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Dnyanajyoti Savitribai Phule – II
Dalitbahujan Renaissance

Dnyanajyoti Savitribai Phule – II



Prof. Hari Narke

Continued from here.

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


In 1877, Maharashtra was facing a severe drought. It was not possible for Savitribai and Jotirao, who were always keen to help in the face of adversity, to stay inactive, and more so, during such times the couple collected funds, going from village to village. They started the ‘Victoria Balashram’ in Dhankawadi with the aid of friends like Dr Shivappa where one thousand poor and needy were given meals everyday. Savitribai, with the help of her friends, would cook all this food herself. At the same time, ‘epoch-making thinkers’ of Maharashtra like Vishnushastri Chiplunkar were engrossed in writing essays on the deteriorating condition of the grammar of Marathi language.

Jotirao and Savitribai were running a hostel in their own house, where students from far off places would stay for the purposes of education. A student from Mumbai, Laxman Karadi Jaaya had lived in this hostel and experienced Savitribai’s motherly care and concern. In his memoirs, he has written, “I have not seen another woman as kind and loving as Savitribai. She gave us more love than even a mother could.”

Another student has written a touching note in his memoirs about Savitribai’s nature, her extremely simple lifestyle and the immense love between her and Jotirao. This boy, Mahadu Sahadu Waghole writes, “Savitribai was very generous, and her heart was full of kindness. She would be very compassionate to the poor and the needy. She would constantly give the gift of food; she would offer everyone meals. If she saw tattered clothes on the body of poor women, she would give them saris from her own house. Due to this, their expenses rose. Tatya (Jotirao) would sometimes say to her, “One should not spend so much.” To this, she would smile and ask “What do we have to take with us when we die?” Tatya would sit quietly for some time after this as he had no response to the question. They loved each other immensely.

Savitribai was very passionate about the upliftment and progress of women. She was good looking and of medium build. Her demeanour was always calm and composed. She was so even-tempered that it seemed as if she did not know anger. She had an elusive, almost enigmatic smile. Everyone would call her ‘kaku‘ (paternal aunt) . She would be extremely happy when guests would come home, and she would herself cook goodies for them. Jotirao respected Savitribai a lot as is apparent from the respectful adjectives he would use in addressing her. Savitribai would call Tatya ‘Shetaji‘. There was true love between them. Jotirao would never do anything that Savitribai didn’t approve of.

Savitribai was far-sighted and could think clearly. There was a lot of respect for her among social acquaintances and kith and kin. Since she had worked as a teacher in a girls’ school, there was a lot of respect for her among the newly educated women as well. She would always counsel the women and girls who came to her. Many well-known educated women from Pune including Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi and Ramabai Ranade would come to meet her.

Savitribai was always dressed very simply, like Tatya. She would wear no ornaments, except for a mangalsutra and a ‘poat‘ (string of black thread/beads) around her neck and a huge ‘kunku’ (vermillion mark) on her forehead. She would finish household cleaning and have a bath before sunrise everyday. Her house would always be clean; she could not stand even a speck of dust or dirt in the living room. The utensils in her house were always sparkling clean and arranged properly. She would cook herself and take great care of Tatya’s diet and health.”

This is a description given by a person who has himself lived in their company. This vision of Savitribai that comes across from authentic documents is more impressive than any imaginary description. This is proof of how a revolutionary woman lived her everyday domestic life.

The Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truth-Seeker’s Society) was established on 24 September 1873, and Savitribai was an extremely dedicated and passionate activist of the Samaj. The Samaj undertook the programme of arranging marriages without a priest, without dowry and at minimum costs. The first such marriage was arranged on 25 December 1873. Later, this movement spread across the newly emerging nation. The first report of the Samaj proudly notes that Savitribai was the inspiration behind this revolutionary initiative of a constructive revolt to reject centuries old religious traditions. The marriage of Radha, daughter of Savitribai’s friend Bajubai Gyanoba Nimbankar and activist Sitram Jabaji Aalhat was the first ‘Satyashodhak’ marriage. Savitribai herself bore all the expenses on this historic occasion.

This method of marriage, similar to a registered marriage, is still prevalent in many parts of India. These marriages were opposed by priests and ‘bhatjis‘ (Brahmans) all over the country, and they also went to court on this matter. Savitribai and Jotirao had to face severe difficulties but that did not deter them from their path. On 4 February 1889, at the age of 16, they also got their adopted son married in this manner. This was the first inter-caste marriage in modern India.

The Satyashodhak marriage required the bridegroom to take an oath of giving education and equal rights to women. The ‘mangalashtake‘ (the Mantras chanted at the time of the wedding) were to be sung by the bride and the bridegroom themselves, and these were in the form of pledges made by the bride and the groom to each other. Yeshwant was married to Radha alias Laxmi, daughter of Satyashodhak Samaj leader Gyanoba Krishnaji Sasane in this manner. To ensure that they got better acquainted with each other and with each other’s likes and dislikes, Savitribai had made Radha stay in the Phule household even before the marriage took place. She also made provisions for Radha’s education.

The description of how Savitribai would behave with Radha during this time is found in a letter written by Jotirao on 24 September 1888. In a letter to the Sasane family, he writes, “My wife has taken up all responsibility of household chores and ensured that Laxmi has leisure, so that her studies can progress smoothly.” Savitribai was obviously not a devious, oppressive mother-in-law. Rather, she was a mother-in-law who took up the entire household responsibility and encouraged the daughter in-law’s education.

In July 1887, Jotirao suffered from a heart attack which paralysed his right side completely. Savitribai nursed him night and day through this illness. He recovered and even started writing again. This was a time when they were facing a financial crisis. The business of the ‘Poona Construction and Contracting Company’ had hit a low, sources of income were drying up and the expenses were tremendous. The couple was at their wit’s end, with the expenses over the illness, the maintenance of the hostel, home for prevention of infanticide, Satyashodhak Samaj and the education of the children. There came a time when they had no money to pay even for treatment and Dr Vishram Ramji Ghole provided treatment for free.

Jotirao’s well-wisher and the great thinker and ‘political sage’ Mama Paramanand wrote letters to the King of Baroda- Sayajirao Gaekwad asking for financial help for Jotirao and Savitribai. In a letter dated 31 July 1890, written to recommend that financial help be given to Jotirao and Savitribai, he has recorded the historic work that the couple was engaged in. This evaluation by a contemporary thinker is especially significant. “In very adverse situations, Jotirao educated his wife and through her, educated the Brahman girls, and that too, in the very fort of the orthodox and much against their will. The task of starting schools for people from the Mahar-Mang classes and running them is akin to taking a dig at a lion. 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 has spent their entire life working for people,” he stressed.

Following this, Mama wrote another letter on 9 August 1890 requesting that financial help be given urgently. “Jotiba has spent many years of his life in selfless service of the masses and today, he is leading a life of helplessness and really requires immediate help”, he urged.

The King of Baroda had respect for the work that Jotirao was doing, but it is possible that the upper caste bureaucrats never let these letters reach him. Meanwhile, on 28 November 1890, Jotirao passed away due to this illness. In December 1890, Mama wrote a third letter, in which he wrote, “That great soul never gave any importance to his happiness and sorrow. He was only worried about the welfare of his wife and his adopted son, Yeshwant. At least now, financial assistance should be given to the family members of Jotirao.” The stubborn Mama persevered and followed-up this matter continuously for one and half years. He wrote another application in Yeshwant’s name. Savitribai and Yeshwant were managing to survive on the basis of the minimal assistance that had been given to them by Mama and another friend of Jotirao, Ramchadrarao Dhamanaskar.

At last, on 10 February 1892, Maharaja Sayajirao gave a cheque of Rs. 1,000 to Dhamanaskar for Savitribai. This amount was invested in the S. Narayan Company of Tukaramtatya Padwal and the interest amounting to Rs.50 per quarter was sent to Savitribai. On 2 March 1892, Dhamanaskar sent a letter to Mama which said, “The Maharaja feels that a huge memorial should be erected in the memory of Jotirao. The Maharaja will contribute substantially in monetary terms for it.” He also wrote that the Maharaja had made solicitous inquiries about Savitribai. This memorial, however, never became a reality.

Savitribai was with Jotirao when he died. In his will, he had expressed his wish to be buried with salt covering his body, instead of being burnt on the pyre. He had also got a pit dug in the land behind his house for it. But since the Municipality officers did not give permission for burial on residential land, and since there was no other option, his body was consigned to flames. Whoever holds the Titve (earthen pot) during the last journey is considered the successor of the deceased and gets all the property of the deceased. Knowing this, Jotirao’s nephew came forward and started contesting Yeshwant’s rights to hold the titveAt this time, Savitribai courageously came forward and held the ‘titve‘ herself. She led the last journey of Jotirao, walking ahead of the procession and was the one who consigned his body to the flames. In the history of India, in a thousand years, this was probably the first time a woman had performed the death rites. On 30 November, his ashes were brought home and were ceremoniously buried in the place that Jotirao had prepared for his burial. Savitribai erected a ‘Tulsi vrindavan‘ on that spot. It can be seen even today. Simple stone ‘padukas‘ (marks of the feet of great persons) have been erected at its base. This is how Savitribai erected a memorial in the area behind their house for preserving Jotirao’s memories unto eternity.

Savitribai led the Satyashodhak movement after Jotirao’s demise, working till the very end. Yeshwant took up a job in the army after completing his medical education. During the course of his work, he had to travel to many foreign countries. While he was on one such foreign trip, on 6 March 1895, his wife Radha alias Laxmi passed away. Savitribai was left alone at home.

Savitribai Phule was the Chairperson of the Satyashodhak Conference held in 1893 at Saswad. She did a lot of work during the drought of 1896. The year 1897 dawned along with the menace of plague. Everyday, hundreds of people were dying of the scourge in the Pune region. The government took up the task of controlling the epidemic under the leadership of an officer called Rand. Savitribai asked Yeshwant to take leave and come back and made him set up a hospital on the fields of the Sasane family. She would herself pick up sick people and bring them to the hospital and treat them. Even though she knew that the disease was contagious, she continued to serve and take care of the patients.

As soon as she came to know that the son of Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad in the Mahar settlement outside the village of Mundhwa was afflicted with plague, she went there and rushed back to the hospital with the sick child on her back. She herself caught the disease in this process, and at 9 pm on 10 March 1897, she passed away. ‘Deenbandhu‘ reported the news of her death with great grief and regret. Those who praise the ‘heroic’ act of Laxmibai, of fighting the enemy with her son strapped onto her back, however, have completely ignored the heroism of this woman who saved a sick child, carrying him on her back.

From 1848 to 1897, for 50 years at a stretch, Savitribai worked tirelessly for people. She set an extraordinary example of service and compassion.

After her death, the lonely Dr Yeshwant was very disturbed. In 1903, he married Chandrabhagabai and she gave birth to a girl child who was named Soni alias Laxmi. He worked in Hong Kong, Africa and China for the army. He passed away on 13 October 1906. The feeling of becoming orphaned and lonely was overwhelming for his wife, Chandrabhaga and his daughter, Soni. First, they sold all of Jotirao’s books to a scrap dealer. Then, they survived by selling the utensils in the house, and finally on 28 October 1910, they sold Jotirao and Savitribai’s historical house for a mere hundred rupees to Maruti Krishnaji Dedage.

Jotirao and Savitirbai’s daughter-in-law was rendered homeless and died a destitute in the temple of Rameshwar. Her last rites were performed by the Municipality. Her daughter later got married to Baburao Gangaram Holey. She gave birth to two children – a son and a daughter. The son, Dattatraya Baburao Holey stays in Dattawadi, Pune and daughter, Mathura Koddre lived in Mundhwa. Laxmibai died in 1938, and Yeshwantrao’s wife Chandrabhagabai had died before that, around 1930.

A revolutionary family had to face such heart- wrenching destitution and adversity. The widowed daughter-in-law of Jotirao and Savitribai, who brought the light of happiness into the lives of hundreds of widows, had to die a destitute’s death on the footsteps of a temple. If Jotirao and Savitribai had invested their hard-earned money, instead of generously spending it for social causes, their daughter-in-law and grand daughter would not have had to undergo such grief and face such deprivation. Jotirao himself died due to lack of treatment, all for the social cause. Savitribai and Dr Yeshwant died while serving the sick during the plague epidemic. Jotirao’s daughter-in-law died on the footpath in acute penury and his grand daughter had to marry a widower, due to poverty. What can one say about this tragedy? How can one describe this extreme sacrifice?

Savitribai has put together some very valuable writing.

The literature is as follows:

1. Kavyaphule- Collection of poems, 1854

2. Jotirao’s Speeches, Edited by Savitribai Phule,

25 December 1856

3. Savitribai’s Letters to Jotirao

4. Speeches of Matoshree Savitribai, 1892

5. Bavankashi Subodh Ratnakar, 1892

All this writing has been collected together in a one hundred and ninety-four paged volume – ‘The complete works of Savitribai Phule‘ edited by Dr M. G. Mali. The volume has an introduction by the famous thinker and philosopher Dr Surendra Barlinge.

‘Kavyaphule’ was the first anthology of Savitribai’s poems published in 1854. It has a total of forty-one poems. It includes poems about nature, social issues, instructive poems and historical poems.

‘Jotirao’s Speeches’ is a volume edited by Savitribai and the transcription has been done by Charles Joshi. This book was published on 25 December 1856 and contains four speeches by Jotirao.

‘Savitribai’s Letters to Jotirao’ has a total of three letters written from Otur and Naigaon.

‘Speeches of Matoshree Savitribai’- contains Savitribai’s speeches on varied topics such as enterprise, imparting education, good conduct, addictions and loans among others. They have been edited by Shastri Naro Babaji Mahadhat Pansare Patil and were published by Vatsal Press, Baroda in 1892.

Bavankashi Subodh Ratnakar‘ is collection of poems that narrates the history of India, including Jotirao’s work in prose. It has fifty two compositions. This poetry was composed in 1891 after Jotirao’s death and published as a book in 1892.

The support, cooperation and companionship that Savitribai gave Jotirao throughout his life is extraordinary and is beyond compare. The ideal of equality between men and women and of peaceful companionship that they have set, transcends the limits of time and space. The path-breaking work that they did in the fields of education, social justice, eradication of caste and the eradication of priestly power illuminates not only the past, but also the present. It is a contribution without parallels even in the present times. This legacy of Savitribai will continue to enrich our lives forever.

Please read the previous part of this article here.


[Courtesy: NCERT Memorial Lecture Series (pdf)]