Rags to riches to the right word

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TRIBUTE October 3 is the centenary of Saraswatibai Rajwade, an early Kannada writer who had disappeared into the folds of history. The extraordinary beautiful woman had a stint in theatre and films, before she became a writer and brought out the journal Suprabhata

A life full of ups and downsSaraswatibai Rajwade
A life full of ups and downsSaraswatibai Rajwade

Saraswatibai Rajwade (1913-94) was like the alluringly beautiful, ethereal damsel from Bana’s work of fiction. She was like a cursed angel who had rolled down to the earth. Saraswatibai was born and brought up in Dakshina Kannada – in the swamp of abject poverty, in the choking dense fumes of hate and jealousy. She was fully fed on the difficulties of a scraping poverty, and as a little child of five, she worked as a flower seller, as a maid… Owing to her stunning good looks, she was the star of early Kannada theatre for a brief while. She even made an entry into the world of silent cinema and celebrated her success as an actress. She travelled the length and breadth of the country as a singer in an orchestra group. All these journeys got over too soon and she was back to her life of poverty. It was probably her life of penury, Saraswatibai longed to be rich, she prayed and prayed that she would marry a collector and it actually came true. When she was 15, she married Ambikapathi Rayashastri Rajwade, a senior officer. He was a 52-year-old widower. What followed her marriage was a life loaded with wealth and luxury. They led their lives in Tanjavore, Madras and Singapore — it was prosperous, and also marked by painful suppression-subjugation and loneliness. During these forlorn years, Saraswatibai learnt several languages. Her very first story was written in Tamil. She wrote her first story in Tamil. In the later years, she started writing stories in Kannada. By the time she turned 28, she became a widow and came to live in Bangalore. Eventually, she moved to Udupi and lived there till her end came.

During the Forties and Fifties, Saraswatibai wrote several women-centric stories and made her mark as an important writer in the Kannada literary world. Inspired by the Progressive Movement, she started a bimonthly, a woman-oriented journal Suprabhata , and ran it all by herself. Suddenly, one fine day, she gave up everything, and as is she had had a rebirth, transformed into a highly religious person. Subsequently, she began to compose keertanes and even published them in the form of a book. Saraswatibai gave away all her wealth and jewellery to charity, and made huge donations to temples. She built a temple, and left it under the supervision of a family, with whom she lived till she breathed her last. A few years ago, Kannada writer Vaidehi met Saraswatibai Rajwade in Udupi. She met her again and again with immense curiosity and interest. Vaidehi began to make note of all that Rajwade spoke about her life. The story of her life is an extraordinary record.

In those spirited, youthful days, when we were heady on literature, Saraswatibai Rajwade, was our object of absolute adoration. Around 1954-55, I had met her twice. In her wonderful beauty and dignity, she came across like a grand queen. That’s all I can recall of our meeting.

Even when she had crossed 80, Saraswatibai apparently had traces of the same beauty and grace. Her love for this world remained undiminished and she continued to feel grateful for life.

I remember the story of Shakuntala. Whenever I think of the story of our own “Sadarame”, I cannot help remembering the new Sadarames in Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Saraswatibai Rajwade.


Translated by DEEPA GANESH

(This essay was written by Magsaysay award winning writer K.V. Subbanna in May 1994 for the journal Maatukathe .)


Excerpts from Saraswatibai Rajwade’s memoir will be carried in Friday Review, October 4, 2013.




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