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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 14, March 28, 2015

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan — Poet, Writer, Freedom Fighter and Friend of the Poor

Monday 30 March 2015, by Reshma Bharti


india’s freedom movement was a time of high ideals for many writers and poets which inspired them to devote their literary talents and creativity to the larger cause of liberation of their people and country. In the process these writers and poets accepted many hardships including jail sentences. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan (1904-1948) was one such writer who combined the writer and activist roles with a zeal and devotion which won her the heartfelt affection of millions of people within her short life span of just 44 years.

Her determination in choosing the difficult path of a freedom fighter is all the more remarkable given the fact that (a) she was a devoted mother of four children; (b) her husband, Lakshman Singh, as a freedom fighter, was also going frequently to jails; (c) there was a time when both Subhadra and Lakshman had to go to jail at the same time with very little social support for their children; (d) Subhadra had to go to jail with a physically challenged baby.

The life of Subhadra is a story of true grit and determination combined with care and compassion. Hers is a very inspiring life of how she continued to write poetry and short stories of great literary value in the middle of economic hardships, physical ailments, jail sentences and a life of constant engagements with the problems of the poor and the distressed. Among various public figures in her area, she was invariably the one from whom the poorest had most hope.

This combination of courage and compassion, determination and affection which characterised her life is also very visible in her literary achievements. On the one hand, for perhaps the largest number of her admirers, she is the poet who best captured the life and spirit of the famous Jhansi Ki Rani in her unforgettable ‘Khoob Lari’ poem. On the other hand, she is also cherished as the composer of some of the most endearing children’s poems, drawing often on interactions with her own children.

Again it is remarkable that her endless problems and public engagements did not come in the way of her very beautiful and close relationships with her children, one of whom, as a three or four-year-old baby boy, insisted on calling her ‘bitiya rani’ (dear daughter)!

These aspects of her personality—deep affection and deeper determination—are visible at the time of her jail sentences. Despite very great affection for her children, she did not accept the friendly advice of curtailing her political work (which would invariably lead to a jail sentence) even though her husband was already in jail. So she had to go to jail leaving her three children led by the eldest daughter, Sudha, to their own fate (although helped by some friends).

Secondly, when in jail with her physically challenged baby, Mamta, she devoted all her motherly affection to protecting and nurturing her to the extent possible in the grim conditions of the jail. But even in these circumstances, when she heard about the denial of food to ‘C’ class prisoners, she rushed to somehow provide food to them, regardless of the known fact that this will result in punishment to her, resulting in more difficult conditions for her and so for her daughter as well.

This instinctive urge to stand up for the oppressed and against the oppressor was a very significant part of her personality, leading her constantly to the path less taken, to accepting the most difficult of the various alternatives that existed before her.

But what is very remarkable in the middle of all this is that she managed to retain her equally strong instincts for enjoying, and even more, for sharing, the small joys of life. Her home was open to neighbourhood children who hung around Subhadra hoping to benefit from her bounty of toffees and lemon-drops. When travelling to a town known for its dye work, Subhadra would collect sarees of her neighbours to get these dyed. Her home always remained a hospitable place for local poets and writers (particularly young and uprising writers) as well as for visiting writers. Regular visitors included Gajanan Muktibodh and Jainendra Kumar, the latter we see also in the unlikely role of arranging free cinema passes for Subhadra when he could! A visit to the cinema, a shopping spree to grab some long overdue small comforts for her family during one of those rare times when she had some extra money in her hand—these were some of the small joys she liked to indulge in. More joy came in the company of long-term friends like the famous writer, Mahadevi Verma, who was also her schoolmate, two years her junior in Allahabad. Both of them used to write poetry as school girls.

Born at Allahabad in 1904 in a high-caste (Rajput) family, Subhadra revealed her instinct for both poetry and rebellion at a very young age. She would be angry with her mother for practising discrimination against a low-caste neighbour, and insist on helping domestic workers in their responsibilities. Her elder brother recalled later that she could compose a small poem even on her way to school, sitting in an ikka, a horse-cart.

This elder brother, Rajju Bhaiya, helped in finding a suitable boy for Subhadra, a writer and activist named Lakshman Singh Chauhan who was also his classmate. Lakshman was in touch with social reformers and freedom fighters. This wedding violated prevailing regressive practices of veil and dowry. While Lakshman supported this social reform, some of his family members in the ancestral home at Khandwa did not and they later harassed Subhadra for this.

One of the most senior editors, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, invited Lakshman Singh to help with his newspaper Karmaveer. The young couple shifted to Jabalpur for this, and this city subsequently became the main workplace of Subhadra, although she worked also in Kanpur, Nagpur and Bilaspur.

The new place proved conducive for Subhadra to write poetry on freedom movement related issues. Her poems on Jallianwala Bagh massacre were widely circulated. Her most famous long poem was of course the one based on Jhansi Ki Rani and her role in the uprising against colonial rule in 1857. At the same time as an activist she played an important role in taking the various programmes of the Congress among women. Gradually she started travelling to various parts of the province for political work.

The Jhanda (National Flag) Satyagraha in 1923 saw Subhadra and Lakshman emerging in frontline leadership roles in Jabalpur and Nagpur. Subhadra went to jail for the first time at the age of 18. She was pregnant with her first child, and her health deteriorated rapidly in jail, leading to her early release. Despite her weak health, she continued to participate in the movement. On her return to Jabalpur, her first child, Sudha, was born.

The shifting of Karmaveer’s office brought new economic difficulties. Lakshman took up some work as a lawyer, while Subhadra started writing short stories, which perhaps had better prospects of some earning compared to poetry. Subhadra’s first collection of poetry (Mukul) as well as the first short-stories fetched the prestigious prize for women writers (Seksaria Award) twice for her. Her stories revealed the constraints, injustices and dilemmas faced by women in society. Her stories are known for less familiar, less predictable themes and characters. Subhadra’s reformist zeal as well as her dedication to the freedom movement is also reflected in some of her short stories.

The life of the young couple was disrupted again by two jail sentences to Lakshman Singh in 1930 and then again in 1932 due to his involvement in the freedom movement. Their sacrifices won them innumerable supporters, but Lakshman and Subhadra also suffered due to the manipulations of narrow-minded Congress leaders who couldn’t digest their growing popularity. Despite all obstacles, however. Subhadra was elected to the provincial Assembly in 1936.

Apart from her work in the freedom movement, Subhadra constantly carried out the campaign for social reforms including the education of women, discarding the veil by them and abolition of untouchability. In 1941 she was jailed with her baby daughter. She used this time to work for improving the condition of women prisoners and for writing short stories.

With the rising tide of the freedom movement in 1942 Lakshman Singh was first arrested at a very early stage while Subhadra continued to participate in protest meetings. With her arrest also looming large, she prepared the children for facing the tough times ahead with courage. Soon she too was arrested with her small, physically challenged baby, Mamta, who had been under treatment. Here she again struggled for the rights of political prisoners till her health deteriorated to such an extent that the authorities had to release her for life-saving surgery. She survived, thanks mainly to the care provided by her dutiful children led by Sudha.

There was a whiff of romance in these difficult times when Amrit Rai, son of Munshi Premc-hand, asked for Sudha’s hand in marriage. But this was an inter-caste marriage and the joy also brought some stress. But Subhadra was not the one to backtrack on such issues. She boldly faced those who opposed inter-caste (kayastha-rajput) marriage. In fact she went out of her way to invite Amrit Rai to spend a few days with the family before the marriage so that he and Sudha can have a better understanding of each other before starting their married life! Subhadra was so much ahead of her times in her broader social outlook.

1945 was again election time and Subhadra was this time elected unopposed from Jabalpur to the provincial Assembly. She plunged into her many responsibilities underterred by health problems. Although she was associated with the Congress, she went out of her way to help sanitation workers who were on a strike with Communist support (the Congress was opposed to this strike). While visiting the huts of sanitary workers, she came across a woman who had just given birth to a child but there was no one to help her. Subhadra herself lit the hearth to provide hot water to her. Then she went to her home to arrange other necessary provisions for her.

Freedom came, but also brought the pain of partition. Subhadra and Lakshman made as much efforts as possible to fight communalism and prevent violence, but in the prevailing conditions they had only limited success. Before she could recover from this, Gandhiji’s assassi-nation came like a thunderbolt for Subhadra. This was a shock from which she never fully recovered. Even in the middle of this great sorrow, however, Subhadra struggled for the right of working class women to pay their last respects to Gandhiji, when they were prevented from doing so by the high security arrangements.

On February 15, 1948, while returning from Nagpur to Jabalpur after an educational conference, Subhadra died in a road accident near Sivni. This abrupt and untimely end of such an inspiring life of many-sided contributions shocked millions across the country.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s enduring contri-butions to literature, freedom movement, social reform and public work will be cherished for a long time. Her work as a political leader was marked by a very strong spirit of public service with emphasis on helping the poor and resisting injustice, just the qualities which the Congress leadership needed most in the post-independence days. It was a great loss that such a leader was snatched away from the country in the prime of her public life.

Reshma Bharti Is A Free-Lance Writer And Researcher.