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Chauhan [née Singh], Subhadra Kumari (1904–1948), poet, short-story writer, and political activist in India, was born on 16 August 1904 in Nihalpur, near Allahabad, United Provinces, India, the third of four daughters and sixth of seven children of Ramnath Singh, building contractor, and his wife, Dhiraj Kunwar. The family was originally a feudal, landowning one, but family legend had it that their estates had been confiscated by the British for ‘disloyal’ conduct during the disturbances of 1857. The family was conservative, and in straitened circumstances. Nevertheless Subhadra's youngest brother, Raj Bahadur Singh, had acquired somewhere a passion for women's education and, against the traditional resistance of his own family elders, not least his mother, Dhiraj Kunwar, he insisted on getting his sisters an education. Thus Subhadra was sent, along with her two elder sisters, to Crosthwaite Girls' School in Allahabad. A local women's magazine, Stri Darpan, observed in 1918 that Crosthwaite School (which had eighty-two Hindu and twenty-four Muslim resident students) attracted students from distant places, well beyond the province itself. It was at this school that Subhadra first met Mahadevi Varma, who became a famous poet. Mahadevi was two years her junior in school, but the bond that was forged there proved durable.

In 1919 Subhadra was married off to a young law student from the University of Allahabad, Lakshman Singh Chauhan, who had come into contact with her brother Raj Bahadur Singh. An impoverished student, he was the younger son of Tulsa Bai, who had been widowed early in life. Lakshman was a hardworking student, who supported himself by taking on jobs of various kinds, including editorial stints on the journals that flourished during this time of intellectual ferment in India. These latter were responsible for two of the most influential friendships of his life, with Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, who edited Pratap in Cawnpore, and Makhanlal Chaturvedi, who edited Maryada. At the time of his marriage Lakshman was in the final year of his master's course in economics at Allahabad University. However, the young couple soon came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi. An event that had a decisive impact on their lives was the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre at Amritsar in 1919. This marked a major turning-point in the nationalist imagination. It prompted Rabindranath Tagore to return his knighthood in protest. It also inspired some of Subhadra's earliest, best-known, and most moving poems, including ‘Veeron ka kaisa ho vasant’ (‘How, then, shall the springtime of the brave be celebrated?’), and ‘Aao priya rituraaj, kintu dheere se aana’ (‘There are no cuckoos here, only the raucous chattering of crows’).

Heeding Gandhi's call for ‘non-co-operation’ with the British raj in 1920–22, Lakshman Singh Chauhan abandoned his university education. Subhadra's studies had already been interrupted by marriage. The young couple decided to make their home in Jubbulpore, Central Provinces. Non-co-operation left few options for employment, and the couple eked out a meagre livelihood from Lakshman's editorial work for Maryada. The major part of their lives was dedicated to creating a nationalist movement in that relatively quiescent part of the country. This was particularly remarkable in the case of Subhadra who, as a young married woman in a deeply conservative society, unprotected by the privileges of class and background, risked opprobrium and worse by throwing herself unreservedly into the nationalist cause.

In December 1921 Lakshman and Subhadra went to Ahmadabad to attend the annual Congress meeting. Returning, they stopped off to spend some time at Sabarmati, Gandhi's ashram in Ahmadabad. Following Gandhi's example, the young Subhadra had eschewed all personal adornment, and appeared only in plain white homespun khadi, with no ornaments and not even the minimal marks of her married condition, bangles and the vermilion dot on the forehead. Gandhi first ascertained tentatively that, although she was dressed for all practical purposes like a Hindu widow, she was in fact a happily married woman. He chided her gently, and told her to appear henceforth with the minimal traditional adornments, and even when she wore a plain khadi sari, at least to wear one that had a decorative border. This was more than welcome to Subhadra, whose Gandhian sentiments, always genuine, were at war with her natural love of ornament and of fine things.

Lakshman and Subhadra were active in the ‘flag satyagraha’ of 1922–3, a protest centred on the flaunting of the prohibited Congress flag. Subhadra was arrested—and might well have been the first woman to have been arrested as a satyagrahi in the whole of India. The two of them were frequently arrested and jailed during the subsequent course of their political lives, a fact that involved considerable neglect of their young, frequently indigent family. Their eldest daughter, Sudha, was born in 1924. She was followed by three brothers, Ajay, Vijay, and Ashok. The youngest daughter, Mamta, was born after a considerable interval, in 1940. The longest of their prison stints was in 1942, during the Quit India movement. Subhadra was released in May 1943 after nine months in prison, acutely ill and needing immediate hospitalization. Her husband was jailed for three years.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan was best known for her balladic evocation of Lakshmi Bai, rani of Jhansi, the folk heroine of 1857, as an iconic figure for nationalist sentiment. But while her poetic gifts were serviceable in the nationalist struggle—with their sturdily hortatory optimism, their rhymed certainties—these fell foul of the emerging literary fashions of her time. There was, however, another poetic voice—a kind of unaffected celebration of ordinary domesticity, and the joys of motherhood and conjugality, of which she was afforded such a limited share by her extraordinary, abbreviated life. She published a collection of poems, Mukul, in 1930. This was well received, and was awarded the Seksaria prize instituted by the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. Her second book, a collection of short stories, Bikhre Moti, was published in 1932. Another collection of short stories, Unmadini, was published in 1934. The last collection, Seedhe saade Chitra, was published in 1946. The stories generally revolved around a few themes. One of these was the woman trapped in exploitative family and social structures. Another was caste oppression, and in particular the plight of those who were deemed ‘untouchable’.

Subhadra was deeply affected by the assassination of Gandhi on 30 January 1948, and outlived him by only a couple of weeks. She died in a car accident at Seoni, on the road from Nagpur to Jubbulpore, on 15 February 1948. It was a minor accident; the car was practically undamaged; no one, including her, had any serious injuries. But the shock killed her. She was survived by her husband and their five children.

Alok Rai

Sources  

S. Chauhan, Mila Tej se Tej (1975) · K. Schomer, Mahadevi Varma and the Chhayavad age in modern Hindi poetry (1983) · F. Orsini, The Hindi public sphere, 1920–1940 (2002)

Archives  

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Likenesses  

postage stamp, 1976, India