The Summer of Sadness: Celebrating the Contributions of Seven Feminist Stalwarts

From mid-July to mid-October, the death of these seven stalwarts dealt a body blow to the feminist movement in India. We owe it to them to document their journeys so they continue to be beacons of light for future generations.

Within a short span of three months – mid-July to mid-October – seven stalwarts passed away, dealing a body blow to the feminist movement in India. While we mourn their death, we must also celebrate their life and pay tribute to the rich legacy they have left behind. This thumbnail sketch provides us with a glimpse into the wide-ranging issues they were involved in. Each was a pioneer who transcended binaries – scholar/activist, urban/rural, governmental/non-governmental, organisations/movements – who forayed into national, regional and global realms and forged feminist solidarities beyond the rigid divides. They stumbled into feminism midway in their career, blossomed in its vibrancy and in turn, enriched the movement by their dynamic contributions. We owe it to them to document their journeys so that they continue to be beacons of light for future generations.

Shashi Sail (November 1946-July 2021) Raipur, Madhya Pradesh

Shashi and her husband, Rajendra Sail, were human rights defenders who worked in Raipur, Chhattisgarh and belonged to the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI). Rajendra Sail was the president of the Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and a close associate of the well-known trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was murdered in 1991.

Sashi Sail. Photo: By arrangement

Their work with bonded labour is well known. It is mainly due to the efforts of human rights defenders like them that the Supreme Court in 1984 ordered the release of around 25,000 bonded labourers. They also worked for the release of Adivasis who were arrested for their struggle for land rights and branded as ‘Maoists’. The couple strongly supported the Chattisgarh Mine Workers Association.

Later, Sashi carved out a niche for herself, focussing on the rights of rural and Adivasi women. In 1978, she formed the Chattisgarh Mahila Jagruti Sangathan and organised regular training sessions on socioeconomic and cultural issues concerning Adivasi women.

She also organised domestic workers and unorganised sector workers in the industrial clusters in Raipur and the surrounding semi-urban areas. In 1980, she attended the First National Conference of Women Activists held in Mumbai, along with a group of local activists. This helped her to build linkages with women’s groups at the national level.

In the mid-90s, she became a founding member of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO). She was an inspiring presence and played a key role in the founding of the World March of Women as part of the international feminist movement. She worked for transnational solidarity and built bridges among feminist activists in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The passing away of Rajendra Sail in January 2020 affected Sashi deeply. She became frail and withdrawn, and passed away on July 18, 2021, at the age of 75.

Gail Omvedt (August 1941-August 2021) Sangli, Maharashtra

The next major blow was the passing away of Gail Omvedt, an American born Indian sociologist, on  August 25, 2021 at the age of 80. She had been ailing for quite some years.

Gail came to India in 1971 for her doctoral research on ‘non-Brahmin social movements in Western India’ and focussed on the work of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, the renowned social reformers of the 19th century who led the anti-caste struggle in Maharashtra.

She was influenced by the work of Indumati Patankar, a great freedom fighter and women’s rights activist. She married Bharat Patankar, Indutai’s son, and settled in Kasegaon in Sangli district, Maharashtra, where she lived for the next 50 years. She learnt to speak (her own brand of) Marathi and was immersed in local political struggles. Hers was one of the intellectual voices of the Bahujan movement. Along with Bharat, she co-founded the Shramik Mukti Dal, a mass social movement to highlight the causes of farmers, drought-hit villages and dam-displaced Adivasis. Gail and Indutai shared a very close bond and participated together in various campaigns around social issues.

Cynthia Stephen, an activist from Bangaluru, describes Gail’s intellectual legacy as unique and unparalleled. “The manner in which she was able to transcend her colour, class and educational privileges and blend in with the lives of the rural working classes, was most remarkable,” she comments.

Alongside her activism, her academic rigour was unparalleled. She published around 25 books and several articles. According to Kalpana Kannabiran, a leading social scientist, “Reading her writing as it emerged in different contexts over five decades gives us a sense of her deep immersion as an interlocutor of mass struggles and provides us a glimpse into the shifts in her position in relation to the larger debates on specific questions at specific historical moments – feminism, struggles for land and water, ecological struggles, against Hindu majoritarianism, among others.”

Gail Omvedt. Photo: Shramik Mukti Dal

Sonal Shukla (July 1941-September 2021) Mumbai

Sonal Shukla, the Mumbai based feminist, had just turned 80. The end came without warning. Admitted to a hospital with chest pain a day prior, she passed away in the early hours of September 9, 2021.

Sonal was one of the 49 women who attended the meeting in 1979 to form the first feminist group in Mumbai, Forum Against Rape, later renamed, Forum Against Oppression of Women, as a response to the infamous Mathura (1979) judgment in which the Supreme Court acquitted two policemen who had raped a 16-year-old tribal girl in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. This was a turning point.

In 1981, when some of us ventured to start a drop-in centre for battered women, Women’s Centre, Sonal offered a room in her home. The Centre functioned from her place for two years until it could gather resources to buy a place of its own.

In 1987, she started Vacha (a charitable trust), as a library and women’s resource centre. Later Vacha started work with adolescent girls from marginalised communities. She flagged the unique problems faced by them and provided space for them to escape from family and community strangleholds and branch out on their own.

Sonalben, as she was popularly known, was an educationist, trained in Mahatma Gandhi’s educational methods, at the Indian Council of Basic Education and Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan. Her rare mix of activism and scholarship and her ability to write in both Gujarati and English allowed her to explore not only women’s issues but also art and culture – classical music, theatre and Gujarati literature. Professor Vibhuti Patel, the feminist economist and a close associate of Sonal, comments: “Sonalben’s literary stints interwoven with an indefatigable, courageous spirit serve as an inspiration for all the socially conscious citizens.”

Sonal Shukla. Photo: By arrangement

Personally, I owe Sonal a huge debt. She hand-held me while I transitioned from a middle class Christian battered housewife to a feminist lawyer. She was the driving force for me to resume my education and complete my graduation.

What was striking about Sonal was her razor-sharp wit, sense of aesthetics, ear for classical music, generosity and most of all, her zest for life, which she maintained till the very end.

As in life, she was a trendsetter, even in her death. As per her wishes, her funeral pyre was lit by an adolescent girl from Vacha.

Rati Bartholomew (January 1927-September 23, 2021) New Delhi

The theatre activist and mother of the renowned photographer Pablo Bartholomew passed away on September 23, 2021 at the ripe old age of 94. Partition uprooted the family and they came to Delhi as refugees.

Anuradha Kapur, a former director of the National School of Drama (NSD) and a long term associate of Rati, in an article describes her as distinguished, stylish, elegant and courageous. Her reputation as a theatre person went beyond a single institution. In fact, her name became synonymous with campus theatre, so intimately connected was she with student theatre.

Bartholomew inspired generations of students to transit from university theatre to amateur theatre. She looked keenly at their work and opened up opportunities when they stepped out of their studentship. She was one of the earliest members of Yatrik and the vice president of Dishantar – the two most active theatre groups in Delhi in the 1960s.

From the late 70s onwards, Rati was active in street theatre. She helped shape Theatre Union’s production, Toba Tek Singh (a poignant play by Saadat Hasan Manto, set in the background of Partition) which was performed across many cities.

Tripurari Sharma, another dedicated theatre activist and a student of Rati, describes her as a great teacher, mentor and activist. She comments that Rati’s flair for visualising a play became evident while collaborating on a street play Farak (1989) which examined the property rights of women under different personal laws. While giving form to the ongoing debates, what Rati did was ingenious – she used a simple rope to show a property and the shares going, or not going, to women. The square formed by four persons holding a rope was a house; when they dropped it, the ‘house’ vanished, with the reality of the woman’s situation becoming crystal clear. This simple device conveyed so many issues: lack of women’s property rights, the loss of home and the constant question haunting them – where is my space?

Her sphere of influence was not limited to India but extended across South Asia. She worked with theatre groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan, organising workshops and collaborative productions. During one of her many trips to Pakistan, Rati was able to go to Sargodha and visit the house that she and her family had left behind during Partition.

Rati Bartholomew (January 4, 1927 – September 23, 2021): The hues of time – sepia (1940s), black and white (1960s), and colour (2012, on her 85th birthday). Photo credits from left to right: Rekha Narayan Vora’s archive, estate of Richard Bartholomew, Pablo Bartholomew. All rights reserved.

Kamla Bhasin (April 1946-September 2021) New Delhi

Two days later, on September 25, 2021 Kamla Bhasin passed away. She was diagnosed with an advanced form of liver cancer three months prior to her passing away. Though her close friends knew the end was nearing, when it came, no one was prepared. Her death plunged feminists across South Asia into deep grief.

Kamla was a social scientist and started work as a developmental activist with Seva Mandir, a rural-based NGO in Rajasthan and later worked with the UN. In 1979, when she moved to Delhi, she started participating in street plays around the issue of dowry and violence against women. This was the moment of transformation. In her own words, she was like a feminist fish that took to feminist water. Poetry, songs with catchy tunes and rhymes, prose explaining complex feminist concepts in a simple language, poured out in a never-ending stream. Some of her songs became feminist anthems. Through dozens of simple booklets, she explained gender, feminism, patriarchy, etc. which could be understood by non-English speaking young students and older housewives. These have been translated into several South Asian languages.

In 1984, she co-founded Jagori, a feminist group in Delhi, engaged with training and cultural activities. In 1998 she started Sangat, a South Asian feminist network to campaign for gender justice in the region. She helped build bridges between feminists and secular activists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, striving to dissolve artificial barriers.

Her public talks were lively and full of humour. She had the ability to laugh at herself and could also lay bare her life and its challenges to young students such as the death by suicide of her only daughter Meeto when she was around 26 years, due to clinical depression. In one of her talks she shared, “She was not only my future, but also of my son, severely challenged because of a vaccination when he was barely seven months old, which damaged his brain.” Despite this, she kept the inner fire burning.

After she became ill, she would say to her friends, “The bulawa (summons) has come.” When they assured her that she will overcome this, she would respond, “No, not this time. I will not take it as my defeat. I will just transcend to the other world.” And yet one of her close friends, Ritu Menon, founder of the feminist publishing house Women Unlimited, wrote that on September, 23 while in a deep discussion around a contemporary issue, she dozed off. A few moments later, tightening her grip on Ritu’s hands, she opened her eyes wide and said, “Ritu I don’t want to die.” Thirty-six hours later, she was gone.

Her life and death teach us not only to keep the inner flame burning in the face of adversity but also to deal with the contradictory pulls when it’s time to go.

Kamla Bhasin (1946-2021). Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Thanksy Francis Thekkekara (November 1953-October 2021) Mumbai

Born in November 1953 in a Syrian Christian Family, Thanksy married Francis Thekkekara and is survived by her two daughters and her 101-year-old mother. Despite the high positions she held, Thanksy was the primary caregiver of her mother, and ailing husband until he passed away 1.5 years ago. She was diagnosed with thymic cancer but was active until the very end.

A much-admired IAS officer of the 1978 batch who retired in 2013, she was a highly accomplished person. She had completed her BSc, LLB, MBA and had a doctorate in micro-financing.

She brought pluralistic values, sound knowledge and idealism to all her postings including that of additional chief secretary, Minority Development Department, Government of Maharashtra and state information commissioner, Maharashtra.

Thanksy Thekkekara. Photo: By arrangement

Thekkekara worked for the overall empowerment of women. Her work at Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM) was extremely close to her heart. While she was the VC and MD of MAVIM (2001-2007), she helped to transform it into the Women Development Corporation, committed to bringing change in the life of poor rural women. This helped to expand the work of MAVIM exponentially.

From 2008-2013, Thekkekara was the additional chief secretary of the Minority Development Department. Shaheen Kadri, who was her undersecretary in the department and worked closely with her, describes Thekkekara as a soft-spoken person who had strong convictions and never succumbed to political pressure.

Thekkekara worked closely with professor Abdul Shaban at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and urged him to focus on empowering the Muslim community and in particular, Muslim women. She co-hosted an annual conference, Diversity and Development, the latest edition of which was held in August 2021. Professor Shaban, who is full of admiration for her, describes her as an able administrator, philanthropist, feminist, community leader and scholar, who relied on this five plank strategy while implementing various programmes.

Concerned about Muslim women who faced several obstacles – both internal and external – she was particularly disturbed about the lack of reservation for them in educational institutes and employment, which they needed the most.

Thekkekara co-authored the book Women’s Self Help Groups Restructuring Socio-Economic Development (2011) with professor Parthasarathy, IIT Mumbai and Veena Poonacha, director, Women’s Studies Dept, SNDT University. She also dabbled in fiction. Her book, Mehbub Gulley: Short Stories from India which was published by Notion Press (November 2019) and received good reviews.

Jessie Tellis-Nayak (March 1925-October 2021) Mangaluru, Karnataka 

Born on March 21, 1925 into a middle-class family in Mangalore, Jessie passed away on October 15, 2021. She was the first in her family to add Nayak to her Portuguese surname, Tellis, to stress her rootedness.

During her time, it was not usual for Christian girls from Mangalore to go abroad to study. The usual choice was marriage or nunnery. She defied the norm and went on to follow her dreams, on her own terms. She secured a master’s and a doctorate in social work from the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, and worked with marginalised people in shanties and participated in protest marches for basic human dignity of Black people. On August 28, 1963, Jessie was at the Lincoln Memorial Hall and heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. This strengthened her resolve to return to India, despite the lucrative positions she was offered in the US.

Jessie joined the Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi in 1965, and started work among tribal communities in various states. Her leadership skills led her to form ‘Vikas Maitri’, an organisation deeply involved in various types of developmental programmes by an all-tribal team of professionals.

When she realised that few women were present at planning and decision-making levels in development bodies, the importance of enabling women to discover their potential, providing them with opportunities, moral support and the skills needed for development work, dawned on her. Thus emerged her decision to concentrate her efforts on women’s development.

In 1975, she became the first director of the Women’s Development Unit at ISI. The Grihini Training Programme initiated by her became known throughout India. Her work in the area of community organisation and women’s welfare was accompanied by the publication of 16 books and several research articles.

In 1982, she returned to Karnataka and formed a group of committed Catholic women with the aim of creating awareness about women’s situation, named Women’s Institute for New Awakening (WINA). It promoted feminist theology, networked with women’s groups, established libraries for women and brought out ‘WINA Vani’, a newsletter to disseminate information. In her articles on the role of women in the church and society, she questioned the very structure and teachings of the patriarchal, hierarchical church and demanded justice for women – a revolutionary concept for her time. Some books that she co-authored are: The Emerging Christian Woman, On Legal Bondage, Women in Church and in Society and Indian Women Forge Ahead.

Jessie Tellis-Nayak. Photo: Instagram/the_og_tellis

In conclusion, let me share that I too belong to this generation of women, whose life was transformed by feminism in the late 70s and early 80s. They were my fellow travellers. I knew each of them, some more than others. I feel their loss at a deeply personal level. There is a gaping void within many of us today. This short piece is to express my appreciation for their contribution.

Flavia Agnes is a Mumbai based feminist activist and legal scholar. She is the co-founder of Majlis, which provides legal services to women.