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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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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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/

Deepa Vasudevan

“Those who have come out for the sake of visibility and activism have often faced a lot of harassment and experienced difficulty in finding work and housing afterwards. There is a huge amount of moral policing of women in our sexually hypocritical society. Public spaces are still unsafe for women-loving-women in Kerala. Safety comes in private spaces.”- Deepa Vasudevan

In a ‘democracy’ where a law such as Section 377 exists, criminalising homosexuality as “unnatural” and the fear of societal ostracism compels people of queer orientation to conceal their sexuality, Deepa Vasudevan, a Malayali Canadian immigrant, is trying her best to create a safe space for lesbian/bisexual women and transgender individuals in Kerala, a state relatively more conservative in this respect, despite high levels of literacy.

Her organisation, Sahayathrika, is named for a Malayalam word roughly translating to “Women undertaking a journey together”. The organization mainly works on counselling, community-organizing and survival of women from gender and sexual minorities, as well as raising awareness on LGBT issues. Deepa founded Sahayathrika when she realised that there was practically no support system for LGBT individuals and this perhaps was one of the major reasons behind a high suicide rate for lesbians in Kerala. With its first project inititated in 2002, it became an independent registered organisation in 2008.

“Many LGBT people tend to migrate to other cities. And people living in Kochi tend to be more private”- Deepa Vasudevan

A study by the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum has also highlighted that most development initiatives by the government excluded sexual minorities, including the pioneering Kudumbasree programme. Through its activities, Sahayathrika seeks to bring to the fore the marginalisation and harassment of the queer community in Kerala often leading to migration to other,more tolerant states.

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The kind of dialogue that Deepa Vasudevan’s Sahayathrika, Queerala and other organisations are trying to raise in society is a very important lesson to the sizeable proportion of the country’s population that still judges and attacks people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Read more about the experiences of India’s LGBT community here-

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/love-search-purple-rainbow/

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/a-prayer-for-understanding/article6243192.ece