Maha: Shunned in school, eminent woman Dalit writer Shantabai K. Kamble passes away at 99

Prominent writer Shantabai Krushnaji Kamble, renowned as the first woman Dalit autobiographer, passed away here on Wednesday morning at the age of 99, a family friend said.

She was suffering from old-age related ailments and her last rites shall be performed at the Koparkhairane crematorium this evening.

The mother of the late Prof Arun Kamble, a founder-member of the Dalit Panthers of India party and politician, Shantabai is survived by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Top Dalit personalities paid rich tributes to Shantabai and recalled how “the writings of her life’s struggles helped fill a gaping void in the Dalit literature” after Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s Constitution gave universal right to education in India.

“Thereafter, many women got educated, some even started writing, but Shantabai laid the foundation for giving a strong voice to the weaker sex and the downtrodden. Her immense contribution to Dalit literature can never be forgotten,” said a close family friend Milind Kamble, the President of Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DICCI).

It was in March 1983 that the 60-year-old, retired government school teacher, Shantabai started penning her autobiography in Marathi, “Majhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha” which was published as a series of articles in the ‘Purva’ magazine.

The series caught popular imagination and in June 1986, it came out in a book form, later it was made into a tele-serial for Doordarshan Marathi as “Najuka” (Aug. 1990 onwards).

As it grew into popularity, the autobiography was subsequently translated into Hindi and other languages, plus English and French (‘The Kaleisdoscope Story Of My Life’) for the global audiences, and a few chapters were published in the ‘Femina’ magazine.

The autobiography is also prescribed as part of syllabus in the University of Mumbai Marathi literature, where her late son once served as the Head of Department of Marathi, and years later an animated version also came out as “Naja Goes To School”.

Recalling her own experiences as an ‘untouchable’ girl, Naja Sakharam Babar (renamed after marriage as Shantabai), born in a poor family in Solapur, the autobiography discusses the twin concerns of ‘marginalisation’ and ‘oppression’ faced by the Dalits at the hands of the ‘upper castes’.

Besides, she dwelt on the rampant ‘gender discrimination’ from patriarchal peers within the community and in the male-dominant society at large, coupled with her unique travails as a female Dalit writer.

Shantabai dedicated the touching story of her life to her labourer parents ‘Aayi- Appa’ “who worked daylong in the hot blazing sun, kept hungry, without water,” yet they chose to remain starving but resolved to educate their daughter (Naja) to bring her out of the darkness into the light.

An extraordinarily talented and brilliant girl, Shantabai’s autobiography mentioned how she (Naja) won a “Rs 3 per month government scholarship to buy books, paper, ink” and other personal needs as she became the only girl initially to attend school.

But her ‘untouchable’ origins tortured her even there as she was barred from sitting with the other students, was further humiliated and made to squat outside the classroom to imbibe whatever knowledge she could manage.

However, in another ironic twist in her life, in January 1942, when the country was taking quick steps towards freedom, Shantabai became the first Dalit teacher to be appointed to the Solapur District School Board during British rule.

Around ten years later, she completed her training in the Pune Women’s College and worked for some time as Education Extension Officer in Sangli.

Her teaching life led to activism and along with her husband Krushnaji Kamble, met Dr Ambedkar in 1942, joined his Dalit movement, and in 1957, embraced Buddhism along with thousands of others from the depressed classes “to breathe freely again”.

Over the years, she came to be closely associated with Dr Ambedkar, Vitthal Ramji Shinde, and other Dalit icons.

Union Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale, several prominent Dalit leaders and others are expected for Shantabai’s last rites this evening.

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: q.najmi@ians.in)

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