India is a land of knowledge and seeking. We have many learned teachers in our ancient past. Our traditions and culture are family-centric, hence women have a highly respected space in the society. When it comes to education, Indian women played a pivotal role in society. The Adhidevatha for education is Goddess Saraswathi. Our ancient texts talk about many learned women teachers; Maithreyi, Gargi, Hemalekha, Chudala, Ubhaya Bharathi ( Mandana Mishra’s wife ) Sarada devi ( wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ) are some noteworthy names.

When the foreign invaders destroyed the peaceful and knowledgeable society, all systems were impacted leading to disarray in the field of education. The britishers started a completely new curriculum to suit their purpose. Still the society saw famous women personalities like Maharani Ahalyabai Holkar, Hoti Vidyalankar who is reputed to have started a girls’ school in Kashi, Harkunwar Sethani and others who established schools and trusts for empowering women. There were many unsung teachers in villages and families who taught women and empowered them. One such teacher was Savithribai Phule.  

Savitribai Phule was a Maharashtra-based social reformer and educator. She and her husband, Jyotirao Phule, contributed a significant part in promoting women’s rights in India. In 1848, they established one of the earliest modern girls’ schools in Pune. She wanted to reduce caste and gender prejudice and unfair treatment of people. Savitribai Phule was born in the Satara District of Maharashtra on January 3, 1831. She was the youngest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Nevase Patil.

At the age of nine, she married Jyotirao Phule, who was 13 then. Savitri Bai was uneducated and never went to school till she was married. She and Sagunabai Kshirsagar, Jyotirao’s cousin sister, were educated at their house by Jyotirao. After finishing school, Savitri Bai enrolled in two teacher-training programmes. The first of which was at an institution in Ahmednagar which was managed by an American missionary named Cynthia Farrar while the second was at a Normal School in Pune.

Jyotirao Phule, then 21 years old, and Savitri, then 17 years old, founded a women’s school in 1848 at Bhide Wada, Pune. Savitribai along with Jyotirao Phule established three schools in Pune by the end of 1851 with roughly 150 female students. Their teaching methods were thought to be superior to those of government schools and the number of girls enrolled in Phule’s schools rapidly outnumbered the number of boys enrolled in other official schools. She was awarded ‘best teacher‘ by then British Government. Savitribai Phule’s school was originally sponsored by Cynthia Farrar a Christian missionary. Savitribai has shown interest in Christianity through her writings and poems too. Even Jyothiba Phule wrote a play on how a man is converted to Christianity. Although allegations persist that they may have unknowingly or knowingly worked for Christian missionaries, it is well-established that they both served society well.

Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule founded two Educational Trusts in the 1850s. These were the Native Female School, Pune, and The Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs, etc. both of which grew to include a number of schools in Pune. Savitribai established the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852 to bring awareness among women about social issues. A successful barbers’ strike was organised by Savitribai in Mumbai and Pune to protest the practice of shaving widows’ heads after they became widows. She convened a women’s gathering, inviting ladies of all castes to attend and all of them to sit on the same mattress, to eliminate caste discrimination. She campaigned against child marriage while also advocating for widow remarriage. On 24 September 1873, Jyotiba Phule along with Savitribai formed the Satyashodhak Samaj in Pune, Maharashtra which means Truth-seekers’ Society. It advocated for educational opportunities as well as increased social and political rights for underprivileged groups in Maharashtra. The main focal point was the upliftment of women and downtrodden. Savitribai became Satyashodhak Samaj’s female section leader. She became the chairman of Satyashodak Samaj after Jyotirao Phule died in 1890. During the 1930s, the Samaj was disbanded when its leaders joined the Indian National Congress.

Savitribai Phule published several literary works in Marathi. In 1854, `Kavya Phule’ and in 1892 `Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar’, her poems were released. Savitribai and her adopted son, Yashwant, established a clinic to heal those who had been afflicted by the worldwide bubonic plague. The clinic was built on the outskirts of Pune, in an infection-free zone. Savitribai died a heroic death while attempting to save Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad’s son who was infected by the plague. She carried him to the hospital on her back as no one was available to carry him. She contracted the Plague during this time and died on March 10, 1897.

In 1983, the Pune City Corporation erected a memorial for Savitribai Phule and India Post also issued a stamp in honour of Phule in 1998. The 3rd of January, Savitribai’s birthday, is observed as Balika Din which means ‘Girl Child Day’ throughout Maharashtra. In her honour, The University of Pune was renamed as ‘Savitribai Phule University‘ in 2015.

Team Dakshinapatha