Women have the power to nurture, create and transform. From time immemorial there have been inspiring women like Mother Teresa and Helen Keller who have triumphed against great odds and achieved their goal. One such crusader for women’s emancipation in India was Smt Lakshmibai Kelkar who was affectionately referred to as ‘Vandaneeya Mausiji’. She started the Rashtra Sevika Samithi which brought women together and increased their pride and love for the nation and the Hindutva feeling by imbibing the great human values of the glorious Sanathana Dharma. According to her it was the women who would pass on these values to their future generations and so the future of the society and nation depended on nurturing Bharatiya values.
Birth and Early life
Lakshmibai was born in the Mahal district of Nagpur in the year 1905. She was named Kamal meaning lotus. Her parents were Bhaskar Rao Datey, a Government servant and Yashodabai a homemaker. In those days of British rule, purchasing and reading papers like ‘Kesari’ written by Lokmanya Tilak was looked upon as an act of treason if one was a Government servant but her mother would purchase the paper and call all the ladies for a combined reading. Thus Lakshmibai’s deep love for the motherland, organising capacity, fearlessness and dauntless spirit came to her from her parents. As a child, the songs, rituals and stories of Hindu legends left an indelible mark on her young mind and she loved going to the temple. She was admitted to the ‘Mission School’ which was the only girl’s school near her house. But she was upset that the prayer routine did not include Hindu Gods and Goddesses and though she tried to adjust to it finally she decided to discontinue after her primary education which was the norm in most households at that time. She was brave and forthright even at a young age and played boyish games as well as games with her dolls. She exhibited leadership qualities by steering the games away from petty disputes instructing her friends to play fairly without prejudgement. Listening to her mother reading Kesari with the other ladies every day the spirit of patriotism and resentment against British rule slowly began to grow in Kamal.
When there was a campaign to save cows from being slaughtered young Kamal accompanied the temple priest and ‘Dai’ (nanny) in this holy crusade. This taught her the power of speech, the value of humility and the ability to endure insults and negativity when one was serving a good cause. At the outbreak of plague she helped her parents and Dai in administering service to the sick and needy, irrespective of caste and creed. Her father was very helpful and even performed the last rites of plague victims whom others had refused to touch. All these experiences taught her the values of endurance and patience.
Marriage and later life
Kamal soon grew up to be a beautiful girl with a wealth of virtues. When her parents began looking out for her for marriage she was upset to witness the dowry system for girls. She decided not to marry a person who valued money more than her and on her insistence her parents agreed. She was then married on her own terms to a well known advocate Purushottam Rao of the famous Kelkar family of Wardha who had two small daughters from his first wife. As per the custom her name was changed to Lakshmi. She cheerfully took care of the young daughters and her affection and good will won everyone’s heart in her husband’s home. But Lakshmibai soon realised that the atmosphere in her husband’s house was totally different from that of her parental home. The Kelkar family were British loyalists and her husband was modern in his outlook and visited the club to play billiards etc. But keeping to the times he placed a number of restrictions on the womenfolk of his house. Lakshmibai having enjoyed greater freedom in her parental home was upset with these restrictions as she was unlike the other female members of those times. Soon she was blessed with a son and her daughters were delighted. Since their family was a joint family with huge farms and property, many barristers and social reformers were invited whose patriotic talks kept the flame of patriotism burning in her. She was invited to attend bridge parties by the female counterparts and as she was endowed with exceptional leadership qualities began to advise them against wasting their time in frivolous pursuits. Slowly she brought about a change in them and soon newspapers and periodicals were being read and discussed by them.
Wardha- The centre of activity
After the sad demise of Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi left Sabarmati and selected Wardha as his ashram. Sevagram in Wardha began buzzing with political activity as freedom fighters from all over the country thronged the place. Lakshmibai’s patriotic feelings were kindled and she motivated her sisters in law to join the freedom struggle. They even donated their jewellery for this noble cause. But her husband was worried as women were generally confined to the home front. Lakshmibai tried to maintain a balance and kept everyone happy. Soon she had four more children and was bound more firmly to her domestic life. Unfortunately her husband contracted tuberculosis which was a dreaded and incurable disease those days and inspite of all efforts and prayers he passed away leaving her a widow at the tender age of twenty seven. Her elder daughter too died of the disease. Pushing aside her grief, she took over the management of the house and brought financial affairs under control.
Lakshmibai realised that there was no school for girls in Wardha to admit her daughter so she took the first step in laying the foundation of a girl’s school thus paving the way for women’s literacy in Wardha. She searched for caring and dedicated teachers and provided them accommodation in her own home treating them like members of her family. She encouraged the girls to learn cycling and swimming. She participated in the spinning programmes at Sevagram, Prabhat Pheris, evening prayer meetings and question answer sessions.
According to legends one day she heard Gandhiji exhorting women to channelize their latent inner powers to become Sita as then automatically men would be inspired to become Ram. Inspired by his words she re-read the Ramayan and made a deep indepth study. She realised that since the days of Ramayan and the abduction of Sita, women were continuing to be subjugated. She noticed the plight of the orange lady vendors in her locality who were exploited by the agents. She wondered how to increase the physical and spiritual fibre of the oppressed women. Meanwhile her sons joined the RSS where they were taught physical and mental discipline, art of warfare etc. Observing the change and discipline in them, Lakshmibai decided that a similar institution for women was the solution to their problems. She decided to meet Dr. Hedgewar who was the head of the men’s Sangha. Dr Hedgewar was impressed with her quiet strength and philosophy. With examples of great leaders like Swami Vivekanand, she sought to convince him about the need for empowering women. Dr Hedgewar realised her greatness and asked her if she was willing to take responsibility of leading the women. They named it Rashtra Sevika Samithi and though its ideology would be parallel to the men’s Sangha, it would be autonomous and independent.
Lakshmibai decided that the first step was to inspire women towards the glorious past of India and pride for nationalistic values as the women exhibited a lack of confidence under foreign bondage and felt their values and ideals were inferior to Western ideologies. She went door to door with her dedicated workers urging them to step out and involve themselves in national service. On Vijayadashmi day, the Rashtra Sevika Samithi was formally inaugurated. Fired by her enthusiasm, women began to enrol themselves with new found courage and confidence. All the Sevikas began referring to her as ‘Vandaneeya Mausiji’ and she became a role model, confidante and guide for millions of Sevikas. They began to strengthen themselves with physical and outdoor exercises. Soon she began addressing huge rallies and overcame her initial nervousness by practising diligently at home. She opened new centres or Shakhas in different places and held camps to inspire and induct new arrivals.
Her sense of duty
Many times there was a pressing need for her presence at home especially during illness of her children but she would always make her decision wisely and ensure the well being of her children. This could be achieved only by strong support from her family members. Once training camps were successfully set up she laid the groundwork for the second stage which was proposals for setting up nursery schools and small scale industries. Unfortunately the partition of India took place and she had to divert her attention to more pressing matters. She bravely even travelled upto Sindh to give the Hindus there moral, spiritual and physical support. At Karachi she saw firsthand the communal hatred and violence there. She exhorted the Sevikas there to be united and calm and saw to their safe boarding and lodging at Bombay. The passing away of Gandhiji also brought about a volatile situation in the country. Mausiji prudently decided to lie low for some time though it was a trying time with the Government imposing various bans on them. Under the guise of the wedding ceremony of one of her sons she continued to hold meetings and inspire the Sevikas. When the ban was lifted, Mausiji realised that the zeal and enthusiasm of the Sevikas had waned and had to be revitalised.
It is said that during this period she got a dream in which a holy sage gave her the Ramayan urging her to work for peace and harmony. She woke up with a sense of elation and decided to give the Samithi a new direction with discourses of Ramayan. Hearing her passionate and heartfelt discourses people were moved and she travelled to a number of states on this mission. She was a powerful orator and held the audiences spellbound. She narrated only upto the coronation of Lord Ram as she wished to emphasize his qualities as an able administrator and ruler whose ideals of duty and sacrifice could be emulated by the masses in their day to day life. Her discourses ended with the coronation ceremony. She exhorted women to emulate Sita and with courage, strength, purity and fearlessness realise their duty to the family, society and nation. Her books and discourses gave direction and purpose to millions of people.
Mausiji consulted various health practitioners and doctors and redesigned the fitness programme to suit the needs of women. Yogasanas, Suryanamaskar were included and inspiring stories of great women in history were compiled and recited during the prayer meetings. For this purpose she formed an organisation Streesjeevan Vikas Parishad for expert guidance and training of the physical and mental development of women and invited several eminent personalities and doctors to address the Sevikas. She began the publication of a journal ‘Sevika’ in Marathi which is now published in many languages as ‘Rashtra Sevika’. She established Grihini Vidyalaya with vocational courses, training programmes and short term courses to develop the natural talents of women and Bharatiya Shrividya Niketan to reorganise women’s education on the basis of India’s glorious culture. She began the custom of the worship of Goddess Shakti with eight arms each holding lotus, Bhagavad Geeta, Saffron flag, Agni Kund, bell, sword and beads respectively representing women power and installed the idols in various Kendras. She formed Bhajan Mandals to encourage the musical and devotional talents of the women and inspired them to compose the achievements of great women like Rani Lakshmibai and Jijamata in poetic form. She held exhibitions on inspiring subjects like Shivaji’s struggle, Swami Vivekananda’s clarion call and invited artists to contribute to social renaissance and upliftment of the masses through their paintings. She celebrated centenaries of great women leaders and began the tradition of honouring the Motherland by rendering Vande Mataram at every meeting. She constructed the Devi Ahalya Mandir at Nagpur, the Ashtabhuja temple at Wardha and many other temples.
Inspite of her varied duties, Mausiji was a model of cleanliness and never neglected her household. She was devout and always took care of the aesthetic appeal of flower decorations during poojas. She went on pilgrimages and paid great attention to the value of time as she had numerous tasks to perform. She never allowed people to place her on a pedestal and dedicated all their praise to the Samithi thus discouraging sycophancy. She had a razor sharp memory and could remember a person even if only introduced once. Her ability to give importance and care and concern to each and every individual endeared her to all the Sevikas. She was like a mother to all of them and they looked upon themselves as fortunate to be her children.
Illness and subsequent death
As time passed by, rural and tribal rehabilitation and a number of other activities were planned to be included by Mausiji. She continued to give discourses and inspire the Sevikas until August 1978 when she had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the ICU. She began improving and thousands of followers from all the states of India began streaming into the hospital at Nagpur. Inspite of being unable to comprehend the language of the Sevikas who came from many states the bond of love between them was enough to be expressed without words. However, soon she suffered another attack and though showing signs of improvement ultimately succumbed on 27th November 1978. On the way to the Ambazari ghat, her body was kept for a while in Shree Shakti Peeth which has now been turned into her memorial.
Her birth and death anniversary are celebrated throughout the world with her centenary celebrations performed on a grand scale. The organisation continues to be a beacon of hope and encouragement to millions of women all over the world.
The life story of Vandaneeya Mausiji is an inspiring saga of a courageous woman who with great moral courage and mental fortitude battled against all odds and finally emerged victorious. Her forward vision, courage and confidence in a male dominated society resulted in the start of a mighty organisation for the rehabilitation of women which awoke the patriotic feelings and the dormant feminine power in the hearts of the traditional Indian women. She struggled to establish the supremacy of the Hindu ideology of ‘Vasudaivaka Kutumbakam’ meaning ‘the world is one family’. She dedicated her life to the service and care of the motherland. She insisted that women nurture the motherhood instinct in order to serve all members of society. According to her, service accompanied by a spirit of duty, love and sacrifice was the true hallmark of a great nation. She tried to instil pride in the glory of the ancient Hindu culture in the hearts of every woman and will be revered by all Indian women for generations to come.