Many facets of an activist

She was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to unite Hindi and Urdu. Kulsum Sayani also worked tirelessly for adult literacy...

August 14, 2010 06:26 pm | Updated 06:26 pm IST

Educationist par excellence: Kulsum Sayani (Centre) with her sons, radio broadcaster Ameen Sayani (left) and Hamid Sayani. (Courtesy: Sayanis)

Educationist par excellence: Kulsum Sayani (Centre) with her sons, radio broadcaster Ameen Sayani (left) and Hamid Sayani. (Courtesy: Sayanis)

“Each one, teach one”, one of the most effective schemes to promote education today was popularised by a woman few remember, but who was a pioneer in the field of adult literacy in India.

Kulsum Sayani's name might not ring a bell for many but her life and work are truly remarkable. Mother of the well-known radio personality Ameen Sayani, Kulsum was born in 1900. Her inspiration was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. Her father, Dr Rajabally Patel, was the personal physician to Gandhiji and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

During the several protest meets organised against the visit of the Prince of Wales to Bombay in 1921, the city had become volatile. The result was baton charges, arrests and martial laws. There were dozens of people wounded, and seriously injured.

Describing those trying times, Kulsum Sayani wrote, “A new Congress hospital was founded to care for the wounded. My late husband Jan Mohamed Sayani was the first physician to be put in charge of it. We had a small Saxon car with the Red Cross badge prominently showing on it. My husband would go to the hospital daily, practically on totally deserted roads lined up with policemen on both sides. I would be sitting by the phone until he called from the hospital telling me of his safe arrival.”

Sayani's interactions with Gandhiji and the importance attached to education in her family made her realise the need to eradicate illiteracy. In 1938, with a capital of Rs. 100 she employed two teachers and made the rounds of Muslim localities to get students. Considering the conservative attitude towards female education even now, imagine the effort it must have taken on Sayani's part to convince families about the importance of educating girls at that time. There were times people used to slam their doors on her face, exclaiming, “Why should women learn to read?”

Her tireless efforts proved that there was a tremendous need to work in the field of education, which needed a more organised set-up. Her experience made her a part of several committees, which were formed to increase literacy among adults in Bombay, now Mumbai. She was associated with the first National Planning Committee that was set up by the Congress government in Bombay in 1938. The Bombay City Social Education Committee, formed in 1939, asked Sayani to take over their 50 centres catering to Muslim women. Slowly and steadily the classes grew and reached 600 in number. Of course, her efforts were not limited to the Muslim community alone. She was also appointed the general secretary of the All India Women's Conference in 1944 and worked for the empowerment of women.

But it was in spreading the word on education that she is best remembered. The New Delhi edition of 'The Times of India' (March 10, 1970) noted, “From 1939 when she (Kulsum Sayani) took charge of the Bombay City Social Education Committee five lakh adults have become literate through one of the five languages – Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Telugu. Her days are a mad rush of dashing to schools to enthuse children into teaching adults and her nights are spent dreaming up new schemes of literacy.”


Sayani was very pragmatic and initiated several schemes to spread literacy, notably including “Each one, teach one”. She used to visit several schools and encourage young students to devote 15 minutes every day to teach one adult. Under the scheme, students were supposed to teach and read one new alphabet every day to any adult in their family, neighbourhood or domestic helpers. Highly conscious of the importance of moral values, she encouraged students to request adults to tell them a folk tale or a story from the epics.

“The lower middle-class women, who are forced to work, have no help but to abandon their children to the streets after school, while the fashionable ones have no time left for children after bridge and mah-jong parties,” she once said.

Another literacy initiative she initiated was reading out aloud. School students were encouraged to gather friends and adults and each one had to read out aloud. This, she believed, was necessary to improve the confidence and interest of neo-literates. To ensure the success of these schemes she used to visit three to four schools every week meeting and egg students on.

During the freedom struggle hundreds of political prisoners languishing in jails improved their Hindustani by reading out aloud ‘Rahber', the newspaper she brought out. ‘Rahber', started in 1940, was aimed at the new learners. It was published in three scripts - Nagari, Urdu and Gujarati. The language of ‘Rahber' was Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. Those were the times when the Hindi supporters were using heavy Sanskrit words and the proponents of Urdu were lacing the language with Persian and Arabic in their efforts to distinguish the two languages and establish their superiority.


Gandhiji was in favour of Hindustani written in the Nagari or the Urdu script. ‘Rahber' sought to take forward Gandhiji's idea of Hindustani. In a letter dated June 16, 1945, Gandhiji addressed Sayani as ‘Beti Kulsum' and wrote: “I like the mission of ‘Rahber' to unite Hindi and Urdu. May it succeed.” The newspaper was read by hundreds of political prisoners lodged in jails across the country; anyone interested in learning Gandhiji's Hindustani picked up the paper.

When the Constituent Assembly deliberations began in the months leading to India's Independence, the language controversy erupted again. A letter dated July 22, 1947, from Gandhiji to Sayani, shows his resolve to stick with Hindustani. He wrote: “Heaven knows what is in store for us. The old order changeth giving place to new. Nothing is settled. Whatever is decided by the C.A., Hindustani with the two scripts remains for you and me.”

Sayani also represented India at several international forums on education across the world. She attended the UNESCO conference in 1953 in Paris (France) and shared ideas and gained new perspectives after talking with representatives from several countries. Her other interest was to promote peace and increase understanding between India and Pakistan. Her well known status as an activist helped her get audiences with top leaders in both the countries. Among Pakistani politicians, she directly met Pakistani presidents, Ghulam Mohammad and Ayub Khan, among other senior leaders.

In India, her reputation as ‘Rahber's' editor helped her get appointments with Nehru, B.G. Kher, V.K. Krishna Menon, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Indira Gandhi. She received encouragement and support from politicians of all hues in India for her efforts to forge a friendship with Pakistan. However, after the passing away of Nehru and Rafi Kidwai, who shared her concerns on improving relations with Pakistan, she devoted her energies to propagating Hindustani.

Sayani's life is an inspiration to many. Married when she was only 18, she managed her family and pursued her social interests with equal elan. Her sons, Hamid and Ameen, both radio broadcasters, created their own identity. Ameen Sayani attributes his “basic grounding in clear and credible communications in Hindustani” to his involvement in assisting his mother in bringing out ‘Rahber'.

Old age and bureaucratic red tape forced her to stop ‘Rahber' in 1960 after she had single-handedly brought it out for 20 years. She continued to be associated with the Hindustani Prachar Sabha and organised several lectures and seminars

She never lost focus from her lifelong passion to eradicate illiteracy. She received the Padma Shri in 1960 and was also awarded the Nehru Literacy Award in 1969.

Sayani, who died in 1987, belonged to an era when people believed in giving their best to the nation without expecting anything in return.

(© Women's Feature Service)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.