Biography of a Remarkable Woman
by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: October 04, 2000
Last Updated On: January 29, 2014
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
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.
K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Umabai Kundapur (far left) with Anand Rao (father-in-law) and husband Sanjiv Rao (right)
Photograph circa 1905
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.