My maternal grandmother, Indirabai Bhajekar, was the firstborn of Sir Nilkanth Jatar (Bhausaheb, son of Shriram Bhikaji Jatar, ) and his wife Bhagirathi (nee Durga Moghe). Indira was born on July 21, 1910, at Sion, Mumbai. She grew up in Nagpur, where her father was posted as Inspector -General of Prisons, CP & Berar. She excelled in mathematics at school and matriculated from St.Ursula’s. (Photo: Indirabai Bhajekar as a baby with her mother)
She was married at 16 to Shri Bhalchandra Balkrishna Bhajekar, a college student at the time. His family was well respected and known for their progressive views and social reform work, notably in widow rehabilitation and widow remarriage. Not surprisingly, they fully supported Indirabai’s strong desire to continue her education after marriage- although not the custom in those days. She studied at Fergusson College, Pune, obtaining her BA from the University of Bombay in 1931. She was also considered very beautiful, noted for her fair complexion and gracefulness.
The photograph on the right is of her husband Bhalachandra and son Ashok Bhajekar.
Indirabai soon became active in the field of social service for women and children, in which her husband, Advocate Bhajekar, encouraged and actively supported her. Their residence- (a traditional wada) in Vetal Peth (present-day Guruwar Peth), Pune, was always made available for her manifold causes. In 1934, she started the Mahila Samaj – a women’s organization dedicated to expanding their horizons beyond domestic responsibilities. Women took part in sports, writing, art , music, wrote articles and discussed current events.
Indirabai ran a centre for the Arogya Mandal, at her residence for 17 years. This supplied basic medical equipment to the poor (of all castes and creeds) at no cost. In 1947, she started a milk distribution centre in her home as well, for impoverished neighbourhood children. UNICEF provided the milk powder and she saw to it that the children drank the prepared milk in the centre and did not take it home (to prevent its diversion elsewhere).
She started the Vetal Peth Balak Mandir (pre-primary school) in 1956, for children of poor illiterates, in one of the rooms at her wada. At first, she had to personally convince people to send their children. Children were given a freshly made, wholesome meal as well. The visible improvement in their health helped uneducated parents realize the dietary importance of fruits, raw vegetables, and sprouted lentils. Cooking and serving the meal also provided employment to local women. The school, which began with 2 students, grew to 170 and was later affiliated to the Pune Mahila Mandal. It continues to this day.
In 1965, she started a “Sanskar Varga” (cultural education class) at home for children of poor, illiterate parents. The children learned Sanskrit shlokas (verses), did homework and were told educational stories. Indirabai took the lead in many a relief effort, effectively recruiting women for these causes. Among others, these included foodgrain distribution during famine, knitting sweaters for soldiers during the ’62 Chinese invasion, helping out during the Panshet flood and providing essential health information during epidemics.
A founding member of the Pune Mahila Mandal (the Pune branch of the All India Women’s Conference or AIWC), she played a major role in setting up a new building for the Mandal and its Family Planning Center. Over the years, she successfully discharged the duties of treasurer, secretary, and other posts culminating in her election as President of the AIWC, (Western zone). She was also elected the Vice President of the AIWC, at the national level. She served as president of the Pune unit of Annapoorna – a meal service for office workers, that provided employment to many women.
She also worked at innumerable local women’s welfare organizations. Indirabai also worked, since 1948, for the David Sassoon Anath Pangu Griha or Niwara – a home for the poor and destitute elderly. She worked tirelessly until the age of 88, as an executive committee member and for many years as president. Even in her nineties, she would visit the residents of the home whenever her health permitted. In recognition of her work (all of it voluntary), she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AIWC in January 2003, presented by Najma Heptullah (granddaughter of Maulana Azad) at Fergusson College, Pune.
Indirabai had two children, Ashok, who became a surgeon specializing in urology and Neelima, who became a professor of French and an author. She was much loved and respected by all her siblings. Her sister Leela, was only 3 when their mother died and though Indira was herself a child, she did her best to look after her.
Bhausaheb later remarried and she remained close throughout her life to all her brothers and sisters, who called her Indutai. Always known for being a warm and caring person, she not only maintained but strengthened ties between friends and family members, both on her parents’ side and on her in-laws’ side. The Jatar Bhishi Mandal (women relatives who meet regularly as a group) started by her, continues to this day in Pune.
Indirabai’s optimistic outlook and zest for life were remarkable. With characteristic modesty, she always maintained that she had merely done her duty to society and nothing more. She passed away at the age of 95 but her memory remains an inspiration to us all.
By Dr Rama Kulkarni, February 2008. (Based on my recollections and the writings of my parents.)
Photo of Bhagirathibai Jatar, Indira’s mother.