On April 11, on the birth anniversary of social reformer Jotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule Pune University republished a short volume by Shantabai Raghunathrao Bankar that has come to be recognised as the first biography of Savitribai Phule – Jotirao’s wife and a reformer in her own right.

First published in 1939, Bankar’s Samajbhushan Savitribai Jotirao Phule Yanche Alpa Charitra (A Short Life Story of Our Society’s Ornament, Savitribai Phule) is important not only because of its subject but also because it reflects an endeavour to write a biography with only scant information available about the subject. By the time Bankar began to write this biography, its subject had already been dead for more than 30 years.

Savitribai Phule was a pioneer in the field of women’s education. Along with her husband Jotirao, she started the first Indian girl’s school in Pune in 1848. The couple opened three more schools for girls in Pune by 1851. Savitribai Phule was also a precocious poet and produced educational texts about caste discrimination. She ingeniously fused anti-caste activism with modern education.

But beyond this, there is an extreme paucity of detail about her. However, for Bankar, analysing the rapidly changing social milieu and merely documenting and reconstructing the aura of a historical personality based on skeletal information was enough to revitalise public memory about Savitribai Phule.

Confronting upper-caste hegemony

Bankar was born in 1919 in Mumbai’s Parel area and was the first woman from her Mali or gardener community in the city to pass the matriculation exam. Her family was deeply involved with the Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truth-Seeking Society), a social reform organisation that had been founded by Jotiba Phule and his colleagues in Pune in 1873.

Its primary purpose was to educate the members of the lower castes, including Dalits and women. It came to spearhead a social campaign called the non-Brahmin movement.

Along with generating a critical consciousness among what Phule termed as the “stree shudra-atishudra”, the samaj also sought to confront the stranglehold of upper-caste hegemony over everyday life.

Shantabai Bankar’s father, Raghunathrao, was an important figure in the Satyshodhak movement and served as the secretary of the All India Satyashodhak Samaj from 1921 to 1930.

One way samaj members asserted their anti-Brahmin identity was by producing a variety of writings, from journalistic pieces to literary tracts. Shantabai Bankar’s biography of Savitribai Phule falls within that tradition.

In his introduction to the republished volume, Savitribai Phule Pune University professor Vishwanath Shinde provides a short profile of Bankar and alludes to her sharp and tenacious mind by introducing readers to her social reform activities and her contributions to non-Brahmin newspapers such the Dinmitra.

As much as this republication brings the first biography of Savitribai Phule back to public memory, it also highlights the need to unearth the buried histories of women like Bankar in the Satyahsodhak movement who worked as writers, editors and owners of small printing presses.

Shantabai Raghunathrao Bankar.

When considering Bankar’s approach to the book, it’s useful to recall historian Dipesh Chakraborty in his book The Calling of History. In order to understand the emergence of history as an academic discipline in India, Chakraborty makes a distinction between what he calls “cloistered life” and “public life”.

The first marks out the sundry protocols of knowledge that an academic must adhere to, while the second deals with rhetorical assertion, where the validity of a debate and discussion depends on the time and the context in which a particular issue is invoked. Chakraborty argues that an intriguing mixture of “cloistered life” and “public life” contributed to the emergence of the discipline of history.

Undoubtedly, ascertaining the veracity of historical information is crucial in formulating a convincing argument: “facts” became indispensable to cement “historical truth”. Despite this, early 20th century Western India in particular, witnessed a kind of history writing that was neither “cloistered” nor “public”. These particular writings were deemed necessary to commemorate a historical figure, a delayed remembrance in the world of print about the significance of their public acts.

The privilege of archiving personal information

Biographies are meant to provide a comprehensive insight into a person’s life. However, an immediate, preceding question which is left unanswered is who exactly is in a position to both collect, archive information about oneself and then make it available for analysts for further research?

Shantabai Bankar laments early on in her essay about how nobody showed any real concern about writing a biography on Savitribai Phule until the 1930s. Furthermore, in the introduction to the original publication, Bhaskarrao Jadhav, a senior Satyashodhak leader, pithily notes how “in our people, the tradition of archiving biographical material is non-existent”.

Not only does this hint at how social reformers of the Satyashodhak group were more absorbed in their social work but it also makes us ponder over a deeper question of who happens to be in a position to devote time to archiving information about themselves.

Curiously, the first biographies on Jotirao and Savitribai Phule appeared only toward the 1930s at a time when the non-Brahmin movement began to disintegrate and began to become more political. At this time, some Satyashodhak members had joined the Congress. Perhaps this situation generated a need for more printed material on the movement’s founding figures like the Phules to help with political mobilisation.

In her deceptively small tract, Bankar forces readers to think about the myriad complexities of Savitribai Phule’s social milieu. She begins by describing the social milieu of Pune, where the Phules lived, as “a place of the Sanatani Brahmans”. By doing so, she alludes to the fact that upper-caste hegemony generates a miasma of unwritten rules about who gets to think more about themselves. This serves to highlight the novelty of Phule’s assertion of individual rights.

This focus on the social milieu fills the gap left by the paucity of information about Savitribai Phule. Bankar addresses the readers of her essay as bhagini or sisters. Her main focus was to mobilise women of all hues and walks of life to be inspired by the manner in which Phule navigated through her struggles.

Bankar’s portrayal of Phule as the emblematic figure of defiance and courage strikes a chord as most non-Brahmin women were at the receiving end of mock, ridicule and oppression from upper caste women who used to talk about non-Brahmin women in public spaces.

The author uses the words “stree” (women) and “sūn” (daughter in law) to reinforce the idea of how these words came to symbolise nothing but condemnation and slavery in their lives. This observation is supplemented by her lambasting the upper-caste women for perpetuating hatred for Savitribai Phule.

In a way, suffocative terms have entrenched the oppressive treatment meted out to all the nameless, faceless non-Brahmin women, Bankar maintains.

By using Savitribai Phule’s example, Bankar hints at the emancipatory possibilities of women moving away from being “oppressed figures” to becoming “defiant individuals”.

Taking on Chiplunkar

To quote one example of how Bankar reverses the Brahmanical gaze of mock and ridicule, she makes fun of Vishnushashtri Chiplunkar, a leading upper-caste Marathi literary figure of the 19th century, by focusing on his claim that women have a smaller brain compared to men. Along with what sounds like an Aristotelian gaffe, Bankar also criticises Chiplunkar for lacking an appetite for a healthy debate, for conveniently ignoring erroneous statements he has been challenged on before and for converting his inner rage into ad-hominem attacks.

In an interesting way, this passage also rekindled the critical interest of Satyashodhak members of the 1930s in the Chiplunkari school of thought from a gender perspective.

Bankar juxtaposes the oppressive terms routinely used for women with the superlative titles showered on Savitribai such as Krantijyoti, Samahbhushan, Mahasadhvi and Devi. There is an intriguing paradox in how the transcendental attributes of these terms act like a perfect foil to describe Savitribai’s commitment to the cause of social justice. The heroic nature of her quotidian deeds becomes apparent as Bankar notes that Savitribai manoeuvred her way through lanes and bylanes of Pune, amidst inflammatory invective being hurled at her.

These meandering lanes can be seen as a metaphor for the complex vice-like grip of Brahmins on Pune. This feeling most evocatively comes out in a long-winded sentence at the start of the essay (which goes on for more than half a page) about how Brahmins have historically exploited credulous non-Brahmins.

Bankar says that as far as women’s rights are concerned, ancient India was much more progressive than medieval times. She lays the blame for the decline squarely on the patronising protective behaviour of males/husbands. For Bankar, “this protective behaviour, which was a euphemism for women being enslaved to the male dominated world, resulted only in disrespect, weariness and botheration.”

Even though she fails to provide examples other than Gargi and Maitreyi as examples of free-thinking women from ancient India, she vehemently insists that principles like “independence, equality and brotherhood” were ingrained in the language of everyday society.

Bankar highlights the transition of women being respected in ancient India to being the weaker gender from the medieval times. Tracing this decline to as late as the 19th century, Bankar connects this trajectory to the rise of Brahmanical dominance in everyday life.

This point is crucial as it offers an insight into how this trajectory shaped Savitribai Phule’s anti-caste activities. Bankar recalling ancient India’s virtues must be seen as an exercise in fighting for an egalitarian society in the present. It also hints at Savitribai Phule’s holistic approach in terms of seeing the project of human emancipation as part of reforming the social milieu itself.

A collaborative project

The republication of this book was a collaborative effort between the history department and the Mahatma Phule research wing of the Savitribai Phule Pune University. It was released by university professor Vishwanath Shinde and Shraddha Kumbhojkar.

At the launch, the editors said that they had gained access to a rare copy of the book from the collection of the Mahatma Phule Samata Pratishthan, an institution in Pune that focuses on both actively working toward solving the everyday labour questions of workers, hawkers and farmers and also on maintaining a rich library of books pertaining to the Satyashodhak movement.

The indomitable nonagenarian Baba Aadhav, who is the chairman of the institute, gave his assent to the university for republishing this rare essay.

Shantabai Bankar was no amateur historian. She was also not merely indulging in ill-constructed rhetoric. However, her quest to document the aura of Savitribai Phule in the absence of a factually informed chronological narrative, forces us to think of a writing style that carved a space for itself amidst the growing clamour for a Positivist, Rankean style of history writing that equates meaningful writing solely with the availability of a plethora of verified sources.

Bankar’s biography is a guiding light for budding researchers and historians to think about history and knowledge-making in more complex and nuanced ways.

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.