Deaf, Advocate and Social Activist: Pandita Ramabai

One of the things that often bothers me when I teach history is the tendency for individual stories to be subsumed by wider events. Certainly this is often true of historians working on the 19th and 20th centuries in South Asia. And one of the ways we can mitigate this is by ensuring that individual stories continue to be told alongside narratives of broader, wider changes in history. And what better beginning to examine disabled lives in British India than Pandita Ramabai?

Pandita Ramabai Hindu

Born in 1858 to a Brahmin family in what is today the Indian state of Karnataka, Ramabai Dongre’s life was punctuated by the demographic and social crises that ripped through the colony. Her parents succumbed to the ravages of the 1874 famine, while she lost her husband to cholera, leaving her a very young widow. In her mid-20s, she left India for England, where she converted to Christianity and continued to travel on to the US. Ramabai became deaf in later life, reportedly ‘as a result of sleeping on damp earth during her pilgrimages before she became a Christian’.[1] Whatever the causes, Ramabai’s deafness was possibly part of the reason why she had to abandon her early intentions to become a medical doctor.[2] Later in her life, people would speculate as to whether Ramabai’s deafness actually diminished her professions of Christianity and of faith. But it is clear that Ramabai’s literacy permitted her access to writing that led to a serious engagement with the Christian faith. Ramabai’s own book, the ‘High-Caste Hindu Woman’ is a lucid narrative of the stifling lives of upper-caste women like herself sold 9000 copies internationally within a year of its publication in 1887.

Ramabai's Family
Ramabai as a child with her family, Source, Dyer.

When Ramabai visited the US, she also observed the societal responses to physical difference in the country. She commented on the existence of relatively ‘very few physically defective people here, that is, ones who are blind, mute, lame, crippled, etc… There is one blind person in every 2,720 people, and one deaf and dumb in every 2,094.’

 

Ramabai also commented on the differential practice of philanthropy in the It is proper to give alms to the blind; however, if they receive some education and start working according to their ability, it benefits the nation and reduces poverty.’ She was particularly interested in the educational and technological provisions for disabled children in the US: ‘The man who showed me around the school also showed me this terribly disabled boy. He touched his hand with his own fingers and told him, “An Indian lady has come to see you, talk to her if you wish.” In a trice he wrote a few sentences about me on a machine called “typewriter” and brought the paper over. My guide gave me the paper and I have preserved it carefully. On it the boy had written in brief my name, that of my country, and my purpose in coming to this country, and also expressed his pleasure at my visit. I was astounded to see this, and felt that if a miracle could happen in this world, this was it! Besides these, there are numerous orphanages and industrial schools here.’ [3]

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dyer sadan

Ramabai Dongre’s life and work has become the focus of substantial research in this postcolonial world. Her life, faith and work has been examined through varying lenses, including indigenous feminism, transcultural identity formation, translation and missionary activity in the British Empire.[4] As important as Ramabai’s story is within the contexts of empire, caste, missionaries and gender in India, her life and work also needs to be situated within the broader disability histories of India. Ramabai through her role with the Mukti Mission, a non-denominatal mission that began when the Pandita established the Sharada Sadan (House of Wisdom) in 1889 in Kedagaon near Poona. The Sharada Sadan was a home/school for those who wished to maintain their caste and religious norms, while the Mukti school was Christian in form and intent. Ramabai also opened a Kripa Sadan (House of Mercy) for ‘unsheltered lives, victims of cruelty and famine’, the Prita Sadan (House for the Aged and Infirm), Sadanand Sadan (House for Boys) and Bartan Sadan (House for the Blind.[5]

REscued Famine Children at Dinner, Sharda Sadan Dyer

A school for the blind was one of the features of Ramabai’s establishment.[6] Blind students at the Mukti Mission were taught to read ‘blind characters’ by Ms Abrams, who focused on giving students the abilites to read scripture.[7] By 1900, Ramabai’s work had attracted attention from all over the world. Two thousand people resided in the Kedagaon institutions, staffed by hundreds of young women who had themselves grown up in her homes. When the 1876-78 famine ravaged India, Ramabai’s Sadan offered refuge to many women and children, many of whom had nowhere else to go. Ramabai established a dairy department, which allowed Mukti to be self-sufficient for milk, butter, ghee and dahi (yoghurt); as well as cultivating their own jowar and peppers. The mission also had a weaving department. At her mission, she was reported to always be present for services, although she was unable to hear the sermons.

Dairy Work at Mukti Dyer

Meera Kosambi, a recent biographer of Ramabai’s, pays her a wonderful tribute in her book and argues that Ramabai’s work should be seen as an ‘unofficial Indian feminist manifesto’.[8] ‘Such was the power of her voice that it reverberated across the globe a century ago, only to be suppressed equally long within India’.

[1] Mary Fuller,

[2] Antoinette Burton, At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late Victorian Britain, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.89

[3] Pandita Ramabai, The Peoples of the United States: Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter, Meera Kosambi, trans. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003)

[4] Robert E Frykenberg, ‘The Legacy of Pandita Ramabai: Mahatma of Mukti’, International Bulletin of Mission Research, 40,1(2016): 60-70

[5] Lamin O. Sanneh, A New Day: Essays on World Christianity in Honor of Lamin Sanneh, Peter Lang, 212.

[6] Clementina Bulter, Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati: Pioneer in the Movement for the Education of the Child-Widow of India, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1922) p.64.

[7] Meera Kosambi, Pandita Ramabai: Life and Landmark Writings, New Delhi: Routledge, 2016,

[8] Kosambi, Pandita Ramabai, p.1.

 

 

 

 

 

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