Independence Day 2023: The Women Who Fed India’s Revolutionaries
Image Credit: Google Images/People's Archive of Rural India

India is celebrating its 76th year of Independence from British rule in 2023, and it is time once again to count our blessings and appreciate the millions of people who, throughout the decades of freedom struggle, did their best to make this future possible. But while most people celebrate Independence Day by recounting the contributions of national heroes and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaralal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, there are millions of women whose contributions through the simple act of cooking go unnoticed. 

This Independence Day, it is time to change all that with a closer look at the women who supported the Indian freedom struggle through their many sacrifices, including the act of cooking for revolutionaries, freedom fighters and many more. The simple fact of life is that India, during the 1930s and 1940s especially, was not only going through the peak of the freedom movement but also grave economic crisis and famines.  

At such a time, cooking at homes for as many people as they could with minimal resources at hand, were the women of India. Unnamed and largely unrecognised for their simple yet vital contributions, these women deserve the respect of every Indian enjoying India’s Independence today. Here is everything you need to know about these women who fed India’s revolutionaries. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Gujju Ben Na Nashta

Arandhan Day: When No Bengali Woman Cooked 

The participation of women, and by that we mean everyday ordinary women of India and not just leaders, can be traced back to 1905. This was the year when the Partition of Bengal was executed under Lord Curzon, largely on religious lines, and people across modern day West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha and Bangladesh united to fight this division. A key moment in this movement against the Bengal Partition was Arandhan Day. 

In 1905, Ramendra Sundar Tribedi, a Bengali author, penned “A Vow For Bengali Women”. This pamphlet written in Bengali stated that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, was leaving Bengal as the province was getting divided. So, every Lakshmi in ordinary homes now had to take charge by adopting the ideals of Swadeshi and practising Arandhan (refraining from cooking at home) as a form of protest to invigorate the region’s attempt at stopping the Partition of Bengal.  

Tribedi’s clarion call was answered by thousands of Bengali women, no matter what their religion. On 16 October 1905, women across Bengal left their kitchens without food and fire and stepped out for the first time to protest against the British rule. They tied rakhis on each other's wrists as a symbol of unity too. It is quite important to note that by not cooking on a single day, Bengal’s women not only realised the value of their food but also understood how vital it is in fuelling the masses. 

Kasturba Gandhi, The Force Behind Gandhi Ashram

We all know Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, the man who went on innumerable fasts for the cause of Indian Independence—but very few know about the role Kasturba Gandhi, his wife, played. At the Satyagraha Ashram, now known as Sabarmati Ashram, in Ahmedabad, Kasturba Gandhi was the chief of the communal kitchen which practised principles of Swadeshi to the hilt. The Ashram, contemporary sources reveal, always had around 20 inmates apart from the Gandhi family. This apart, Congress leaders like Motilal Nehru also visited often. 

Kasturba Gandhi, endearingly called Ba by all at the Ashram, was in charge of feeding all of these people. Being Gujarati and vegetarian, she always cooked the simplest of dishes with locally grown ingredients. Contemporary records and anecdotes reveal that though she had a inmates who could help her cook for the large numbers of people at the Ashram, Kasturba Gandhi always made sure she was in charge and the food was satisfactory no matter how little the means. 

Bhabani Mahato, Feeding Revolutionaries In Rural Bengal

Out of the pages of P Sainath’s The Last Heroes emerges the incredible story of grit, nerve and patriotism that Bhabani Mahato personifies. Based out of Purulia in West Bengal, Mahato’s husband, Baidyanath Mahato was a member of the Indian National Congress and participated in local political activities against the British. When asked by Sainath about her own contributions, Bhabani Mahato humbly retorted that she did nothing much except cooking—not realising how vital her simple act was. 

“I was just too busy looking after a big family, all those people, how much cooking I had to do – every day the cooking increased!” she is quoted as saying in the book. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, Baidyanath Mahato and many others were jailed at the Bhagalpur Camp Jail just like major national leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. In their absence, Bhabani Mahato became the matriarch who fed hundreds of people with the little means her family could afford.  

Dukaribala Chattopadhyay, Supporting Jailed Nationalists 

Popularly known as Dukaribala Devi, this Bengal revolutionary was married off to Phanibhushan Chakraborty in Birbhum, West Bengal in the 1910s. Her nephew by marriage, Nibaran Ghatak was a student and revolutionary, and through him, Dukaribala Devi came into contact with the Jugantar group of revolutionaries working across Bengal. She is known to have hid German Mauser pistols for the revolutionaries and was arrested in 1917 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. 

As a third-class prisoner in the Presidency Jail of Calcutta, this mother of young infants had to mill 20 kilos of pulses every day. Seeing her plight, Nanibala Devi, a state prisoner on hunger strike, promised the jailers that she would end her strike if Dukaribala Devi was employed instead as a cook in the jail. Thus, Dukaribala Devi went from being a woman doing hard labour to one feeding the poorest and the richest Indian women prisoners at the Bengal jail at a time when the Indian freedom movement was growing steadily.  

A Note On Tagore’s Shantiniketan Kitchens 

You might know all about the rich and unique recipes that have come out of Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore, but did you know that the family’s communal kitchen at Shantiniketan also contributed to the freedom movement? The kitchen at Shantiniketan was run in the typical Tagore family innovative style by the Nobel Laureate’s niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani and other women, and also employed paid cooks for the young students. All of that changed when Gandhi visited Shantiniketan in 1915. 

In his autobiography, Gandhi himself notes how he interacted with the boys at the school and put forward the proposal that instead of employing paid cooks, the boys, teachers and others at Shantiniketan should cook their own food. Tagore himself accepted the proposal and told the boys at Shantiniketan, “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj.” The experiment was a true success despite controversies over finances and caste discrimination, and the men at Shantiniketan learned that though cooking has always been relegated as a womanly duty in the household, the cause of Swaraj can and should include men and women taking up self-reliant tasks like cooking too.