• Saturday, April 13, 2024

Interview with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, Author “Savitribai Phule”

Discover insights from Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, author of "Savitribai Phule," in this exclusive interview on Frontlist.
on Mar 15, 2024
Interview with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, Author “Savitribai Phule” | Frontlist

Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta is India's favourite biographer and a reviewer for Network18. She is credited with the acclaimed Red Dot Experiment, a ten-year-long six-nation study on how culture impacts communication. She is a committed Reading Coach, supporting corporates to build the reading habit. A polyglot, she speaks five languages.

Frontlist: What specific aspects of Savitribai Phule's life intrigued you the most during your research process, and how did you ensure your portrayal captured the essence of her character?

Reeta: I wanted to widen the lens through which history has traditionally looked at Savitri Bai Phule. She was not only India's first teacher and a social reformer but also a daughter, a wife, a friend, a conscious daughter-in-law and an upright citizen; a successful lady in all dimensions. Long before we started talking about the 21st-century career women and glass ceilings, Savitribai Phule had already done it all! So, as Women's Day comes closer, we need to celebrate all aspects of her.

Frontlist: In your biography, you mention the significant roles played by Savitribai's mother, Sagunabai Kshirsagar, and her friend, Fatima Sheikh. How did their support and companionship shape Savitribai's activism and personal development?

Reeta: No revolution can be carried out by a single person. Often, we find that a leader articulates their vision, and followers join along the way, strengthening the vision, giving it momentum perspective and shaping it with their legwork. A very similar thing happened with Savitribai Phule's 19th-century social revolution. The role of Fatima Sheikh, who opened all the 18 schools with her, and Sugunabai, her mentor who offered unstinting support to run the schools, has to be recognized. This is a celebration of the inclusive women's power that defined the origin of women's education in India - which today has grown to be the world's largest democracy.

Frontlist: Savitribai Phule's advocacy extended beyond women's education to include the emancipation of widows and marginalized castes. Can you discuss the interconnectedness of these social justice causes in her work and the impact they had on Indian society?

Reeta: Social issues are like dominos in a line; one topples, and a hundred others topple, too! Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh opened the first school for girls on the first of Jan, 1848. However, the school had to shut down immediately because the six girls who enrolled were not allowed to have water from the well nearby. This is when Savitribai realized that opening schools is not enough! Having them function within society required further acceptance and awareness. When they recouped and opened the school again, they started offering midday meals, which today, of course, are an extremely popular incentive among poor families. The dire plight of widows at the time posed another problem; they were ostracized by society after being subject to the most horrific human rights abuses. They would often become pregnant and commit suicide. It was imperative to create an institution that accepted these widows, gave their children safe birth, and brought the widows back into society again! Finally, realizing how few people she would actually be able to touch, Savitri and Bai wrote poems, sending them far and wide in the hope that she could awaken the conscience of as many people as possible!

Frontlist: As an esteemed biographer, you've crafted narratives about diverse individuals. How did you approach the challenge of presenting Savitribai's story authentically while navigating historical gaps and interpreting archival material?

Reeta: I would like to honor the work of Marathi historians who painstakingly documented several parts of Savitribai Phule's life. It so happens that in those days, writers from Bengal would write in English. This was understood by the British, who could only read English! Those names became more familiar! The writers from Poona and surrounding areas who wrote in Marathi were not understood, and their work remained submerged. Thankfully, it survived time, and today, it is high time we recognized the contributions of the literary geniuses of modern-day Maharashtra. The only gap that I had to stitch together through oral narration pertains to the story of Fatima and Usman Sheikh! Even here, several historians in Pune had done a lot of work via essays, newsletters, etc.; these helped me piece Fatima Sheikh's story together. At the end of the day, a biographer does rely heavily on the context of the times, government records as well as character sketches that complete the picture.

Frontlist: In today's socio-political climate, what lessons or inspirations do you believe contemporary readers can draw from Savitribai Phule's life and activism, particularly in the context of ongoing struggles for gender equality and social justice?

Reeta: Perhaps the common answer would be perseverance. However, Savitribai Phule understood the value of perception extremely well. When she and Fatima Sheikh started their school in Poona, a large section of society believed that they had possibly converted to Christianity as their teacher was Cynthia Farrar, a missionary. In order to combat this, Savitribai immediately conducted a traditional Haldi-kumkum festival, bringing women of all communities together, reiterating that she was still one among them! Several years later, when Jyotiba Phule was disillusioned with the progress of the movement, he felt like he must quit teaching. SavitriBai reminded him that it was because of his vision and leadership that many people had joined the movement. Therefore, quitting was not an option for him. Thus, Savitri Bai Phule always saw the larger picture and was able to manage perception to keep the movement going strong!

Frontlist: Finally, as International Women's Day is approaching, what message do you have for all the women out there fighting for their rights?

Reeta: It is poignant that you ask me this question because the theme for Women's Day 2024 is to celebrate inclusion. The important thing to learn from Savitribai Phule is to include as many women as possible, in the cycle of benefit and prosperity that one wants for oneself. The more powerful the base of a movement, the stronger its ideological framework and wider its net of benefits, the more likely it is to succeed!

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