Women of Substance

Some people know the name Savita Ambedkar. Fewer know the name Gyan Patnaik. These were women who were achievers in their own right, but decided to stay in the background, while their husbands took the larger stage. A small peek into their lives…

Savita Ambedkar: Dr. Savita (born Sharada) Ambedkar was the wife of Dr. BR Ambedkar. Born in 1909, she belonged to a very forward-looking family which gave great importance to education. This enabled her to pursue her MBBS in a day and age when it was not very common for women to even complete school. After graduating from Grant Medical College Bombay, she was appointed as Medical Officer in a major hospital in Gujarat. However, due to ill-health, she gave up her job there and returned to Bombay in a while, and started assisting a senior doctor in his practice. It was at this time that she met Dr. Ambedkar at the house of a common acquaintance He was immersed in his work as Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Council. The acquaintanceship began with a few conversations about women’s rights, Buddhism, etc., and continued for many years. . Dr. Ambedkar had lost his first wife and had resolved not to marry. During the writing of the Constitution which obviously must have been a very stressful time,  Dr. Ambedkar’s health suffered and he came to Bombay for treatment. Dr. Savita was closely involved in his treatment, and they had many conversations about social change, literature, religion, etc. Their friendship grew, and they decided to get married in 1948. After that, she not only lent her intellectual support in his many tasks, she also acted as his personal doctor-nurse, and was involved in social work. Dr. Ambedkar has credited her with increasing his life-span by 8-10 years.

Tragically, after his death, she was accused of having poisoned him. Govt. of India set up committee to look into the circumstances of his death. The committee found no indication of foul play. While during Dr. Ambedkar’s life, she was a very respected figure in the Dalit-Buddhist movement, after that, there were allegations that she was not really committed to it, given her Brahmin birth. However, after some years, there was a reconciliation and she actively participated in it once again. She was responsible for the preservation of many documents and papers related to her husband and received the posthumous Bharat Ratna on his behalf.

Gyan Patnaik: Fiesty Gyan was the wife of the flamboyant Biju Patnaik.  She was one of the first women-aviators in India, and probably the first woman to get a commercial pilot’s license in the 1930s. It was their joint love of flying that brought the Punjabi Gyan and the Odiya Biju together.  He piloted his baraat across the country for the wedding, and was known as Punjab’s son-in-law.

Gyan participated fully in the nationalist movement with Biju. She co-piloted the plane with him in his daring rescue of Indonesian leaders from Dutch-occupied Java. She went back there on several missions with Biju to bring humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people. She was also very active in supporting the freedom struggle in Nepal in the 1950s. She flew several sorties to Burma along with her husband to rescue British families as the Japanese invaded the country during World War II.

Gyan Patnaik with her Husband
Gyan Patnaik with her Husband

She was passionately interested in science and the use of science for improving people’s lives, and provided leadership to these initiatives through the Kalinga Foundation. She was a wise counselor not only to Biju Patnaik, but also to many leaders in Orissa. However, during the later years, Biju preferred that she live away from Orissa so as not to get caught up in the rough and tumble of state politics.

A woman-doctor and a lady-pilot in the 1930s were on path breaking journeys and would have made waves. Being married to prominent men brought them to the public eye and they garnered accolades in a different way—one where they were seen more as supporters of men on the national stage, rather than achievers in their own right.

On International Women’s Day, we claim back the stage for them and many others like them, and wish all readers.

–Meena

PS: We started our blog on International Women’s Day, 2018. Four years and 480 posts–an opportunity for immense learning and sharing. A big thank you to all our readers!

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