Feb 9, 1991 - Mar 11, 2001

Defying Stereotypes - stories of Unsung Heroines 

The Surabhi Foundation for Research and Cultural Exchange

Selected from the Surabhi Foundation Archive, India, these are stories of ordinary women with extraordinary courage and strength.

In the 90s, popular Indian TV Show Surabhi captured millions of hearts! As audiences waited eagerly for their letters to be read out by their favourite anchors – Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane, they also got the chance to virtually travel the length and breadth of India, as Indian culture revealed itself in all its colours, through this pioneering non-fiction TV series.

Today, the Surabhi archive is replete with thousands of stories of ordinary individuals, from all corners of the country, who did something extra-ordinary. These unsung heroes and heroines make India what it is – a land with remarkable indigenous creativity, bursting with all the hues and colours that life can offer!
Here are 6 selected stories about women who at that time had the courage to defy gender stereotypes:

In Hinduism, as in most religions, priesthood has always been reserved for men. But in this revolutionary story from the 90s, watch how women in pune are training to become purohits, and even practising the profession!

In 1975, Shankar Thatte from Pune started a unique school – he started teaching priesthood to women!

In India, every household needs a purohit, in all stages of life. Growing demand was earlier not met properly, since male purohits had packed schedules, and could not dedicate enough time. So Thatte came up with his revolutionary idea, of training women to be purohits.

Thatte’s outstanding vision has now taken shape, as more and more women now take training in his center, and have even started practicing priesthood.

People find women to be more sincere and disciplined in this profession, as they have taken on and conquered a male dominated profession yet again.

This amazing story was shot more than two decades ago. Even then, young women in Kerala were breaking stereotypes and learning Kerala's ancient martial art form - Kalaripayattu!
Interestingly, many of the young women featured here have grown up to become teachers today, and continue their legacy, empowering and inspiring many more women along the way!

Today, an increasing number of girls are trained in the techniques of Kalaripayattu. The ancient martial arts teaches girls confidence and courage to face any abuse, and to tackle any anti-social elements successfully.

Men and women go through the same diet and training. Women tend to do rather better at this art than men because their bodies are more flexible, receptive and in harmony with themselves.

Beautiful islands, a rare specimen of sea weeds – a botanist’s delight – Chinnapalem, off the Tamil Nadu coast! But what makes this place special? Here, women divers bring up sea weeds for their livelihood, taking over a function traditionally handled by men.

Nearly 100 women row half an hour to the Kurusadi Island everyday in vathais (narrow wooden boats), and dive to depths of up to 15 feet looking for the seaweed Marikkolunthu which is used for making agar for food and pharmaceutical industries.

They don't have the luxury and safety of oxygen cylinders and diving gear. Only goggles and their regular saris.

Sharda Devi's craft is an unusual one - the unnoticed art of making jhadoos - the humble brooms! A moving portrait of great courage and skill in the face of adversity!

Male dominated traditions have prevented women for centuries from becoming potters in India, because traditionally they are not allowed to spin the potter’s wheel. They are only allowed to shape the clay that the man spins on his wheel. This is due to the prevalence of traditions pertaining to clay or mother earth (female) principle, which can only be spun by a man as the potter’s wheel reflects the male principle.

Neelmani Devi however overcame this traditional taboo in the most original manner by replacing the potter’s wheel, with herself, spinning around the clay, shaping it into a pot with her hands. Not only are her pots famous for the skill and aesthetics with which they are fired, but it has released the energies of numerous women of Manipur who have taken to pottery in the same manner and are able to make a decent living from it.

Few know that famous actor Suhasini Mulay is also a filmmaker. More than two decades ago, she filmed master potter Neelamani Devi's story for TV show Surabhi.

Neelmani Devi today

Yet another story of courage and dedication!

This is the story of Gitaben of Rampur, a small village in Gujarat, where she not only became an earning member of the Amul milk co-operative but also used her earnings to become the first woman Advocate in her village!

The Surabhi Foundation for Research and Cultural Exchange is involved in the documentation, preservation and dissemination of India's Cultural Heritage at the National and International level. Surabhi Foundation is based on the remarkable success of `Surabhi,' India's longest running (11 years) non-fiction cultural series for National Television, produced by Cinema Vision India and presented by Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane. As a result of the amazing success of 'Surabhi', India's largest independent audio-visual archive of Indian art and heritage was created, a resource that lies at the heart of the Foundation.

Surabhi Foundation, Cinema Vision India
Credits: Story

Surabhi Foundation

All stories sourced from the TV Series 'Surabhi' (1991-2001)

Produced by
Cinema Vision India, Mumbai

Creative Producer
Siddharth Kak

Renuka Shahane and Siddharth Kak

Content edited and curated by
Ankita Bhasin

Associate Creative Producer
Shobhana Nair

Executive Producer
Aradhana Bedi

Asst. Editor
Mithun Pradhan

Lissy Abraham

Directors of original stories
Suhas Jahagirdar
Pushkar SIngh
Rajeshwari Rajan
Suhail Tatari
Suhasini Mulay
Prabal Barua

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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