It feels overwhelming to write about Savitribai Phule. I was a young girl when I first heard about the icon, who emerge from the casteist, sexist, and unjust quagmire of our collective history. When Savitribai Phule became the first lady teacher at a school she set up along with her husband, social activist Jotiba Phule, in Pune, people from upper castes would throw stones and cow dung at her as she entered the gates. Undaunted, Savitribai started carrying an extra sari to change into, almost as if she laughed at them for thinking they could stop her. As we know now, nothing did.
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Born on January 3, 1831, in Naigaon, near Pune, Savitribai was the eldest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil. At the age of 10, she was married to Jotiba Phule, who was 13 at the time. As she was uneducated, Jotiba, who would go on to become one of the most prominent Dalit activists and social reformers of his time, encouraged her to study, and Savitribai went on enroll into teacher’s training in Pune, a revolutionary act at the time.
The two visionaries deeply understood the social realities of the system that was designed to work against them, the Brahminical desperation to keep Dalits and women from accessing knowledge, and that a social revolution was needed to break into the social and educational space.
They started India’s first school for girls at Bhide Wada in Pune and Savitribai was nominated as the first headmistress.
Savitribai Phule started Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852, which focused on promoting women’s understanding about their rights, dignity of life, and other social issues. In 1853, she started the first ever infanticide prohibition home in India. Fatima Sheikh, a fellow social reformer, worked with Savitribai and went door-to-door encouraging families to send their daughters to their school. Along with Sheikh, Savitribai co-founded the ‘Indigenous Library’ to educate girls.
Savitribai insisted that education should enable people to choose between right and wrong and between truth and untruth in life. Her incessant fight against Brahmanical hegemony and the totalitarianism of the caste system, the echoing calls for gender equality, the constant battle toward ensuring the accessibility of education to marginalised communities fueled by the understanding that it’s the crucial path to dismantling systematic discrimination, makes her a revolutionary beacon that we cannot afford to not know about.
There is a sore lack of literature on Savitribai, which is an immense disservice to her. But people like Savitribai Phule have made a mark so deep that an attempt at erasure of her life, struggles, and many achievements seems laughable. Here are some of her writings that can give you a glimpse of her life.
1. Kavyaphule, Collection of Savitribai Phule’s poems
Savitribai Phule was the first Dalit woman whose poems made even British colonisers take notice. Phule stressed the importance of education and learning English in her poems. Her first poetry collection, Kavyaphule, was published in 1854, when Savitribai was 23 years old.
In her poems she wrote about the plight of lower castes, the power of knowledge (“We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn/ Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.”), learning English (“Throw away the authority/Of the Brahmin and his teachings/Break the shackles of caste/By learning English.”), and questions the gender inequality in the poem, Should they be called Humans?
2. Savitribai Phule and I by Sangeeta Mulay
This is a semi-historical fictional book aimed at young adults. It follows Shabri, a shy Indian Dalit girl from a marginalised village, who discovers a diary written by Savitribai Phule. The book chronicles Shabri’s recognition of the discrimination and prejudice she faced which eventually helps her evolve into a confident feminist and activist.
3. A Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule
This is a collection of essays by six authors on the life and work of Savitribai. This anthology also includes three letters written by Savitribai to Jotiba.
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4. Savitribai Phule Samagra Wangmaya by MG Mali
Three letters from this book, originally written in Marathi, have been translated into English and are available online. These are the letters that Savitribai wrote to Jotiba over a period of 20 years. They give insight into their concerns, struggles, and vision for the society at large.
5. The Incredible Life of Savitribai Phule by Swati Sengupta
This book takes you through the journey of the fearless social reformer, the injustices she fought against, and the hurdles she overcame.