The expression of freedom, the expression of liberation, the expression of unification and the act of rebellion synonymous with India and Indians can be found embodied in the life caricature of a simple woman born almost a century ago in the present day Maharashtra. The indomitable spirit and the relentless pursuit of nation building were the two major traits of a woman who worked for the betterment of women in specific and society at large. The woman who pictured women at the center of nation building, the woman who mainstreamed women empowerment in India and the woman who galvanised women spirit for freedom struggle. These are just droplets in the oceanic description of Smt Laxmibai Kelkar (Mousiji). Mousiji epitomised Indian spirit. She positively affected the lives of thousands directly and millions indirectly. She was one of the visionaries who realised that nation building cannot happen without empowering women of the society. She founded the Rashtra Sevika Samiti which today runs parallel to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), empowering millions of women. She believed in institutionalising the women empowerment struggle for streamlining the women specific agendas in the main public discourse. The immortal spirit of Mousiji can be clearly understood by going through her life history.
Laxmibai Kelkar was born 6th July 1905. Her parents were Shri Bhaskarrao Datey and Yashodabai. Her father Shri Bhaskarrao Datey was a Government servant. Her initial name was Kamal. Since early childhood, Kamal was highly influenced by the struggle for freedom movement. Her parents as well as her aunts were instrumental in shaping her early childhood. She used to visit various ‘Kirtans’ and ‘Gau Seva Kendras’ with her aunt. Also, her mother used to buy Lokmanya Tilak’s ‘Kesari’ and distribute it in the neighbourhood. Kamal was observant to the activities. She imbibed the spirit of nationalism and community service at a very young age from her parents and aunts. According to the customary practice of those times Kamal was married to a lawyer Purshottam Rao Kelkar when she was in class 4th and she was given the name of Laxmibai Purshottam Kelkar. Unfortunately her marriage could only last for a span of 10 to 12 years. After the death of her husband, the responsibility of 6 children including two step daughters fell on the young shoulders of Mousiji.
During her married life and even after the death of her husband, Mousiji was closely linked to the independence movement. After the death of Lokmany Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi chose Vidarbha as a place for his Ashram. Mousiji was often present in the Ashram to offer her prayers. But her motivation for the freedom struggle lies in her continuous struggle in motivating others to join the freedom struggle. She even motivated her sisters in law to join the freedom struggle. Mousiji frequently attended functions related to the freedom struggle. Her work also extended to girl child education. She was instrumental in opening up a ‘Kanya Vidyalaya’ in Vidarbha. She not only helped in opening of the school but played a pivotal part in getting good teachers for it. She even offered a home for teachers to stay. She motivated girls to learn cycling and swimming and even encouraged them to participate in ‘prabhat feris’ and evening prayers in Gandhi Ashram. She realised the potential of women’s involvement in the freedom struggle. She realised that a woman is pivotal for the rise of a family as well as a nation and until and unless there is resurgence in the stature of women in the society, the society cannot truly prosper.
Laxmibai Kelkar was exemplary in breaking the taboos around the position of widows in the society. During her time as a widow, there were several taboos prevalent in the society. Widows were not allowed to go out or be part of auspicious family functions. She challenged these customary practices. Mousiji learnt swimming and cycling herself. She even recited the Ramayan from a stage. Mousiji often faced a lot of backlash for such activities during her time but it never fettered her. She remained unfazed by the common din and went on with her agenda of breaking taboos one after the other. She wanted to institutionalise the strength of women for nation development. She believed that it is imperative for women of the society to be taught of the women’s sacrifices of the past and the stature of women in the society historically for the restoration of their self confidence. She believed that women of the society were infested with an inferiority complex due to foreign influence in the society. She believed that through structuring of resources and providing women with proper guidance, women can become the forerunners of nation building.
After the formation of RSS in 1925, Mousiji was introduced to RSS by her sons. She wanted to channelise women power through an RSS like body. She met RSS founder Dr Hedgewar for the establishment of an RSS like body for women. Dr Hedgewar encouraged Mousiji to lead the movement of starting such an organisation by herself. She along with a few dedicated volunteers started visiting each household to seek participation of women in national struggle. After continuous struggle, finally on 25th October, 1936 she successfully announced the formation of Rashtra Sevika Samiti. Soon Rashtra Sevika Samiti became a nationwide phenomenon with lakhs of volunteers. Several Sevika Samiti centers and shakahas were opened in different parts of the country in which a lot of stress was given to the overall development of the sevikas with a special focus on the physical development of women. Through an institutionalised structure more and more women became empowered.Various programs were undertaken by the Sevika Samiti which included recitation of Ramayan-Mahabharat, art, education, historical accounts of important Indian figures among many others.
Laxmibai Kelkar also worked extensively on the health of women in the society. She founded the ‘Strijivan Vikas Parishad’, the sole purpose of which was to work on the physical and mental development of women in the society. After several consultations with the doctors, a health program tailor made for women which included Surya Namaskar and Yoga was adopted by the parishad. The parishad also focussed on retelling glorious tales of women of the past to spring in a spirit of self confidence among the women of the society. Moreover, Mousiji also laid the foundation of ‘Grihani Vidyalaya’ in 1953 through which a lot of stress was given on training women to manage family affairs. The course of ‘Grihani Vidyalaya’ included teachings on general knowledge, home science and self employment among others. ‘Grihani Vidyalaya’ truly showed the vision of Mousiji. It assimilated the then situation of women and introduced courses for the overall development of women. The aim was to make women self reliant and be perfect in managing family affairs as well as outside chores. She also started various ‘Udyog Mandirs’, hostels and ‘Kalaniketans’ to support women and supplement their skill building.
These are just some of the accounts of the plethora of work done by Mousiji for the development of women in the society. Her contribution to the society cannot be totally put in words. She was a living embodiment of everything we call Indian. She believed in the freedom of voices, freedom of choices, respect for women, glorification of the great Indian civilisation and in burning the light of nation building among all. Her established organisation is one of the largest women organisations in the world. She was a visionary who put women at the center of nation building and political discourse. She realised that a society cannot prosper without the contribution of women. She laid stress on the overall development of women. She turned her vision into reality by continuous hard work, grit and determination. Her ideas are an inspiration to all. The indomitable Indian spirit that still persists with the continuity of civilisation can be truly seen through her work in the society. She is a success story worth teaching, worth adoring and worth emulating for the old and young alike. Even after her death in 1978, Mousiji still lives on through the lives of millions of people who look up to her for inspiration each day. She is a shining light in the history of Bharat. Her life stories enrisches every soul it touches upon.
- Author : Sankalp (Engineer, lawyer, entrepreneur and an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus)