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Women's lib - he was a century ahead

The social system in India in the 19th century was deplorable to say the least. Women were treated as second-rate citizens who had no right to education and freedom. Social evils like child marriage, sati and untouchability were prevalent in those days.

He studied the conditions of women in the country in the 18th century and said that the nation had progressed as long as it gave equal rights to women. "The denigration of women has ruined our society," he declared and waged a relentless battle against child marriage, advocating alongside widow remarriage and women's education.

That was Kandukuri Veeresalingam Panthulu, who strove all his life for improving the status of women in society and to remove superstitions and other social evils. Born to Subbarayudu and Punnamma on April 16, 1848, at Rajahmundry, he had a turbulent childhood. His was a frail frame and he suffered from small-pox when he was six months old. In those days it was rare to survive even comparatively less dangerous diseases like malaria and people thought he would not live long.

Fortunately, Veeresalingam survived and his family members heaved a sigh of relief. Their joy was short-lived, when his father died, when he was only four years old. His paternal uncle, Venkataratnam, adopted him and brought him up as his own son.

He was initiated into studies at the age of five at a local school. Subsequently, he was taught the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, tales from Indian folklore and folk songs. Right from his school days he exhibited leadership qualities.

In 1860, he joined an English medium school and earned laurels both from his classmates and teachers for his good behaviour and distinction in studies. All the students were unanimous in choosing him as the best student. Impressed with his good manners, the District Judge, Henry Morrison, who visited the school, gave him a prize.

Apart from English, Veeresalingam also mastered Sanskrit. He was influenced by the Brahmo Samaj leader, Atmuri Lakshmi Narasimha, and social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Keshab Chandra Sen.

In those days child marriages were common. In 1861, when Veeresalingam was 13, he was married to Bapamma Rajyalakshmi, who was then only eight years old. Both of them had no idea of what it meant. Wearing new clothes and jewellery and a ride on the palanquin were a new experience for them.

Rajyalakshmi was sent to her in-laws when she was 13. She played an important role in his life and shared his progressive views. The plantain tree in their backyard flowered at the centre and people said it would bring bad luck to the family. Similarly, when a honeycomb was set up by bees to a beam in the house, their neighbours asked them to vacate the house as it spelt doom for the family. She laughed away such suggestions.

At that time, Veerasalingam secured a job of a teacher at Koranki village and the couple told the neighbours that the honeybees had in fact brought them good luck. Again, he reported for duty on `Amavasya' day, which was considered inauspicious. After working for two years as a headmaster at Koranki, he moved to Davaleswaram in 1874 and joined as a head master in an English medium school.

The same year he started a magazine, `Vivekavardhini' at Davaleswaram. The magazine used to be printed at Madras. He espoused the cause of women's upliftment through his writings. He also used to criticise the rampant corruption among officials and the superstitious beliefs among people.

He boldly wrote against British officers and judges who indulged in corrupt practices, says B. Venkateswarlu in his book, `Mana Jaathi Ratnalu'. The magazine earned the goodwill of the people and Veeresalingam set up his own press at Rajahmundry. He also launched a special magazine for women, `Satihitabobhini' and educated women on their rights through it.

He was instrumental in performing the first widow remarriage in Andhra that took place at Rajahmundry on December 11, 1881. The 12-year widow, Gouramma was a native of Repudi village in Krishna district. She was married to 22-year old G. Sriramulu. Pyda Ramakrishnayya of Kakinada who extended Rs.30,000 for performing the remarriage and supported Veeresalingam, later had to succumb to pressures from society.

A series of widow remarriages followed in Andhra. He succeeded in bringing a change in the mindset of Telugus and gradually more and more people accepted widow remarriage. Though some right-thinking people welcomed his ideas, he earned several foes for his progressive thoughts. He, however, continued with his work.

Veeresalingam was also a writer and poet. He wrote about 100 books between 1869 and 1919. He died on May 27, 1919. His `Satyavathi Charitam' is the first social novel in Telugu.

The statue of this harbinger of social reforms has been installed on Beach Road.


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