Savitri Khanolkar, born Eve Yvonne Maday de Maros, on July 20, 1913 – 1990 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to a Hungarian father André de Maday, professor of sociology at Geneva University and President of the Société de Sociologie de Genève, and Russian mother Marthe Hentzelt, who taught at the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She later was known as Savitri Bai, the name she was given after she married an Indian, became a Hindu and took Indian nationality.
She spent her early childhood in Geneva, where she grew to be a compassionate girl with a love of nature and the outdoors. In 1929, when she was still a teenager, she met Vikram Khanolkar, who born in Marathi family, a young Indian Army officer undergoing training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom, who was holidaying in Europe. Although he was many years older than she was, Eve fell in love with him. Her father however, did not agree to let her go away to a faraway country like India but Eve was a determined young woman, and her love was strong. She followed Vikram to India a few years later, and in 1932, she married him at Mumbai. She began her new life adapting to Indian culture as Mrs. Savitribai Khanolkar.
The best account of her family past can be found in the words of Lt. Gen Harbaksh Singh, he thus reminiscences …
““Born of Hungarian parents, Mrs. Khanolkar lost her mother at birth. Her father was then a librarian of the League of Nations in Geneva. She was brought up by him and put in a school at Riviera, near the sea-coast. ( corrected by her family — professor of sociology at Geneva University and President of the Société de Sociologie de Genève, and Russian mother Marthe Hentzelt, who taught at the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau) .She missed her mother from the very beginning, and would often question her father as to where was her mother, and why did he come alone to school to see her? While on leave from school, she had ample opportunity to study books; and somehow she took a liking to India. At school, missing her mother, she adopted the sea nearby as her mother; and the sea-surfs as her mother’s bosom. She loved bathing in the sea and lolling about, which she considered her mother’s bosom!”
““One day she was holidaying, with other families and her father, on the beaches of Riviera. Her father led her to a batch of Indians, also holdaying from Sandhurst, in London. And Khanolkar was the first Indian she encountered. She insisted on taking his address, and communicating with him by post. She was then only 14 years old. She communicated with Khanolkar at Sandhurst. Khanolkar finished his course at Sandhurst, and was posted to 5/11th Sikh Regiment in Aurangabad. There he received a letter from her to say that she was arriving in Bombay, and he should meet her. He met her in Bombay (a city which he himself belonged to, being a Maharashtran) and they got married there. She was then only 15 years’ old ( she 18yrs old when she got married, 17 yrs when she arrived in India.) and Khanolkar about 27. He brought her to Aurangabad as his bride; but this was not liked by the British Officers in the Battalion – firstly because she was a foreigner, and secondly because he had married against the unwritten law that as a British officer, you could not marry until you were 30.”
““Mrs Khanolkar was truly an Indian wife. She had been to Patna University and learnt Hindi and Sanskrit. She dressed simply, in cotton saris, and wore no rouge, and had chappals to wear! For a time, Captain Khanolkar was my Company Commander in the Battalion and I had very close contact with his family. I liked Mrs. Khanolkar and her ways immensely. She had become the follower of Ramakrishna, and started following Vedantas. And, by her ways, she inducted me into Vedanta. I spent a month with the Khanolkars in Nowshera, our regimental centre then, when he was posted there after Aurangabad, and learnt ‘meditation’ under her guidance.”
““When her husband died, she became a nun of the Ramakrishna Mission. Mrs. Khanolkar is herself dead now (died in 1990), but what a person!””
Savitri Bai Khanolkar is remembered for designing the War Time Gallantry Award series- Param Vir Chakra, Maha Vir Chakra and Vir Chakra.
She also designed the Peace-time Gallantry Award series- The Ashok Chakra, which was to be awarded in threeclasses viz I, II or III. Later these were renamed the Ashok Chakra, Kirti Chakra and Shaurya Chakra. Her eldest son Ashok Khanolkar died in infancy and it was in his memory that she named the highest peace-time gallantry awards as the “Ashok” Chakra Series. She was requested to design these medals by Major General Hira Lal Atal (the first Indian Adjutant General) as replacement to the existing British gallantry medals (VC, DSO, MC). She has also authored many Sanskrit texts and is an alumnus of the famous Nalanda University.