Who was the Indian poetess Savitribai Phule ?

Google India hounoured the 186th birth anniversary of the feminist reformer

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Society

January 4, 2017

/ By / Kolkata

Celebrating the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule, the poetess who stood against caste and gender-based discrimination in India during colonial times, Google India shows a meaningful gesture.

Google India has marked educational and social reformer, Savitribai Phule’s 186th birth anniversary, with a doodle dedicate to mark her legacy. Savitribai, known for her work to counter caste and gender discrimination, was a radical in the 19th century colonial India and remembered fondly as one of the first modern feminists. At a time when the practice of untouchability was strong and women were severely oppressed in the country, Savitribai was strongly advocating and working for social reform, while also writing poetry.

The issue of untouchability, which broadly stems from the four-fold division of society according to Hindu practices, saw the ‘lower castes’ such as Dalits being considered ‘impure’ and therefore untouchable. The practice was eventually abolished and made illegal but even today, instances of caste-based discrimination remain even as untouchability has become extremely rare. Women, of all castes across the spectrum, remained suppressed, with marginalised communities also being major sufferers.

Setting up the first school in India for girls from different castes in Pune, and a campaign to address child marriages, child widows, rape victims who became pregnant, educating women and fighting for equal rights for all women, Savitribai challenged the existing social order. Savitribai also campaigned against the practice of Sati, a Hindu funeral custom where a widow would immolate herself by jumping into her husband’s funeral pyre which was outlawed much later but was practiced widely at the time.

Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831, in Satara district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. She was married to activist and writer Jyotirao Phule, at the age of nine, when it was common for women in India to be married at such a young age. With his help, she learned to read and write. Becoming the first woman teacher in India at the time, she has been remembered for her innovative ways with short stories and poetry written by her finding their way into the classroom. Along with her husband, she also established a home for widows who had been thrown out by their families after being sexually abused by other men.

Thinking ahead

Savitribai championed the movement for the rights of the marginalised people in the society; the women, dalits, adivasis, backward classes and minorities. She passed away after contracting bubonic plague, on March 10, 1897, which she caught while aiding patients suffering from the disease at a clinic that she had opened with her adopted son.

Savitribai’s approach to reforming society, through the upliftment of the oppressed via education was truly ‘modern’ in nature. She was paid a tribute by the Maharashtra government in 2014 with the Pune University being renamed in her name.

Even as India makes its way through the 21st century, many of the injustices of the times of Savitribai prevail, perhaps not in form but in substance. Gender discrimination, sexual violence, caste discrimination and a flawed education system are still pervasive even as the country has moved considerably forward in these aspects since the 19th century.

Savitribai’s works of poetry, with collections such Kavya Phule (Poetry Blooms) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Gems) were indicative of her vision about the evils of society and the need for reform, which might as well be applicable today. “Awake, arise and educate; smash traditions; liberate!” wrote Savirtibai. Despite not finding the space she deserves in mainstream history textbooks of the country, she is remembered by many as an inspiration to stand against discrimination, prejudice and inequality.

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