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Biography of a Remarkable Woman (1892-1992)
by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: October 04, 2000
I had the unique privilege of meeting this remarkable lady, at Hubli, in my early years of All India Radio. At that time, she had taken voluntary retirement after a very hectic life of freedom struggle and social service of nearly 50 years. In India, the freedom fighters automatically became politicians and people at the helm of affairs, because of their incarceration and life in jail in British India and most died holding important post. But Umabai shunned limelight from the beginning and refused all voluntary post s and honors that came her way, came unasked and unhindered for. Her life and achievements are record of a long life of unselfish service to mother India.
Umabai was born in Mangalore (locate) as Bhavani Golikeri to parents Golikeri Krishna Rao and Jungabai in 1892. She had four brothers besides. They were early migrants to Mumbai, then an upcoming metropolis of international importance. She was married at the age of 13 to Sanjiv Rao Kundapur. Her father-in-law Anandarao Kundapur was a reformist and staunch believer in upliftment of women. Under his encouragement, Umabai continued education after marriage and passed the matriculation examination. Thereafter she helped the father-in-law in educating women through Gaundevi Mahila Samaj, Mumbai.
The great funeral procession of Lokmanya Tilak in 1920 left a lasting impression on young Umabai. Half a million people had assembled with hardly handful policemen to control the crowd. Congress organization and voluntary service in those days were exemplary and Umabai was drawn towards freedom struggle and became a volunteer. She started advocating Khadi, wrote and enacted play on Swadeshi and recruited women volunteers by going door to door. At the age of 25, she lost her husband (who died of tuberculosis). Ananda Rao tried his best to console the young daughter-in-law. They then came to Hubli and Anada Rao started the Karnataka Press. In the premises, a school for girls "Tilak Kanya Shala" started and Umabai became in charge.
Dr. N. S. Hardikar had started Hindustani Seva Dal (HSD) in 1921 in order to organize Indian Youth. He had realized after his specialization in medicine in United States and return to post-Tilak India, that lack of organization at national level was the greatest impediment in creating (national) awareness regarding freedom struggle. Hubli-Dharwad became the hub of Hindustani Seva Dal (HSD) and youths from different parts of South India and Maharashtra started coming to Hubli and receive training in drill, camp life, spinning, weaving, shramadan (voluntary work). All national leaders (including Jawaharlal Nehru who came to Hubli to inaugurate industrial exhibition) visited Hubli, right under the vigilant eye of British police. Umabai became leader of women's wing of Seva Dal.
The All India Congress Session of 1924 at Belgaum (locate) was a historical event. That was the only time when Gandhiji presided over the session and it was a big challenge for Dr. Hardikar and Umabai to organize to national event. Umabai recruited more than 150 women volunteers, touring the entire state. Even tonsured widows came forward to offer their services. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, was greatly impressed by the mild-mannered but iron-willed charming lady. "It was the biggest turning point in my life. I joined as a volunteer and I still continue to be her camp follower," wrote she in 1952.
In 1932, Umbai was jailed for four months and kept in Yerawada. News of death of her old and ailing father-in-law, who was her only emotional support reached her after a week. Sarojini Naidu who was also in the same jail tried her best to console her and advised to work from "behind the screen" and avoid all visible activities. When she came back after her jail term, the British government had confiscated the press and the school was sealed. "Bhagini Mandal" the voluntary organization she started was declared unlawful. But Umabai did not withdraw. Her small house became shelter for all types of freedom fighters, some eagerly sought and hounded by the police. No tax campaign and salt campaign were at their peak. People were imprisoned mindlessly and many were women. When they were released from different prisons, they were hapless. The Tongawallas of Hubli invariably brought such women fighters to Umabai's house, who provided food shelter and money for their return journey.
The earthquake of Bihar (1934) brought forth fearlessness and perseverance of Umabai to forth. It was then as is now, most backward state and women never left the "purdah" even in extreme adverse circumstances. Umabai and her batch of volunteers worked day and night in refugee camps. It was at this time that she came in close contact with national leaders like Babu Rajendra Prasad, Acharya Kripalani and others.
1942 and the "Chale Jav!" (Quit India) movement offered another challenge. Many underground workers appeared at her Hubli house at unearthly hours seeking food and monetary help. She helped one and all, at a great risk and sought solace in behind the curtain.
In 1946 Mahatma Gandhi himself appointed her as the agent for Karnataka branch of Kasturba Trust. It was formed for rural upliftment by training Grama Sevikas in health programs, child-welfare, and adult education. Not a single resource was available for such voluntary organization from the Government in those days. She took the begging bowl and collected funds. First recruits were destitute, young widows, unmarried orphans and other unfortunate women. Very soon they were trained in different arts and crafts and were self-supporting. Umabai became a household name in Karnataka.
After the Indian independence, she could have easily entered the politics and many coveted posts waited for her because most of the national leaders knew her. But she remained a worker through and through. She even refused the Tamra-patra Award (given to the frontline freedom fighters) and also national and state pensions accorded to such people. She lived in an small cottage like home "Ananda-Smriti" built in memory of her most respected father-in-law.
Late Dr. N. S. Hardikar has paid a glowing tribute to this remarkable lady. -- "No other woman in Karnataka, as far as my knowledge goes, has done sustained work in the political, social, and educational fields for such a long period as Umabai has done. Leaders, workers, and volunteers came and worked for some time and disappeared from the field. But Umabai remained at her post even as Jawaharlal does. Unassuming she worked and works without expecting any reward. That is a great thing in a worker, a worker who is devoted to the service of humanity."
Many women workers who shine today as leaders mix only with political forces and move with leaders, but hardly mingle with women folk or helped them directly to solve their own problems. Umabai never cared for publicity and in discussing "big" projects at the cost of her sisters. That was a great quality in her. Very rarely have we seen this in other women workers.
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