Pandita Ramabai

By Zubaan

Illustrations by Devika Neogi

Pandita Ramabai was a social worker, scholar and a champion of women’s rights, freedom and education during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Recognized as one of India's most influential woman reformers, she was the first to promote the welfare and education of Indian widows.

Pandita Ramabai: The Achiever (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

Pandita Ramabai was one of India’s most influential women reformers. She paved the way for the welfare and education of Indian widows and defied various social norms to emerge as a champion of women's rights throughout the country.

Pandita Ramabai Establishing the Sharada Sadan (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

Born to Lakshmibai on 23rd April, 1858, Pandita Ramabai entered the world in her father’s ashram. A learned, liberal Brahmin, her father Anant Shastri Dongare took it upon himself to educate both his wife and his daughters, and was ostracised for his efforts. Ramabai had two elder siblings: her sister Krishnabai and brother Shrinivas. When her parents and Krishnabai died in the great famine of 1876 Ramabai, equipped with only her education, moved along with Shrinivas to Calcutta, in search of a better life.

Upon reaching Calcutta, Ramabai defied societal expectations and took up the cause of distressed women as her calling. She made a name for herself in the city as a reputed scholar, even receiving the titles of Pandita and Sarasvati, and used these opportunities to passionately advocate for the emancipation of women.

Following Shrinivas's death in 1880, Ramabai defied social norms yet again by marrying her brother’s friend, Bepin Behari Das Medhavi, a man of a lower caste. In 1882, misfortune struck their small family in the form of cholera, and her husband passed away; she decided to move to Poona with her daughter, Manorama.

Her husband’s demise, however, did not divert her from her fight. In the same year, she established the Arya Mahila Samaj, testified before the Hunter Commission on Women's Education, and published ‘Stree Dharma Niti’, or 'Morals for Women'.

Pandita Ramabai's Linguistic Contribution (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

In 1883, Pandita Ramabai went to England to study medicine, but had to change course upon the discovery of her increasing deafness. She picked up natural sciences, mathematics, and English at the Cheltenham Female College instead, and eventually converted to Christianity.

Ramabai came into contact with Dean Bodley of the Women's Medical College in 1886, who inspired her to work in America. She began studying the American school system, and their conventions.

In 1887, she went on to publish her second full-length book: The High-Caste Hindu Woman, the first Indian feminist manifesto. She also successfully lobbied for aid to start a secular school intended for child widows in India, and formed the The Ramabai Association, which pledged 10 years of financial support for her cause.

Pandita Ramabai Establishing the Mukti Mission (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

On February 1, 1889, Ramabai returned to India and within a month established Sharada Sadan, or the Home of Learning, in Bombay with two students.

Under the Mukti Mission, the school quickly grew and was transferred to Poona. In 1891, the school was mired in controversy when Indian reformers condemned Ramabai for preaching Christianity to students. Despite the condemnation, by 1895 the school was a resounding success with 26 child-widows and 13 non-widows in the school.

Ramabai also bought a vast expanse of land at Kedgoan, 55 kilometres beyond Poona, and named it Mukti Sadan, wherein 260 girls sought shelter during the famine in Madhya Pradesh. More buildings were added to Mukti Sadan over the years, including a Kripa Sadan to house destitute women, a separate home for boys, and separate classrooms for the blind.

In 1901, Ramabai obtained a printing press for Mukti, and issues of the ‘Mukti Prayer Bell’ were henceforth published. This paved the way for students to further spread the message of Christianity.

Pandita Ramabai's Linguistic Contribution (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

Pandita Ramabai translated the Bible into Marathi in 1924. Her daughter Manoramabai also established a new school and in 1919, government recognition was finally granted to the Sharada Sadan School. Pandita Ramabai was awarded with the Kaiser É Hind Medal in 1919, and she went on working for her ever-growing family until her death on 5th April, 1922.

Pandita Ramabai: The Achiever (2017) by Devaki NeogiZubaan

Her tremendous contributions in the education and welfare of Indian women have been celebrated time and again in the decades following her death. On 26th October 1989, the Indian Government honoured her life and work with the issue of a commemorative stamp.

Credits: Story

Illustrations by Devaki Neogi

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