Round Table India
You Are Reading
Dnyanajyoti Savitribai Phule – I


Prof. Hari Narke

(This is the first part of his essay ‘Dnyanajyoti Savitribai Phule’, published in the NCERT booklet on the ‘Savitribai Phule First Memorial Lecture’ in 2008)



“More than Jotirao, his wife deserves praise. No matter how much we praise her, it would not be enough. How can one describe her stature? She cooperated with her husband completely and along with him, faced all the trials and tribulations that came their way. It is difficult to find such a sacrificing woman even among the highly educated women from upper castes. The couple spent their entire lifetime working for people.”

– Narayan Mahadev alias Mama Paramanand (31st July 1890)

In the social and educational history of India, Mahatma Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule stand out as an extraordinary couple. They were engaged in a passionate struggle to build a movement for equality between men and women and for social justice. Recognising that knowledge is power and that the progress of women and Dalit-Bahujans was impossible without it, they dedicated their entire life to spreading education. The distinction of starting the first school for girls and the ‘Native Library’ in the country goes to them. They started the ‘Literacy Mission’ in India in 1854-55. In 1863, they started a ‘home for the prevention of infanticide’ in their own house, for the safety of pregnant, exploited Brahman widows and to nurture these children. By establishing the Satyashodhak Samaj (Society for Truth Seeking), they initiated the practice of the Satyashodhak marriage – a marriage without dowry or a wedding at minimum cost. By throwing open the well in his house for ‘untouchables’, Jotirao directly initiated a programme to oppose the caste system. Both Jotirao and Savitribai did not just stop at opposing child marriage; they also organised widow remarriages. They had no children of their own but they ‘adopted’ a child of a Brahman widow, gave him medical education and arranged an inter-caste marriage for him.

This couple did the historical work of building a holistic and integrated revolutionary cultural, social and educational movement of women-shudra and-atishudras of the country. “This work is the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Hindu culture”, wrote an unknown journalist while reporting on their work in ‘The Poona Observer and Deccan Weekly‘. This was the beginning of a new revolutionary age.

In the Pre-Independence era, we see that there was a debate about what should be given priority – social or political reform. Since the enemy in the form of the British was clearly visible, we gave priority to political freedom. People believed that once we got independence, our social problems would automatically be solved. But as days passed by, they were disillusioned. Social movements gained momentum out of this disillusionment. People organising movements for social justice in various sectors realised that the agenda scripted by Jotirao-Savitribai for these issues could serve as a guiding force even today. They started taking a special interest in the life, work and thoughts of Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar when they realised that their thoughts, reflections and analysis were applicable and relevant even today.

More than 200 books have been written on Jotirao and Savitribai in Marathi. Along with books in Marathi, books have also been published in Hindi, English, Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi and Gujarati. About 40 of these books have been written on Savitribai. If we are to look at non-literary, academic books among these, the Savitriabai Jotirao Phule yanche Alpacharitra written by Shantabai Raghunath Bankar in 1939 and Krantidevata Sadhvi Savitribai Phule written by Phulwantabai Zodage in 1966 are especially important. Following in their footsteps, Dr M.G. Mali wrote the biographical book Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule‘ in 1980 and Dr K. P. Deshpande wrote Agniphule in 1982, based on Savitribai’s life and literature. The books that were published following these are mostly based on the above and do not contain new information. But it is sad to note that not even, a single critical biography has ever been written on Savitribai yet.

Savitribai was born on 3rd January 1831 at Naigaon situated on the Pune-Satara Road, about 5 kms. from Shirval and about 50 kms. from Pune. She was the eldest daughter of Khandoji Neveshe Patil. In 1840, at the age of 10, she was married to Jotirao, who was born on 11 April 1827 in Pune and was thirteen years old at the time of his marriage.

Governmental records show that Jotirao educated Savitribai at home after their marriage. According to the Education Report for the period 1 May 1851 to 30 April 1852, “Jotirao educated his wife at home and trained her to become a teacher.” According to a news item that appeared in the Bombay Guardian on 22 November 1851, the responsibility of Savitribai’s further education was taken up by Jotirao’s friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar (Joshi). Savitribai had also taken teacher’s training at Ms. Farar’s Institution at Ahmednagar and in the Normal School of Ms. Mitchell in Pune. If these documents are to be given consideration, Savitribai Phule may well have been the first Indian woman teacher and headmistress. Her stepping across the threshold of the home to teach marks the beginning of the ‘public life’ of the modern Indian woman.

In the deposition given by Jotirao to the Hunter Education Commission on 19th October 1882, making a note of his educational work, he said, “There was no school for girls that could be called ‘indigenous’ at that time here. So, I was inspired to set up such a school. My wife and I worked in that school for several years. The Chairperson of the Education Board, Sir Arskin Perry and the then Secretary to the government, Lumsden visited the girls’ school and expressed satisfaction about this new movement in the field of education.”

In an interview given to Dynanodaya on 15 September 1853, Jotirao says, “It did occur to me that the improvement that comes about in a child due to the mother is very important and good. So those who are concerned with the happiness and welfare of this country should definitely pay attention to the condition of women and make every effort to impart knowledge to them if they want the country to progress. With this thought, I started the school for girls first. But my caste brethren did not like that I was educating girls and my own father threw us out of the house. Nobody was ready to give space for the school nor did we have money to build it. People were not willing to send their children to school but Lahuji Ragh Raut Mang and Ranba Mahar convinced their caste brethren about the benefits of getting educated“.

This historic work was started by Jotirao when he was just 21 years old, while his wife who supported him in every way, was merely 18 years old. The ‘shudra’ community, which had been denied education for thousands of years, started opposing Jotirao’s work and calling it ‘evil’, having been instigated by the upper castes. This couple kindled by passion for their goal did not stop their work even though they had to leave their house. Jotirao would work part-time in a Missionary school for his livelihood and dedicated the rest of the time to the school, while Savitribai would work full-time, without any remuneration, at the school. The contemporary newspapers of that time report, “often, this couple did not even have the time to eat food.” History has taken note of the contribution of his Brahman colleagues to Jotirao’s movement but the contribution of his Dalit colleagues has often been neglected. Actually, the work of those from the so-called ‘untouchable’ castes who had been denied education for thousands of years, should be considered especially revolutionary.

Jotirao and Savitribai lived in the Dalit-working class locality in Pune. The cultural environment surrounding them had an extremely important role to play in their socialisation. When Jotirao was a child, his father had stopped his education owing to complaints from an orthodox Brahman. At that time, Munshi Ghaffar Baig and Sir Lijit, having recognised the spark in Jotirao, had convinced Govindrao to continue his son’s education. Jotirao never forgot this. He first started a school for Dalit-Muslim girls in the August of 1848.

While clarifying his reasons for doing so, Jotirao says, “Ignorance, caste discrimination and discrimination based on language are the bane of this country. When everyone is sad, the question often arises of whom to help. But instead of being paralysed by this question into inaction, it is better to help those for whom the suffering is the most. The Mahars and Mangs have to suffer inevitably due to caste discrimination. They can only overcome this suffering through knowledge. So, I first started work for them.” Having convinced himself that there was no greater good for the country than educating the Mangs and the Mahars, Jotirao got to work.

Instead of working for a good cause alone, he established a mandali (institution) so that people who shared his vision could come together and work. A lot of work in the country became possible because of the institutional networks that came up in the last century. ‘Institutionalisation’ proved to be the foundation of Modern India. Jotirao-Savitribai started two institutions- Native Female School, Pune and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars and Mangs. They built a network of schools in the Pune region through these two institutions.

Some scholars feel that Jotirao-Savitribai started their educational work in 1851 but this does not seem to be true. They had started this work in 1848 itself as is proved by both the newspapers- Dnyanodaya and Bombay Guardian. After Jotirao’s death, Dnyanodaya had published an editorial obituary for him on 18 December 1890, in which it had clearly been mentioned that he started his work in 1848. The Bombay Guardian has given a detailed note about the same on 22 November 1851, “when Sadashiv Ballal Govande started working in the Judge’s office at Ahmednagar in 1848, he had taken his friend Jotirao Phule there. One day, both of them went to visit Ms. Farar’s school for girls. After seeing the arrangements there, they regretted the fact that girls were not given education in their own country. Phule returned to Pune and shared his plans of taking up this work with his friends. He started the school, having given training to his wife. Then he started a school for the Mahars and the Mangs. But within six months, misfortune befell them as his father threw them out of the house due to the influence of people’s misconceptions and the school work came to a halt. Govande came to Pune and took Savitribai with him to Nagar. She returned with the onset of the monsoons. Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar then took up the responsibility of educating her. It was also decided to start training classes for young women who could later teach in the schools. Bhavalkar made efforts to gather such women and trained them.”

Thus, the work that began in August 1848, and which was discontinued for a while , was restarted in 1851.

Among the documents at the Mumbai Archives is an application dated 5 February 1852 written by Jotirao asking for economic assistance from the government for his educational institution. The other copy of the letter is accompanied by a recommendation letter by Major Kandy, the Principal of Poona College. According to this, the first three schools for girls were started on 3 July 1851, 17 November 1851 and 15 March 1852 at the Chiplunkar Wada, Rasta Peth and Vetal Peth, respectively. It has been noted that there were four, three and one teachers and forty eight, fifty one and thirty three girls respectively in these schools. Savitribai Phule was the Headmistress in the first of these schools along with Vishnupant Moreshwar and Vitthal Bhaskar as co-teachers. There were eight girls on the first day of the first school. Soon their numbers went up to more than forty eight.

The Inspector of Schools Dadoba Pandurang inspected the school and examined the girls on 16 October 1851. Though not much time had passed since the school began, the progress that girls showed was remarkable. The first annual examination of the schools was held on 17 February 1852 while the second annual examination was held in Poona College on 12 February 1853. These reports note that unprecedented crowds had gathered in Pune to witness the process of examinations. About 3,000 people had gathered in the campus of the college and there were even more people waiting outside. Two hundred and thirty seven girls sat for their exams. The annual accounts of the institution were audited. It had collected Rs.1947/- and 50 paise through donations and the participation of the people running the institution. They would get financial aid to the tune of Rs 900/- from the Dakshina Prize Fund of the government. Jotirao-Savitribai, believed in providing accurate and timely accounts of public money in the public domain.

A published, detailed report of the examination for the schools for the ‘untouchables’, held on 2 February 1858 in the Coach Factory of Babaji Manaji, is available in the Archives. The earlier examination was held on 29 August 1856. The institution already had three schools. Though it wished to expand, the Europeans cut funding after the Mutiny of 1857, pushing the institution into a financial crisis. Rupees 300/- was given from the Dakshina Prize Committee every year and the government had sanctioned a sum of Rupees 5000/- towards the Building Fund of the school. The report rues the fact that the school was facing closure just when the ‘untouchable’ classes were warming up to the idea of being educated. A total of two hundred and fifty eight students were studying in three schools. Jotirao’s colleagues Ganu Shivaji Mang and Dhuraji Appaji Chambhar also worked in these schools as teachers. In a letter sent to the government, a functionary of the Institution has written, “Teachers cannot be paid good salaries as the economic condition of the institution is not good. So teachers prefer going to such schools which offer better wages. Teachers leaving out of turn like this leads to the school’s loss. The headmistress of the school, Savitribai has generously decided to dedicate her life to the reform of women’s education; she does this work without any remuneration. We hope that with the spread of information and knowledge, people will be able to fully appreciate the advantages of women’s education.

The Chairperson of the Education Board, Hon’ble John Warden declared in a public function, “When I came to Pune as the Commissioner for the first time in 1851, I visited the girls’ school there. After going there, I remembered how Christians would initially run schools by barring the doors on the upper floor, due to the fear of Jews. The teacher in that school was the wife of a ‘Mali’ (from the gardener caste). This man had taught his wife so that she could be useful in the upliftment of his countrymen and help them overcome their pitiable ignorance. I requested her to ask the girls some questions in my presence. Training classes were also being run there for some young married women.”

The progress of Jotirao- Savitribai’s endeavours was remarkable. There were government schools for upper caste students. One of them had written in the Poona Observer on 29 May 1852, “The number of girl students in Jotirao’s school is ten times more than the number of boys studying in the government schools. This is because the system for teaching girls is far superior to what is available for boys in government schools. If this situation continues, then the girls from Jotirao’s school will prove superior to the boys from the government schools and they feel that in the coming examinations, they can really achieve a big victory. If the Government Education Board does not do something about this soon, seeing these women outshine the men will make us hang our heads in shame.”

The British government, realising the importance of Jotirao’s historic work, felicitated him publicly in a huge public function at Vishrambaug Wada on 16 November 1852. The orthodox, however, expressed displeasure that a Shudra like Jotirao should be felicitated by giving him a mahavastra‘ (ceremonial shawl).

Jotirao and Savitribai focused on providing girls and boys with education that was vocational and trade- oriented in nature, to make their students self-reliant and capable of independent thought. In the 1852 report, they expressed the following opinion, “An Industrial department should be attached to the schools where children could learn useful trades and crafts and be able, after leaving school, to manage their lives comfortably and independently.” They created such a system.

The issue of drop-outs was even graver in those times. They found viable and practical solutions for this. They found that the reasons for the drop-out were, for most part, poverty and disinterest in education. They made provisions to give ‘salary’ to the students and planned a syllabus which was geared to the interests of girls and boys, who came from the poorer sections of society. They took up an awareness mission among the Dalit-Bahujans to introduce them to the ‘advantages’ and ‘happiness’ to be accrued from education. They started literacy for parents and through this, built a holistic educational project. The ways in which Jotirao overcame reasons for drop-outs like Jatra-Khetra‘ (fairs and pilgrimages), caste panchayats, superstitions and poverty will prove to be a guiding force even today. The Maharashtra government has recently started a scheme of giving ‘attendance allowance’ to stop the drop-out of tribal girls and boys from school.

Jotirao and Savitribai always insisted that “education should give one the ability to choose between right and wrong and between truth and untruth in life.” They were making special efforts to create spaces where the creativity of boys and girls could blossom. The success they achieved on this front was also remarkable. When a small girl from their school went up on stage to receive her prize, she spontaneously told the Chief Guest, “Sir, I don’t want toys or goodies as prize; we want a library for our school.” Her parents ‘complained’ that this girl would be engrossed in studies everyday till midnight. The government inspectors commended the clean and healthy atmosphere of the school, the promotion of good taste and creativity and the focus on character-building.

A Matang student of Savitribai called Mukta had written an autobiographical essay, in 1855 when she was merely 14 years old. This essay is so important; it can be considered a superior milestone in the history of Marathi literature. It could well mark the beginning of modern Dalit literature. She writes, “These ‘ladukhau‘ (sweetmeats gobbling) Brahmans say that the Vedas are their monopoly. The non-Brahmans are not allowed the right to study the Vedas. Does this not prove that we are without religion since we have no opportunity to even look at the religious texts? Oh God, please let us know soon which religion coming from you we should follow so that we can make arrangements thereof.” The Editor of Dnyanodaya heard the essay from this girl and was thoroughly surprised and impressed by its radical content. He published it in two parts, on 15 February and 1 March 1855 in his newspaper, published from Ahmednagar. This essay has been published by the government in the Education Report of the Mumbai Presidency for that year and has also been published by N.V. Joshi in his book ‘Pune Shaharache Varnana‘ (The Description of Pune City) published in 1868.

In spite of bitter opposition from society and in the face of abuses, Savitribai continued her work peacefully. Men wanting to play truant would purposely wait in the streets as she went to and from school and pass lewd remarks. They sometimes pelted stones at her and threw cow dung or mud. Savitribai would have to carry two saris when she went to school, changing out of the soiled sari once she reached school, which would again be soiled on her way back, and yet, Savitribai continued her work with determination and without interruption. Since this abuse continued, the institution appointed a guard for her and the girls’ safety. According to the memoirs written by Balwant Sakharam Kolhe, Savitribai would say to those who troubled her, “As I do the sacred task of teaching my fellow sisters, the stones or cow dung that you throw seem like flowers to me. May God bless you!” These memories of Balwant Sakharam Kolhe shed light on Savitribai’s immense courage.

Accurate information about the ‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’ started by Savitribai-Jotirao in 1863 has become available only recently. What is significant is that this home had been started only for ‘Brahman widows’ and Savitribai had taken the initiative for it. All the information regarding this has been recorded in a letter written by Jotirao Phule on 4 December 1884 to the Under Secretary, Government of Mumbai.

A young Brahman widow named Kashibai used to work as a cook at the home of Jotirao’s Brahman friend, Govande. Kashibai was a poor, young, beautiful, honourable Brahman widow from a good family. A scheming Shastri from the neighbourhood took advantage of this illiterate widow and as a result, she became pregnant. When all efforts at abortion failed, she gave birth to a beautiful baby. Since the shastri refused to take up any responsibility, Kashibai was in a quandary. Fearing that society will not let her live, she killed the innocent baby by slitting its throat. She threw the body in the well in Govande’s compound, where it was later discovered. The Police filed a case against Kashibai and she was sentenced for life imprisonment in the Andamans. The incident took place in 1863. It was the first time a woman had been sentenced to such severe punishment.

Savitribai and Jotirao were very upset and saddened by this trial and the turn of events. During that time, their own income was very limited. They were having trouble surviving but their heart was full of compassion and generosity. They immediately started a shelter home for such Brahman widows in their own house at 395, Ganj Peth, Pune. Others merely kept discussing this trial, which resonated throughout the country but Jotirao and Savitribai actually started work for these exploited widows. This brings out the difference between them and others of their times. They put up advertisements all over the city and at places of pilgrimage announcing it as a “way to avoid kalepani (life imprisonment in the Andamans)” and thus, the information about the shelter home spread . By 1884, 35 Brahman widows had come to them from different places. Savitribai would herself help in the delivery of their children and take care of them.

In 1874, another exploited ‘Kashibai’ came to them and they adopted her son. They brought up this child and educated him to become a doctor. Later, he grew up to continue the work started by them. On 10 July 1887, Jotirao made his will and got it registered at the office of the Upanibandhak (Deputy Registrar). In that, he notes with pride that Savitribai would take care of all these women as if they were her own daughters.

Savitribai was the inspiration behind the movement started by Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, the editor of Deenbandhu and the leader of the working classes, to put an end to the tonsure of Brahman widows by organising barbers and bringing about their strike. The report of this historic strike by barbers was published by The Times on 9 April 1890. Women from England even sent a congratulatory letter to them for the effort.

Please read the next part of this article here.



[Courtesy: NCERT Memorial Lecture Series (pdf)]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.