Excerpt from the book- SOCIAL WORK & SOCIAL WELFARE. NIRUTA PUBLICATIONS
Rama Bai’s father, Anant Shastri Dongre, a chitpavan Brahmin from a village near Karkala in Karnataka, had a traditional education in Sanskrit and was a great scholar. He was at Poona during the last years of Peshwa rule, Perhaps employed by the Peshwa. After the end of Peshwa rule he returned to his native village, with a conviction that women have a right to study Sanskrit and thus becomes a non conformist, even considered as a rebel by the orthodox Brahmin community. He sets up an ashram school for girls in a forest near by like the old Gurukul providing food, shelter and education to about 25 girls including some shudra girls. He faced strong opposition and even the threat of excommunication, but manages to escape it, proving in a debate that his work was not against the shastras. Due to adverse economic circumstances including a major famine, he sets out with his family - his wife, a son and a daughter Rama, a baby in arms barely a few months old, on a long tour of the country by foot, travelling first to Kashmir in the north and later to Calcutta in the east, but passes away on the way to Calcutta.
Rama Bai was taught Sanskrit by her mother Lakshmi Bai who in turn was taught by her husband Anant Shastri (She had helped him as a teacher in running the ashram school). The atmosphere in Calcutta was favourable due to the work by Brahmo Samaj led by Ram Mohan Roy, Dwijendranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen. She receives the support and help from K.C Sen. She was awarded the title of “Pandita” and “Saraswati”. But adversity strikes with the death of the mother and later her only brother. All alone at a young age of 22 years, she decides to marry a Bengali Shudra of her acquaintance, Bipin Chandra Medhavi, spurning the offer of marriage by a well placed Brahmin suiter from Bombay, who was a civil servant of the colonial government. Most unconventional in every respect, unmarried at the age of 22 years when traditionally the marriage was arranged around 10 years, choosing her bridegroom, not by the parents (who were not alive) and finally the most radical decision, marrying a shudra from Bengal in preference to a Brahmin from Bombay. Her husband dies within two years of the marriage and she had to look after herself and a young baby daughter. Adversity and loneliness follow her all through her life and she faces them with stoic courage, most unusual for a young Brahmin woman, who is traditionally expected to be in the care and protection of a man, first the father, later the husband and finally the son in old age.
Rama Bai decides to go to the Western part of the country, Bombay and Poona .Finally settles in Poona and later in Khedgaon a rural area nearby. She studies English by tution with the help of a Christian missionary and gradually converts to Christianity. She travels abroad crossing the sea (traditionally prohibited) first to England and later to U.S.A., where she travels across the country with lecture tour, talking about the condition of women.
Rama Bai was the only woman among the social reformers of the nineteenth century whose main concern was the improvement of the condition of the high-caste Hindu woman such as prohibition of Sati, widow remarriage and providing education which was denied to them. Rama Bai, herself had gone through the sufferings as a high-caste Hindu woman and later, a widow in a highly patriarchal society and based on her experience had written the book – ‘High-Caste Hindu Woman’. Because she converted to Christianity partly due to emotional need and perhaps also feeling disenchanted about reforming the Brahmanical uppercaste Hindu Society, her influence as a reformer began to wane during the latter part of her life increasingly she devoted herself in providing shelter, education and arranging re-marriage of young high caste widows in Poona and later in Khedgaon.
In a major scholarly study in a feminist perspective, Chakravarti makes the following observation about the neglect of Rama Bai by the historians of the nineteenth century of India. “The social history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in India has dwelt at considerable length upon the socio-religious reform movements of the period. Descriptions and analyses of such movements have featured in all the standard text-books…………… Rama Bai, who spent the better part of her life working for women in general but more specifically on the most powerless section within upper-caste society- the widow -, gets only a passing reference in discussion on reform and no mention at all in any discussion on the ‘making of modern India’.
Why has the life and work of Rama Bai and more importantly, her critique of society been marginalized from mainstream history which otherwise is more than generous to the great men (and occasionally women) school of history? Rama Bai had all the elements required for a ‘great’ character: She was articulate, learned, confident and forceful – a woman who got considerable media attention when she first burst upon the public arena in the 1870s. Men of the nineteenth century, both reformist and traditionalists who had been waxing eloquent on the ‘glorious’ position of women in ancient India, suddenly found an embodiment of such womanhood in the person of Rama Bai.
Rama Bai’s critique of Brahmanical patriarchy and her decisive break with its oppressive structure whom nationalism was synonymous with Hinduism. Rama Bai became at best an embarrassment and at worst a betrayer. Her marginalization then is not the mere consequence of gender bias in history, although that certainly accounts for a part of it. It is not merely an obscuring, an invisibilising, as is commonly the case with women, but a suppression (Chakravarti 1998).
Professor of Social Work (Rtd), Delhi University, Delhi