In 1857, India’s first vernacular-Marathi novel emerged from the presses. At the time, it received only an ambivalent response. But in the years that followed, the book went through three further editions and was included in the curriculum of Bombay University. In 2002, the trenchant critic Bhalchandra Nemade extolled the novel as the first example of “realistic” writing in Marathi fiction that was much ahead of its times.

The work in question was called Yamunaparyatan, an angry lament about the unfair suffering of widows, forced into a life of loneliness and torture by their cruel Brahminical families.

It was a subject with which the author, Baba Padmanji Mulay, had personal familiarity. A firebrand, pioneering Protestant Christian reformer in the 19th-century Bombay Presidency, Padmanji had been divorced by his Hindu wife the year in which the novel appeared.

The shock and anger of this divorce had a profound impact on Padmanji, since his wife had not acted out of her free will but, as she later clarified, had been pressured to do so by her family. Padmanji bemoaned the fact that his wife would henceforth lead the lonely life of a widow.

Controversial opinions

But turmoil was not a condition unfamiliar to Padmanji, whose controversial opinions earned him several enemies. Padmanji often engaged in fierce print battles with Hindu reformers whom he denounced as fake, accusing them of posturing in convenient ways to retain caste privileges and left the hegemonic structures of Brahminical Hinduism intact.

His contested politics have inadvertently led Padmanji being neglected within scholarship on reform in India that emphasises indigenous contributions, while clubbing Christian reformers like Padmanji with missionaries and colonialism. In the four years that I researched my book Baba Padmanji: Vernacular Christianity in Colonial India, which was released in December, I discovered that far from being a European lackey, as he is sometimes characterised, he was a visionary whose contributions undergird the history of modernity in India.

Born in 1831 in Belgaum to a Konkani-Marathi family of repute from the Tvashta-Kasar caste of braziers, Padmanji began his education at the Bombay Scottish Mission’s Wilson School (later Wilson College) in 1849.

Nineteenth-century Bombay was marked by an intellectual ferment, with nascent debate groups publishing newsletters. In 1850, Padmanji joined a similar debating and discussion group called the Paramhans Mandali but struggled with Hindu reform, criticising leading figures for what he called a peculiar variety of religion that was deist, theist, and bordered on atheism. As a consequence, Padmanji abandoned the Paramhans Mandali angrily, beginning his own group called the Satyashodhak Mandali.

Wilson College in 1893. Credit: The British Library, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, he was being influenced by the Bombay Scottish Mission’s Free Church Institution, and European and native missionaries alike. His mentors included Murray Mitchell, John Wilson, and Narayan Sheshadri (a Brahmin convert from Hyderabad). In September 1854, Padmanji converted to Christianity in Belgaum.

While the Paramhans Mandali was disbanded, it later regrouped as the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay in 1867, under the influence of Brahmo Christian leaders like Keshub Chandra Sen. Padmanji, as expected, did not join the Prarthana Samaj.

Despite these struggles, Padmanji remained an exceptionally powerful figure in the reform circles of 19th century Bombay, considered a formidable leader among Christian reformers.

Padmanji took Protestantism very seriously, and was ordained Pastor at the Free Church in 1867, serving the Free Church of Pune till 1872, before retiring and taking up full-time writing. When he died in 1906, Padmanji was buried at the Christian cemetery at Sewri, in Bombay.

Padmanji led a tumultuous and intense life. Hailing from a conservative, Hindu family, Padmanji’s father was, nevertheless, a liberal man, serving in the public works department of the colonial administration. His father supported Padmanji through the travails of conversion that prompted his first wife to divorce him.

The turmoil of conversion and divorce would have shattered Padmanji, if not for his father, who was a bulwark of emotional support, funding Padmanji’s writing projects, and encouraging him to remarry. This relationship in fact, went a long way in resuscitating Padmanji’s hope in the Hindu family – a hope that other converts did not necessarily share.

Belonging to the upper-caste, Padmanji was nevertheless, non-Brahmin, and nursed a deep resentment against Brahminical practices associated with widowhood rituals and rules, child marriage, and the debarring of women’s education that he deemed heinous products of heathen superstitious.

Though not in favour of conversion for the sake of escaping torture, finding this utilitarian approach to undercut the importance of Protestant conviction that must precede conversion, Padmanji favoured structural reforms instead, that would outlaw “superstition”, and gradually wean non-Brahmins away from the socio-religious power wielded by Brahminism.

Once weaned away, coupled with all superstitions outlawed by the government, Padmanji hoped for true reform to become instituted within a consolidated social context of education and Protestant moral values about progress and rational faith.

Title page of Padmanji’s Marathi autobiography, Arunodaya (1908). Photograph: H Israel

Padmanji became known for pioneering Christian Marathi literature that inaugurated a new genre of vernacular Christianity in Bombay, encouraging social integration between all Christians. His writings posited Christianity as a native, Marathi religion, but also as a universal religion for Europeans and converts alike.

At the helm of many publishing houses run by missionary printing presses, Padmanji also ran his own press in Bombay (Victoria Press). He headed various prestigious Christian journals, and wrote more than 100 Marathi texts on Christian themes that combined didactics, fiction, research, activism, and polemics, composed in terms of multiple interweaving styles: prose, letters and journal entries, dictionaries, thesauri, translations, conversations, and poems.

In 1877, Padmanji became famous for producing the first Bible (New Testament) translation with commentary, made by native Christians. He was also well-known as the first vernacular Christian autobiography writer in Marathi (Arunodaya published in 1888). It was translated into many languages. It had been preceded by his novel Yamunaparyatan.

Christian feminism

The most important aspect about Padmanj was his interest in Christian feminism. While Christian feminism as a movement arrived later, in the latter half of the 19th century, identified with the suffragists, in Maharashtra, Christian feminism was mostly associated with Pandita Ramabai. However, it was Padmanji, who pioneered Christian feminism in Bombay, drawing from the writings of Krishna Mohan Banerjea, a convert missionary of the Scottish Mission in Calcutta.

Padmanji saw himself as Banerjea’s inheritor, further supporting Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Widows Remarriage Act, passed in 1856. Dedicating Yamunaparyatan to the same cause of widow remarriage, Padmanji devoted an appendix in the book to Vidyasagar’s achievements

This focus on feminism is perhaps the strongest feature of Baba Padmanji’s contributions to modern India. He was a strong advocate of women’s rights to education, freedom to remarry, and independence of women as decision makers, while also locating this gender emancipation within the family framework that advocated for women’s equality within social and family relationships as influencers.

As evident from his essay on women’s education published as early as 1852, a time even before he converted, it is crucial to appreciate Padmanji’s pioneering role as an early feminist in Bombay.

In the context of anti-conversion activism today, with conversion being considered a variety of colonisation, and Christianity being considered a foreign, and western import, it is important to remember Baba Padmanji’s contribution to religious freedom and women’s rights as a convincing intervention that provided an alternative to Hindu reform.

Deepra Dandekar works as a researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, in Berlin and has recently authored Baba Padmanji: Vernacular Christianity in Colonial India, published by Routledge.