The 22nd of November, 2022, marked Rukhmabai Raut’s 153rd birthday. In 2007, Google celebrated the birth anniversary of one of the first practicing women physicians in India with a Google Doodle. It showed a woman in a saree, stethoscope slung around her neck, against a brilliant, blazing sun, announcing perhaps a new dawn. In the background, Rukhmabai went around a hospital, treating her patients. Several of India’s pioneering female doctors, also known as “lady doctors,” have been represented in Google Doodles over the last few years, including Anandi Gopal Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, and Muthulakshmi Reddy.
This essay reads three graphic representations of India’s ‘lady doctors’ as cultural media directing the collective memory of a nation by placing biography alongside history. Astrid Erll’s definition of what collective memory constitutes is useful here: “the symbols, media, social institutions and practices which are used to construct, maintain and represent versions of a shared past” (98). I take as specific examples graphic narratives about Rukhmabai Raut to discern the presence of an identity assemblage, and argue that graphic representation lends itself as a viable form for this purpose, as Hilary Chute pronounces in Graphic Women,
the representation of memory and testimony [. . .] key issues here, function in similar ways across a range of nonfiction work through the expansivity of the graphic narrative form, which makes the snaking lines of history forcefully legible. (135)
The lives of these doctors were fraught with the struggle and oppression that women in colonial India lived with. Their ambitions were also motivated by such struggles, like the non-existence of ‘lady’ doctors, and stringent Hindu rules that made women opt to suffer their illnesses in silence. Rukhmabai Raut was not India’s first doctor: Anandi Gopal Joshee and Kadambini Ganguly had been conferred their degrees before her. Anandabai (bai is a term of respect for Marathi women), after having obtained her degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, died of Tuberculosis at the early age of 21, before she could start practicing. Ganguly had earned her degree from the Calcutta Medical College and been practicing in India since 1887, a full 9 years before Rukhmabai. However, Rukhmabai Raut did not have the upper-caste privilege that her contemporaries had. Married off at the age of 11, she neither loved nor wished to live with her husband; a long and raging court case followed. She wrote anonymous letters about her predicament in the Times under the pseudonym of “a Hindu woman”, a startling act for the times. Her efforts paid off when in 1891, the Age of Consent Act was passed. Rukhmabai had spent precious years of her life battling a court case, years which otherwise would have been spent on her medical journey.
I study three graphic representations of Rukhmabai Raut in this essay: a Google Doodle published on November 22, 2007; a Google Culture and Arts Illustrative Exhibit published collaboratively with the Indian publishing house Zubaan; and a comic from the volume Women Path-breakers, published by Amar Chitra Katha in 2020.
The doodle posits Rukhmabai Raut as a doctor in an Indian hospital – all the patients are women, indicating how women only went to female doctors. The reader learns nothing more about Rukhmabai, though the narrative on the doodle’s landing page tells us that she was “an activist” who “fought to stamp out child marriage” (“Rukhmabai Raut’s 153rd birthday”). What is interesting about the doodle is the inclusion of its previous drafts, and a survey of these collective attempts tells us which details of the doctor’s life were edited out. The doodle that finally makes it to the logo, for instance, bears no indication of the long legal battle she fought that brought into force the Age of Consent Act in 1891. It is surprising that this detail is omitted from the other drafts as well. One of these drafts is structured as a comic – which by its most basic definition is a sequential narrative – that bears in one of its panels a Queen reading a letter, perhaps a reference to the letter carried by the Times in April 1887 where Rukhmabai talks of the Queen. This is a sketchy inclusion as a biographical detail: Rukhmabai did mention and appeal to the Queen, though in a letter that was published by the Bishop of Carlisle in the Times (Chandra, “Appendix A”). This was her first signed letter, announcing her identity to the world. The sequence this comics-draft follows is: a panel with what one construes is jewellery, symbolising marriage; a letter being written; the Queen (?) reading a parchment; the doors of what one assumes is the London School of Medicine, where Rukhmabai pursued her medical degree; and finally, a panel with a stethoscope. Rukhmabai walks forward towards the stethoscope in the foreground.
A close look at Rukhmabai’s life and the most popular material remains of her own testimonials – the anonymous letters published in the Times – quite accurately position her story as being traumatic. However, any narrative of trauma fails when it does not identify the perpetrator . The doodle disappoints in that it fails to bear any indication of the struggle within India at the time, where renowned nationalists took a stand averse to the freedom of the nation’s women (for example, see Kavitha Rao’s description of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s indignation at Rukhmabai Raut’s letters). While Google Doodles may stand as an example of ‘glocalisation’, tailored to be country-specific and drawing from local cultural values, we see that the portraits are often universalised as symbols – that of a doctor, in this case – with the tendency to efface other parts of the person’s identity.
The second graphic ‘text’ about Rukhmabai Raut is also one hosted by Google, and created by Zubaan, an Indian feminist publishing house. The story is titled “An Illustrative Exhibit on the first practicing lady doctor of India,” and opens with a portrait of Rukhmabai behind a desk in a clinic. A series of images indicating different points in her life follow, each with an accompanying narrative. This is the only one among the three graphic narratives here to address her as Dr. Rakhmabai Bhikaji, using her husband’s surname that she strove all her life to get away from. The confluence of biography and history through the juxtaposition of different temporalities occurs in material terms here – even as we read about her life, a determined Rukhmabai pens a letter that appears blown-up as a newspaper article in the background. The exhibit finally ends with an illustration of Rukhmabai doing the rounds of a hospital ward, examining female patients. The inclusion of Rukhmabai’s letter as published in the Times indicates the witnessing role of newspapers in colonial India, as well as the reader’s position as a secondary witness through our access to various temporalities.
The third text I bring into the mix is a comic that finds its place in a volume titled Women Path-Breakers. Published by Amar Chitra Katha, known for such biographical comics, the book also contains short graphic pieces on the other pioneering doctors who lived in colonial India. The comic is peppered with various events in Rukhmabai’s life, including scenes from her childhood. In one panel, she peeps into her father’s clinic from behind some curtains to ask a white lady waiting for her turn, “What does this word mean? C-A-R-D-I-A-C” (40). An important depiction of the colonial clinic is seen here – it is filled with British men, women, and a child, with only two Indian men present, her father, who is the doctor, and a man who is either an observer or an attender. That Rukhma has to hide behind curtains foreshadows what is to follow, considering that throughout her court case, she spoke from behind the veil of anonymity. The scene is, however, also iconoclastic, since the earliest portraits of the doctor (I am thinking especially of the Renaissance artists here) gave him – the white, male surgeon – the iconic status of the artist, lone purveyor about the bodies in the theatre. Little Rukhma stands there, ready to make her mark in the largely male dominated healthcare field in India.
The comic once again uses the newspaper as a memory device in the background, and the reader sees from a bird’s eye view that the town had begun gossiping about Rukhmabai. Clearly, several agencies were making up Rukhmabai’s identity for her, and this included responses to her letters in the form of other letters, editorials booing at her, the people in the town gossiping, while a scarce few came out in her defence. One such ally who finds a mention in the comic is Behramji Malabari, an Indian poet and reformer who rallied for women’s rights. We also get a look at Rukhma’s time in Surat, where she was positioned as a medical officer in a women’s dispensary, and where she faced an empty clinic at first. A frustrated Rukhmabai is told by the attender, in a panel using the bird’s eye view again, “Not many trust a woman, doctor, and pardon me for saying so, but trouble follows you” (53). That this is a perspective used in the panels when Rukhmabai is insulted or made to feel small does not go amiss.
But things change, and the comic closes with a mirror image of the clinic that her father had occupied during her childhood: except the space is now occupied by Indian women and children, having come to meet their lady doctor.
The reader turns witness in these iconoclastic panels, and the narrative, “through its visual and verbal witnessing, [. . .] contests dominant images and narratives of history, debunking those that are incomplete and those that do the work of elision.” (Chute, 136)
I posit the idea of an identity assemblage here. In her essay on inscribed identities (2019), Sidonie Smith lists out various autobiographical agencies that are inscribed in a narrative: the multiple narrating ‘I’s; agencies of remembering : biological, in the form of synapses, psychic processes, cultures of remembering such as storytelling processes, memory professionals; agencies of production and circulation – writers, publishers, marketers etc; the agencies of the media of autobiographical inscription; formal agencies and agencies of accessibility; and finally agencies of reception, interpretation and afterlives (“Autobiographical Inscription and the Identity Assemblage”). Several of these doctors never published a memoir, though some autobiographical writing remains. Anandabai Joshi’s life, for example, is presented to us through her letters, those by her husband, the doctors at Pennsylvania and others in America she interacted with, along with a popular biography by the American Feminist Caroline Healy Dall. Two biographies that followed posited her as a role model who was also a devoted upper-caste wife, a persona that was “brilliant but a pathetically submissive creation of her eccentric but visionary reformer husband” (Kosambi 158). Meera Kosambi goes on to highlight many such agencies that help in the iconisation of Anandabai, including her gravestone, her speeches before she left America, and photographs from her time in Pennsylvania.
There is little such luck with Rukhmabai, who “burnt most of the letters she received at the end of every month from well-wishers and supporters, possibly to erase painful memories” (Rao). Rukhmabai’s struggle with her husband and her desire to study medicine survive primarily through the revolutionary but anonymous letters she wrote to the editor of the Times, responses to them, and a few diary entries. Only one photograph of hers remains. This last point perhaps makes the availability of visual representations of her and women like her even more urgent.
Since April 2020, Google has occasionally hosted doodles of physicans and scientists who had made specific contributions to healthcare that impacted the world’s resistance to covid, commemorating, for instance, the birth anniversary of the epidemiologist, Dr. Wu Lien-The, who invented an early form of the face mask, or that of the Hungarian physician Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who first insisted that his doctors wash their hands to prevent the transmission of disease to patients. The period marks a sharp rise in the need to celebrate and acknowledge the monumental work of the medical fraternity. As our culture increasingly relies on visual cultures to commemorate and remember, perhaps the frequency and accuracy with which we remember and celebrate the pioneering Lady Doctors of India will change.
Note: Rukhmabai’s anonymous letters and details of her case have been collected in Sudhir Chandra’s Enslaved Daughters (2008).
Image: Rukhmabai, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rukhmabai.jpg
Chandra, Sudhir, Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law and Women’s Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, Columbia University Press, 2010.
Erll, Astrid. Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction, de Gruyter, 2008.
Kosambi, M. (2001). A Prismatic Presence: The Multiple Iconisation of Dr Anandibai Joshee and the Politics of Life-Writing. Australian Feminist Studies, 16(35), 157–173. doi:10.1080/08164640120076005
Nainwal Tripti and Sanjay Valecha, “Rukhmabai,” Women Path-Breakers: Stories of Success and Strength, Amar Chitra Katha, 2020, pp. 37-53.
Rao, Kavitha. Lady Doctors: The Untold Story of India’s First Women in Medicine, Penguin, 2021.
“Rukhmabai Raut’s 153rd Birthday,” Google Doodles Archive, November 22, 2017, https://www.google.com/doodles/rukhmabai-rauts-153rd-birthday
Shreshta, Pranisha and Zubaan, “Dr. Rakhmabai: An illustrative exhibit of the first practicing lady doctor of India,” Google Arts and Culture, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/2QUxW4kD5ASAJg?hl=en
Smith, Sidonie. “Presidential Address 2011: Narrating Lives and Contemporary Imaginaries.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 3, 2011, pp 564-574.