Naidu, Sarojini

views updated May 23 2018


NAIDU, SAROJINI (1879–1949), Indian poet, feminist, and nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu was born on 13 February 1879, the eldest child of Brahma Samajist parents: Varada Sundari Devi, who wrote Bengali lyrics, and Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, scientist and founder of Nizam's College in Hyderabad. Sarojini Naidu's verses were published in four volumes: Songs (1895), The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912), and The Broken Wing (1917), all highly acclaimed for their evocative and romantic descriptions of India.

Raised by liberal parents, her creative talents awoke in a home open to scholars and diverse visitors. Sarojini later made passionate speeches on the importance of women's education. In 1891, when she was twelve, she achieved the highest rank in the Madras presidency matriculation exams, and her literary talents impressed the nizam, who gave her a scholarship to study at Girton College, Cambridge. In England she cultivated the friendship of famous writers, and later briefly traveled in Europe. In 1898 Sarojini challenged caste by marrying Govindarajulu Naidu, a non-Brahman Telegu doctor and widower, with whom she had four children.

Sarojini Naidu's nationalism was underscored by feminism, and from 1904 onward, her oratory drew large crowds. At the Framji Cowasji Institute, where practical Ramabai Ranade urged affluent women to help their poorer sisters, Naidu recited "Ode to India," calling upon Mother India to "awaken from slumber." In 1906 she addressed the Indian National Congress (INC) session in Calcutta on women's education, and also spoke to the Indian Social Conference there. Awarded the colonial Kaiser-I-Hind in 1911 for flood relief work, Naidu remained a political activist.

She became a close associate of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi, and a friend of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarladevi Chaudhrani. In Madras in 1909 she met Muthulakshmi Reddi, her future colleague in the Women's Indian Association (WIA). On 18 December 1917 Naidu led the WIA delegation to Secretary of State Edwin Montagu, requesting equal female suffrage in the next elections. When appealing earlier for support from the INC, she argued that women voters and leaders would not usurp male authority, and that all Indians would be inspired by their nationalism and maternalism. As a founding member of the All-India Women's Conference in 1927, Naidu was considered one of India's feminist luminaries. She addressed women's groups on obstacles like child marriage, pardah seclusion, bigamy, and widow immolation (sati), while she fought for female suffrage. Yet, some modern feminists call her a "traditional feminist" because she praised women for being true satis for their self-sacrifice.

Naidu's speeches were marked by idealism, humor, and a cascade of poetry. At Lucknow and Patna, she urged a Muslim-Hindu dialogue based on shared Indian ethnicity and humanity. On 21 December 1917 she pleaded with the Madras Special Provincial Council to support the Lucknow Congress League Pact of the previous year. Between 1917 and 1919, Naidu joined Gandhi's satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) movement, actively participating in the 1920 campaign, and in 1925 she became the first Indian woman president of the INC. Tensions developed between Indian feminists and male nationalists in 1930, when Gandhi initially refused to include women satyagrahis in the arduous Salt March. He later relented, however, after being persuaded by Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (1903–1990), and Khurshed Naoroji (1894–1966). Naidu led the women marchers and, like countless others, she was jailed for manufacturing salt. Naidu was jailed by the British in 1932, and again in 1942 during the Quit India movement. In 1947 she was appointed the first governor of Uttar Pradesh in independent India. She died in 1949.

Patriotism is not a thing divorced from real life. It is the flame that burns within the soul, a gem like Flame that cannot be extinguished. . . . . . . but if you are united, if you forget your community and think of the nation, if you forget your city and think of the province, if you forget you are a Hindu and remember the Musalman, if you forget the Brahmin and think of the Panchaman, then, and then alone will India progress.

Sarojini Naidu, Speeches and Writings, G. A. Natesan, 1919, p. 219.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoCongress Party ; Nightingale, Florence ; Women and Political Power ; Women's Indian Association


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Naidu, Sarojini. Broken Wing: Songs of Love, Death, and Destiny. London: William Heinemann, 1917.

——. Speeches and Writings. Chennai: G. A. Natesan, 1919.

——. The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death, and the Spring. 1912. Reprint, London: William Heinemann, 1926.

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Raman, Sita Anantha. "Crossing Cultural Boundaries: Indian Matriarchs and Sisters in Service." Journal of Third World Studies 18, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 131–147.

Sarojini Naidu

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sarojini Naidu

The Indian poet and nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) became famous in India after her three small volumes of verse, published between 1905 and 1917, won critical acclaim in England.

Sarojini Chattopadhyay, later Naidu belonged to a Bengali family of Kulin Brahmins. But her father, Agorenath Chattopadhyay, after receiving a doctor of science degree from Edinburgh University, settled in Hyderabad State, where he founded and administered the Hyderabad College, which later became the Nizam's College.

Sarojini was the eldest of eight children and learned English at an early age. At 16 she was sent to England, where she studied at King's College, London, and at Girton College, Cambridge, without getting a degree. On her return to India in 1898, she married Govindarajulu Naidu, a medical doctor who belonged to a low caste. The marriage caused some consternation in orthodox Hindu society, but it was a happy marriage. Sarojini Naidu gave birth to two sons and two daughters.

Naidu's birth in a state which was ruled by the Moslem nizam and where the elite culture was strongly Islamic not only gave her some of the themes of her poetry but, in her political life, made her useful to Mohandas Gandhi in his efforts to heal Hindu-Moslem hostilities.

Her Poetry

As a girl in England, Naidu became acquainted with two eminent English critics, Arthur Symons and Edmund Gosse. Gosse read some of her early poems, and although he found them "skillful in form, correct in grammar, and blameless in sentiment," he also felt they were Western in feeling and in imagery. He advised her "to set her poems firmly among the mountains, the gardens, the temples, to introduce to us the vivid populations of her own voluptuous provinces."

There is no doubt that Sarojini Naidu made these changes in her work, but the tone of a bright, tender-hearted, Victorian girl, influenced by Tennyson, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, seems to linger in her work. In any event, she received serious recognition and much acclaim and was spoken of as the "nightingale of India" long after she had ceased to sing.

Naidu's poetry is lyrical and musical, using many types of meter and rhyme and filled with rich imagery. It deals with love and death, separation and longing, and the mystery of life, all important themes for poetry. There is much rhetorical gesturing, much longing for an ideal past or an ideal love. In the end the poetry tends to become monotonous and repetitive.

Naidu's claim to lasting fame will likely rest upon her distinguished career as a leader of the Indian nationalist movement. Her poetry was transmuted into oratory. She swayed audiences both in India and abroad with her speeches about India's struggle. In 1914 she met Gandhi in London and became one of his most trusted followers. She was one of the founders of the Women's India Association, in which she worked closely with Margaret E. Cousins and Annie Besant.

At the same time Naidu was active in the work of the Indian National Congress, of which she was named president in 1925. She was imprisoned five times during the independence movement. Gandhi sent her as his envoy to South Africa to help the Indians there against the oppressive acts of the South African government. She also was sent to the United States to refute, it is said, the bad publicity created by Katherine Mayo's sensational book Mother India.

In the frequently difficult relations with the Indian Moslem League, Naidu was deputed often to try to ease tensions, and she remained always a friend of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. In 1947, after the independence of India, she became the first governor of the state of Uttar Pradesh. She died on March 2, 1949, in the capital of the state, Lucknow.

Further Reading

Sarojini Naidu's three volumes of verse—The Golden Threshold, written in 1905; The Bird of Time, 1912; and The Broken Wing, 1917—were published in 1916 and 1917. The three books were combined in The Sceptred Flute (1928). Some later poems are included in The Feather of the Dawn (1961). The most detailed biography of Sarojini Naidu is Padmini Sengupta, Sarojini Naidu: A Biography (1966). □