Of late, I am not sure about heroes – of who they are, why they are so and how do they become so. And do they change the times we live in? I am conflicted.

Heroes do not make history alone.But, it is seen that very often men and women as individuals and sometimes in groups within the same society are able to see, feel and act in ways which are way ahead of the prevailing times, even before the large masses of this society are able to realize, organize or even agitate against its inequities. To that extent, they shall always be remembered and revered as the courageous first blooms who paved the not-so-manicured garden paths- of a better and more fragrant world.

Bharat Bala with his roving camera as promised travels the length and breadth of India seeking the frequently missed sights, smells and sounds. This time in the sylvan settings of a village in Maharashtra he discovers the “Aajibainchi Shaala”-School for Grandmother’s to celebrate a pioneer woman who definitely is quite the torchbearer of the Second Sex-and unarguably, holds more than half the sky.Enough, to make our small hearts throb with self-belief and much needed pride!

Around the time Marx was writing his Communist Manifesto Savitribai Phule had made the first school for girls in a remote village called Naigaon in Maharashtra, with the help of a courageous husband JyotiRao Phule in 1848. Savitribai most prized possession was a book given to her by a Christian missionary. Deeply taken in by her enthusiasm to learn, Jyotirao taught Savitribai to read and write. Savitribai undertook teachers’ training at Ahmednagar and in Pune. She became a qualified teacher after she passed her 4th examination in 1847.She went on to open several schools for girls in the surrounding villages. When the exploitive dowry system, the dreadful practice of Sati, early widowhood of girls and the pernicious caste system inspired a Raja Ram Mohan and a Vidyasagar to combat the evils with the benefits of education and literacy among other things in distant Bengal,she along with her husband dug a well in their own backyard, letting the discriminated lower castes to drink and fill water like all others. The Brahmanical Village elders did not take kindly to this and she was frequently attacked with cow dung on her way to school. The hopeless condition of widows and young needy girls made her open a Destitute Shelter in the year 1864 and hand-hold her husband to conceive and establish Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truthseeker’s Society) in 1873 followed by Satyashodhak Marriage wherein you swore to promoting education and equality. She also adopted a boy from one of her shelters Yashwantrao.If all of this was not enough she broke all customs and norms to light the funeral pyre of her dead husband riling the frustrated, hide-bound conservative social order. It is to the credit of the English masters that they recognized the many path breaking initiatives of this pioneering woman and declared her the Best Teacher in the entire State. The Bubonic plague of 1897 once again compelled her to open a clinic in Hadapsar, Pune, and it was while carrying a ten –year old in her arms, she contracted plague and breathed her last in the same year on the Tenth of March.

Nivedita Menon in the Outlook magazine underlines the changes she brought about almost a century and ayear later when she says “Eleven year old Muktabai, a Dalit student at the school in Pune established by Savitribai and Jotiba Phule, gave a damn about where the critique of caste came from when she wrote in the Marathi journal Dyanodaya in 1855:

Earlier, Gokhale, Apate, Trimkaji [a series of other Brahmin surnames]…who showed their bravery by killing rats in their homes, persecuted us, not even sparing pregnant women, without any rhyme or reason. That has stopped now…Harassment and torture of mahars and mangs, common during the rule of Peshwas in Pune, has stopped…

‘Earlier’ was under the rule of the Peshwas, ‘now’ was under British colonialism. The West was her saviour from indigenous caste society.”

May your tribe thrive and be born in the thousands. Salutations.

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