Savitribai Phule – The First Female Teacher of Modern India

Savitribai Phule Cartoon by Kapil Bhagat
Savitribai Phule by Kapil Bhagat
I was in the class 8th, when I first came to learn about Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and his wife Savitiribai Phule. There was a small paragraph dedicated to them in my History book in a chapter on revolutionaries and social reformers of the 19th century India. Even in that paragraph, much is written about Jyotirao Phule, not Savitribai Phule, though she equally voiced against caste based discrimination and fought for women’s rights. As Mama Paramanand, a well-known Marathi leader, puts,

More than Jyotirao, 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.

On March 10, it happened to be the 119th death anniversary of Savitribai Phule, so I have decided to draft an article as my homage to the first female teacher of modern India.

Savitribai Phule was born on 3 January 1831 in a poor farming family in Naigaon, a place situated on Pune-Satara Road, some 50 km from Pune. In 1840, at the tender age of nine, she was married to thirteen-year-old Jyotirao Phule.

She never received formal education before her marriage; it was her husband, Jyotirao Phule, who wished to educate her, a venture which met fierce resistance from his family. In 1841, Jyotirao started her education and training to become a teacher. She was later taught by Jyotirao’s close friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar. Finally, she then took teacher’s training at Normal School of Ms Mitchell in Pune.

Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule
Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule
On 1 January 1848, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule established India’s first open school for girls in the city of Pune, with a batch of nine girls, mainly from Shudra and Atee Shudra communities, also making her first and youngest female school teacher of modern India, at age of seventeen.

The couple opened several open schools for girls of Shudra and Atee Shudra communities. They opened one such school in Rasta Peth and another in Chiplunkar House, Pune. In May 1849, Savitribai also opened a night school for elders in Usman Sheikh Wada.

In 1852, the couple, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, was felicitated by British Government for their work in the field of education. In an interview, published with Dynanodaya (15 September 1853), Jyotirao said,

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.

Initially, when she walks to her school, Savitribai was followed by a group of Orthodox men, who used to jeer and pelt garbage and stones on her. Severely demoralized, she tempted to give up, but constant encouragements from her husband, Jyotirao, kept her motivated. One day, he gave her two saris, advising her to wear cheap one for the society, which can be discarded into garbage, and to wear other in school. Though, one day while going to the school, she lost her temper, when someone commented on her, she turned back and slapped the person who uttered gibberish. From that day, she was never harassed.

She also campaigned against the ill-treatment of the young widows. The couple moved by the plight of young girls who were forced to shave their heads and wear a simple red sari after death of their spouse. During the 19th century, arranged marriages of young girls before the age of puberty was a norm in the Hindu society of Maharashtra. As the mortality rate was high during those days, many girl widows before reaching the age of maturity. The couple campaigned against the barbers and persuades them not to shave widows’ head.

These helpless young girls, with no choice to refuse the ill-treatment, were easy prey for rape, often by males of extended family. And when they became pregnant, they either left with option of suicide or kill the unborn/new-born baby to save themselves from being ostracized by the society.

In 1853, Savitribai and Jyotirao, established a care center for such pregnant rape victims, and helped them to deliver their children. They named the care center, Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha (Infanticide Prohbition House). They also worked toward the cause of widow remarriage.

Once, Jyotirao and Savitribai stopped such a young Brahmin widow from committing suicide, and promised her to give the child, their name. After the birth of child, they adopted him, and named him, Yashavantrao Phule. He grew up to become a doctor.

In 1854, Savitribai published her first collection of poems, Kavyaphule, making her first modern poetess of Marathi literature.

In 1873, Savitribai along with her husband cofounded Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of the Truth Seekers), where she headed the women’s wing. After death of her husband, Jyotirao in 1890, she took the torch in her hands, lead the Society.

In 1876, during great Maharashtra famine, the couple opened 52 free food hostels and shelter homes to provide relief to masses. Again during 1896 famine, Savitribai forced government to provide food and shelter to poor.

In 1897, during the third pandemic of bubonic plague, Savitribai and Yashavantrao opened a clinic in the area of Sasane Mala, Hadapsar near Pune, area free of infection. Savitribai personally took the affected to the clinic, Yashavantrao treated them. It is while caring for plague patients, she contracted disease herself. She left the world on 10 March 1897, only losing to plague with vision of a better world in her eyes.

Savitribai Phule Stamp
On 10 March 1997, Government of Maharashtra instituted an award for female achievers, in memory of her. Later in 1998, Government of India released India Post stamp in honor of her. In 2015, Government of Maharashtra renamed University of Pune to Savitribai Phule Pune University in order to pay homage to first and youngest female teacher of India.

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