Since the time my mind could understand why my mother wrapped pens in colourful papers and I was asked to gift each one to our respected teacher on a particular day every year, for me, Teachers Day as a child was a day for gifting pens to all the teachers whom I liked and even to those whom I disliked. I definitely didn’t have a choice. Now, as an adult with an increasing social media presence in our lives, there’s an increasing interest, both in children as well as adults, to learn anything and everything from the internet. But, even with Google becoming the personal teacher for those who can afford the internet, and however much the world might move forward, we all will definitely have that one or many individuals who inspire us, help us to be better learners, and there will always be that one individual who will be called “my favourite teacher.”
While as a 90’s kid, for me, plucking flowers from my mother’s garden along with a colourful wrapped pen, not carrying my regular bag to school, watching my friends dance to celebrate Teachers Day, was of immense pleasure, today’s Teacher’s Day celebrations might have changed. Yet, I believe, the essence still remains the same. Believing in this phase, I would like to move back to the past, the time when women in many parts of India were neither allowed to have formal education nor go out of their homes. The period when emancipation was at its strength and right to education was one of the priorities, a continued priority for gaining high literacy rate. There was a time when women in different parts of the county stole books and pages to read and write inside the four walls of the kitchen. The notion of private space being limited only to female and the public to the male, women were trained by their mothers to gain knowledge only about cooking, stitching clothes, weaving, taking care of their children, doing the household courses, etc.
Going back to the days before Sir Dr. Sarvapali Radhakrishnan was even born, there were some women educationists who first taught themselves to read and later fought for the right to formal education for girl children. While this article will only cite some of the many women educationists who have gone to different extents to educate themselves and their daughters, and also other girl children, the list is not exhaustive. These women today are called feminists; they fought for the liberation of the minds and dreamt for an India free from subjugation of women. There is no doubt that formal education in India started with the coming of the British, and was influenced by the reformist movement. Women were later allowed to go to schools, towards the beginning of the 20th century, where they were basically sent to school so that they could be involved in the nationalist movement. While most of the history has been written without many women authors, most of the writings today have been captured and preserved by the works of Geraldine Forbes, K. Lalita, Susie Tharu and Sharmila Rege.
Here are some of examples of women educationist who were their own teachers and as well educated the masses.
Rasundari Devi (1809), a Bengali woman, wrote a story of her life, ‘Amar Jiban’ (My Life) that was published in 1868. Obsessed with the desire to read, she stole a page from a book and a sheet of paper from her son and kept it hidden in the kitchen where she pursued her education. This was the first autobiography written in Bengali and it is rich in its details of the period and she has portrayed her own struggle to master simple reading.
Savitribai Phule was one of the first women teachers of modern Maharashtra. She and her husband Jyotiba Phule started the first school for women in 1848. Sabitri Bai was married to Jyotiba in 1840 when she was nine. With his support, she was able to study. In 1848 when Savitribai was only 17, she opened five schools in and around Pune, and taught with a colleague, Fatima Sheik. Their schools not only gave formal education but inspired the girl child to question all the forms of discrimination based on gender, caste, and the questions of the subaltern. Two of their disciples, Muktabai and Tarabai Shinde later on produced their own writings where they compared men and women (Stri Purush Tulana) and about the grief of the Mangs and Mahars caste (Mang Maharachya Dukhavisayi).
Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922) was awarded the title “Pandita” in recognition of her great learning. Ramabai’s fist teacher was her mother, Anant Padmanabha Dongre, and Ramabai’s father was a great Vedic scholar who decided to educate his wife despite the objections of the community stating, “If learning to read would lead to a husband’s death, then pursuing knowledge was tantamount to suicide”. Ramabai later founded Sharada Sadan in Bombay and Poona (1889) and later on Mukti in Kedgaon 1897. All her schools were to inspire girl child, widows to educate and inspire to empower themselves by using education as a tool. Pandita Ramabai funded her schools by selling her own books - the famous “The High Caste Hindu”, which she wrote when she was living in England, and later on, some foreign agencies funded her schools.
Mataji Maharani Tapaswini who started the Mahakali Pathshala of Bengal (1893), founded in Calcutta by Her Holiness. This school and its many branches have been styled a “genuine Indian attempt” at developing female education. Founders of the institution accepted the school model for female education, but opposed co-education and the use of one syllabus for both sexes. The school was also used as a way to promote amongst the pupil the ideas of nationalism, and indigenous tools for education.
Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, (1880-1932) began an institute for Muslim girls in the district town of Bhagalpur, Bihar. She was a feminist activist who worked hard to remove the “purdah of ignorance”, was born in Pairaband, a village in what is now Bangladesh. Her family was orthodox Muslim, but her elder brother helped her study at the darkest hours of the night, where she gained the power to read and write. Her husband was educated in the West and he too encouraged her to study. Rokeya published many articles on feminism and issues related to women. One of her famous books was “Sultana’s Dream” where she wrote about a utopian world where she describes women as the centre of the world and men limited to the indoors. She discussed in all of her articles the question of women’s oppression and the need for education. Soon after her husband’s death, her running a school alone was opposed by his family. So she left her home with her step-daughter, Begum Rokeya; closed the school and moved to Calcutta where she opened another school by the name Sakhwat Memorial Girls School in 1911. This school had Urdu as its language of instruction, was designed and organised for students who observe purdah. Seclusion, Begum Rokeya wrote, “…is not gaping wound, hurting people. It is rather a silent killer like carbon monoxide gas”.
Sister Subbalakshmi (1886-1969), at about the same time that Begum Rokeya opened her school for Muslim girls in Calcutta, established a school for young high-caste widows in Madras. Her concerns were that societies discarded child widows. At that time, there were increasing young widows in Madras, and Sister Subbalaksmi being one among them, planned to transform “these women to useful and valuable members of society”. Her father encouraged her to study further and home tutored her in English language, and later on she completed her matriculation and enrolled in Presidency College, Madras University. As the first Hindu widow in Madras to study for a B.A degree, she was threatened with excommunication, harassed in the streets and ostracized in the classroom. By 1911, she had completed her BA degree and was ready to begin her life’s work. She set up her schools in a Madras suburb and began with a class of four Brahmin widows.
For many of us today, education is one of the easiest things to gain, while for many, it is still a struggle. Rusundari Devi did not open a school, but her greatest achievement was her awakening, the realisation that it’s a tool to change your own self, change your own mindset, the possibility that there’s an alternative – to be able to do something other than being in the kitchen, doing the hardest job of cooking, cleaning and care giving. Savitribai fought not only for formal education of the girl child, but caste, class, and gender battles, where she and her husband were amongst the first to be the spokespersons of the subaltern. Pandita Ramabai, travelled all over India spreading the idea that educating the girl child is as important as educating the son; she was amongst those who criticised the high caste Hindu module, and spoke about where Hinduism relegates the woman. Begum Rokeya was amongst the first to dream for the freedom of the soul; she talked about what ignorance and wrong interpretation can do to an entire society, where education is kept as a shadow and not applied; she too critiqued the purdah. Sister Subbalakshmi, fought the battle for high caste widows who were young girls, gained her education first and later opened a school to inspire them and to create a path for them to empower themselves by using teaching as a career to change the shattered definition of a widow’s life.
In the entire six examples, each had their own struggles, but one motive, to help others gain change. Each of them didn’t settle for what society decided for them. They broke the definition of “what should be”, and came up with their own ideas of freedom, and their struggle was real. Even after being criticised by everyone in each and every step, they chose not to give up.
On the occasion of Teacher’s Day this coming week, I wish Sir Dr Sarvapali Radhakrishnan a very happy birthday. And for the many teachers and educationists who have inspired us from time to time, let it not be forgotten that for someone’s struggle, we have a today. And so, should we never give up on today.