Dedicated to cause of women
``Gandhiji! There are many downtrodden women here who wish to hear you speak. Amongst them are widows and prostitutes who cannot come to your meetings along with men. I shall organise a separate place elsewhere. Come and address them,'' a 13-year-old girl told the Mahatma in Hindustani.
That was Durgabai and the occasion was Gandhiji's visit to Kakinada to conduct Congress meetings in 1922.
It took just six months for this Telugu girl to master that tongue so that she could speak to this great man in a language dear to his heart. She also facilitated 400 other women and young girls, too, to learn Hindi by holding classes in her own home and made them ready for this occasion.
``I will come, but only for five minutes, and will charge five hundred rupees,'' was Gandhiji's condition to fulfil her request. The five minutes extended to two hours effortlessly, and with the same effortlessness the women and young girls took off the jewellery from their person and offered it, along with Rs.10,000 in cash, as their humble contribution to the cause of freedom.
Durgabai's dedication to the cause of uplifting the under-privileged women was proved thus, even as a teeanager.
Around the same time, when a Khadi exhibition was held, she stood at the gate as a volunteer and refused to allow a famous person to enter, because he neither possessed a ticket nor the two annas to buy one. Not that she did not recognise him, but a rule is a rule, even for Jawaharlal Nehru!
Admiring the spirit of this youngster, Jawaharlal changed his low opinion of Andhras, whom he knew to be involved constantly in internal conflict. Years later, as the Prime Minister of Free India, he invited Durgabai to Delhi to become a member of the Planning Commission. He was also instrumental in introducing Durgabai to Chintaman Deshmukh, who married her later.
``Salt Satyagraha is not for women. Nature makes them frail. Ordeals like this are only for men,'' Gandhiji waved Durgabai away. She inspired great persons like Andhra Kesari Tanguturi Prakasam Pantulu and Desoddharaka Nageswara Rao Pantulu to join the movement and once again became a focal point of admiration.
Even the British did not spare Durgabai. The Hindi Girls School of 10 years standing at Kakinada was closed by them. With an undaunted will she resurrected the school in Madras as the Little Ladies of Brindavan, which was later rechristened the Andhra Mahila Sabha. She was a force to reckon with, and another name for progress.
A number of women-development institutions were started by Durgabai. She ran them selflessly and spread them everywhere. Although she did not have a paisa on hand herself, the support these insitutions received was marked. That they became political pawns later is a different story, but Durgabai's service to the cause of women's progress was visible behind each of them.
Born to Rama Rao and Krishnavenamma on July 15, 1909, in Rajahmundry, Durgabai's benevolent nature entered her personal life, too. Her husband's second wife, whom he married because Durgabai could not bear children, was left unsupported after his death. Durgabai sheltered and educated her offering an important position in the Andhra Mahila Sabha.
After his first wife's death, Deshmukh broght up his daughter with tender care. But the girl married against his wishes and relationships were severed. When he married Durgabai, the girl wrote Durgabai a letter to change Deshmukh's mind. Once again, a tricky situation was handled with love and compassion, and harmony was restored in the family. Durgabai breathed her last on May 9, 1981.
Durgabai's two part English autobiography, `A Stone That Speaketh', is, perhaps, the only one which speaks more about her work than the person.
The only woman statue on the Beach Road, this idol loudly proclaims what a woman can achive singlehandedly---a stone that truly speaks volumes.
Send this article to Friends by