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Saturday, 28 January, 2012

Savitribai Phule : first woman teacher of India

Teachers of this country may feel proud that there is a day when they are remembered with honor by the politicians, government officials and the masses of India. They are remembered for their contributions, they do towards the mental, social and cultural development of Indian Society. It is a different thing that this event of Teacher’s day is celebrated on the birthday of such a person who have nothing special to offer to make the education more learner oriented and accessible to the marginalized communities of this country who have been in a high need of education for their progress. But the First women teacher of India who started first ever school for the such marginalized communities and specifically for girls and untouchables who always had been denied education since centuries, is still an unknown figure in the history and history books and usually not remembered by the majority of Indian society for the pioneering role she played as a teacher and a woman liberator in the second half of nineteenth century.
    What and how much do we know about the first woman teacher of India? What different thing did she do for she should be called the first women teacher of this country? This is rather a very unusual question and has never been asked or addressed in any of our school text books like other questions such as Who was the first Prime Minister of India or who was the first Indian who touched the surface of Moon? You may find a chapter about Jhansi ki Rani Laxamibai who fought against British as per the history written till now. There may be a chapter about Bachendri Pal who recently marched to the top of the Mount Everest and even a chapter on Aishwarya Rai, the Glamorous actress of Hindi films. Surprisingly though, you don’t find even a mention if not a special chapter about the first woman teacher of India.  This may be one of the reasons that we Could not familiarize ourselves with the revolutionary figure.
    But why? But why is it so that we either know nothing or know very little about the first woman teacher of India? One really wonders that why she is missing from the school text books of most Indian States. The curriculum makers and historians cannot claim to say that they could not find information on her life and work. Ample numbers of books till now have been published in Marathi and English most of which depict her grand life and mission in detail.
    I think that this is rather a simple case of Caste and Gender biased mindset of the curriculum makers and historians. This is all due to the patriarchal and brahmanical mindset and prejudices deeply rooted in Indian society which claim that the most intellectual personalities come from the caste Hindus and lower cast or marginalized communities can never produce such extraordinary personalities at all. However, the first woman teacher of India happened to come from a lower caste and thus she remained unacknowledged on the pages of school text books. Moreover, she has been continuously mentioned mostly only as wife of social reformer Jotiba phule’s and the account is more or less the same even in the history of Dalit Movement also for so many years due to the patriarchal mindset of dalit intellectuals.
    Apart from her identity as Jotirao Phule’s wife, The Modern India’s first woman teacher, Savitribai Phule was a radical advocator of female and untouchable’s education, a champion of women’s rights, a milestone of trailblazing poetry, a courageous mass leader who stood strongly against the forces of caste and patriarchy certainly had her independent identity for her contribution. Her life and struggle deserves to be appreciated in a wider perspective. Thanks to Dalit Women Movement who brought this woman again to the main pages of history and present of dalit movement and put her to the top of the list of Nation Builders of India.
    Savitribai Phule worked not only for the girls and women of dalit community but for the betterment and upliftment of the people of the whole Indian society. She internalized and strived hard to implement the thought of her husband Mahatma Jotirao Phule, the founder of modern dalit movement and a great social activist in second half of nineteenth century who worked for the upliftment of dalits and women all through his life. Jotirao Phule and Savitribai were the first in modern India who came out with first major anti cast ideology and led a mass activism against anti-dalit, anti-women Brahmanic casteist cultural and religious norms and values of Indian society.    
    Jotirao Phule’s dearest dream was to see that the women of India would be able to enjoy their full human rights. And in his opinion, this was possible only through the power of education. He was deeply convinced that education of a woman is certainly an important tool if the downtrodden communities have to go forward. He was quite determinant of the opinion that Female schools are more necessary than male ones. This thought was later appreciated by Dr. Ambedkar.  Savitribai and Jotirao had a hard struggle to implement the right to education for the women and dalits in Maharashtra during the Peshwas rule in Maharashtra during those days. It is appropriate to say that it was an era of darkness in Maharashtra as far the education to women is concerned. In that era of darkness, Savitribai and Jotirao flamed the torch of education in Maharashtra. Savitribai was Jotirao phule’s first and most important ally in the mission of Dalit women’s education.
    Savitribai was born on 3rdjan, 1831, in Naigaon of Satara district in Maharashtra. She was born on after the thirteen years of British rule in India and end of Peshwa rule in 1818 in Maharashtra. It was a common practice those days to marry a girl at the age of early childhood. In spite of her desire to study, Savitribai was also married to Jotirao at the age of nine. She remained with her parents because Jotirao was studying in a missionary school at that time. Here one feels highly obliged to Christian missionaries who opened up doors of education to untouchables though they are being attacked by a particular religious – political group now a day.
    Jotirao being a visionary and convinced of the opinion that every woman must be educated, started teaching English and Marathi to Savitribai when she came to live with him. At the age of twenty, Jotirao passed the matriculation examination. Till that day, Savitri became very good at English and Marathi. She was still a teenager when she got herself involved in her husband’s work. The Phule couple decided to start a school for girls, especially from the shudra and atishudra communities so that parents of girls could send their daughters without bothering much. But there were no women teachers at all. In 1846-47 Savitribai with another woman Fatima Sheikh who happened to be her partner for all through her life, Studied in a formal school in Ahmednagar and and got trained as teachers.
    On Jan14, 1848, Jotirao started a school for girls.  This school was opened in a corridor of a house at Budhwar Peth which belonged to Mr. Bhide’s, a friend of Jotirao at in Pune. This was the first school which was opened especially for girls for the first time in India. Savitribai was given the charge of the school and hence, she became the first woman teacher of India. This school had nine students in the beginning. Sadashiv Govinde, another friend of  Jotirao, sent books for students from Ahmednagar. The school functioned for about six months and then had to be closed down. Another building was found and the school reopened a few months later.

    Though it had been very difficult job for Jotirao, Savitribai and their friends to establish the school but it was very difficult for Savitribai to keep that school running during those days when education for girls was understood as a sin. Since most of males were against the very existence of kanyashala, so it became very difficult for Savitribai to get a male teacher for the same. She alone had to work hard to run the school. Moreover, the patriarchal complex ridden people had been constantly creating hurdles in her way. Many conspiracies were planned out against her and the school. Leaving the house in the morning and going to school was an ordeal for her. Whenever she went out of her house, group of orthodox men would follow her and abuse her in obscene language. They would throw rotten eggs, cow dung, tomatoes and stones at her. She started taking an extra sari with her to wear at school. This ordeal continued for a long time till she had to slap a person who tried to molest her.
    Savitribai was very clear and determinant about her job. The first challenge for her was to keep the girls coming to school. She started distributing sweets among girls when they had to go their homes back. After knowing the fact that girls are being tired at their studies, she started sports sessions.  Further she started short stories session to make learning more interesting and enjoyfull. The girls took much interest in those short stories because those were based on the conditions of women’s lives, their desire to learn and be free. She also started composing and reciting poems before them. Her way of teaching was simple, participatory and activity based. In a way she herself created the methods which we may call now the alternative and learner oriented methods of teaching. She also focused upon the complete development of girls. Education for her was not merely alphabetical learning but a means of igniting the mind and personality of women and dalits. What was the impact of Savitri’s teaching upon girls can be seen in the essay written by Muktabai - an eleven year old dalit girl. This essay is about the grief of the two dalit communities-Mangs and Mahars. She writes, “Oh, the mahars and mangs, you are poor and sick. Only the medicine of knowledge will cure and heal you. It will take you away from wild beliefs and superstitions. You will righteous and moral. It will stop your exploitation. People, who treat you like animal, will not dare to treat like that anymore. So please work hard and study.” 
    Savitribai was very kind hearted and careful about her students. She used to help the girls and their parents in many ways whenever she found them in need. Now a day we see that all the time the parents are running to the schools to know the position of their ward. But Savitribai started visiting their parents at their house to tell them about the learning experience that the girls were having at school. In the situation that any of the girls was not coming to the school, she used to go her home. In case any girl found to be ill, she used to arrange for the doctor and medicines. She became the most famous and respectful women very soon in the area. Gradually People started sending their girls to the school themselves. There were twenty five students in the school in the end of the year out of which were ten brahmin, six Maratha, two chamar, two mahar, one matang, one gadaria, one julaha, one Sali and one mali castes. The number of girls increased from twenty five to seventy during 1849-1850. It was a great number indeed during those days.
    After that school, Savitribai, Jotirao and their friend opened up many more schools in Pune city and nearby villages. More information about these schools is available in volume seven of Pune education gazette. On first May, 1852 Jotirao started a school for the children of untouchables. There had been no tradition of education among untouchables during those days. In fact, there were no schools for untouchables. The Brahmins never allowed them any right to education. Moreover, over the centuries the Brahmins taught them that education was a sin for them and the act of sending their children to schools could have brought more atrocities from Brahmins to them. So they have developed a tendency to be reluctant and indifferent towards education. Savitribai had to struggle a lot to get their children to the school. This school happened to be the first school of India which was opened up for the untouchables. In his book Mahatma Phule Aani Sansodhan (Phule and Social reforms) Dr. Mangoolkar wrote, “This was the first effort for the upliftment of untouchable in the history of India.” In the issue of May 29, 1852, the Pune Observe took notice of this school. It says:
“A person, mali by caste, has started a school for untouchables on his own expenses. This is a great news for social reformers of India. Being situated at Vetal Peth, here the children of castes like Mahar, mang and Pakhari are taught in this school.”
    The jurisdiction of a teacher’s work is not limited to a school only but one has to take whole of the society as the field of his/her work. Savitribai Phule was mainly a teacher but she did not confine herself to a limited role and scope of a teacher. She took her role in a wider and comprehensive sense. In this sense, Savitribai was not only a good teacher but had been a great social activists too. Untouchability was a very common and cruel practice during those days all over India. But it was much deeper in Pune than any other city of India. Untouchables were not allowed to take water from the wells situated in the upper cast muhallas. Untouchable women had to wait long hours and to keep on requesting the upper caste women for water. Seeing this, Savitri invited all the women to her private well and said, “Take water as much as you can. It’s your own well now from today. You may come at any time and take water anytime.”
    After realizing the cast discrimination prevailing among women, she started organizing meetings and Til-Gur Festivals. In these meetings and festivals women of any caste could participate. Thus she provided a platform where women of all casts could have a effective sharing of views and discuss about their problems with each other. This was the first kind of effort to unite the women on their issues and problems. Later on Savitribai realized that coming of women together is not enough. She came to the conclusion that the plight and worse condition of women is due to patriarchal values and mindset of the people. Thus women should be organized in a manner that one should feel the power of collectiveness and could fight against the atrocities done to her in the society. It was due to her efforts that a Mahila Mandal was formed in Pune in 1852. It was a very hard task indeed during those days. This Mahila Mandal started working for the empowerment and liberty of the women. As a leader of this Mahila Mandal, Savitribai organized several cultural and social programs where the patriarchy and Brahmanism were used to be attacked in several ways.

    Those were the days when women irrespective of their cast and class were very much oppressed in all fields of life. There were many patriarchal and brahmnical traditions, values and rituals which were atrocious to the women especially dalit women. To resolve the dowry problem, she started organizing simple group marriages for which she had to bear the opposition from all sides. But she never gave up.  When woman at any age happened to be widow, she was forced to have her head shaved so that she could easily be identified as a widow. Savitribai was moved by the plight of widows. In this regard, she met the people of barber community and persuaded them not to shave the heads of widows. After a long pursuance, she along with Jotirao and friends could organize a strike of barbers. This was the first strike of its kind. The upper cast communities got infuriated with Savitribai due to the step taken by the barbers.
    There were a large number of widows in the Pune and the nearby villages during days. Adolescents and young girls were happened to be more among widows. It was a very common with these widows that they used to be victimized very easily by the males of the society in terms of sexual exploitation. So they had to be harassed for the reason for which they had not been responsible Most of the time, they happened to be pregnant due to lack of contraceptives or other measures. Women had to lose their life due to unhealthy ways of abortion. Many a times they had to leave their homes. On Jan.28, 1853 Savitribai started Balhatya pratibadhak griha - a delivery home for such women. In this delivery home, they could give birth to their children and leave them there. Sixty six women gave birth to their children in that shelter up to 1873. This was a great historical work that Savitribai did at that time. Later on this delivery home started working as a full fledge hospital. Savitribai did not remain as one who served to widows but she went further in this regard. She adopted a child from this delivery home and thereby gave a message to the progressive people of the society. This adopted child was Yashwant Rao who later became a doctor.
          Not many people know that Savitribai Phule was a trailblazing and intensely committed poet of modern Marathi. Her poetry and her letters to Jotirao bring out her sensitive and revolutionary mind. Savitribai’s greatest literary contribution is her collection of poems titled Kabya Phule (Poetry’s Blossoms) which she published in 1854. This pioneering work has value as a historical document of her thought and struggle. This collection covers subjects as varied as education, nature and, most importantly, the caste system, where the poet becomes more creative in form and revolutionary in content. Savitribai followed this up with another anthology in 1893. Titled Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Gems), this collection is a biography of Phule that reiterates his critique of the brahmanical constructs of the times. Savitribai’s essay on debt, ‘Karz’, deserves special mention. She condemns the practice of incurring loans to celebrate festivals, due to which the borrower is caught in a debt trap.
    How much Savitribai imbibed the radical vision of her husband and what was her own orientation in regard to social change, is clearly visible in the three letters that she wrote to Jotirao when she was away from him. The letters reveal that Savitri’s spousal love was inseparable from the larger commitment to the salvation of the downtrodden through education. She says: “There are many idiots here, as in Pune, who poison people’s minds and spread canards against us. But why should we fear them and leave this noble cause we have undertaken? It would be better to engage with the work instead. We shall overcome, and success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.”
    There was a great famine in Maharashtra during 1875-77. People were dying due to hunger and thirst. Savitribai put out all her energies to serve the victims of famine. Satyshodhak volunteers helped famine–affected people in the leadership of Savitribai.  She started 52 free food hostels in western Maharashtra.
    The sudden demise of Mahatma Phule in 1890 at the age of sixty three was a great shock to Savitribai. She was left alone. But she did not give up the battle. She worked intensely during another famine in 1896 in Maharashtra. she also put pressure on British government to start relief camps. After famine, it was plague which attacked on Pune in 1897. Plague victims were treated like animals by the British. Savitribai could not bear this. She worked hard to serve the plague victims in all ways. By a strange and cruel irony, she herself got infected by the fatal disease while nursing a sick child and died on 1897.

    Savitri’s struggle encouraged and inspired a whole generation of outstanding campaigners for gender justice in Maharashtra. Dr. Anandibai Gopal Joshi, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde and many others have been inspired by her efforts. She played a revolutionary role during the era of darkness in Maharashtra and gave a message for the whole Nation that how intelligent and brave could be a women of dalit community. She was not only the first women teacher but the first women social activist of India too. Her poems and other writings are still hold a message of inspiration to us. On March 1998, a stamp was released by Indian post to honor her far-reaching contribution to Indian society.  In order to honor her, the 10th March is celebrated as Indian women’s day every year by the National Federation of Dalit Women in some parts of the country.

 (The concise version of the booklet presented as paper at the Orintation Programme held by CPDHE,University of Delhi, on March 3,2003. I acknowledge my thanks to liberators from National Federation of Dalit Women, Delhi and I am also thankful to Dr.Parmod Mehra for helping me in refining the language of the content. )

Source books
1.    Pehali Bhartiya Shikshika Savitribai Phule, Phulwantabai Zodge, Ed-Rajni Tilak, Cadam, Delhi, 1999.
2.    Women Pioneers in India’s Renaissance, Ed-Sushila Nayar, Kamla Mankekar, National book Trust, Delhi,2002.
3.    A Forgotten Liberator, Ed-Brij Ranjan Mani, and Pamela Sardar, Mountain Peak, Delhi, 2010

Poems by Savitribai Phule

Go, Get Education

Be self reliant, be industrious
Work - gather wisdom and riches.
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animals without wisdom.

Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken.

You have got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste
Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.

Rise to Learn and Act

Weak and oppressed, Rise my brothers
Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone
Manu is the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge-the English have come
Learn, you have had no chance in millennium.

We will teach our children and ourselves learn
Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy is in my soul
Crying out for knowledge to be the whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste
I will blot out from my life at last.

In Bali raj’s kingdom, let’s beware
Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “misery go and kingdom come”

Awake, arise and educate
Smash traditions, liberate.

We will come together and learn
Policy, righteousness, religion.

Slumber not but blow the trumpet
O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast
Rise, to learn and act.
Brief chronology
Savitribai phule’s life

3rd Jan.1831     Birth of Savitribai in Naigaon, Satara district of Maharashtra.

1840  Marriage with Jotiba Phule.

1841 Begins informal education at home.

1846-47 Passed third and fourth year examination from         Normal school. 

1847     trained as a teacher from Ahmednagar.

01-01-1848     Country’s first school for girls was started         at Bhide’s Wada in Pune and Savitribai was         nominated as the first head mistress of the school.

1849     helps Jotirao and his friends in establishing more         schools at Pune, Satara. Ahmednagar.

1849     School for adults is started at Usman Sheikh’s         Wada in Pune. Left home with Jotirao for educating Shudra and Ati Shudra’s

1852     Establishes two more schools.

1852     Gets  Model Teacher’s award.

1852     Organizes First Public Til-Gul Programme in the         name of Mahila Seva Mandal.

01-05-1852     First school of the country for untouchables     is opened.

16-11-1852     Phule family was honored by British government for their works in the field of education and Savitribai was declared as the best teacher.

28-01-1853      Starts Infanticide prohibition home-Delivery Home.

12-02-1853     Prize giving ceremony is arranged under the chairmanship of Major Candy.

1854     Publishes “Kabya Phule”, her collection of poetry.

1855     Establishes a night-school for workers and peasants.

1856     Edits and publishes a collection of Jotirao’s speeches

1863     Establishes a home for illegitimate children and their mothers.

1868     Opens the household water-tank to untouchables.

24-09-1873     Actively participates in the foundation of Satyshodak Samaj.

1874     Adopts Yashwant, the son of a Brahman widow.

1875-77     Leads Satyshodhak volunteers to help famine–affected people and started 52 free food hostels in western Maharashtra.

28-11-1890      Death of Jotirao

1891     Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar, her verse collection is published.

1893     Takes over leadership of Satyshodhak Samaj, elected its president in the conference held at Saswad 

1896     Works intensely during another famine

10-03-1897     Dies while serving plague-affected people


  1. Nice article on Savitribai Phule !

  2. More about Fatima Shaikh when she born and die

  3. Anonymous24 June, 2015

    Excellent article.