Teachers’ Day Special: The life of Savitribai Phule, India’s first female educator
Savitribai Phule is regarded as the first female teacher of India. She was a feminist, a social reformer who worked for the abolishment of the caste system, a philanthropist, an anti-infanticide activist and a poet too. Along with her husband, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai started the first Indian-run school for girls in Pune, Maharashtra.
Back then only the higher castes were permitted to attend schools, so Savitribai and Jyotiba also started a school for untouchable girls at the time. The couple contributed greatly for the upliftment of the lower classes and women, focusing on education, health and also social reforms. Savitribai was an advocate of widow remarriage and fought to abolish child marriage. Her contribution to women’s education and upliftment will always be remembered.
This Teachers’ Day, let’s look at some interesting facts about Savitribai’s work and life:
Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831 in Maharashtra’s Naigaon village, in Satara district. She belonged to the Mali community, which is now included in OBC (Other Backward Classes). Savitribai received no education growing up given that she belonged to a lower caste, and the Brahmins forbade it for her caste and gender. She was married off to Jyotiba Phule when she was ten and he was thirteen. The couple never had any children of their own but adopted a boy, Yashwantrao, who was born to a Brahmin widow in the couple’s care center, Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha.
Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha was started by the couple to help out pregnant widows and rape victims, Savitribai and Jyotiba would even care for the children if the mothers didn’t wish to, or couldn’t afford to keep the child.
Jyotiba took it upon himself to complete Savitribai’s primary education at home, even though he too hadn’t received an education, but later went on to study till class seven at a Scottish missionary school.
Savitribai’s further education was taken care of by Jyotiba’s friends, Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar. Savitribai also completed two teaching courses.
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.
By 1851, the Phules had started three schools for girls, which had around 150 students enrolled in total. Their schools gained the reputation of being better at teaching and curriculum that government schools, which resulted in more females students in their schools, than males students 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 according to Brahmanical texts.
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 Etceteras, 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.
Savitribai was also a published author and poet, and she wrote a poem Go, Get Education, which encouraged the lower castes to educate themselves so as to free themselves of oppression.
When the third worldwide pandemic of the Bubonic plague appeared in Maharashtra, Savitribai along with her 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 caught the plague in the process and died on March 10, 1897.