Savitri Bai Phule

They say television is inspired from reality, although a large proportion of our Indian TV shows might compel us to believe otherwise. Many members of the audience who have gotten teary eyed whilst watching “Balika Vadhu” might not know of the real-life personality who went from being a child bride to one of the most prominent social reformers of her time.

Described by Tiffany Wayne as one of the “first-generation modern Indian feminists” Savitri Bai Phule was born in Maharashtra in 1831. Like many others of her generation, she was married off to twelve year old Jyotirao Phule when she was merely nine years old. Taught to read and write by her husband, it marked the beginning of a tough but remarkable journey for the nine-year old girl who went on advocate the social rights of women, especially in education.

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Source: India Today

She was the first female teacher of the first girls’ school in India, standing up for widows, unwed mothers, and untouchables, segments of society that were treated worse than dirt by the upper-caste patriarchal system. In what must have been at the time, a mammoth rebellion against conservative mindsets, she founded a care centre for pregnant rape victims. Facing severe ostracism from orthodox members of society, she refused to give in. She was supported in her endeavours by her husband who was a visionary himself and believed in equal rights for women. It was owing to Savitri bai’s efforts that a Mahila Mandal (Women’s Association) was founded in Pune in the 1850s.  She died while caring for underprivileged victims during the Third Bubonic plague pandemic in India.

Rise, to learn and act

Weak and oppressed! Rise my brother

Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone

Manu’s the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge– the English have come

Learn, you’ve had no chance in a millennium.

We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn

Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy in my soul

Crying out for knowledge to be whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste

I’ll blot out from my life at last.

In Baliraja’s kingdom, let’s beware

Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “Misery go and kingdom come!”

Awake, arise and educate

Smash traditions-liberate!

We’ll come together and learn

Policy-righteousness-religion.

Slumber not but blow the trumpet

O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast

Rise, to learn and act.

Savitri Bai Phule

 

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Ismat Chughtai

I first read Ismat Chughtai’s highly acclaimed and highly controversial “Lihaaf” as a teenager, relatively ignorant of the intricacies of gender and sexuality. I read it again several years later when I was not quite so innocent, or perhaps, ignorant, anymore. Chughtai’s work has a quality most young authors, including myself, would dearly wish their work to possess- each time a reader revisits it, they come away, absorbing something new, a hitherto unknown perspective in their mind.

One of the fiercest feminists of her time, Ismat Chughtai was an Urdu author who did not mince words when it came to writing about relevant social issues. An inspirational figure for women, many of her books were often banned at some point or the other. Her stories were incredibly honest about things usually kept under strict wraps, such as homosexuality, child abuse, and conflict in middle-class society.

How as a young girl, Ismat Chughtai convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:

“Women cook food, Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.”
Ismat Chughtai

Facing harsh criticism to the point of having a law-suit filed against her for blasphemy (which she later won), Ismat broke the shackles of orthodoxy that conservative Islamic culture was associated with. She was an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and a front-runner for politically conscious literature. She lent a unique woman’s perspective to issues like the Partition. “In Ismat’s hands, the woman became a flesh-and-blood creature, with all the flaws and failings of a human being but also thoughts and ideas that did not necessarily limit her to the zenana.”, writes Rakshandha Jalil.

Read the full text of Lihaaf here.

The Women of Madhubani

The district of Madhubani, Bihar has become famous as a centre of extraordinary art, thanks to the efforts of several ordinary, yet highly talented and determined women. Traditionally used to decorate houses, these paintings have now gained worldwide recognition. Materials such as cowdung, mud and natural colours are applied to create intricate designs consisting of geometric shapes, symbols, figures of nature and gods and goddesses. Initially encouraged as a source of income after the drought of 1960s, this art is now reproduced commercially to create a variety of products made of cloth, paper and canvas.

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Artist: Mahasundari Devi

Three generations of women in Madhubani’s Ranti village have been the foremost proponents of this art. The journey began with Mahasundari Devi, a talented artist with no formal education, and was continued by her sister-in-law, Karpuri Devi. In the earliest years women were confined to their homes, restricting their artwork to the four walls of their households. Mahasundari’s work was first acknowledged in 1976 with a felicitation from the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir, following which their work came into the mainstream. It has also been showcased in Japan.

Dulari Devi, who is a pioneer of the next generation, is a shining example of the Guru-Shishya tradition. Beginning her journey as a household help in the home of the above mentioned women, she became one of their best students. Belonging to a lower strata of society, the Mallahs (fisherfolk) she actively works for the upliftment of children from her community.

The third generation of artistic young women are more articulate, educated and confident, although they still have to battle societal pressures. Some of them are recipients of scholarships from the Ministry of Culture, using their art to showcase social conflict and discrimination that is prevalent in modern society.

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Artist: Jamuna Devi

Apart from these women, who have primarily represented the upper strata of society, there are also talented artists from amongst untouchable communities such as Jamuna Devi and Mitar Ram who are lending a new dynamism to the art form. Almost as if to unshackle themselves from the historical constraints imposed on them, their concepts are fresh, doing away with the conventional designs, almost wild in their expression.

In recent times, Madhubani has transcended the boundaries of art and has transformed into a form of collective expression. The artists have been addressing problems such as deforestation by painting treespainting trees with the images of Gods and Goddesses, not only saving them from being chopped down, but also adding to the tourism potential.

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Mary Anning

Followers of the iconic TV show  F.R.I.E.N.D.S might remember laughing every time Ross’ profession as a paleontologist is mentioned. Indeed the picture that comes to mind is either of an intrepid Indiana Jones like figure who goes on expeditions or a professor covered in mud and dirt. However, as early as the 1800s, Mary Anning was creating ripples in the world of geologists by discovering a series of fossils that would form the basis of our present-day knowledge of dinosaurs.

Born in a poor family in Lyme Regis, Britain, part of the Blue Lias geological region that abounded in fossils from the Jurassic period, the Anning family collected and sold fossils to supplement their income from carpentry, which was often a pittance. The family was never given their due until Lt. Col Thomas Birch stepped in on their behalf to hold an auction of fossils.

Over the course of her life, Mary discovered the skeletons of the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur, even though she did not actively participate in the scientific community. She was also responsible for the discovery that coprolites, or Bezoar stones, that are used as trace fossils to analyze behaviour of the species, are fossilized faeces.

As a woman, and a working class woman at that, Mary was almost never given her due, and she was unable to become a part of the Geological Society of London. Her expertise in finding and assessing genuine fossils, however, won her respect among professors working in this field. Several celebrated fossil experts visited her to learn from her practical experience. After her death at the age of 47, Charles Dickens wrote of her,

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Watch this animated documentary about the life and work of Mary Anning-

Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

While India may have legally recognized the third gender in April 2014, a majority of the country’s transgender population is still widely discriminated against, be it in terms of being insulted on public transport or rejection in job interviews. India’s first transgender college principal, Dr. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, despite being competent and qualified for the job was forced to resign in 2016 after less than two years in office owing to non-cooperation of the staff and a section of students. This was a case that only came into the spotlight owing to the individual’s privileged status- there are numerous transgender individuals whose everyday struggles for existence never make it to the papers.

Amidst the bleakness of this scenario, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist and trained Bharatnatyam dancer who identifies as a woman, is an inspiration. Born male into an orthodox Brahmin family, Laxmi faced ostracism and abuse at a very young age, despite having a relatively supportive family. She was the first transgender individual to represent Asia-Pacific at the United Nations in 2008 where she spoke about the condition of sexual minorities.  She also represented her community and India at the World Aids Conference, Toronto.

Laxmi has served on the boards of several LGBT rights organisations and in 2007, she started her own organisation called Astitva. She has been associated with the Hijra community and actively campaigned for the inclusion of the third gender along with journalist and LGBT activist, Ashok Row Kavi. She has been featured in a documentary on LGBT Indians titled ‘Project Bolo’. Despite criticism from her fellow transgenders on account of being “elitist” and failing to bring about any real reform, it is undeniable that Laxmi Tripathi is a figure that stands out for being unabashedly herself. As she says in her autobiography “Me Hijra, Me Laxmi”-

“Every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say that I love myself. If every woman would love herself as much as I love myself, this society would cease to be patriarchal,”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Optimistic perhaps, but food for thought, don’t you think?

Watch Laxmi at TEDx Mumbai-

Nandini Sundar

Nandini Sundar, professor and chairperson, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economic made the headlines in 2016 after being named as accused (without any tangible proof) in the murder case of a Chattisgarh tribal. Best known for her work on the intersectionality of tribal movements with mainstream society, Professor Sundar was only guilty of something that is increasingly being frowned upon in the present day political environment- daring to express an opinion contrary to that of the administration. Earlier, she and some others had filed a PIL citing state-sponsored human rights violations in Chattisgarh.

“My story dances with abandon to the sound of the Madia dhol under a full moon night, where my friends and I raise a toast of mahua to hope and future.”

Nandini Sundar, The Burning Forest

Studying at Oxford University and the University of Columbia, Professor Sundar received the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2010. As a social anthropologist she delves into the complexity of identities that characterizes individuals in India, with regard to caste, tribe, state and the nation as a whole. Her research focuses on the underlying conflicts within such identities in context of violence and morality, and has influenced scholars not merely in India but also in Europe and America.

She has held visiting positions at Punjab, Yale, Michigan, Cambridge and Chandigarh universities. She was awarded the M. N. Srinivas Memorial Prize of the Indian Sociological Society in 2002-03, the L. M. Singhvi Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge in 2003 and the Hughes Visiting Fellowship at Michigan in 2005. Her publications include Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar and Branching Out: Joint Forest Management in India. Her diverse research interests include access to resources, citizenship, war and counterinsurgency, indigenous identity and politics, the sociology of law and inequality, and issues related to the environment, tribal rights and discrimination and exclusion in South Asia, to name a few.

A central theme of her writings is the life of the tribals in Central India specifically in Bastar, Chattisgarh. Unafraid to tackle controversial issues, one of her latest books, ‘The Burning Forest’ looks at Maoist conflict in Bastar. She points out how there has been little scholarly discourse that has been formally documented when it comes to such issues.

“The biggest problem is that the state does not make the distinction between legitimate research and political activity, and does not appreciate the value of social science research.”- Nandini Sundar

Professor Sundar was awarded the Ester Boserup Prize in 2016.

Watch an interview conducted by CNN News 18 with Nandini Sundar where she talks about how the Adivasi populace in Bastar is caught in the crossfire-

*Biographical details sourced from

http://www.infosys-science-foundation.com/prize/laureates/2010/nandini-sundar.asp

http://cgsas.tors.ku.dk/news/ester-boserup-prize-2016/