How a Brahmin woman broke into the twentieth century

01 June 2014

MY MOTHER’S NAME WAS KRISHNABAI. Krishnabai Mankikar. But she was “Kuttabai” to the elders in the family and became “Kuttakka” to those younger than her. In 1984, when she was eighty-two, my sister-in-law, Sunanda, persuaded her to write her autobiography. She wrote several drafts, abandoned them after a few paragraphs as though her courage had failed her, but started afresh, apparently compelled to record what she had been through. The longest extant version is about thirty pages long, written in Konkani, jotted down in an old diary of my father’s, in spaces left blank after he had scribbled down his daily accounts. Until we read that narrative, my siblings and I had struggled to come to terms with the many anxieties and nightmares that disturbed our childhood nights. Her autobiography helped to resolve these fears by bringing them out into the open and dealing with them forthrightly.

Kuttabai was born in Hubli in 1902, but moved to Poona while still a child with her father, who worked for the Madras & Southern Maratha Railway. It was a time when Poona was in a social and artistic ferment. The Marathi language was confronting the challenges of modernity with a literature that explored new areas of social experience, and an energetic journalism that demanded that Maharashtrian society prepare itself for independence. Then there was the Marathi theatre, at its peak commercially, with actors like Balagandharva and Keshavarao Bhosale, but also being hailed by the elite as representing the essence of Marathi culture. Kuttabai was a voracious reader and these years in Poona were some of the happiest in her life. What excited her most were the opportunities for education that the city held out. Maharashtra had a vigorous movement for women’s education, led by Christian missionaries, social reformers and the government, and opportunities were opening up which were unthinkable a generation ago. “A Sarlabai Nayak had even got an MA,” she remembered seventy-five years later.

But when she was nine, and in the third standard of her Marathi-language school, her father was suddenly transferred to Gadag, a small town in the Kannada-speaking area of Bombay Presidency, and Kuttabai faced the first of the many disappointments that were to confront her during the next few years. The language of instruction in Gadag was Kannada, which she had to start learning from scratch, and its literature had not yet started emerging from its medieval moorings. In fact, those enamoured with the Marathi milieu openly sneered at Kannada culture as demonstrably backward. The society was conservative and there were no facilities for educating girls.

Girish Karnad is an eminent writer, actor and director, and a recipient of the Jnanpith Award.

Keywords: tradition Kannada Brahmin women’s rights memory Girish Karnad family history widow remarriage Arya Samaj