Shakuntala Paranjape : Crusade of a lifetime

Shakuntala Paranjape : Crusade of a lifetime

Pune Plus The Times of India

By Camil Parkhe
When the list of recipients of national civilian awards was announced on the eve of Republic Day this year, the inclusion of her name among the Padma Bhushan awardees did not strike a loud note. Ironically, some newspapers in Pune, where she has worked as a lone crusader in the field of family planning, did not have a story on her. She was clubbed together with other eminent local persons who were also honoured with civilian awards. Perhaps there was a reason for this omission. The redoubtable Mrs. Shakuntala Paranjape, has been away from the limelight for more than two decades now.
To Shakuntala Paranjape, who turned 85 on January 17, goes the credit of launching a long crusade for popularising family planning during the pre-independent era, when even discussing this issue in public was taboo. Many an eye-brow was raised when this lady, from a well-known and respected family (her father, Sir Wrangler Paranjape, was a towering figure in educational circles), opened a clinic at her residence to guide people in family planning. Undaunted by the stir she had caused by her action, young Shakuntala went ahead with her work – acknowledged by society only very much later.
The popularizing of family planning became a mission for Shakuntala Paranjape. This was in the early 1930s. She was influenced in this work by her cousin, Prof. R. D. Karve. Prof. Karve, son of the educationist Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve, was already strongly committed to carrying out his campaign for family planning single-handedly. His insistence on spreading sex education and preaching about the merits of family planning, had many conservative people feeling that he was bringing disgrace upon his respectable family and looked down upon him for his ‘crazy and eccentric views’. But, despite his committed attitude towards social reform, he had his own limitations. Being a man, he often found it difficult to carry on his campaign effectively among the conservative women and asked Shakuntala if she would help in his task. She agreed and thus began her long mission in life.
Shakuntala started her work by opening a consultancy at her residence on Wrangler Paranjape Road in Deccan Gymkhana (then known as Bhamurda). The high illiteracy rate, especially among women, made her task more difficult. Besides which, the prevalent social situation did not permit women to visit her at her consultancy in broad daylight. Therefore, the visiting hours at the consultancy were subsequently changed from the evenings. Later, Shakuntala expended her activities to include regular visits to different parts of Maharashtra as well. Simultaneously, she published several articles on family planning consultancy in periodicals which caused quite a flutter in Pune’s conservative circles.
It was a hard task convincing women about family planning, a majority of these illiterate women considered children to be God-given gifts,” she recalls. “Many of these women did not want to bear more children but did not know what to do about it. Tactfully broaching the topic and impressing upon these women that it was desirable, and also possible, to have a small family, helped to convince them about the need for family planning. But this was not always put into practice due to various factors.”
It was a big achievement, therefore, for Shakuntala, when a Muslim midwife Ashrafbi Shaikh, volunteered to undergo a sterilization operation. This step by a Muslim woman was certainly revolutionary in those days. Thereafter, Ashrafbi accompanied Shakuntala during her visits to rural areas of Maharashtra and actively participated in persuading other women to have fewer children. A couple of years ago, Bombay Doordarshan telecast an interview with Shakuntala Paranjape. The programme also included an interview with ‘Ashrafbi, who still keeps in touch with Shakuntala.
I found that the testimony of men and women who had undergone sterilization operations proved highly advantageous to eliminate apprehensions about sterilization. After my talk on the need to have a small family, I would leave the floor to these people who would narrate their experiences with a ‘down to earth’ attitude. After the talk was over, the people, men and women gathered there, would voice their queries and fears individually and satisfy themselves,” says Shakuntala.
Even educated section of society was not too enthusiastic about her social work. With the exception of the Samajswastha and Dnyanaprakash, no other periodical dared to publish advertisements for Shakuntala Paranjape’s clinic. Her articles were published by several magazines, but whenever she was invited to address public meetings, the organizers would suggest that she speak on any topic other than her pet subject – family planning!
After independence, the situation changed to some extent, and she was often called upon to deliver lectures on family planning in rural areas. But, by then, Shakuntala accepted this invitations only on condition that at least one woman from the village undergo training to start a family planning clinic in her area.
Once, Shakuntala went to a village to speak at a public meeting which had been well advertised. But the crowed that had gathered to listen to her consisted only of men. “Where are the women?” queried Mrs. Shakuntala Paranjape. She was told by the local leaders that women did not come to the chawdi (the village square) to listen to her lecture on a topic like family planning. “But I am a women, too!” retorted Shakuntala and refused to address the meeting unless the women of the village attended it. Finally, a local businessman asked her to speak at his spacious bungalow where, he said, the women might feel free to listen to her. “I agreed and a large number of women attended the meeting,” she recalls, adding, “thereafter, I always insisted that meetings on family planning should be attended by the men as well as the women.”
A dedicated social worker, Shakuntala Paranjape did not restrict her work to family planning alone. She also launched a scathing attack on outdated social behavior and superstitions. Her writings, which include plays, short stories and novels, still reveal her revolutionary bent of mind. She also acted in Prabhat Theatre’s famous film, Kunku.
In recognition of her pioneering work, Shakuntala was nominated to Maharashtra Legislative Council and, to the Rajya Sabha. For the twenty years or so, she has been living a quiet life in Pune. Like her father, she too, is very fond of cats, a fondness which runs in her famous family – her daughter, the film director, Sai Paranjape, and her grand daughter Winnie, can usually be seen surrounded by cats. Shakuntala, now retired from her hectic schedule, spends her time feeding her cats, looking after her garden, watching television and occasionally playing cards – her favourite pastime with her friends. Life has been very eventful, and Shakuntala Paranjape is quite content.


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