India’s first feminist writer was born 150 years ago, says Anusha Parthasarathy

“I had chafed under the restraints and the ties which formed the common lot of women... How hard it seemed to my mind that marriage should be the goal of woman's ambition, and that she should spend her days in the light trifles of a home life; live to dress, to look pretty, and never know the joy of independence and intellectual work. The thought had been galling. It made me avoid men.” This could have been written today. It was actually written in the 1880s by a woman from Madras.

Born in Ahmedanagar but settled in Madras, Krupabai Satthianadhan (1862-1894) wrote poems, travelogues, prose and two novels. Madras Medical College, which had just begun to admit women, records her as the first Indian woman to study medicine. Frail health made her drop out and she began to write, which catapulted her to posthumous fame: that of being the earliest English woman novelist in south India, possibly among the earliest in India.

Born into a Brahmin family that converted to Christianity in 1862, Krupabai grew up observing both religions, a life she recounts in her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life.

Subhendu Mund, vice-president, Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies and member of the Translation Advisory Committee at Odisha Sahitya Akademi, has researched Krupabai’s life extensively. In his paper ‘Krupabai Satthianadhan: The Portrait of an Indian Lady’, he talks of how Krupabai fell in love with Samuel Satthianadhan, her husband, while staying with his father Rev. W.T. Satthianadhan in Madras. In the 1800s, she “travelled all alone from Ahmednagar to Madras, with nothing but her determination to help her cope with adversities.”

An advocate of women’s education, when her husband became headmaster in an Ooty school, Krupabai started a school for Muslim girls. This was when she started to write as well. “I think it was natural to write in English. She spoke Marathi but lived in Tamil and Telugu-speaking regions. She had the patronage of Western missionaries who taught her English,” says Mund.

Under the nom de plume An Indian Lady, her first published article was ‘A Visit to the Todas’ published in South India Observer. In 1886, when she began Saguna, her health had started to fail again. She wrote another paper titled ‘The Story of a Conversion’ about how Rev W. T. Satthianadhan converted to Christianity. Then came her second novel Kamala: A Story of Hindu Life. By now, she had been diagnosed with TB and had lost her first child. “Kamala was completed on the hospital bed but doesn’t betray a hurried ending or looseness of style or narrative,” says Mund.

Excerpts from her books show how strongly she felt about women’s issues. “She is aware of the dangers of a society in transition. She is critical of decadent customs and superstitions,” writes Mund, “but she extols the essence of Indian spiritual life.”

“She may be called India’s first feminist writer in the sense that her works show a passionate involvement in issues related to women,” writes Mund. Interestingly, despite being Christian, her New Woman is basically any Indian woman in a rapidly changing social situation.

Krupabai died in 1894. Madras University offers a medal in her name to women students studying English, while Madras Medical College offers a women’s scholarship in pharmacology or for higher medical studies.