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Sarojini Naidu biography

Sarojini Naidu

(1879-1949)

biography

Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu
      Sarojini, born in Hyderabad on 13 February 1879, was the eldest of the five children of Aghorenath Chattopadhayaya and Baradasundari. Aghorenath was a multifaceted personality; a scientist, philosopher, poet, linguist and an educationist. He had a PhD. in Chemistry from Edinburgh. He also wrote verse. Sarojini’s mother, Baradasundari, wrote poetry in Bengali.
Sarojini inherited her love for poetry from her parents, though she was more attracted towards Urdu and English poetry than Bengali. In 1878, Aghorenath established the Nizam College in Hyderabad, a pioneering institution in English and women’s education, with the encouragement of the Nizam. Aghorenath served as principal of the college for many years.
    Sarojini passed the matriculation examination at the age of twelve in 1891, standing first in the Madras Presidency. For the next three years, 1892-95, she stayed at home, reading widely and writing English poetry. When she was thirteen, she wrote a narrative poem of about two thousand lines. During this time, she also wrote a little Persian play (in English) called Meher Munner, a copy of which she sent to the Nizam, who was so impressed with this attempt by a teenage girl, that he endowed her in 1895 with a scholarship granting her passage to England and three hundred pounds a year for support. Thus she went to England at the age of sixteen in 1895, and joined King’s College, London, as she was too young for Cambridge. Later, she was able to get admission at Girton College, Cambridge. The cold climate, as well as the rigours of college discipline, did not suit her and she did not complete any course to get a degree. The climate of England,( about which even the diehard imperialist Rudyard Kipling has said, accursed bucket shop of a refrigerator called England,) had affected the health of many Indians who had gone there, like Ram Mohan Roy, Devendranath Tagore (both of whom died there) and Ramanujan, the great mathematician. Sarojini had to return to India in 1898 without earning a degree. But during these two years she moved in literary circles and developed some valuable friendships. The famous poet and critic Sir Edmond Gosse (1849-1929), whom she met at Cambridge was one of them. I implored her to consider," wrote Gosse, that from an Indian of extreme sensibility, who had mastered not merely the language but the prosody of the West, what we wished to receive was not a rechauffe of Anglo-Saxon sentiment in an Anglo-Saxon setting, but some revelation of the heart of India, some sincere penetrating analysis of native passion, of the principles of antique religion and of such mysterious intimations as stirred the soul of the East long before the West had begun to dream that it had a soul" She readily took to his counsel and the real poet in her emerged, depicting everything Indian and revealing her soul. She received similar advice from the famous critic Arthur Symons, who became a lifelong friend. Outside poetic circles, she developed a friendship with one Maudie Cassel, daughter of Sir Ernest Cassel, reputed to be the richest man in the world. Maudie was charmed by the lively personality of Sarojini who became her confidante and used to discuss everything with her including the choice of a husband." Fifty years later, Maudie’s daughter, Edwina Mountbatten, the last vicereine of India, sought Sarojini’s friendship and loved to hear anecdotes about her mother’s youth. Edwina however, became a rival of Sarojini’s daughter, Padmaja, in seeking the friendship of Prime Minister Nehru, to the chagrin of the mother-daughter duo.
On her return to India, Sarojini got married to Dr. Govindarajulu Naidu, with whom she had fallen in love before leaving for England. He was then a major, incharge of the medical services in Hyderabad. After initial reluctance, her parents agreed to her marriage to a non-Brahmin. It was performed in Madras according to Brahmo Samaj rites. Four children were born to the couple in quick succession: Jayasurya (1899), Padmaja (1900), Randhira (1902), and Lilamani (1903). Their house in Hyderabad was the famous Golden Threshold, and she lived a very happy married life there for some time.
By 1905, she had composed a number of poems. The collection was published in 1905 itself, by William Heinman, London, under the title The Golden Threshold. Arthur Symons wrote the preface, introducing her to the English speaking world. It got rave reviews. The London Times wrote, “Her poetry seems to sing itself as if her swift thoughts and strong emotions sprang into lyrics of themselves. The second anthology of her poems, The Bird of Time, followed in 1912. The Broken Wing (1917), also published by Heinman, was the culmination of her poetic flights. Sarojini’s poems had the scents of all that was Indian in all its freshness, glory and romanticism. They are mellifluous and catching and disclose a depth of feeling that is rare in the works of most of her contemporary writers of English verse" She lived for thirty-two years after the publication of The Broken Wing but wrote very little after that and was lost in the whirlwind of politics, the feminist movement and the wings of poetry in her were really broken.
She simultaneously entered the political and women's emancipation movements, when she attended the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in 1904. A large part of the deliberations were devoted to problems faced by women who were led by Ramabai Ranade and others. Sarojini was much moved and she composed Ode to India there and then and recited it in her melodious voice: Oh young through all the immemorial years! Rise Mother, rise, regenerate from thy gloom; And like a bride high-mated with the spheres; Beget new glories from thine ageless womb." Sarojini had arrived in a new world of politics and women's movement. She made a fiery speech at the 1906 annual session of the Congress at Calcutta and met Gokhale for the first time who saw in her oratory and brilliance, a leader of the future. Her presence in the Congress agitations and social reform gatherings became almost a routine. She worked with Gokhale and his Servants of India Society for some time. She was also attracted towards Annie Besant and her social activities, especially for the cause of women. The period between May 1912 and October 1914 was her London interlude once again, in spite of her ill-health, when that country was ir1 the throes of great Suffrage campaign. She threw herself into the campaign, propagating women’s cause, and at the same time dispelling Wrong notions about Women in India. She met Gandhi in 1914 in London while he was returning from South Africa on his way to India. Soon she became one of his devoted followers. Gandhi’s advocacy of Hindu-Muslim unity appealed to her greatly and became almost an obsession with her. She had been brought up in Hyderabad amidst Muslim culture. She could read and write Urdu and loved Urdu poetry. She had also befriended many Muslims; one of whom was Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah first met Sarojini at the Calcutta Congress (1906) when he was “already accounted a rising lawyer and a coming politician, fired by a virile patriotism,” according to her. She was instantly captivated by his stunning appearance and “rare and complex temperament and she has left a most insightful portrait of young Jinnah”. She remained charmed by his personality for many years to come, calling him “Ambassador Hindu-Muslim unity” even when he was instrumental in getting separate electorates for the Muslims in the Lucknow Pact of 1916. Her intimacy with Muslims was well known in Congress circles. Gandhi wrote in one of his letters, “I believe that I can contribute my humble share in the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity, in many respects she (Sarojini) can do much better. She intimately knows more Musalmans, than I do. She has access to their hearts, which I cannot pretend to. Add to these, qualifications of her sex, which is her strongest qualification”.
By 1917, she was completely influenced by Gandhi and soon became one of his chief confidantes. Along with politics, she was drawn to the women’s movement in India and retained her interest in it to the last. Sarojini was in fact one of the pioneers of women’s emancipation movement in India. In spite of her ill-health (she had developed heart problem early in life) she went around the country spreading the message of freedom and women’s emancipation. She made herself available wherever and whenever she was wanted. She also worked on several committees of the Indian National Congress and was a member of the Congress Working Committee in the early twenties. She was sent to South Africa in March 1924, to oppose the proposed Class Areas Bill which was to segregate Asians in the urban areas. She toured South Africa for two months, addressing mixed gatherings, speaking against the policy of Apartheid in Johannesburg, Maritzburg, and Durban etc. She initially met with hostility but her eloquence, personality and tact left a sobering impact. Her speeches gave some confidence to the demoralized Indian community, and they showered her with gifts which she carried back in six boxes. On her way back, she visited Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, addressing gatherings of Indian immigrants.
In the early twenties, she had shifted to Bombay and often lived at the Taj Hotel. It will ever remain a mystery how she could afford such a luxury. On her return from het African trip, het name was proposed for the 1925 annual session of the Congress for presidentship to be held at Kanpur. Her name was proposed by Gandhi himself. G.D. Birla, in a letter to Gandhi, did not see much virtue in Sarojini whom Gandhi had extolled, and differed with the choice of Gandhi for presidentship. In his reply, Gandhi wrote to Birla on 3 July 1924, “I do not think any praise of Mrs. Sarojini Naidu is overdone. I do not consider her an ideal Indian woman, but she was an ideal ambassador for the work in Africa”.7 She did preside over the Kanpur session of the Congress. Her brief poetic speech as Congress president was applauded by all. However, she was not a real politician and never could be counted as a front rank leader of the Congress who took part in policy and decision making.
She had her admirers outside political circles also. M.C. Chagla writes in his autobiography, “For many years, whenever she was in Bombay she lived at the Taj, always in the same room; and for me, it was a Sort of Mecca to which I turned, Whenever I was in difficulty, or whenever I Wanted solace or comfort. There were innumerable days and evenings spent in her room talking to her”.8 He was not the only one who found comfort and solace in her company though; she herself was often miserable from within.
In 1928, she was asked to visit United States and Canada to undo the damage done to India’s image in the West by the publication Of Mother India by Katherine Mayo. Sarojini visited several cities of both countries, addressing select gatherings from the East to the West coast. Charles Andrews, who was in America at the time wrote, ‘Sarojini Naidu’s visit has been amazing. She has won all hearts, and I have been hearing nothing but praise about her visit everywhere I have gone, both in Canada and the United States’. An American who heard her speak in New York remarked, “I have never heard either from man or from woman the equal of her platform performance, for the beauty and flow of English diction and for the structure and sequences of English sentences. However, more beautiful and significant than the grammatical structure of English sentences, were the beauty and goodness and truth of her utterances.” It was a great triumph for Sarojini and for India.
On her return, she was active in the ‘Salt March’ undertaken by Gandhi as a part of the Civil Disobedience movement (1930). Gandhi had announced that after his arrest Abbas Tyabji would take over as leader and after Tyabji, Sarojini Naidu would lead the satyagrahis, which she did. She was arrested on 21 May 1930 while leading a batch of volunteers towards Dharasana salt depot to break the salt laws. She was released after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, along with others. In 1931, she was invited to attend the Round Table Conference in London, not as a Congress representative but as a representative of Indian women. However, there was not much discussion on the problems of women; politics and the shape of the future Indian constitution was the main agenda. She did address several gatherings outside. She seemed to have learnt to face the inclement Weather of England, this being her third trip of England after her student days at Cambridge.
In 1942, she was again arrested along with Congress leaders and was kept in Aga Khan Palace in Poona where Gandhi, Kasturba, Mira and twenty others were also kept. In those grim days which saw the passing away of Mahadev Desai (Gandhi’s secretary) and Kasturba, she lightened the atmosphere with her wit and laughter. After the end of war in 1945, the British realized that it was not possible to hold on to India any longer, and were eager to quit. The Cabinet Mission, which visited India in 1946, tried to resolve the differences between the Congress and the Muslim League. Their proposals included the formation of an Interim Government and setting up of a Constituent Assembly. There was a stalemate, and the Muslim League led by Jinnah, was not willing to join the Interim Government or the Constituent Assembly. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, was at a loss. It seems the friendship between Jinnah and Sarojini was known even among British circles. Lord Wavell tried to seek the help of Sarojini to resolve the crisis. An entry in his Diary reads, Dined with Jinnah’s old friend, Sarojini Naidu on September 10 (1946) and we had a long talk on politics and the necessity of getting Jinnah and the M.L. (Muslim League) in the Interim Government and the difficulties of Jinnah’s character." After the meeting, Muslim League did join the Interim Government though it is difficult to say how much Sarojini’s friendship with Jinnah helped in this. But nobody could avoid the partition of the country, along with freedom, on 15 August 1947. In free India, Sarojini was appointed governor of Uttar Pradesh. During the remaining eighteen months of her life, she relaxed reading detective novels. She was never in good health but by sheer willpower, she lived for almost seventy years. She died on 2 March 1949 in Lucknow.
Even as an important member of the Congress party, she maintained a distinct character. She loved life in all its varied aspects. Unlike the grim-faced Khadi-clad leaders and volunteers of those days, she dressed herself in colourful, sparkling silks. She wore heavy necklaces and dangling earrings. The austerity of ashram life was not for her. She felt at ease in a five-star hotel. Her wit and laughter became proverbial. She had the audacity to call Gandhi Mickey-Mouse (because of his large ears) at his face and telling him how much the country had to spend on him to keep him poor, without offending him. She was one of the most talented daughters of India, and one whose spirit never submitted to bodily pain and even in suffering she would burst into peals of laughter and keep the atmosphere enlivened. Many still lament that the great poet in her was sacrificed at the altar of politics and feminism. A posthumous collection of her later poems was published under the title ‘Feather of the Dawn’.

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