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Phule as a Radical Educator: Reading a Nineteenth Century Political Play

Ashok Gopal |
One of the examples of the state policy [that conferred privileges on the Brahmins], which is relevant to the production of Phule’s play, concerns the Peshwa practice of dakshina, an annual distribution of a large sum of state funds to Brahmins in the auspicious month of Shravan.
Phule as a Radical Educator: Reading a Nineteenth Century Political Play

Image Courtesy: Sabrang India

In 1855, a young, non-brahmin Maharashtrian living in Pune wrote a play of 30 odd pages in Marathi that was remarkable in many ways. Unlike most plays written in the country around that time, the short play was not based on indigenous folk-theatre, Sanskrit drama, or the works of Shakespeare. The play was squarely based on the time and place in which it was written. Further, it was political—it dealt with a mode of exploitation and a way to overcome it. Thus, in many ways, the play was a pioneering effort.

However, as far as we know, the play was not staged during the writer’s lifetime or even in the decades that followed, and the writer, who went on to become famous as “Mahatma” Jotirao Phule (1828-90), did not write another play, though he produced several literary works that used dialogue. Manuscripts of the play were not available in the public domain for around 120 years after it was written.

Reading the play, one sees that Phule had not mastered the craft of the form of realistic drama that he had adopted. Though his play tells a story with transitions of time and place, there are no clear-cut divisions between scenes. Though the story is moved forward through realistic dialogue, there is considerable authorial interpolation—about the motives of characters, or about their actions that are not presented on stage. 

Then, there is confusion around its title. In two of the three manuscripts that came to light in 1979, the title is Trutiya Ratna (The Third Jewel), but in one copy the title is Trutiya Netra (The Third Eye).



For all these reasons, one may conclude that Phule’s play was an amateur’s first draft that has no other significance; and that is the view taken in standard histories of Marathi literature. In the only such work currently available in English (K Deshpande & Rajadhyaksha 1988), the play is not even mentioned—but to put this into perspective, the authors do not mention any of Phule’s literary works; all that they have to say about Phule as a writer is that he “brought a directness and bluntness” to Marathi prose that was “much needed” (50).

However, outside the discourse of conventional literary criticism, Phule’s play is a significant work. In it, we find the seeds of the ideology he developed in later works. We get an idea about Phule’s views on Christianity and British rule, which have evoked much discussion (see, for example, GP Deshpande 2002: 18-19). The play also gives a clear glimpse of Phule’s view on education, which would be considered radical even today.

From this perspective, we will discuss the play, after considering its setting and Phule’s position at that time. (For another reading of the play, see O’Hanlon 1985: 122-32).

The Setting

The play is set entirely in some peths or old wards of Pune city; and from a reference at the end of the play to a night school that Phule set up in 1855, we can gather that the events narrated in the play are supposed to be taking place in the very year it was written.

Pune was then a city with a population of around 75,000. Around 90% of the population was Hindu and most of the remaining was Muslim (Gazetteer 1992: 287). While caste-wise population data of Hindus is not available, we can reasonably assume that the bulk of the Hindu population belonged to the “Maratha-Kunbi” category of cultivators—“Maratha” had not yet emerged as a separate jati label1. The main occupation groups were brass and copper workers, “religious beggars”, cultivators, labourers, traders, priests and weavers (ibid: 287-302). The railway line from Pune to Mumbai had not yet opened, and the city owed its importance primarily to the fact that it had been the capital of the Brahmin Peshwas, whose rule was brought to an end by the British in 18182.

British rule had brought about some changes. One was in the field of school education. While there had been a number of traditional schools during the Peshwa rule, none had been run by the state. For the first time, in 1826, two schools were opened by the government in Pune district; and by 1856, the number had risen to 95 (ibid: 50-51). However, the rise in number of schools was not proportionate to the population, and it was not accompanied by a rise in the spread of education across all social groups. As explained in Phule’s play, brahmins used various tactics to discourage children of low-ranked jatis from attending school; Phule himself had been a victim of this practice. Till 1881, less than 4% of the population of the district above 15 years had been “instructed” (ibid: 52).

A more fundamental change that came about as a result of British rule was that brahmins lost the backing of state policy to claim special status and privileges, which they had enjoyed during the Peshwa rule. But this change was an unintended fallout of the change in regime. It was not backed by any attempt to challenge the caste system. On the contrary, the British took special efforts to see that brahmins were not antagonised. One of the examples of this policy, which is relevant to the production of Phule’s play, concerns the Peshwa practice of dakshina, an annual distribution of a large sum of state funds to brahmins in the auspicious month of Shravan.

The original idea was apparently to reward “learned” brahmins, but by the time of the last Peshwa, monies were randomly given to any brahmin who turned up at the appointed time and place in Pune (ibid: 48, fn). When the British took over, dakshina as state practice should have stopped. But, with a “desire to conciliate the most influential class of the people” (ibid: 62), Monstuart Elphinstone, the lieutenant governor, retained the Dakshina fund. To reduce and control the expenditure involved, he restricted distribution of monetary prizes to those “skilled” in branches of learning such as law and mathematics, who were more “useful” than “proficients in Hindu divinity” (ibid: 49). However, many “bogus persons” and “worthless Brahmins” continued to be beneficiaries, compelling the British to add more restrictions (Keer 1974: 34).

The matter took another turn in 1849, when a brahmin reformist writer, Gopalrao Deshmukh, who wrote under the name of Lokahitwadi (pro-public-welfare), suggested that a portion of the fund be used to give prizes for literary works produced in Marathi. A petition was drafted, and it was signed by 39 persons. Perceiving the suggested encouragement to Marathi as a threat to Sanskrit, and thereby brahmins, several brahmins from Pune city and neighbouring villages reacted angrily. They threatened the petitioners with social boycott and asked them to explain their conduct before a brahmin committee. The petitioners ran to Phule, who had by then made a mark in Pune’s public life. Phule organised protection for the petitioners, and they got themselves out of trouble by telling the brahmin committee that that it was Phule who had drafted their petition (ibid: 34-36).

Despite this turn of events, the government set up a committee to recommend Marathi literary works for prizes. Phule submitted his play to this committee, but its brahmin members had the last word. As he recalled years later, they rejected the play summarily, and the European members of the committee “could do nothing” about this action (Phule 2002b: 93).

Phule’s Position

When Phule wrote the play, he was in his late twenties, and he already had some well-formed ideas about religion and the Hindu society, and how it had to be changed. A primary source of the ideas was the education he had received.

His father, Govindrao, a horticulturist with a shop in Pune, had first sent him to a small Marathi school when he was seven years old. But a brahmin clerk in Govindrao’s shop persuaded him to pull out Jotirao from school. Some years later, a learned Muslim and a friendly British official urged Govindrao to send Jotirao back to school. Phule then attended a Scottish mission school from 1841 till 1847, when he completed his secondary education in English (O’Hanlon 1985: 110).

The missionary-school education framed Phule’s view of religion. While he did not embrace Christianity, though that option was available, he accepted the theological framework underlying the propaganda of the Protestant missionaries who ran the school. This framework, which defines the relations between the believed creator of the universe and our material and social world, was deistic: It posited a singular creator, who creates all human beings equally, stands apart from his world of creation, and can be approached only through faith and performance of good deeds. In one stroke, the framework negated many popular Hindu beliefs. It had no place for idol worship, divinely ordained superior humans such as brahmins, or divine sanction for any socio-religious practice such as prohibition of widow remarriage. The framework gave space for scientific enquiry—as a means of increasing knowledge and appreciation of the creator’s limitless powers—and also social reform, as all social institutions and practices were deemed to be the handiwork of humans.

Phule was not the only Indian of his time to accept the deistic framework; brahmin and other upper-caste reformers of all kinds implicitly used it to analyse and criticise the ills of Hindu society and barriers to its progress (ibid: 88-102). However, Phule was different from the other reformers: Whereas the latter frustrated the efforts at missionary conversion by using the framework to posit a brahminical golden age of Hindu society, which had suffered degeneration that needed to be arrested, Phule conceptualised another kind of golden age. Based on Aryan theories prevalent in his time, Phule’s idyll posited shudra and atishudra (untouchable) groups as the indigenous population of India, who were overpowered and deceived by invading Aryans, who later called themselves brahmins. This conceptualisation is not elaborated in the play he wrote in 1855, but it contains a core element of the view he framed years later in his most famous work, Slavery (1873): a vigorous denunciation of brahminism.

While studying in the Scottish mission school, Phule befriended two brahmin classmates, and together they read about the lives of Shivaji and George Washington, and the works of Thomas Paine (Keer 1974: 14). The reading is said to have inspired them to work for the expulsion of the British from India. However, in Slavery, Phule dismissed the plan as a “crazy” idea that had been implanted in his mind by “selfish” brahmins, whose main concern was that under the British rule, shudras would gain the capacity to reject the brahmins’ “wily religious books”—and the brahmins would then not be able to live off the labour of shudras and atishudras (Phule 2002b: 88).

A year after he finished his education in the Scottish mission school, Phule visited a school for girls run by an American mission in Ahmednagar, and soon thereafter, he decided to start a “low caste female school” in Pune, which would be also open to boys. Phule himself taught at the school, which was run with the help of his brahmin school friends. As the school violated the orthodox Hindu notion that atishudras, shudras and females had no right to education, it faced severe opposition from Pune’s brahmins. Failing to get a teacher to help him, Phule took the assistance of his wife, Savitribai. This enraged the brahmins even more: They threw mud, dirt and stones at her when she walked to school (Keer 1974: 24-26). Fearing the social opposition, Govindrao urged Jotirao to abandon the school project, and when he refused, Govindrao asked Jotirao and his wife to leave the house.

Despite these challenges, and a chronic shortage of funds, Phule and his friends kept the school running, and opened a few more schools in the next four years. For his efforts, Phule was honoured by the British government at a public ceremony held in Pune in 1852.

However, Phule’s involvement in the schools came to an end a year later due to a fundamental dispute with his brahmin colleagues. In Slavery, he elaborated:

 "…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. If at all they have to be educated, giving them the basic literacy skills is enough. I was of the opinion that we should give them good education, which would give them the ability to discern between good and bad… to distinguish between truth and falsehood (Phule 2002b:94)."

The play Phule wrote in 1855 was an example of the education he wanted to provide.  

Theme and Presentation

The first few pages of the play establish its theme and mode of presentation. In a brief, opening paragraph, Phule explains that he is going to show how brahmin joshis (astrologers) swindle pregnant mali-kunbi women. Phule himself belonged to the mali jati, who formed the second largest group of cultivators after Kunbis, and by using “mali-kunbi” as a social category, and by later talking about shudra-atishudras in the same breath, he was clearly thinking about a common front against brahmins.

The play opens with a character identified simply as a “Joshi” complaining about meager alms provided to him by a pregnant woman of the above-mentioned social category. The woman is not named; here she is identified as a “Lady”. Most of the other characters in the play are also identified in this way; Phule obviously wants us to see them as representatives of categories. 

Significantly, the lady is not apologetic when she hears the joshi’s complaint. She retorts:

"Go away! Brahmins are only very persistent! How long should we care about your stomachs? Why don’t you all get some employment or do some business? (Phule 2001: 87)"

The lady’s outburst indicates that she has a critical view of brahmins, but it is quickly squashed by the joshi. He reminds her of a woman in the neighbourhood who had lost her child, and claims that the death was due to an unfavourable zodiacal position, which could have been combated if he had been given a proper bhiksha. 

The lady falls for the joshi’s claim; she becomes keen to do whatever he says. This development prefigures one of the core arguments in Slavery: By barring other jatis from gaining education and making bogus claims to superior knowledge, brahmins exploited the former, who were un-protesting victims.

At this juncture, Phule introduces a pivotal character: a vidushak, or jester. As pointed out by the dalit playwright Datta Bhagat in his introduction to Phule’s play (ibid: 66-67), Phule’s jester was a character without a precedent. He does not perform the role of the clown (songadya) in the Marathi folk-drama form, tamasha; nor is he like the jester in Shakespearean plays, or like comic characters in popular drama. Phule’s jester serves a didactic purpose. Notably, he does not address the characters in the play—they do not see him—but the audience. The jester is a political educator—a persona of Phule himself. He is a jester only inasmuch as he speaks sarcastically. For example, after the joshi proclaims that he can ward off illnesses, the vidushak remarks:

"If the Joshi can prevent people from dying, why doesn’t the British government stop providing medical facilities, pull down hospitals, and compel the Joshi to do this work? (ibid: 88)"

Craftiness of Brahmins

The twenty odd pages that follow the opening scene echo the title and import of Phule’s Brahmanache Kasab (The Craftiness of Brahmins), published in 1869. Phule elaborates the various ways in which the joshi swindles the lady and her husband.

First, the joshi whines till he gets more bhiksha from the lady, then he demands and gets tobacco and betel nut. He then pronounces some astrological nonsense to convince her that her unborn child is under the spell of an unfavourable zodiacal position, which can be combated if she organises a feast for brahmins. Leaving the lady to figure out how she can raise the money for the feast, the joshi departs, only to return a while later, claiming that he has forgotten his tobacco tin. By this time, the husband has returned home, has learnt about the joshi’s visit, and is keen to do as the joshi has suggested. The credulous husband even offers to give the joshi some money to compensate for the alleged loss of the tobacco tin.

The three characters then try to estimate the amount of money that would be required to organise a feast. The joshi starts with a sum of five rupees, and after a while, convinces the Husband that ten rupees would be required. This is more than the husband’s monthly income, and he decides to take a loan.

The joshi then claims that along with the feast, prayers will have to be offered for eight days by a sincere brahmin. The joshi suggests that his brother, Daamu, is the best person for the job. Daamu agrees to perform the task, if the number of days is increased to ten, and he is compensated accordingly: He has to be given a new dhoti.

As suggested by Daamu, the joshi asks the husband to give him money for the dhoti, rather than purchase it himself. Later, the joshi’s wife suggests that they borrow a dhoti and pocket the money. She also ensures that most of the brahmins invited for the feast are her own relatives.

The day before the feast, the husband is made to deliver all the materials that will be used for cooking at the joshi’s house—as the vidushak explains, the joshi thereby gets to keep the surplus materials. The husband is also made to wash the utensils to be used for cooking.

On the day of the feast, the husband and the lady have to stand waiting for hours till the invited brahmins finish eating, and the couple get to eat only whatever is left, which is thrown into their leaf plates from a distance. They gladly accept the food as prasad.

Every statement and action of the joshi is accepted by the lady and the husband unquestioningly. Hence, if we accept that they are representative characters, we can see how the role of the vidushak is critical: Without his frequent, barbed remarks, Phule’s target audience might not have seen through the joshi’s words and deeds. After the feast, the vidushak recounts all the ways in which the husband was conned, and exclaims:

"Outside of India, in no part of this earth, will I find a fool like you who gets swindled like this by Brahmins in a British-ruled state run on Christian principles (ibid: 108)."

Rejection of Brahminism

After the feast, the characters go to a Maruti (Hanuman) temple for the final part of the ritual to combat the supposed zodiacal influence. Standing in a corner is a Christian priest, identified as the Padre, who gets into a conversation with the husband, about the latter’s religious beliefs.

The physical location and action of the Padre, who is a representative of Christian missionary effort, has symbolic meaning: He stands close to a Hindu religious space and raises questions about it. Orthodox Hindus of that time found this action deeply unsettling. From a description of Pune city by a brahmin of that time, N V joshi, we learn of the many ways one of the zealous missionaries, Murray Mitchell, the head of Phule’s school, was resisted when he stepped out for proselytising work: He would be abused, his headgear would be removed, and stones and dung would be flung at him (cited by Bhagat, in Phule 2001: 126).

However, the husband (H) is willing to listen to the Padre (P), as he unfolds an argument against the former’s religious beliefs, which opens as follows (ibid: 109):

"P: Sir, can you tell me how many gods there are?

H: If I don’t know, does it mean I am godless like you people?

P: Godless like us? Means what? Please explain to me.

H: In your temple of Mamma Devi is there an idol of any goddess? Look, we can actually see our god (points to the five-headed idol of Maruti)"

The dialogue that follows mirrors the progression of questions and ideas used routinely by a Scottish missionary, Robert Nesbit, who was active in western Maharashtra in Phule’s time (O’Hanlon 1985: 76). But while Nesbit’s argument was aimed at conversion to Christianity, the argument presented by Phule, through the character of the Padre, leads to another goal: the husband and the lady reject brahminism.

The starting point of the route to that goal is Hindu religion, which is equated with idol worship. Through the Padre’s questioning, the husband first accepts the logical invalidity of idol worship as a demonstration of faith (god is not found in stone). From this stage, he embraces deism and arrives at the judgement that the religious ideology vigorously upheld by brahmins is false. Consequently, he identifies brahmins as charlatans and rejects the superior position claimed by them. In this way, he rejects caste too.

Neither the husband nor the lady raise doubts along the route—about its premises, logic or implications. Nor does the vidushak discuss the practicality of visualising social change through the route, which involved replacement of a sprawling religious system that has millions of adherents—who have many different kinds of faith, and many different reasons for holding on to it—with another, slim body of religious beliefs. Here it is pertinent to note how non-brahmin political leaders and groups that emerged in Maharashtra after Phule used his ideology: They borrowed his anti-brahmin polemic, but bypassed his rejection of Hinduism and endorsement of deism. They attacked brahmins to assert kshatriya Maratha status; they did not attack caste.

Attitude Towards British Rule and Christianity

On more than one occasion, Phule’s vidushak expresses admiration for British rule. Towards the end of the play, he declares:

"…All you Mali-Kunbis and Mahar-Mangs should not fear Brahmins for even a moment. For this purpose, God has brought the English to your country. Only they will resolve all your problems (Phule 2001: 121)."

As the Marxist dramatist and academic GP Deshpande argued, Phule seemed to have had a limited understanding of imperialism (2002: 18-20). However, it must be noted that the concept of “imperialism” was not available when Phule wrote the play. Moreover, Phule’s support for British rule was not blind.

In a passage that has not been noted by commentators like Rosalind O’Hanlon and GP Deshpande, the vidushak makes it clear that his endorsement of British rule is qualified:

"God has sent the English to this country to lift the prohibition imposed by Brahmins to prevent Shudra-Atishudra jatis from gaining education; and to ensure that they become wise. When the Shudra-Atishudras are educated and they become wise, they will not forget the debt they owe to the English, and they will prefer English rule a hundred times more than Peshwa rule. But if, at some time, the English harass the people of this country like the Moghuls, then, like the manly Shivaji, who was deemed to be a Shudra, the Shudra-Atishudras who have become wise through education will establish their own state, and like the people of America, they will manage their state affairs. But the attitude of the Brahmins and the destroyed Peshwa rule will never reign in this country again (ibid: 121-22)."

In some previous pages, through the character of the husband responding to the Padre’s questions about his lack of education, Phule criticised the British government for failing to see how brahmin teachers ensure that children of shudra-atishudra jatis do not attend school. He also pointed out that by subverting the British policy of mass education, brahmins were strengthening their status position in a new political system.

Phule’s criticism of the British government was elaborated in his memorandum to the Education Commission for India appointed under the chairmanship of William Hunter in 1881. When the commission ignored his suggestions, which included compulsory primary education, Phule described Hunter as a windbag who did not know anything about Shudra-Atishudras (Phule 2002a: 101).

On Christianity too, Phule’s stand is clear. The Padre expounds a deistic framework, which the husband accepts, and which Phule interpreted and elaborated in his own way years later in Sarvajanik Satya Dharmapustak (The Book of True Faith), published posthumously in 1891. But Phule makes no mention of the Bible, the Church or any Christian myth or ritual. At the end of the dialogue with the Padre, the husband does not proclaim belief in heaven and hell, and expresses no desire to be baptised and attend mass. At the end of the play, he and his wife decide to attend Phule’s night school for adults.

View on Education

The last line of dialogue in the play is uttered by the lady, who tells her husband that they should both attend Phule’s night school, so that they learn to write and read, whereby, they would be able to “understand all the affairs of the world” (Phule 2001: 124).

In the context of what preceded in the play, the lady’s simple declaration is pregnant with meaning. It hints at education that will help the student recognise (i) that she is a victim of exploitation, (ii) the means of exploitation, (iii) how victims like her support the exploiter in his efforts, and (iv) the means to attain freedom from exploitation. Attainment of literacy was only the means to a larger goal. Over a hundred years before the term came to be used, Phule was talking about critical pedagogy.

Necessarily, such pedagogy involves taking stands that would be questioned. As mentioned earlier, Phule faced much opposition in his school-education effort, and he gradually withdrew from this field. Over the years, Phule’s education strategy also changed, along with a change in his position in public life.

In the mid-1850s, he was a young man waging a battle on his own against a formidable opposition. A quarter of a century later, he was a well-established public figure backed by an organisation, the Satyashodhak Samaj (truth-seeking society), founded by him and some associates. The Samaj was dominated by upwardly mobile non-brahmins who were reluctant to wage a battle against the entire Hindu religious system (O’Hanlon 1985: 239). Hence, while the organisation could establish itself as a notable non-brahmin body, it could not sustain propagation of Phule’s deistic views.

The space for religious propaganda had anyway reduced. Through the Queen’s proclamation of 1858, the British government had declared a policy of religious neutrality, and Phule accepted that this policy was required “owing to the different nationalities and religious creeds prevalent in India” (Phule 2002a: 110).

Phule’s area of concern had also expanded. As reflected in Shetkaryache Asud (The Cultivator’s Whip-cord), a work produced in 1883—but not published during his lifetime—Phule was particularly concerned about the material conditions of cultivators and the ways they were getting exploited. 

Accordingly, Phule’s statement to the Hunter Commission on Education, submitted in 1882, shows an altered approach to school education. Phule demanded separate schools for “lower classes” and recruitment of teachers from the “cultivating classes”, who would “be able to mix themselves readily with lower orders of society”. However, with respect to the “course of instruction”, he was less radical. He suggested that children should be taught to read and write; they should be helped to acquire a “rudimentary knowledge” of general history and geography, and “elementary” knowledge of agriculture; and they should be given a “few lessons on moral duties and sanitation” (Phule 2002a: 106-08). While Phule remained committed to the position he had taken in the play he wrote in 1855, he did not press for the teaching and learning of that position in schools.

However, by then, he had found another potent mode of education. Fourteen years after he wrote his first and last play, he returned to writing, addressing adult audiences. From 1869 to 1873, he produced four didactic literary works including Slavery.

Original published date:

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