Oruganti Mahalakshmamma: Freedom fighter and social reformer from Nellore
When Gandhiji gave a call for Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, the nation rose in one voice and boycotted British goods, institutions and refused to pay taxes.
In my native district, Nellore (Andhra Pradesh), the movement was led by a fearless lady – Oruganti Mahalakshmamma whose fiery speeches had galvanized the women of the area to join the campaign. The result– excise revenue of Nellore, which used to exceed 2 lakh rupees, came down to two hundred rupees.
This was not a mere dip in revenue but a big loss of face for the British government.
Innumerable women had made great sacrifices for freeing the country from colonial rule during the freedom movement, but somehow their great contributions got lost in the pages of history.
Through my Facebook series on the forgotten women freedom fighters, I am making a humble attempt to highlight the valourous stories of these Veeranganas so that people across the country, especially the youngsters become more aware of the enormous role played by them in the freedom struggle.
In my today’s Facebook post, let me take you to Kavali town in Nellore District in Andhra Pradesh and share with you the inspiring story of another braveheart of this great nation, Oruganti Mahalakshmamma.
Born in an affluent family in 1884, she was the youngest daughter of Shri Tumuluri Sivakamayya and Smt. Ramanamma. Though she did not receive any formal schooling, she educated herself at home and read the best books of the time.
Mahalakshmamma was married to Sri Oruganti Venkatasubbayya who hailed from an influential family known for its patriotic and charitable activities. Soon, she also got involved in charitable activities and used to often prepare meals for distribution among the poor and needy.
The self-respect and love for motherland led Oruganti Mahalakshmamma to boycott foreign clothes and embrace Khadi as early as 1899. She did not just drape herself in Khadi, but she also established a khadi market in Kavali and provided employment to many people. The great, yet humble leader she was, she carried the woven Khadi on her shoulders, selling it around the town, singing patriotic songs. This speaks volumes about this great personality.
In 1905 when the state of Bengal was partitioned, Mahalakshmamma and her husband realized the need to take the fight against the British rule to greater heights. Establishing a ‘Sangeeta Samajam’ and ‘Bhajan Mandali’, they used to give fiery speeches and performances in public places to popularize swadeshi goods and to spread the message of Swaraj to the masses. This was a unique and successful experiment in a small place like Kavali.
Realizing the importance of women’s participation in the freedom struggle, Mahalakshamma established ‘Mahila Samajam’. She had also started a girls’ school in 1912 in Kavali to further the cause of women’s education. Her commitment was such that she even started a night school at her own home!
To take up the cause of women’s empowerment at that time in a small town like Kavali was indeed an extraordinary initiative. That reflected the level of her self-confidence, commitment to women’s progress and Swaraj.
In 1914-15, Mutharaju Venkatakrishnayya of Kurnool got his widowed daughter re-married. Mahalakshmamma was elated at this news. With the intent of publicizing this progressive act, she invited them to Kavali and honoured them. This drew the wrath of many conservative people in society. As a result, her family was treated as an outcast. This did not dampen her spirit. On the other hand, she went on to marry one of her sons to a child-widow. She practised what she preached.
During the Home Rule League movement by Annie Besant, her family moved to Nellore in 1917 and Mahalakshmamma and her husband started a chapter of the Home Rule League in Nellore. She used to wear the Home Rule League badge and vigorously publicize the cause of Home Rule. She was instrumental in founding the Congress Women’s Wing in Nellore in 1921 to encourage women to join the national movement. Ponaka Kanakamma ( another freedom fighter from an affluent family) was her partner in all these initiatives and together they established Kasturi Devi Vidyalaya, an institution that earned praise from Gandhiji himself.
When the Salt Satyagraha started in 1930, Mahalakshmamma and her husband led it from the front. They were arrested and sent to Rayaveluru jail for six months.
The imprisonment did not dampen her spirits and she continued to participate in the freedom movement with renewed enthusiasm after her release. She also became actively involved in Harijan upliftment and the abolition of untouchability.
The second wave of the Civil Disobedience Movement started in 1932 and once again Mahalakshmamma’s fiery speeches began electrifying the masses. The panicked British government arrested her again while she was addressing a rally in Nellore, and sent her to Rayavelur jail for a year. This time, the prison term severely impacted her health and she became paralyzed.
Mahalakshmamma’s children too imbibed the patriotic fervour. Her two sons were jailed for participating in Satyagraha. In 1942, while she was suffering from illness, her husband was sent to jail for the third time. Her frail body found it difficult to cope with the situation and she passed away in 1945, just years before her beloved motherland were to become a free nation.
We should never forget the great sacrifices made by freedom fighters like Oruganti Mahalakshmamma. She was a versatile woman, a compassionate social worker, and a humble leader. Above all, she was a great daughter of this country.
The inspirational stories of forgotten freedom fighters need to be included in our history textbooks so that every generation learns about them and draws inspiration.