Among the many wadas in the peth areas of old Pune, which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is one called Bhide Wada in Budhwar Peth. This wada is now in complete shambles but many many years ago it was witness to a revolutionary act.
Savitribai Phule and her husband Jotirao Phule, a young couple from the Mali caste, started a school for girls of all castes in one of the corners of this wada. Now there is a demand to turn this historic place into a national monument dedicated to the 'Mother of Education' Savitribai Phule.
Every year on 1 January, which is considered the date when the Phules started their first school in 1848, hundreds of people, especially girls and women, gather at the Bhide Wada to pay homage to the Phules, but also to press the demand for the construction of the monument.
A rally is taken out from Phule Wada, the residence of the Phules, which has now been turned into a memorial and declared a heritage site, to Bhide Wada. This path symbolises the path Savitribai would have taken to reach the school every day on foot.
Pioneering Work in the Field of Education
Savitribai was born on 3 January 1831 in Naigaon in the Satara district. She was married to Jotirao in 1840. Jotirao studied in a Scottish missionary school, while Savitribai was taught by Jotirao himself.
Later, Savitribai attended teacher training classes under Christian missionary women like Cynthia Farrar and Margaret Mitchell. This training helped her become teacher and headmistress in the various schools started by the couple in Pune.
Shraddha Kumbhojkar, head of Savitribai Phule Pune University's history department, says that a school where children of all castes sat together was a radical idea.
Later, Savitribai and Jotirao also started schools specifically for Dalit children. They institutionalised these efforts in 1853 by forming a society called the Society for the Promotion of the Education of Mahar-Mangs.
Researchers Jana Tschurenev and Sumeet Mhaskar write, in a paper titled
"The Mahar-Mang schools operated fee-free, and books and slates were given gratis. Like the three “native girls’ schools”, the Mahar-Mang schools basically adopted the standard curriculum of the Bombay Presidency’s government-funded vernacular elementary schools. Students first read the standard Marathi primers, and Aesop’s Fables (a popular text-book in nineteenth century elementary schools in India), before proceeding to lessons on the History of India, Grammar, and Geography.""Wake up for education": colonialism, social transformation, and the beginnings of the anticaste movement in India, Paedagogica Historica
With the help of many well-wishers in Pune – Indian as well as European – and assistance from the colonial government, the Phules ran a number of schools for girls, Dalits and others till the end of 1850s.
After the 1857 rebellion, the Phules slowly moved away from the school-related activities. Phule, in the 15th chapter of his book Gulamgiri (1873), blames both his Brahmin colleagues and European benefactors for this. He mentions that after the rebellion, the attitude of the European officers towards him changed and they started giving him cold shoulder so he stopped visiting them.
On the disagreements between him and his Brahmin colleagues, he writes,
"When I started to expose the hidden cunning in the crafty books of their ancestors, they started to disagree with me. They seemed to think that there was absolutely no need to educate the atishudra students ... I was of the opinion that we should give them good education, which would give them the ability to discern between good and bad."– Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, p 125
Later, in his memorial to the Hunter Commission in 1882, Phule observed that the schools for girls and one school for Dalit children, now ran by others, still existed.
Savitribai's Birth Anniversary Celebrated as Education Day
The birth anniversary of Savitribai, 3 January, is celebrated as education day by Bahujan masses of the Satyashodhak and Ambedkarite persuasion.
On Tuesday, 3 January 2023, many activists and followers gathered at Phule Wada to pay tribute to the revolutionary educationist and attend various events organised to celebrate her birth anniversary.
Pune-based activist and writer Pratima Pardeshi told The Quint, "The educational work of the Phules was the first modern struggle for knowledge. Up till that point, education was given according to the varna system. The Phules opened the doors of knowledge for the most oppressed sections of society."
Pardeshi informs that in her student days, she had participated in one of the first rallies taken out for the demand of the memorial at Bhide Wada, under the leadership of veteran activist Baba Adhav and one of the early biographers of Savitribai, late Fulwanta Jhodge.
"There are two world views as far as the historical heritage in Pune is concerned. On the one hand, you have sites such as Shaniwar Wada, Parvati, etc. To the east, you have Phule Wada and so on. Due to the contorted way of looking at history, some monuments are preserved while others face neglect," Pardeshi alleged.
The Maharashtra government has assured that the memorial at Bhide Wada will be built soon. Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Pune's guardian minister Chandrakant Patil have given statements in this regard in the last few days.
The Bhide Wada property is currently in private hands and also houses a few shops. After the Pune Municipal Corporation initiated the process to acquire the property, the shopkeepers went to court. The matter is currently pending in the Bombay High Court.
Activists have expressed hope that the shopkeepers will either be compensated fairly and asked to move out or accommodated in the new structure so that the work on the proposed memorial can begin soon.