Naidu, Sarojini (1879–1949)

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Naidu, Sarojini (1879–1949)

Indian poet and patriot, known equally for her lyric works in English that celebrate the Indian spirit, her association with Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru, and other leaders of the Indian independence movement, and her own role as a politician in colonial and post-independence India. Name variations: Sarojini Chattopadhyaya; Nayadu or Naāyadu. Pronunciation: Sehrow-JEE-nee NIE-doo. Born on February 13, 1879, in Hyderabad, India; died on March 2, 1949, in Lucknow, India, after suffering a head injury; daughter of Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya (a doctor and principal of Nizam's College, Hyderabad) and Varada Sundari (Devi) Chattopadhyaya (also seen as Shrimati Sundari Devi); married Govindurajulu Naidu (a doctor), in December 1898; children: Jayasurya Naidu; Padmaja Naidu; Ranadheera Naidu; Lilamani Naidu.

Born the eldest daughter of the highly educated Chattopadhyay family (1879); matriculated with a First Class and honors at Madras (1891); traveled to England to study at King's College, London, and at Girton College, Cambridge (1895–98); health permanently damaged by a breakdown (1896); published first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold (1905); won Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal from Government of India (1908); sailed to England for medical treatment and became an associate of Mohandas Gandhi (1914); entered national politics as speaker for women's education and rights and Hindu-Muslim unity (1915); returned Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal in protest over Jallianwala Bagh massacre (colonial repression of Indian freedom movement); elected president of Indian National Congress (1925), and All India Women's Conference (1930); jailed for independence activities (1930–31, 1932–33, 1942–43); elected president of Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi (1947); served as governor of the province of Uttar Pradesh, India (1947–49).

Selected works:

Songs (privately published, Hyderabad, India: 1896); The Golden Threshold (London: Heinemann, 1905); The Bird of Time (London: Heinemann, 1912); The Gift of India (reprinted from the report of the Hyderabad Ladies' War Relief Association, 1914–15); The Broken Wing (London: Heinemann, 1917); The Soul of India (1st ed., Hyderabad, India, 1917, 2nd ed., Madras, India: Cambridge Press, 1919); The Sceptered Flute: Songs of India (NY: Dodd, Mead, c. 1928); The Feather of the Dawn (Bombay, India: Asia Publishing House, 1961); Speeches and Writings of Sarojini Naidu (3rd ed., Madras, India: G.A. Natesan, [n.d.]).

Sarojini Naidu, nicknamed "The Nightingale of India" by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, was one of the most influential women in India in the 20th century. "She was not only the first Indian woman to become the President of the Indian National Congress," writes Makarand Paranjape, "but also the first woman Governor of a state in independent India. As one of the principal aides and followers of Mahatma Gandhi, she was constantly in the limelight…. She also had an international presence as India's cultural ambassador and spokesperson of the freedom movement." Naidu had a strong character in her own right. She won the right to study in England at age 15, contracted a marriage outside her caste at age 19, and had four children by the time she was 25; she was, at the same time, an important poet writing in English. At age 68, she was made governor of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous province of modern India. "Sarojini was an unorthodox and irrepressibly candid person," Paranjape continues, "one who could poke fun at Gandhi himself, not to speak of his more solemn, humourless and puritanical coterie. Her letters to her children … reveal her as a chatty correspondent, revelling in caricature and witty gossip."

Naidu's character was undoubtedly molded by her family environment. She was the eldest child of Varada Sundari Devi and Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, a professor of chemistry who later became president of Nizam College in Hyderabad. "Sarojini was brought up in the liberal intellectual and imaginative milieu of her father's home at Hyderabad," writes K.R. Ramachandran Nair, "steeped in both Hindu and Muslim cultural traditions. The early flutterings of the Nightingale were prompted by her vast reading in English literature, Hindu mythology and Urdu and Persian folklore." Sarojini was largely taught at home, learning first with her father and then with a succession of tutors. So successful was she in this process that she received a First Class award in the matriculation exams at Madras in 1891—comparable to a modern preteen passing the entrance examinations to a large American university. This was an astonishing feat for such a young girl, writes Padmini Sengupta in Sarojini Naidu: A Biography. "Her success was all the more surprising as the examination in 1891 was by no means easy. Neither were girls accustomed to attending school in the higher classes. Sarojini's syllabus consisted of English, a second language, Science, Mathematics, History and Geography. Some of the questions were of the B.A. standard of today." "While it was a tremendous achievement for a girl to have passed her matriculation with a First Class at the age of twelve," notes Tara Ali Baig in his biography Sarojini Naidu, "her mental age must have been much greater than that of her contemporaries. … Philosophy, science, botany, alchemy, mathematics and politics would have been such concrete elements of daily life that learning was almost by osmosis and a process infinitely more fascinating and stimulating than routine studies in school."

If I could write just one poem full of beauty and the spirit of greatness, I should be exultingly silent for ever; but I sing just as the birds do, and my songs are as ephemeral.

—Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini and other members of her family always acknowledged the influence their parents had on their careers. Her brother Harindranath felt the Chattopadhyayas were "not merely human parents," rather they were:

rare spiritual beings, high points of evolution, two truly unworldly lights walking through the darkness of life, illuminating it wherever they walked, casting hope and blessing on whomever they met on life's roadway; and they, Father and Mother, were one, absolutely one, sharing striking qualities of generosity and the wisdom of an unfaltering love of humanity.

Naidu also wrote of her own relationship with her father. "I don't think I had any special hankering to write poetry as a little child, though I was of a very fanciful and dreamy nature. My training under my father's eye was of a sternly scientific character. He was determined that I should be a great mathematician or a scientist, but the poetic instinct that I have inherited from him and also from my mother (who wrote some lovely Bengali lyrics) proved stronger." Dr. Chattopadhyaya was also a social revolutionary, who protested the government's secret award of a contract to a British firm in the expansion of the state railway from Hyderabad to Wadi. When Chattopadhyaya demanded that the facts of the deal be made public, he was suspended from his job in Hyderabad. "I was too young in those far off years to understand clearly or appreciate correctly the significance of their passion and their faith," Naidu wrote years later; "nor was I able to realise till long afterwards that men like these were the first though perhaps not among the most famous pioneers of the Indian renaissance."

Varada Sundari's influence was also important. "Like her husband," writes Baig, "she was a linguist … and she spoke to her husband in Bengali, to her children in Hindustani and to the servants in Telegu and she knew enough English to converse with her European friends, and even to write letters to them." Continues Baig:

She had the poetic strain in her, having composed some lyrics in Bengali, in her youth and was fond of singing too in her bird-like voice. She is reported to have won the Viceroy's gold medal for singing when a student in her village school in Bengal…. She was a Hindu lady in the true sense, possessed as she was of an infinite capacity for love and suffering.

Naidu's introduction to the writing of poetry came, by her own account, at a very early age. "One day when I was eleven," she wrote, "I was sighing over a sum in Algebra; it wouldn't come right; but instead a poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down. From that day my 'poetic career' began. At thirteen I wrote a long poem à la 'Lady of the Lake'—1300 lines in six days. At thirteen I wrote a drama of 2000 lines…. I wrote a novel, I wrote fat volumes of journals. I took myself very seriously in those days." The poem written at age 13 still exists. "It was actually

published as ' Mehir Muneer: A Poem in Three Cantos by a Brahmin Girl' in 1893, when Sarojini was fourteen," writes Paranjape.

Naidu's success in the matriculation exams won her a scholarship to attend college in England; she left for London in 1895. One added inducement to leave the country, her biographers agree, was her early attachment for Dr. Govindarajalu Naidu, "a widower ten years her senior," according to Ramachandran Nair, "who belonged to a different caste." She fell in love with him at age 15, the year before she left for England, and promised herself that they would one day be married. Most biographers agree that Sarojini's parents opposed the marriage, but they differ about the reasons why. Earlier biographers concluded that Govindarajalu Naidu's caste was the deciding factor; the Chattopadhyayas were Brahmins of the highest caste and traditionally could only marry other Brahmins. Caste "could, however, not have been the main [reason] for stopping the marriage," states Sengupta, "for Aghorenath was a staunch reformer and himself threw away his sacred thread"—the emblem of his status as a Brahmin. "The more likely cause was, no doubt, the fact that Sarojini was far too young to marry. She was scarcely fifteen and Aghorenath himself had spoken strongly against child-marriage." Many of Sarojini's early works, written while she was at school in England, express her love for Govindarajalu and her feelings at being separated from her intended husband, her family, and her country.

Sarojini's years in England marked the emergence of her poetic talent. "The early poems show a strain of melancholy born out of loneliness, a combination of fantasy and delight and an unbelievable command over words, phrases, rhythm and rhyme—traits which would be developed to perfection in her later poems," explains Ramachandran Nair. "Two English critics, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, were struck by the unusual charm of Sarojini's poems." Gosse in particular encouraged the young girl; Sengupta says that he "beseeched Sarojini not to write of English robins and skylarks and of 'village bells' calling 'parishioners to church' but to set her poems firmly among the mountains, the gardens, the temples, to introduce to us the vivid populations of her own voluptuous and unfamiliar province; in other words, to be a genuine Indian poet of the Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English classics." Sarojini took Gosse's advice, and many of the Indian-themed poems she produced during the remainder of her time in England and Europe appeared in her first collection of verse, The Golden Threshold (1905).

Upon her return to India in 1898, Sarojini promptly married Govindarajalu Naidu. She was still only 19, but the marriage proved a happy and fruitful one. She settled with her husband in Hyderabad and had four children. She also produced nearly all the works that make up her poetic oeuvre during the same period, the first two decades of the 20th century. "In the early years," writes Baig, "poetry was the main focus of Sarojini Naidu's intellectual life; the centre of her inner being. This was understandable, living as she did in the heart of the finest Islamic culture; for Hyderabad had retained all the glamour and values of princely Persia and its ruling Prince was a poet of great distinction…. Here, as in the past in Islamic societies, poets were the conscience and sensitive heart-strings of the people. They used the technique of versifying to explore the depths of the soul and emotions. Poets could do no wrong; their vision was acclaimed; their wisdom and insight became the catchwords of the people."

Sarojini's own poetry was acclaimed by many of her contemporaries for its light, delicate sense of rhythm and its evocation of a romantic, mystical India. Many of the poems from The Golden Threshold evoke the songs of the common people. "Though several of her themes are light and ephemeral," writes Ramachandran Nair, "Sarojini's poetry is intensely Indian. She has poetised the sights and sounds, situations and experiences familiar to us. Though she reached the peaks of excellence only rarely, for sheer variety of themes, range of feelings, colour, rhythm, fancy and conceit, metaphor and similes Sarojini remains unsurpassed even today." The poems in The Golden Threshold are the kind of songs that Varada Sundari might have sung to her daughter, such as the famous "Palanquin-Bearers":

Lightly, O lightly, we bear her along,
She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;
She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream
She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream.
Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Naidu won the Government of India's Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1908 in recognition of her accomplishments. English critics would eventually reject her aesthetic as Edwardian fluff and nonsense, and post-Independence Indian critics, on anti-colonial grounds, would object to her use of English and European-style lyrics. Toward the close of the 20th century, however, critics viewed Naidu's poetry and other early writings as expressing, in a very subdued manner, a protest against colonialism and the loss of Indian traditions to the modern, mechanized world. "As a sensitive Indian living in the semi-feudal state of Hyderabad, part of the larger British Empire in India," Paranjape explains, "Sarojini, like other Indian artists and intellectuals, had to deal with the question of cultural preservation and identity."

Using conventions derived from Sanskrit and Persian-influenced Urdu poetry, and types and attitudes classified in other Indian sources, Naidu attempted to preserve a picture of traditional India. "What Sarojini tried to do was to offer an entry into this unspoiled India," writes Paranjape. "Of course, it would have been too painful to portray it with all the horrors of its poverty, inequality, disease, and suffering; if only these were glossed over, then a very attractive image of India would emerge, traditional, vivid, vibrant, colourful, and joyous. All these factors contributed to her attempt at offering to Indians a picture of themselves which they might be proud of, something that might salvage some of their crippled self-respect as a colonized and humiliated people."

In this sense, Sarojini's poetry led directly to her role in Indian politics and the struggle for Indian independence. She applied the same talent seen in her poetry to public speaking. "Sarojini Naidu ranks among the best speakers in English whom India has ever produced," writes Sengupta. "As her main subjects were national freedom, the emancipation of women, messages to the youth of India, and Hindu-Moslem unity, she was in great demand in all parts of India the moment it was realised that a young Indian girl with a golden voice was available. Sarojini concentrated mostly on these four subjects, which were the burning topics of the day." Naidu met the man most responsible for her political career, Mohandas Gandhi, while visiting England in 1914. "On seeing him," writes A.N. and Satish Gupta, "at first she burst into peals of happy laughter, for he could present to her an amusing and unexpected vision of a famous leader. He lifted his eyes and laughed back at her and offered her the meal he was taking, which as she says, was an 'abominable mess.'" Nonetheless from this point on, Naidu and Gandhi were lifelong allies in an association that would last until the Mahatma's assassination in 1948.

By the time of her meeting with Gandhi, Naidu already occupied an important position among English-language writers, and was ranked with another Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, in English literature. However, after the publication of The Broken Wing (1917), says Ramachandran Nair, she "did not write any substantial poetry; the poet in her gave place to the fiery patriot." She took part in protests against the colonial government in November 1921 and read the presidential address to the Indian National Congress the following month. She was elected president of the Indian National Congress at Kanpur in 1925, succeeding Gandhi. In 1928, she lectured in America on the problems of Indian independence and the rights of women. She supported Gandhi's famous Salt Satyagraha, in which the Mahatma and many followers broke restrictions (intended to boost government tax revenue) on making salt from seawater, in 1930. She supported the rights of Indians in South Africa, visiting that country in 1924 and 1934. Sarojini also gave personal support to Gandhi during some of his most trying protests, including his long fast of 1943 protesting the continuing British presence in India. She was herself jailed three times for her anticolonial activities, in 1930–31, 1932–33, and 1942–43.

Naidu's greatest contribution to the struggle for Indian independence was probably her talent for public speaking. "Her flawless English, grasp of the subject, oratorical power interlinked with flashes of wit, humour and irony and the human approach she adopted won her applause and admiration wherever she spoke," relates Ramachandran Nair. She was especially noted for her acute sense of humor, which she shared with Gandhi. "Both loved a joke especially at themselves," Ramachandran Nair writes. "Sarojini was often described as 'the licensed jester of the Mahatma's little court.'" Gandhi "was indulgent and affectionate towards her and warm-heartedly tolerated all her jokes at his expense. She called him the 'Mickey Mouse' of Indian politics and remarked that 'it costs a great deal of money to keep Gandhiji living in poverty.'" "Of all things that life or perhaps my temperament have given me," said Naidu, "I prize the gift of laughter as beyond price." Writes Baig:

All through her life this earthy wit was to make her presence everywhere a pure delight, but more than that was her gift of bridging emotional situations with a jest. When approached by a trembling admirer after her thundering oration at the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947 with the words, "Oh Mrs. Naidu, that was such a wonderful speech, I nearly wept," she turned to the girl and said, "Nearly wept? What do you mean? Everyone else was weeping!"

Naidu continued her efforts on behalf of Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, after India achieved its independence in 1947. She and Gandhi both objected to the British plan to partition India into two states, Pakistan (with a majority Muslim population) and India (with a majority Hindu population). Both believed that the country's future lay in crossing religious boundaries. British fears of popular unrest, however, proved too strong, and Gandhi and Naidu were forced to work for Hindu-Muslim unity in other ways. In 1947, Sarojini accepted the governorship of the United Provinces—renamed Uttar Pradesh—in northern India. The new province, with its large population, tested her abilities to bring former enemies together. "She mentioned," writes Sengupta, "that she sent the Governor General a bracelet (Raksha Bandhan) which Hindu women, high or low, sent to those men whom they honoured and trusted and relied on as friends. Rajput queens sent these on full moon nights, she said, to Moghul Emperors." In a letter to the former British governor, Naidu wrote:

I don't know how long I shall be in these provinces, but my one real gift has been having full scope and bearing real fruit. My gift of friendliness. Men and women who have not spoken to each other for years meet under my roof every day in a cordial manner after an initial moment of uncertainty…. [O]h yes—the lions and the lambs lie down very pleasantly together in my green pastures. Each of us can only do our best, as Browning says: "There shall never be one lost good." What a comforting belief.

Sarojini Naidu was still in office on her 70th birthday, on February 13, 1949. She had suffered a head injury three days previously, and the resulting headache became worse and worse. Her health, never very robust, began to break down. She was hospitalized and, on the morning of March 2, 1949, she died. "Sarojini Naidu's most enduring contributions to India," writes Baig, "were her involvement in the reality of human life rather than politics, in the fight for independence, and her deep insight into the people's need. It was the human being who came first with her always, not doctrines or creeds; the dictates of love, not the narrow dictates of mere principle."


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Kenneth R. Shepherd , Adjunct Instructor in History, Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Michigan

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Naidu, Sarojini (1879–1949)

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