Savitribai Jyotirao Phule was a social reformer and poet. She played an important role in fighting for women’s rights in India during British rule. She is regarded as the first female teacher of Modern India. Savitri and her husband Jyotirao founded one of the first Indian girls’ school in Pune, at Bhide wada in 1848. She worked to abolish the caste and gender based discrimination and unfair treatment of people. She is well-celebrated figure of the social reform movement in India.
Born on 3rd January 1831, Savitribai was brought in the Naigaon, in Satara District, Maharashtra. Savitribai Phule was the eldest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Nevase Patil, both of whom belonged to the Mali Community. Back in 19th century, women did not have the luxury of getting primary educations, let alone higher studies. The life of Savitribai Phule was no exception. Her childhood ended as soon as she was married to Jyotirao Phule just at the age of nine years.
At the time of her marriage Savitribai was an illiterate. It was Jyotirao Phule, her husband who helped her learn how to read and write. He helped her attain high levels of education and live her life with her head held high. Savitribai’s further education was taken care of by Jyotiba’s friends, Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar. She also enrolled herself in two teacher’s training programs. The first was at institution run by an American missionary, Cynthia Farrar, in Ahmednagar. The second course was at a Normal School in Pune. Given her training, Savitribai may have been the first Indian woman teacher and headmistress in modern sense of the term although informal education for girls at home and becoming the scholars is not unknown fact in non colonial periods of India.
After completing her education, Savitribai starting teaching children in Pune along with Jyotiba’s mentor, Sagunabai. The three of them then started a school in Bhide Wada, which was Tatya Saheb Bhide’s house. Taya Saheb was an ardent supporter of the trio’s work. The curriculum at Bhide Wada included traditional western curriculum of mathematics, science, and social studies. By the end of 1851, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were running three different schools for girls in Pune. Combined, the three schools had approximately one hundred and fifty students enrolled. Like the curriculum, the teaching methods employed by the three schools differed from those used in government schools. The author, Divya Kandukuri believes that the Phule methods were regarded as being superior to those used by government schools. As a result of this reputation, the number of girls receiving their education at the Phule’s schools outnumbered the number of boys enrolled in government schools. However, the couple was ostracized by the conservative society they lived in; people would often hurl dung and stones at Savitribai when she went to teach. Even their family didn’t support them, the couple was staying with Jyotiba’s family till 1849, but given their educational work, Jyotiba’s father asked them to leave the house at their work was evil as per societal norms.
The couple then moved to Jyotiba’s friend, Usman Sheikh’s house. Usman had a sister, Fatima Begum Sheikh, who was already educated and became Savitribai’s life-long companion. Sheikh is regarded as the first female Muslim teacher of India, and she along with Savitribai started a school in Sheikh’s house in 1849.
Two educational trusts, the Native Female School, Pune and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs, and others, were started by the couple in the 1850s. The couple opened a total of 18 schools in their lifetime, and these schools included all of these. The schools were led by Fatima Begum after the couple’s untimely deaths.
The couple also opened a care centre called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha (“Child-killing Prohibition Home”) for pregnant rape victims and helped to deliver and save their children.
“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.”
– Jyotirao Phule , an interview given to the Christian missionary periodical, Dnyanodaya, on 15 September 1853
When the third worldwide pandemic of the Bubonic plague appeared in Maharashtra, Savitribai along with her adopted son, Yashwant, opened a clinc to care for those affected by it in 1897.
The clinic was on the outskirts of Pune, in an area free from the plague. However, Savitribai heard that Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad’s young son was suffering from the plague. Savitribai rushed to the boy and carried him on her back to the clinic, but unfortunately, she caught the plague in the process and died on March 10, 1897.
Savitribai was also a published author and poet. She published Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892, and also a poem entitled “Go, Get Education” in which she encouraged those who were excluded from obtaining an education
Mali, M.G, (1988)Savitribai Phule, Sampoorn Vangmay(Marathi) Mahararashtra State literature Culture Mandal , Mumbai
Rao, Parimala V. (2002). “Educating Women – How and How Much: Women in the Context of Tilak’s Swaraj”. In Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi (ed.) Education and the Disprivileged: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century India. Orient Blackswan
This article was first published in 2021