If you live in India, you must recognize this couple at a glance (and if you don’t, you should take a brick and split it on your head! You deserve it).
The man is the first Mahatma the modern India has produced.1 He was the pioneer of education for the untouchables and the shudras, the lowest classes in the social hierarchy. Mahatma Jotirao Phule started the first school for girls, shudras, and the untouchables in 1848. He was severely ridiculed by the society and was made to leave his house with his wife for the crime he had performed. Yes, giving education to this section was a grave crime according to the orthodox religion.
Jotirao had to suffer a lot many difficulties for the mission he had undertaken. The very first one of it was he did not have any female teacher to teach the girls. There was no question of a female teacher as the girls were not allowed to have education till then. Jotirao took a bold step and educated his wife Savitribai at home who would be the first female teacher of India. Savitribai had to suffer a lot of miseries during this course too. She was ridiculed by the orthodox people, mostly the priest Brahman class, on her way to school. They even did not hesitate to throw mud or cow-dung on her. That great lady took all that humiliation as a part and parcel her mission and would go to school with two sets of clothes—one to wear on roads while going to school and then another to wear at school.
As the social revolutionaries all over the world inevitably had to take a tough stand against most orthodox of the people, the priest class, Mahatma Phule also had to have a lifelong struggle with the top of layer Hindu class pyramid, the Brahmans, who had kept education as their monopoly and disallowed education for all others with strict rules until the British rule started.
Despite the hatred this couple had to suffer, they also worked to abolish a lot many evil customs from the priest class too, and they believed in activism rather than mere words. Being the most orthodox, the Brahmans had a lot many evils in their own society. Remarriage of the widows was not allowed. Child marriage was a social custom. Many a girls would become widows even before they become women. The life of a widow was a misery. Her head was shaved. She was not allowed to enjoy the delicacies of life. Mahatma Phule conducted a strike of barbers against the custom of shaving the heads of the widows. He argued for the cause of remarrying of widows. And the most of all, he started a maternity home, where Savitribai used to give residence of the poor young widows who were made pregnant by their own people. And as a couple who to do act more than talk, they adopted one such child, grew up as their own child, and made him as their legal heir.
Savitribai Phule stood with her husband all over his life. She on her own accord was a great social revolutionary too. She continued his work even after his death in 1891.
Savitribai died in 1987 while working for the plague patients during an endemic. The city was under a grip of endemic. There was no cure. The people who had got this disease were left to die. People were abandoning their own people for the fear of contracting the disease themselves. In such chaos, Savitribai worked for the patients caring for them and feeding the little kids who were abandoned by their blood and flesh. That great lady didn’t care for her own life for the poor patients and contracted the disease from them and died of plague on March 10, 1879.
Tomorrow, January 3, is the 180th birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule. India is paying homage to one of the greatest couples produced by her.
1. Mahatma Phule was publicly conferred the title of Mahatma, a great soul, on May 11, 1888. The another legendry figure who was conferred Mahatma by the people of India was Mahatma Gandhi.
2. The photograph above is taken at a two-day literary meet starting today at Nagpur as the celebrations of Savitribai Phule birth anniversary. Savitribai who is an author of two poetry collection is considered to be the first female poet of modern Marathi.
3. I have undertaken the project of bringing all the work of Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule on Marathi Wikisource. This task is still in its initial states. You can have a look here at Marathi Wikisource.
4. Mahatma Phule was termed as “Martin Luther King of India” by his biographer Dhananjay Keer. Phule was one of the three spiritual mentors of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Father of Indian constitution and the messiah of the untouchables, the other two being the Buddha and Kabir.
5. I do not intend to offend anyone who proudly belongs to the top layer of Hindu hierarchy, the Brahmans. What I had to tell above is a history, and I hope you would take it as a history.
6. There is an ongoing issue about renaming the University of Pune, the city where this couple primarily worked, after Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher of Modern India. This demand is still opposed by the orthodox sections of the city with the same zeal that used to humiliate that lady with mud and cow-dung. (Ref. Chitralekha, Year 23, No. 16, December 12, 2011).