Among India's first feminist historians, Bhandaru Acchamamba challenged misogyny with stories about women
In writing Abala Satcharitra Ratnamala, Bhandaru Acchamamba intended to present a book which was both pleasurable to read and could act as guide to Andhra women. She wanted to establish that women who are courageous, who possess scholarship, who are patriotic, who are capable of being administrators and leaders, existed in the past and in her age
అరక్షితా గృహేరుద్ధాః పురుషైరాప్తకారిభిః
ఆత్మాన మాత్మనా యాస్తు రక్షేయుస్తా స్సురక్షితాః
It is not the women confined within the four walls by men who are protected,
Only those women who save themselves are truly safe.
At the turn of the 20th century, women were looked at as being weak, dull-witted, irrational and the epitome of evilness. Even their laughter was considered sinful. They were seen as needing the protection of male relatives; to be kept within the home. Bhandaru Acchamamba wanted to dismantle such notions. She published Abala Satcharitra Ratnamala ('a jewelled garland of stories about great women') in 1901, making her the first feminist historian in Andhra, and perhaps India.
The word ‘abala' (the weaker sex), commonly used to refer to women, holds the key to understanding the deep-rooted misogyny in Indian society. Acchamamba wanted to establish that women who are courageous, who possess scholarship, who are patriotic, who are capable of being administrators and leaders, existed in the past and in her age. To make her point, she planned to write Abala Satcharita Ratnamala, a compilation of the histories of great women in three volumes: the lives of women in India, the lives of women in epics, and the lives of women in other countries.
Born in 1874 into an elite family, Acchamamba was denied a formal education, unlike her younger brother Kommarraju Lakshmana Rao, who went to school. After her father died, she was married off to her uncle, a much older widower, when she was 10 years old. Like her parents, her husband was not supportive of women’s education. A short-tempered man, he believed that women cannot be protected unless they are kept under confinement (goshaa system).
Around this time, Acchamamba found an ally in her brother, who was educated. With his support, sitting next to him while he learnt, she taught herself Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and Sanskrit to an extent. She became a prolific reader of journals and magazines that were within her access. Very early on, she lost a son and daughter, which became the turning point of her life; she set out to work on her magnum opus, channeling her pain into writing. It is also interesting to note that Acchamamba, known for her kindness and generosity, turned her husband into a supporter. She even credits him in her book for supporting her, and praises his generosity in giving her independence.
In a system where tradition and family values firmly placed women at the centre of domesticity, they struggled to push boundaries while staying within prescribed limits. Even when arguments were made in favour of women’s education in the mainstream discourse, the reality did not match expectations. Major social reformers cautioned people about the consequences of discarding traditional female roles. Male public figures stated that if women were educated and given freedom, they would take to evil ways, ruin the institution of the family, and humiliate their husbands. They warned, what if women stopped being ideal wives and mothers?
Consequently, women’s education was encouraged, but through the lens of an enhanced role for wives: educated women who could read letters written by their husbands, and who could manage household expenses.
Acchamamba went a step further and argued that women need to be educated for their own personal growth, not just to be wives or mothers. A self-taught person, she regularly wrote for women’s journals such as Chintamani, Hindu Sundari and Saraswati, focusing on women’s progress and the need for education. She wrote, "Women’s education only helps to build one's character, and not the other way round. The country will only benefit from the freedom for women to receive education, and it will cause no damage. Women's education is of utmost importance and necessity."
The writer strongly believed in the need for sisterhood and solidarity in the fight for women’s emancipation. In writing Abala Satcharitra Ratnamala, she intended to present a book which was both pleasurable to read and could act as guide to Andhra women. Instead of fictionalising ideas, she felt it was better to present them as histories. She wrote, "So I present these stories of real women to my sisters in Andhra."
Accompanying her husband, who was in public service, she travelled to multiple places in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra. Upon every visit, she held interactions with local scholars and collected material for her book from multiple languages. Due to her extended stay in the Central Provinces, the influence of Marathi and Gujarati literature on her own work was significant. In the first volume of her book, the stories featured women from Maharashtra, Bengal, Gujarat, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab and Andhra. 34 women were documented in the first volume, including Dr Anandibai Joshi, Hati Vidyalankar, Tarabai, Sikandar Begum, Molla and Tarigonda Vengamamba.
Apart from academic writing and contributing prolifically to journals — essays, short stories and poems — Acchamamba was also involved in building the women’s movement. She organised women’s gatherings and delivered speeches all over Andhra. She also established the Brindavanapura Stree Samajam (Brindavan Women’s Association) in 1902 in Masulipatnam, for the upliftment of women, along with Oruganti Sundari Ratnamamba. She travelled across the state to help with the establishment of similar organisations.
Following the Bombay plague, Acchamamba spent time tending to those struck by the disease. Unfortunately, she fell ill and passed away at the early age of 30. She was yet to complete the second volume of her book (an incomplete set was published later). She passed away at Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh.
Recently, her contribution to Telugu literature became the subject of debate: Though Gurazada Apparao is credited with writing the first short story in Telugu literature (for Diddubatu in 1910), it is debated that Bhandaru Acchamamba came before him with Dhanatrayodasi, in 1902.
Very few of her stories have survived over the decades apart from Abala Satcharitra Ratnamala, and her contribution to Telugu literature and the women’s movement is yet to be recognised for what it was.
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