Kulsum Sayani: A ‘Rahber’ of Hindustani

By Danish Khan,

We all have heard of Ameen Sayani, the golden voice of radio, recognised and loved by lakhs of listeners. Sayani’s voice has touched the lives of many which makes people nostalgic of the good old days of the radio. History buffs might know that his grandfather Rahimtulla Sayani was elected the president of Congress in 1896 and was a well known lawyer in Bombay.

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However, not many people know of the pioneering educational work his mother Kulsum Sayani did for the purdah-clad women in Muslim localities. Kulsum Sayani’s interest in social work and adult literacy began as a result of her close interaction with Gandhiji. Her father Dr Rajabally Patel was Gandhiji’s friend and also personal physician when he arrived in Bombay from South Africa. She started taking active interest in the field of education.

She was part of several committees and organisations that were formed to help increase literacy among adults in Bombay. She was part of the first National Planning Committee which was set up by the Congress government in Bombay in 1938. She devised a home education scheme and started working among the Muslim women. With two teachers at the helm, she herself started doing the rounds of Muslim areas to gather the required quota of 25 students per teacher.

It must have taken a huge effort on Kulsum Sayani’s part to convince the females about the necessity and importance of education to get them into classes. Her efforts bore fruits and her reputation grew with the Bombay City Social Education Committee, formed in 1939, asking her to take over their centres catering to Muslim women.

Slowly and steadily the classes grew and reached 600 in numbers. Her efforts were not limited to the Muslim community only. Due to her passion and sincerity she was appointed the general secretary of the All India Women’s Conference in 1944.

Sayani’s enthusiasm and zeal knew no bounds. To sustain the interest of people and keep them engaged she started Rahber (Leader), a fortnightly journal. Aimed at the new learners Rahber was remarkable at its time as it was published in three scripts of Nagari, Urdu and Gujarati.

The language was Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. Those were the times when the Hindi supporters were using heavy Sanskrit words and the proponents of Urdu were lacing the language with Persian and Arabic in their efforts to distinguish the two languages and establish their superiority.

Gandhiji was in favour of Hindustani written in the Nagari or the Urdu script. Kulsum Sayani’s ‘Rahber’ sought to take forward Gandhiji’s idea of Hindustani.

In a letter dated June 16, 1945, Gandhiji addressed Sayani as Beti Kulsum and wrote: “I like the mission of Rahber to unite Hindi and Urdu. May it succeed.” Rahber was now being read by hundreds of political prisoners lodged in jails across the country. Anyone interested in learning Gandhiji’s Hindustani picked up Rahber. Along with her work of administrating women literacy classes in Mumbai, Sayani immersed herself in bringing out Rahber.

When the Constituent Assembly deliberations started in the months leading to India’s independence the language controversy again erupted. A letter dated July 22, 1947 from Gandhiji to Kulsum Sayani shows his resolve to stick with Hindustani. He wrote: “Heaven knows what is in store for us. The old order changeth giving place to new. Nothing is settled. Whatever is decided by the C. A., Hindustani with the two scripts remains for you and me.”

Kulsum Sayani represented India at several international forums on education across the world. She attended the UNESCO conference in 1953 in Paris and shared ideas and gained new perspectives with representatives from several countries. Her other interest was to promote peace and increase understanding between India and Pakistan. Her sincerity and fame as an activist helped her get audiences from top leaders of both the countries. In her endeavour, she directly met Pakistani Presidents Ghulam Mohammad and Ayub Khan among other seasoned Pakistani politicians.

In India, her reputation as Rahber’s editor helped her get appointments with Nehru, B G Kher, V K Krishna Menon, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Indira Gandhi. She got hearty welcome wherever she went after people came to know that she was the woman behind Rahber. She got encouragement and support from politicians of all hues in India for her efforts to forge friendship with Pakistan. However, with the passing away of Nehru and Rafi Kidwai who shared her concern to improve relations with Pakistan she devoted her energies to propagate Hindustani.

Old age and bureaucratic red tape forced her to stop Rahber in 1960 after single-handedly bringing it out for 20 years since 1940. She continued to be associated with Hindustani Prachar Sabha and organised several lectures and seminars. However, she never lost focus from her lifelong passion to eradicate illiteracy.

She received the Padma Shri in 1960 and was also awarded the Nehru Literacy Award in 1969. Kulsum Sayani’s life can be a study of a holistic woman. She managed her family and pursued her social interests with equal elan. Her sons Hamid and Ameen, both radio broadcasters, created their own identity.

Ameen Sayani attributes his ‘basic grounding in clear and credible communications in Hindustani’ due to his involvement in assisting his mother in bringing out Rahber. Like his mother, Ameen too got a Padma Shri in 2009 for his contribution to broadcasting.

Kulsum Sayani, who died in 1987, belonged to an era where people believed in giving their best to the nation without expecting anything back. Though less remembered than most women of her time, Sayani’s contribution to the nation and society cannot be ignored.

Danish Khan blogs at http://urdufigures.blogspot.com