It is commonplace in English scholarship and other writing to find references to Mahatma Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) as the first modern public intellectual in India to use the word Dalit in Marathi to name caste communities of Untouchables. In part this is because Jotirao Phule is widely regarded as one of the key voices inaugurating modern India’s political movements against oppression premised on caste, gender, and religious difference.

As I began a project involving the poetry of Jotirao Phule last year, I expected to find references to Dalits or uses of the word such as dīnadalit (deprived and broken), paddalit (downtrodden), dalitoddhār (Dalit upliftment) in his work. But I have not yet found any instances of the word or related phrases in Jotirao Phule’s available published literature. The references may be there; I just haven’t found them yet.

However, I have found these terms used in the publications of another Phule.

This is Savitribai Phule (1831-1897), Jotirao Phule’s wife and political partner. The two worked side by side to open educational institutions for women, Shudras, and Dalits in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Pune. When Savitribai Phule is mentioned in scholarly and public contexts, she is rightly praised as a pioneering educator. Indeed, the government of Maharashtra recognised this fact in 2014 when it renamed the prestigious Pune University as the Savitribai Phule Pune University.

Savitribai Phule is often referred to with the deserved epithet, “Krantijyoti” or the Light of Revolution. This honorific not only recognises her extraordinary and brave work in the field of education, but also signals her powerful, richly layered, and strident political thought that she expressed through her extraordinary writing.

Yet Savitribai Phule the writer and thinker, the firebrand intellectual and author in her own right, is an aspect of her legacy that is often overlooked. This is surprising because Savitribai Phule articulated through poetry many of the same ideas that Jotirao Phule would express in his many writings yet through her own point of view and distinctive poetic voice. It is also not commonly mentioned that she published her first book in 1854, which may have been 15 years before Jotirao Phule’s first widely circulated publications in 1869 as recorded in his collected works.

It is in this initial book of poetry by Savitribai Phule in 1854, a collection of poems entitled Kāvyaphule (“Flowers of Poems”), that she first used the word dalit.

The word appears in the last poem in the collection, a poem in which Savitribai Phule imagines a dialogue between herself and Jotirao Phule. The poem, in the abhaṅg poetic form, depicts the couple watching the sun rise together in the morning. As with other poems in the collection, Savitribai Phule uses metaphors from the natural world to express injustices within the human world.

In this poem, the “dark night” is a metaphor for the ignorance forced upon women, Shudras, and Dalits, a repressive condition favored by the “owl,” the creature that preys on its victims in the darkness, a metaphor for oppressive forces and intentions. By contrast, the morning sun and the rooster’s call is a metaphor for knowledge and humanism, represented by butterflies and birds, the advent of a new era of opportunity for women, Shudras, and Dalits in Phule’s words.

In this poem Savitribai Phule places the word Dalit in the voice of Jotirao Phule. Here is a small portion of the longer poem in the original Marathi followed by my translation. The original poem here and the one below are both taken from the government of Maharashtra’s edition of her work edited by MG Mali and published in 1988:

खरे तुज बोला । हटला अंधार॥
शूद्रादि महार। जागे झाले ॥१०॥
दीनदलितांनी । अज्ञान सहावे॥
अमानुष व्हावे । घुबडेच्छा ॥९१॥
कोंडला कोंबडा । तरी आरवतो॥
पहाट सांगतो । लोकांना तो ॥९२॥[1]

What you say is true – the darkness has retreated. ||
The Shudras and the Mahars are awakened. || 10 ||
The owl’s inhumane wish is
That the deprived (dīn) and the broken (dalit) may endure ignorance. || 11 ||
The rooster is caged, and yet it crows,
Heralding to the people (lok) a new dawn. || 12 ||

The arrangement of Savitribai’s poetic language aligns “the Shudras” in line 10 with the “the deprived” (dīn) in line 11, and the Mahar people in line 10 are likewise associated with the “the broken” (dalit) in line 11. She indexes both communities – “The Shudras and the Mahars” who are also “the deprived and the broken” – again in line 12, this time as “the people” or lok. This is the audience of her poetic work, “the people” as she understood them, the deprived and the downtrodden: women, Shudras, and Dalits.

It is noteworthy that though this first instance of the word Dalit is in a poem composed and published by Savitribai Phule, in the poem itself the word is imagined by her to be spoken by Jotirao Phule. Perhaps Savitribai Phule placed this word in the voice of Jotirao Phule to suggest his own usage of the term in oral or public contexts. This association of the word in the poem may be what has led some scholars and others to attribute the term’s original socio-critical uses to Jotirao Phule.

Whatever the case, even if Jotirao Phule did use the term in his published work somewhere, given that his widely published work may follow that of Savitribai Phule by some years, it would still likely be Savitribai Phule who was the first of the two to use the term inn a way very similar to how it is used today.

After Kāvyaphule, Savitribai Phule did not publish her own words again until after her husband’s death in 1890. In 1891, she published Bāvannakaśī Subodha Ratnākar (“A Bounty of Fifty-Two Gems of Wisdom”), a collection of 52 poems that serve as an eulogy to her husband, one poem for every week since his passing the year before. As with Kāvyaphule, in this final book of poetry Savitribai Phule filled her verse with images and references to Jotirao Phule, viewing him as a visionary at the end of a historical progression from a time of darkness to a time of light, liberation, and knowledge for women, Shudras, and Dalits.

In this last book of poems, Savitribai Phule again used the word dalit, this time while referencing a key moment in her shared life with Jotirao Phule. In 1868, on the property of their home in the Gunj Peth neighborhood of Pune, it is remembered that they opened their private well or cistern (vihīr) to their neighbors from Untouchable castes: Mahars, Mangs, and others. One can tour the Phules’ home and see this well/cistern today.


In a striking couplet contained in one of the poems in this collection, Savitribai Phule recalls this moment, which she presents as a model for the ethical humane treatment of others. Here is the Marathi original of the couplet and my translation:

स्वत:च्या विहीरी महारास वाटा
मनुष्यत्व दावी तयाचा सुवाटा
दलीतास आदेश सद्बोध साचे
न भूतो चमत्कार जोती युगाचे ।। ४१ ।।

Share your wells with the Mahars.
Show humanity through generosity.
This is the right mindset with which to treat the broken (dalīt).
Such wonders did not happen until Joti’s time. || 41 ||

In this poem, as in the one before, the word dalit (written here dalīt) is used to describe Mahar people within a socially progressive politics that insists on treating people with a sense of “humanity” (manuṣyatva). The second-person address to Phule’s reader or listener encompasses an audience not only composed of Brahmanical or “high caste” society but also Phule’s fellow Shudras.

Indeed, Savitribai Phule addresses this book of poetry itself to her other Shudras, setting at the start these lines: “With deep feeling Savitri speaks to all Shudras” (वदे सर्व शूद्रांस सावित्री भावे) [Verse 4]. In this poem Savitribai Phule is asking her fellow Shudras to share their wells freely with their Dalit neighbors to show their humanity.

As in the poem above from Kāvyaphule, here again Savitribai Phule connects the humane treatment of Mahars/Dalits to the life and work of Jotirao Phule along a metaphorical timeline from darkness to light, from night to day. A consistent message in the poetry of Savitribai Phule is that the “wonders” of breaking caste barriers – here between Shudras and Dalits in particular – is because of Jotirao Phule’s activism. The effort to make sure people remember this message is at the core of Savitribai Phule’s final book of poetry.

Pivotal figure

My aim in this short piece has been to situate Savitribai Phule within the genealogy of the powerful word, Dalit, and to highlight her importance in the history of movements against caste and gender injustice in India. I do not attempt to displace or reduce the importance of Mahatma Jotirao Phule in this genealogy or in any other way. As I have pointed out, this would go quite counter to Savitribai Phule’s own intentions in her poetry, which serves to praise Jotirao Phule. Savitribai Phule consistently positions Jotirao Phule as a pivotal, even inaugural, figure within the history of a liberatory politics meant to eradicate caste patriarchy in India.

However, what I have tried to do here is to show that the converse must also be true: that the groundbreaking work and thought of Savitribai Phule must have deeply influenced not only the thought and activism of Jotirao Phule, but also the very struggle for the rights of women, Shudras, and Dalits in India in the nineteenth century and into the present. If we are to hold on to the legacy of Savitribai Phule as a pioneering educational activist and teacher, we must continue to explore what she still has to teach us even today.

Christian Lee Novetzke is Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Washington and is writing a book on the poetry and thought of Savitribai Phule.

Acknowledgements: For critiques on aspects of this article, I thank Jayadev Athreya, Krishna A. Athreya, Radhika Govindrajan, Tejas Harad, Anup Hiwrale, Shobha Kale, Sunila S Kale, Shraddha Kumbhojkar, Shailaja Paik, Heidi Pauwels, Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, Priti Ramamurthy, Anupama Rao and Surajkumar Thube.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Gail Omvedt (1941-2021).