like books and drinking water were supplied through well wishers; a bigger house, owned by a Muslim, was found in Budhwarpet for a second school which was started in 1851. Moro Vithal Walvekar and Deorao Thosar assisted the school.  Major Candy, an educationist of Poona, sent books.[8] Jotirao worked here without any salary and later Savitribai was put in charge.  The school committee, in a report, documented the situation “The state of the school funds has compelled the committee to appoint teachers on small salaries, who soon give up when they find better appointment…[S]avitribai the school mistress has nobly volunteered to devote herself to the improvement of female education without remuneration. We hope that as the knowledge advances the people of this country will ve awakened to the advantages of female education and will cordially assist in all such plans calculated to improve the conditions of those girls.” The school management committee consisted of Joitrao, Jagannath Sadashiv, a surveyor in the Executive engineers’ office,  Keshav Shivram Joshi, alias Bhavalkar, teacher in the Govt. Marathi school.

Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhedkar, the Superintendent of Government Vernacular schools, inspected the schools on October 16, 1851 and expressed satisfaction.  “It was creditable, considering the short time the school had conducted its work.  Reading the Neeti Bodh Katha, and writing in Bal Bodh characters, distinguishing parts of speech, explaining geographical terms, learning the history of the Marathas and reading maps of Asia, Eurpoe and Hindustan. Major Candy, Superintendent of Poona College, said “ I have been much pleased with the intelligence and progress of the scholars. The school mistress, wife of a gardener who had educated her in order that she may be the means of elevating her countrymen from their state of miserable ignorance, was with difficulty persuaded to examine a class in my presence, and a class of young matrons refused to see me on any terms, though my hon. predecessors Sir Erskine Perry and Mr Lumsden were later admitted.”

On 16th November 1852, the government organised a public felicitation of the couple, where they were honoured with shawls.  In his acceptance speech, Phule declared that he had acted in conformity with the dictates of this conscience and above all, the will of God.

On 12th Feb. 1853, the school was publicly examined.  The report of the event states: “The prejudice against teaching girls to read and write began to give way…[t]he good conduct and honesty of the peons in conveying the girls to and from school and really parental treatment and indulgent attention of the teachers made the girls love the schools and literally run to them with alacrity and joy.”

That she had a remarkable influence on her students can be gauged from the fact that a 14-year old student of hers from the Mang community, Muktabai, wrote a brief essay which was published in the paper Dnanodaya, in the year 1855 in which Muktabai sharply incisively criticizes not just the Brahmins but also the discriminations faced by the Mangs from the Mahars, another untouchable community who also looked down upon the Mangs. She also analyses the impact of the cruelty of Baji rao, one of the rulers of the state, and challenges the Brahmins to consider the condition of the Mang women who are forced to give birth without even a roof over their heads. She points out that Mang and Mahar children mutely bear serious injuries inflicted on them by Brahmin children because they have to go to the Brahmin houses to beg for morsels of food. “O learned pandits, wind up the selfish prattle of your hollow wisdom and listen to what I have to say”, she declares.[9] Surely a worthy student of a worthy teacher!

Financial compulsions caused Jotirao to gradually withdraw from the school and compelled him, in 1954, to take the post of a teacher in a Scottish Mission school for girls, located in the compound of the mission in Poona. Jotirao also started a tailoring shop run by an assistant. Savitri continued to teach till 1856, along with Fatima Sheik, when she fell seriously ill and went to her parental home in Naigaon, Satara District, where her elder brother Bhau, nursed her back to health.   Savitri did her bit by spending part of her time in making thick quilts, assisted by some women, for sale.

Savitribai the writer and thinker

The year 1854 was also very important, because a book of poems by Savitribai, called “Kavya Phule” was published.  The book contains poems written in her own handwriting, in the Modi script, which were published as ‘Kavyaphule’ (Poetry’s Blossoms) in her own handwriting in 1854. Her poetry is a historical document of the social ethos of the 19th century. She consciously chose the traditional forms like ‘abhang’ often a called folk form. Her language is simple, and her descriptions of nature differ from the traditional concept of natural beauty. Her poems on nature like ‘Jaichi Kali’ ‘Jaichi Phule, Gulabachi Phule’ reveal a fresh and original view of nature. So many people regarded her as the pioneer of modem Marathi poetry. ” [10]

“Many of the poems are basically nature poems; others speak in the main of the wealth that comes with education, give advice to children, and decry the caste system. Another book, Bavankashi Subodh Ratnakar (Ocean of Pure Gems) was published in 1892. It was “a more ambitious book, a biography, in verse, of Jotiba Phule.  Jotiba had developed a critique of the Brahmin interpretation of Marathi history in the ancient and medieval periods.  He presented the Peshwa rulers, who were overthrown by the British, as decadent and oppressive, and Savitribai reiterates those themes in her biography.  In addition to these two books, Savitribai edited for publication four of Jotiba’s speeches on Indian History.  A few of her own speeches were published in 1892.  …[S]avitribai’s correspondence is so unique ….. [b]ecause of the insights it provides into her life and into women’s experiences in one of the most important social movements of the times. [11]

Savitri’s letter to Jotiba Phule

                                                                                                                   10 October 1856

To My Lord Jotiba, Who is the image of Truth,

Many humber greetings from Savithri.

After a great many vicissitudes, my health has ultimately been perfectly restored.  Bhau nursed me indefatigably throughout the illness.  That shows how loving he really is! I’ll come to Pune as soon as I have completely recovered.  Please don’t be worried about me.  This must be causing a lot of trouble to Fatima.  But I am sure she will understand and won’t grumble.

While we were talking one day, Bhau said, “You and your husband have rightly been excommunicated.  You held the lowly castes like the mangs and mahars and that undoubtedly is committing sin.  You have dragged our family name in the mud. Therefore, I want to tell you that you must behave according to the customs of our caste and follow the dictates of the Brahmins.” Mother became livid when she heard these wild and irresponsible remarks.  Bhau is otherwise kindhearted, but he is extremely narrow-minded and he did not hesitate to criticize us and blame us squarely. Mother was distressed.  She did not scold him but tried to reason with him.  She said, “God has given you the ability to speak sweetly. It doesn’t become you to misuse it so.” When he heard her, Bhau was so ashamed that he didn’t say a word.  To refute his argument, I said, “Bhau, your point of view is extremely narrow and moreover, your reason has been weakened by the teachings of the brahmins. You fondle even animals like the cow and the goat.  You catch poisonous snakes on the day of Nagpanchami and feed them with milk.  But you consider mangs and mahars, who are as human as you, untouchables. Can you give me any reason for this? When the Brahmins are in their ‘holy’ clothes, they consider you also to be untouchables and they are afraid that your touch will defile them.  They treat you just like a mahar then.” When he heard this, he turned red in the face and asked me, “Why do you teach those mangs and mahars? I can’t bear it when people criticize you and curse you and create trouble for you for doing that.” I told him what the English had been doing for the mangs and mahars and said, “The lack of learning is nothing but gross bestiality.  It was the possession of knowledge that gave the Brahmins their superior status.  Learning has great value.  One who masters it loses his lowly status and achieves the higher one. My master is a godlike man. No one can ever equal him in this world.  My swami, Jotiba, confronts the dastardly brahmins, fights with them and teaches the mangs and mahars because he believes that they are human beings and must be able to live as such.  So they must learn.  That is why I also teach them.  What is so improper about it? Yes, we both teach the girls, the women, the mangs and the mahars.  The Brahmins believe that this will create problems for them and therefore they chant the mantra “Abrahmanyam” (Unholy!) and go on reviling us and poisoning the minds of people like you.

“You surely remember that the English government had organised a ceremony to felicitate my husband in honour of his grat work and had put these vile people to shame.  Let me assure you that my husband does not merely chant God’s name and do pilgrimages like you.  He is doing God’s own work. And I help him in that.  It’s such a pleasant task that I feel immeasurable happy.  Besides, it also demonstrates the horizons to which a human being can reach out.  Mother and Bhau were listening to me intently. Bhau repented what he had said and begged me to forgive him. Mother said, “Savitri, the Goddess Saraswathi herself must be speaking through your mouth. I feel so intensely satisfied to hear your wisdom.” I was overwhelmed to hear both of them say so.  From this you may realise that there are several idiots here, as in Pune, who try to poison people against you.  But why should we give up the work we have undertaken from fear of such people? It would be better to be involved with the work instead!  And then success will be ours in future.

What more could I add to this?

With most humble regards,



      Translated by Maya Pandit.


Savitribai said “ Work hard, study well, and do good. It sets good example and also gives you delight and satisfaction, and brings happiness. Effort has two parts: thought and physical work. It brings wealth, knowledge, and prosperity. Generosity, Faith, Kindness, helpfulness creates social awareness, good fortune and happiness. The most useful Dharma is Vidyadaan – the sharing of education: she always said that those who receive education and those who imparted it, both become good human beings, and lose all their bad habits.  “For two thousand years Indians lived like beasts because of lack of knowledge. British government started schools for educating people but they were very few. At that rate it will take 150 years.” She requested the British government to accelerate the imparting of education and should not leave India until everyone receives an education.

Savitribai felt that women must receive an education as they were in no way inferior to men; they were not the slaves of men. She said “First give women an education and then find out if they can acquire as much fame as men. Men will also benefit from an educated wife – she will help her husband, he will be able to talk to her and share his joys and sorrows. She will make a woman a better wife, a better daughter-in-law and her wisdom will contribute to family peace and happiness. Women’s education should aim at making a woman an ideal wife, ideal house-wife, an ideal mother and an ideal citizen.”  It is ironical that even 180 years after Savitribai expressed her concern the literacy rate of the Dalits and MBCs, especially of the women, continues to lag miserably benhind the already unacceptable level of literacy.

In her essay Karz, (Debt) she condemned the idea of celebrating festivals by borrowing money and thus being burdened by heavy debts. She realised that the poorer classes find themselves helpless and unable to change the realities of their lives, either accepted blind faith or got trapped in different ways. She also wrote on addiction, explaining how  it ruined the lives of men and their families – both themes still relevant to lives of women from the subaltern classes even in the 21st century.

Savitribai the Wife

Surely the Phule couple shared a very close and loving bond, as Savitri’s letter shows her immense love, respect, loyalty, and commitment to their common life work. But their marriage did not produce a child.  Phule did come under pressure to marry again so that he may have offspring, but his response, worth being quoted verbatim, shows the commitment and respect he bore for his life-partner, as well as his high view of the marriage relationship: “If a pair has no child, it would be unkind to charge a woman with barrenness.  It might be the husband also was unproductive due to his defects.  In that case if the woman went in for a second husband how could her husband take it? Would he not feel insulted and humiliated? It is a cruel practice for a man to marry a second time because he had no issues from his wife.” He lived up to this philosophy.[12]

But perhaps as a result of their childless state, the couple showed a sensitivity that was totally lacking in the society of the time, to the way women and children were treated. In 1863, the couple started an orphanage to take in orphaned children.  All the maternal instincts came to the fore.  “ Savitribai looked unflaggingly after the children in the orphanage, as if she were their mother.  She had not child but with her kind and generous disposition she tenderly and lovingly cherished the infants.  She invited all the neighbouring children to dinner often. She was happiest and smiled her sweetest when she was left among children” notes Keer in his biography of Phule.

Savitri the Social revolutionary

Jotiba and Savitri gained notoriety among the powerblocs in Maharashtra, but the subaltern community took them to their hearts. She is known to have taken the lead in organising the boycott by the barbers against shaving the heads of widows in 1860.   But their lives caused heartburn among the vested interests whose interests their work challenged – the religious and political elites of the day.  Dhananjay Keer documents the incident of the assassination attempt made on Phule.  One night, two intruders – a Mang and a Kumbhar (potter), carrying swords, crept into the bedroom of the couple as they slept. Phule, a well-built and strong young man, awoke and got up. Savitribai also woke up, raised the wick of the lamp that burnt dimly in the room for light, and stood silently by his side.  Phule asked them why they were there.  They told him that they were there to take his life.  He asked, “ Why? What have I done to harm you?” The men replied: “None, but we have been hired to kill you by some of your enemies.” “For what crime am I being given this sentence?” he asked.  “My wife and I have dedicated our lives for the betterment of the poor and the oppressed. If by my death you are going to have some benefit, please do so”. “They promised to pay us one thousand rupees each” was the reply.  “Then, you must certainly take my life”, he said, “because one thousand rupees is a large sum and two poor families will benefit from my death”. By this time the men realized that their quarry was no ordinary individual.  They fell at his feet and begged his pardon.  They also asked him for permission to mete out the same treatment to the ones who had hired them to kill him. He asked them to forgive them and to join him in his work, which they did, and became of his staunchest supporters. All through the encounter, Savitribai stood by Jotiba’s side, keeping her composure.

Child marriages were the norm in the society, and often very young girls and adolescents became widows due to the untimely death of their husband. The age of the widow was never taken into account and the tradition of treating a widow as a ritually impure, social outcaste, non-person who existed on the edge of society was rigidly practiced. This caused their exploitation by the males of the family and the widows were defenceless against their exploitation, but faced further disgrace if she happened to become pregnant as a result of the illicit relationships she may have been forced into.  There was a case where a widow was arrested for killing her illegitimate offspring. This caused the couple to set up a home for the welfare of unwed mothers and their offspring, in 1853, even as their educational activities continued. Characteristically, Phule advertised the service by putting up pamphlets with provocatively-worded announcements right in the Brahmin section of the town, and angering his detractors further. But as a result the lives of several children were saved, and the women were given a safe place to stay, free of the fear of being exploited.  Savitribai proved to be a caring mother to the women who found refuge in the home. She continued to teach till her illness in 1856 caused her to give up teaching.

One of the men who was hired to assassinate Phule, the Kumbhar, Dhondiram Namdeo, later went on to became a pillar of the Satya Shodak Samaj that Phule initiated as a spiritual movement in on September 24th, 1873.  Phule was convinced that the existing reform movements within Hinduism: the Brahma Samaj, the Prathana Samaj, and the Arya Samaj, continued to be the preserve of Brahminism and ritualism. While the focus of the first was Brahma, the second focused on Prayer and the Aryan identity was the focus of the third. In the case of Jotiba, the focus was on Truth.  Hence he took this initiative.  The objective of the Satya Shodak Samaj was “ to redeem the Shudras and Atishudras from the influence of the Brahminical scriptures, teach them their human rights and liberate them from mental and religious slavery.  The Samaj declared: All men are Children of God. There is no need for an intermediary or a priest to worship God. Anyone accepting this principle is qualified to be a member of the Satya Shodak Samaj.”  Many of the supporters and members of the Samaj were persecuted and lost government jobs, because Brahmins were their superiors, and the secretary of the Samaj, was given a punishment transfer to Mahabaleshwar!   Savitri headed the women’s unit of the Satya Shodak Samaj.  The Samaj took the led in breaking the priestly hold over society by organizing a marriage without any role for the Brahmin priest.  On 25th December 1873, they organised a marriage between a young widower and the daughter of a woman who was a close friend of Savitribai, who stood behind the entire proceeding like a rock.  Though there was some opposition, the wedding went ahead, and the expenses were just the cost of a betelnut! Many attended to bless the couple, who also received lots of presents!

A second wedding was also arranged a few months later.  This time the Brahmins organised an opposition well in advance, but Phule proved to be more than their equal.  Even though the Bridegroom, Sasane, almost backed out, Phule organised police protection through a friend who was a lawyer, and another prominent person, and the wedding went ahead as planned. The significance of these events are hard to imagine for us in the 21st century.  But these were the first instances probably in centuries,  that a Hindu wedding was conducted without the mediation of a Brahmin and without a Bramin priest officiating at the ceremony.  Also, it was probably the first time that the law was pressed into the defence of such a matrimonial ceremony, in effect making it one of the first civil weddings between Indians in the country. In 1874, the Bombay branch of the Samaj came into being.[13]

This was also the year the couple adopted a child, the son of a Brahmin widow, again breaking with tradition. Savitribai had rescued a young Brahmin woman who was going to commit suicide because she was pregnant. She took the woman into her home and promised to adopt the child when it was born.  Accordingly the Phules adopted the boy who was born and named him Yeshwant. He grew up as their son and received their name, and later became a doctor.  In 1889, he married the daughter of Sasane.

The Phules were actively involved in famine relief in the famines in the 1870s, and were instrumental in starting 52 boarding schools for the welfare of the children orphaned in the famines.

Savitribai took over the Satya Shodak Samaj after the death of her husband in November 1890.  Even at the funeral she made waves.  Her adopted son, Yeshwant, raised an objection to Phule’s cousin carrying out the last rites of Phule, as this duty devolved on the heir to the property.  Hence she stepped forward to light the pyre! This was perhaps one of the very rare instances in the history of India where the wife lit the funeral pyre of the husband![14]

She presided over the meeting of the Samaj in 1893 in Saswad.  In the famine of 1896, Savitribai again worked tirelessly, and successfully lobbied the government to undertake relief measured.  There was an epidemic of plague in Pune in 1897.  She engaged in relief in this tragedy as well, and was herself afflicted by plague, dying on 10th March 1897. Her son Yeshwant officiated at her funeral.

In 1997, the Government declared a one-year commemoration of her centenary year, and a postage stamp in commemoration of her birth anniversary was issued.


Savitribai is one of the most illustrious daughters of India, because she epitomized not just all that was the best in her time, but was in fact far ahead of her time as well.  While she was certainly an able and committed partner to her husband Jotiba, she was also leader, revolutionary in her own right, having developed conviction, vision, and  self-confidence. That she as a girl from a shudra community could in the space of just a few short years, become a productive, inspiring and capable teacher, leader, thinker and writer under the guidance, leadership and companionship of a visionary husband, is of epochal importance.

She was probably one of the first published women in modern India, and was able to develop her own voice and agency at a time in India when women of all classes were still treated as less than fully human, with little to hope for except to be married as children themselves, bear more children, and live a life of servitude to their husbands, and after he died, to other male relatives.

The fact that she and Jotiba exercised the still highly unusual option of adopting the son of a Brahmin widow and raising him as their own son shows their intellectual honesty and daring, at one stroke challenging several notions of purity, descent, morality, and even the Karmic myth of the necessity of offspring to ease one’s entry into heaven through ritual. In so doing, they also elevated the man-woman relationship to one of equality and mutual respect, and showed the way for the enduring value of the marital  relationship to achieve harmonious and happy homes raising well-adjusted children.

Her paradigm-shattering action  – of  choosing to light her husband’s funeral pyre – which would still be considered extremely audacious today, in the India of the 21st Century –  must have send shock waves reverberating across the length and breadth of 19th Century India! This one act, like no other, speaks of the depth of her self-confidence, independence and intellectual courage, thus conclusively proving that she was not just a conventional Indian “pativrata”, following in her husband’s footsteps.   There is rich irony in the fact that this act of hers has been kept hidden from public knowledge, whereas the efforts of upper caste elite male Brahminical Reformists who got the colonial government to pass legislation banning Sati continues to be hailed as one of the most liberative moments for Indian women.

Through this effort, we hope to correct the public record and take pride in the fact that the highest liberation for Indian women happened in and through the life of Savitribai, a shudra woman who chose to walk tall, in step with her husband, ahead of her time by centuries. The historic disadvantages of caste, class and gender availed not at all to keep her down in the 19th century. We, the subaltern women of the 21st century, must take up the gauntlet and, in our own way, Be the Change so that through our own lives we may liberate ourselves and show our nation the way as well.

[1] From Biography of Mahatma Phule by Dr.Y.D. Phadke, scholar, retrieved from www.mahatmaphule.com on 9th Feb 2008.

[2] From Phooley , by Dhananjay Keer, Bombay, 1964, P.5

[3] Keer, op. cit., p 6, quoting  a biography by Walvekar, Phule’s friend and contemporary.

[4] Keer, ibid, p 12

[5]  M.D,David. John Wilson & His Institutions, Bombay 1975 P.40 and 89

[6] Report of the Indian Education Commission 1882 p.24

[7] from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savitribai_Phule

[8] Keer, p 26-27

[9] From Women Writing in India,Vol 1, Susie Tharu and B. Lalitha (eds), 1993, OUP, Delhi, p 214

[10] Mali, ibid, p 136-7.

[11]  Tharu and B. Lalitha, ibid, p 212

[12] Keer, ibid.,p…

[13] Keer, ibid, p…

[14] Mali, op cit, p 126

Cynthia Stephen is an independent researcher. This article first appeared in the book “A Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule” edited by Braj Ranjan Mani

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