A freedom fighter, Sarala Devi also contributed to the making of modern Odisha. She was the first woman to become a part of the Odisha legislative assembly. A feminist and social activist Sarala Devi was way ahead of her time. Even though she came from a modest educational background, she emerged as one of the prolific writers of Orissa. She played an active part in the freedom struggle, however, today her legacy seems to have been neglected.
Sarla Devi was born into an affluent Zamindar family, to Basudev Kanungo and Padmavati Devi on August 9, 1904. It was her father’s elder brother, Balamukunda Kanungo who adopted Sarala Devi and raised her. Since childhood, her uncle who worked as a Deputy Magistrate in the colonial govt inspired her to become a social worker. From a very young age, she rebelled against restrictions. In those days, girls were not allowed to pursue higher studies, however, her uncle hired a home tutor. It was her keen interest in education that she became fluent in Odia, Bengali, Hindi and English.
In 1917, at the age of 14, she was married to the Bhagirathi Mohapatra who was the son of a zamindar at Jagatsingpur in Cuttack district. Bhagirathi, who was an advocate, joined the Indian National Congress in 1918. Without caring about the restrictive social customs and tradition, Sarala Devi worked to uplift women from their downtrodden position.
Role in Freedom Struggle
Sarala Devi became a part of the ‘Mahila Samaj’. It was an organisation which motivated women to participate in India’s freedom struggle. In 1924, a conference was organised in Cuttack for freedom struggle. Those days women used to sit behind curtains and listen to the speeches, but not only did Sarala Devi came out from behind the barriers, she also gave a fierce speech in that meeting. She participated in the Salt Satyagraha at Inchudi in Balasore and also travelled to various districts of Odisha. She was arrested by the British at the Chhatrapur jail, later she was transferred to Vellore jail from where she was released after six months. She was given a huge public reception on her return to Cuttack on December 8, 1930.
Sarala Devi breathed her last on 4 October 1986 at the age of 82. In her lifetime she wrote as many as 30 books and 300 essays. She was the first Odia woman to join the Non-cooperation movement in 1921.