Culture | India's unsung women pioneers brought to life by Google show
A 1934 portrait of Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala by Andre Durst. Photo: Courtesy of Google

A song for forgotten women

These remarkable lives might have been lost to history if not for the Women in India: Unheard Stories online exhibition

November 25, 2016 11:04 AM (UTC+8)

Walk among the gravestones of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in upstate New York and you might come across the resting place of one Dr Anandibai Joshi, a Hindu Brahmin girl who in 1886 – more than six decades before her country’s independence – became the first Indian woman to receive education abroad, and the first to obtain a medical degree.

She died before turning 22, in 1887. Anandibai, among the first Hindu women to set foot on American soil, was from the western Indian state of Maharashtra and was married at the age of nine to Gopalrao Joshi, a widower almost 20 years her senior.

Gopalrao encouraged Anandibai to study medicine, and her interest in becoming a physician was further fueled by the fact that the boy she gave birth to at the age of 14 only lived for 10 days and died due to the lack of suitable medical care.

Anandibai’s remarkable life might have been pretty much lost to history if not for the Women in India: Unheard Stories online exhibition, a Google Arts & Culture project that tells the untold stories of women in India over 2,500 years.

“This project is an effort to recognize the impact of Indian women in history and their impact on culture, and while looking at where we are, we also wanted to look forward and inspire women and leaders of the future,” Luisella Mazza, the Google Cultural Institute’s head of operations, said at the exhibition launch.

Anandibai Joshi was the first Hindu woman to obtain a medical degree in the Western hemisphere. Photo: Courtesy of Google
The first Hindu woman to obtain a medical degree in the Western hemisphere. Photo: Courtesy of Google

“It is our ongoing effort to make important cultural material available and accessible to everyone and to digitally preserve it to educate and inspire future generations.”

The virtual exhibition boasts more than 1,800 works of art, photographs and videos sourced from 26 cultural institutions across India and features the stories of hundred of female pioneers — from the distant past to innovators of the modern age. It blends art with immersive visual graphics, video narratives and rare texts to tell extraordinary stories.

Like that of Savitribai Phule, who in 1848 became the first female teacher in India and opened a school for girls. She also established a shelter (in 1864) for destitute women.

Though she is often referred to as the mother of Indian feminism, Savitribai doesn’t find prime coverage in Indian textbooks that are dominated by the stories of the nation’s men.

Born in Naigaon, a small coastal hamlet in Maharashtra, Savitribai was married to social reformist Jyotirao Phule in 1840 – again at the age of just nine. Jyotirao taught Savitribai to read and write, and when she became a qualified teacher in 1847 it ruffled feathers in conservative Indian society.

A portrait of Dr Rakhmabai Raut by artist Pranisha Shrestha from the Zubaan collection. Photo: Courtesy of Google
A portrait of Dr Rakhmabai Raut by Pranisha Shrestha. Photo: Courtesy of Google

It was also a time when oppressed classes were forbidden from drinking water from the common village well – so Jyotirao and Savitribai dug a well in their own backyard for these people to drink from, causing a furor back in 1868.

Vijayalakshmi’s tale is more modern, but equally remarkable. She also came from a conservative background and overcame conventional gender restrictions to become an exceptional woman of her time in Indian history. Viji studied relativistic wave equations and their proportions, and has 11 research papers to her credit – but succumbed to cancer in 1985 when she was just 33.

Women in India: Unheard Stories presents a sumptuous spread of artifacts, illustrated histories, feature videos, high-resolution archive material and other online exhibits as it celebrates feminine art and indulges the viewer in the classic stories of some of Indian history’s lesser-known greats.

Opening of the First School for Girls by Savitribai and Jyotirao, painted by Malvika Asher. Photo: Courtesy of Google
Opening of the First School for Girls by Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, painted by Malvika Asher. Photo: Courtesy of Google

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