India’s amazing women

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Rani of Jhansai by Lady Aiko, Lodi Colony

On international women’s day we recognise a few of the amazing women from the India’s past and present that have dared to challenge and create new norms.  Over to them. 

India’s women haven’t had it easy in past and the present day offers many complex challenges that inspiring ladies are trying to tackle.

According to  Sunil Khilnani, Professor and Director at the India Institute, Kings College, London it’s hard to write about the achievements of women in India’s past.  When writing his latest book, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Khilnani was only able to select a few women because historical records are hard to find.

“While researching for this book, I found it particularly hard to find primary sources on the lives of women, like temple patrons or even ordinary women. If one were to use real primary sources, then there are only a limited number of women one could write about,” he says in an interview with the Hindu.

Despite this, Khilnani tells the story of outstanding women who stand out in India’s past for varied reasons.  Each one is different, but they are all the same. They challenged convention, didn’t follow the norm and made meaningful change happen.   Here’s a who’s who.

Mirabai (b1498, died 1557): Loud and clear

There are few important women to be found in early Indian religious history, according to Wendy Doniger, Professor at the University of Chicago, but Mirabai is one.

Born into a Rajput Royal family, this 16th Century poet and devotee of Lord Krishna, is a celebrated saint of North India’s Bhakti movement.

“Women originally were not allowed to learn Sanskrit, were not supposed to speak Sanskrit.  They’re quoted a lot in religious texts written by men, but a real women’s voice is hard to find.  Not impossible – there are women from time to time.  But Mirabai is the first loud and clear woman’s voice,” she is quoted as saying in Khilnani’s Incarnations.  More about Mirabai at this podcast by Khilnani.

Rani Laxmi Bai (born 1828.died 1858):  The rebel, the warrior the brilliant queen

The Indian First War of Independence produced many heroes, but only one heroine.

Rani Laxmi Bai stood up to the British when they want to take her ancestral lands and then supported the mutineers at Meerut.   With her Fort under siege, she mounted her steed in the dead of night, took her boy beside here and jumped from the ramparts to escape into the darkness.  Did she  make it?

A mythical leader, the Rani was listed by Time Magazine as one World’s Top 10 Bad Ass Wives.  She is in good company, alongside Cleopatra, Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama

She’s also painted onto the walls of Lodi Colony by Lady Aiko, a Japanese, graffiti artist, and can been seen sitting astride her horse at a roundabout on Rani Jhansi Road, North Delhi.  Learn more about the Rani on this podcast by Khilnani.

Savitribai Jyotirao Phule (born 1840. died 1890)

Savitribai Jyotirao Phule was an Indian social reformer and poet, who, with her husband, Jyotirao, opened India’s first school for women; lower caste women at that.

Married at age 9 to Jyotirao (he was only 12), Savitribai was teaching at a school the pair had set up in Bhide Wada, Pune, at the age of 18.  Roundly ridiculed and abused, she simply got on with the job of making change happen.

Savitribai went on to open a care centre for pregnant rape victims and supported the delivery of their children and, in 1868, opened a well in her garden offering water for all, irrespective of caste.  Google Doodle honoured Savitribai on her 186th birthday.

Also a poet, two of her books were published posthumously.  Kavya Phule (1934) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1982).  Quite a lady.

Amrita Sher-gil (1913 – 1941)

Amrita Sher-gil, a celebrated 20th century artist called the queen of Indian art by M.F Hussain and also referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo, scandalised the world by putting women’s bodies at the centre of her life’s work

Her parents, a Hungarian opera singer mother and a Punjabi Sikh father, saw her enrolled her at exclusive art schools in Paris as a child.  Drawing inspiration from painters Cezanne and Gauguin, her first important work, Young Girls, led to her becoming the youngest ever painter to be elected to Associate of the Grand Salom, Paris 1933.

She married her Hungarian cousin the same year as her death, the cause of which has never been ascertained.   Aged just 28 years old, the works of her short life works are today considered classics.

The majority of her work in the public domain can be found in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, which is home to around 100 pieces.  Find out more about Amrita and her works at this link or listen to Khilnani’s podcast here.

Today’s Leading Lights

Turning to the present day, there’s plenty of women worthy of note.  The list is far from conclusive, but presents a snapshot of some influential change agents that are making a difference in a multitude of ways.

Suzanna Arundhati Roy, author and activist

Roy, best known for her Man Booker Winning Prize novel, The God of Small Things, announced late last year that her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will be published in 2017.

But she has not been invisible over the past 20 years.  She has written a television series, released a documentary film, contributed to a book about tribal peoples and been a active social commentator whose not been afraid to speak on contemporary politics and social issues.

Kiran Bedi, activist, police officer and politician.

In 1972, Bedi became India’s first female member of the Indian Police Service, won the President’s Police Medal in 1979, was appointed the first women UN civilian police advisor in the early 2000s and is credited with tackling crime against women in West Delhi.  She is currently the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry.

Prior to joining  the Police Service, Bedi was a professional tennis player.

Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and Sakshi Malik are Olympic Winners leading a sporting revolution

Shuttler Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, 21, took silver in the Badminton, at the Rio Olympics and was also the first Indian to win the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships and a Super Series tournament.  Sakshi Malik, 23, made the nation proud as she grappled to get bronze in the freestyle wrestling.

Shobhana Bhartia, Media Mogul, Chairperson and Editorial Director of HT Media

Head of one of India’s largest publically listed media houses, Shobhana Bhartia was recognised by the World Economic Forum as a leader of tomorrow in 1996 and awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2005.  She’s also been decorated with the Padma Shri in 2006, the Government of India’s National Award for outstanding contribution in a particular field.

Kiran Mazumbar-Shaw, self made biotech entrepreneur, Chairperson and MD of Biocen

Self made biotech leader Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, with a fortune of US1.9 billion, is India’s 65th wealthiest person.  Named amongst TIME magazines 100 most influential people in the world, as well as her role Biocen, Mazumdar-Shaw has key positions in various industry, educational, government and professional bodies.  Find out more about her at this link.

She is one of just four women that make it onto the list of India’s wealthiest one hundred people.  The first, 19th on the list, is Savitri Jindal.  Widower Savitri and family, steel magnates, are worth US$5.3 billion.  Next, it’s Vinod & Anil Rai Gupta whose lightening and electrical business is worth US$2.5 billion.  The makes the pair the 46th wealthiest in India. The final lady on the list, at number 79, is Leena Tewari.

Young ones lead from the front

Actor, Taapsee Pannu, 29, an actor that Forbes say hasn’t been polluted by Bollywood stardom, Fashion designer Masaba Gupta, Angellica Aribam, the National General Secretary of the NSUI, Anpana Choudhury, from Assam Justice Programme, Richa Singh at an NGO working on mental health, and Suchita Salwan, Founder of Little Black Book, are the women selected by Forbes amongst its 30 most influential under 30 in 2017.  Find out more about these women at this link.

Women on Wheels, changing lives.

Created through the combined efforts of the Azad Foundation and Sakha, WOW empowers disadvantaged women to become self-sustaining professional drivers.

Impressed?  You’re not the only one.  Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Her Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are amongst the clients that have called upon WOW services.  Bollywood icon Aamir Khan has even featured Women on Wheels on his popular Satyamev Jayate TV show.

So far Women on Wheels has support over 700 women across India through its various self empowerment programmes.  These women have been given a chance to turn their lives around, and in some cases have doubled or even quadrupled their family income, have learnt to say “NO” to violence and have the opportunity to improve education and health provision for their children, themselves and their families.

Find out more about them here and find out more about the stories of these women in their newly published book, Lady Driver.

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