Sarojini Naidu was born on February 13, 1879. She was the eldest daughter of eight children. She inherited the dream-world in which her father and, to a certain extent, her mother functioned. In “The Golden Threshold”, she writes, “My ancestors for thousands of years have been lovers of the forest and the mountain caves, great dreamers, great scholars, great ascetics. My father is a dreamer himself, a great dreamer, a great man whose life has been a magnificent failure”.
She was the daughter of Aghorenath Chattopadhyay who hailed from Brahmanagar, a village located in East Bengal. Her mother’s name was Varada Sundari. Her father was well versed in Sanskrit and widely read in the literature of the East and West. He was a scholar in English, French, German and Russian. His favourite subject was, however, Chemistry of which he was an eminent professor. He later became the principal of Nizam College, Hyderabad. Sarojini was a child of the Hindu-Muslim ethos of Hyderabad with her strong background of Brahmo philosophy, tolerance and love for humanity. She was also taught early in her childhood to believe in the meeting of the East and the West. It was on her father’s insistence that she came to master English.
A Poem Came Suddenly
Her father wanted her to become a mathematician or a scientist. However, it so happened that, as she puts it herself, that one day, “When I was sighing over a sum in Algebra, it wouldn’t come right; but instead a whole poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down. From that day my ‘poetic career’ began. At thirteen, I wrote a long poem of 1,300 lines in six days”.
Aghorenath Chattopadhyay recognised the talent his daughter was endowed with but insisted that she should matriculate. As there was no proper school where girls could study in Hyderabad, Sarojini was sent to Madras. There, she stood first among the candidates who appeared in the Matriculation Examination. Her success brought her fame but she disliked publicity. In a letter to Arthur Symons, she confessed, “Honestly I was not pleased……”.
After her academic success, Sarojini Naidu returned to Hyderabad where she stayed at her parents’ home from 1892 to 1895. These were also the happiest years of her life. She spent the time reading extensively and took great delight in the happy atmosphere that prevailed thanks to her parents and the wide circle of friends from all creeds.
Passage to England
At fifteen, Sarojini fell in love with Dr. Govindarajalu Naidu, a widower ten years his senior. A year later, she sailed to England for higher studies. Her parents hoped that a change of locality would be an antidote to the love she felt for Dr. Naidu.
When she reached the shores of England in 1985, she was only sixteen. She, nevertheless, awoke in the English people, even the conventional prosaic critics of poetry, a sudden awareness of the beauty and genius which was latent in the Indian subcontinent, then a colony of Britain. She was introduced to Edmund Gosse, a man of letters, who later wrote, “She was a child of sixteen but as unlike the usual English maiden of that age as a lotus or a cactus is unlike a lily of the valley. She was already marvellous in mental maturity, amazingly well-read and far beyond a Western child in all her acquaintance with the world”.
Arthur Symons, another contemporary Englishman of letters, writes how Sarojini Chattopadhyay read her first poems to him in 1896 as “She sat in our midst, and judged us, and few knew what was passing behind her face ‘like an awakening soul’ to use one of her own epithets. Her eyes were like deep pools, and you seemed to fall through then into depths below depths”.
At nineteen, immediately after her return from England without graduating, she married Dr. Naidu. They had four children. A doting mother, she immortalised her children in a beautiful poem, To My Children. It was Mahatma Gandhi who called her ‘the Nightingale of India’. After Toru Dutt, she was “the first great Indo-Anglian poet who attracted worldwide attention”. The Mahatma, whom she addresses as the ‘Mystic Lotus’ in her famous sonnet, was to transform her from a romantic singer of life’s beautiful ephemeralities to a determined and impassioned fighter for her country’s independence. Sarojini Naidu entered the maelstrom of the freedom movement after the publication of her last collection of poems, The Broken Wing in 1917.
Sarojini Naidu’s poems have been compiled in four volumes – The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912), The Broken Wing (1917) and The Feather of Dawn published posthumously in 1961. The poems clearly indicate a maturing poetic personality. The discriminating reader can observe the growth of her poetic sensibility which initially delighted in ‘a magical wood’ or a ‘wandering firefly’ towards a serene but delightful mood of mysticism as in ‘To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus’ and ‘The Soul’s Prayer’. Sarojini Naidu’s poetry presents a kaleidoscopic picture of Indian scenes, sights, sounds and experiences transmuted into a fantastic vision of colour and rhythm.
Her themes are familiar and even of no importance but for the fact that they are “vivified through the magic glass of her imagination”. Her poems comprise Indian dancers and wandering singers, weavers and fishermen, palanquin bearers, bangle sellers, snake charmers, flower girls, street vendors, milkmaids and boatmen to mention but a few.
There are also poems addressed to prominent personalities ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Gokhale and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Peasants and priests, maidens and brides, kings and queens people her poetic landscape. Deepavali, together with Indian customs and traditions are mentioned regularly in her poetry. Though tinged with fantasy and a dream-like quality, Sarojini Naidu’s poetry is a highly imaginative and powerful commentary of the various facets of the rich Indian life. Mulk Raj Anand, the well-known novelist who decades back came to Mauritius with music director Ravi, has remarked that, “Although Sarojini had adopted a Western language and technique to express herself, she is in the main Hindustani like Ghalib and Iqbal”.
Sarojini Naidu was the last of the romantics in Indo-Anglian poetry. She was indifferent to the modernist trend in the West initiated by Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and T.S Eliot. Her poetry may give the impression of being outdated but it has an intrusive value in historical importance.
Her poetry could be classified into five categories. At least one-third of her poems deal with Love and its various aspects. Next come those dealing with nature followed by those in which she contemplates life and death. The fourth category comprises songs on folk themes and Indian scenes and, finally, there are patriotic poems including those addressed to national leaders. In The Brid of Time, she hints at the variegated panorama of her themes thus,
Songs of the glory and gladness of life
Of poignant sorrow and passionate strife.
And the lilting joy of the spring,
Of hope that sows for the years unborn
And faith that dreams of tarrying morn,
The fragrant peace of the twilight’s breath
And the mystic silence that men call death.
Sarojini Naidu is also remembered as a political figure. In the words of Robert Payne, author of “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi” (1969), she “was strong enough to stand up to him when he was being wildly erratic…When he was in danger or when he was fasting, she would defend him like a tigress defending her young. Exuberant, earthy, irreverent, improbable, she was one of those women who make the world glad”.
On the morning of April 6th at half past eight when Gandhi picked up a small lump of salt at Dandi, he heard Mrs. Sarojini Naidu shouting excitedly, “Hail Deliverer!” In the aftermath of the salt march, Gandhi was determined to ‘raid’ the government-owned Darasana salt pans and take possession of them in the name of the people. He was arrested before he could lead his companions there. The leadership fell to Sarojini Naidu, “the heroic strong-featured poetess”. However, when the police charged through the crowds of Satyagrahis Sarojini Naidu and Manilal Gandhi were arrested.
The struggle for freedom continued unabated over the years. In 1942 many arrests were made over the ‘Quit India’ resolution promulgated by the Congress. Sarojini Naidu was jailed with Mahatma Gandhi and many others in the Agha Khan Palace. To quote Mira Behn, “None of us, not even Bapu had realised up to this time of incarceration together in the Agha Khan’s Palace the full richness of Sarojini Naidu’s nature. She sparkled with wit and showered her love on all with her motherly nature”.
She fell seriously ill in the aftermath of a bout of malaria and was removed from the Agha Khan’s Palace on March 31,1943. She fortunately recovered. She was made Governor of U.P. after India’s independence.
The news that Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated in January 1948 came as a shock to her. Sarojini Naidu went through the strain of the long ceremonies. She was not too well. She confessed that she had a “groggy heart”, high blood pressure and an injured leg. She reached the age of seventy on February 13, 1949.Though she fell ill on the next day, she insisted on travelling to Delhi. Breathing troubles started and oxygen had to be administered to her but to no avail. She passed away in the early hours of the morning of March 2, 1949. The last Vedic rites were performed along the banks of the Gomti river. C. Rajagopalachari delivered the funeral oration. Her eldest son, Jayasurya, set fire to the funeral pyre.
Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister of India, paid this fitting tribute to her in the Constituent Assembly, “She began life as a poetess. In later life, when the compulsion of events drew her into the national struggle and she threw herself in it with all the zest and fire she possessed, she did not write much poetry with pen and paper but her whole life became a poem and a song. Just as the Father of the Nation had infused moral grandeur and greatness into the struggle, Mrs. Sarojini Naidu gave it artistry and poetry……”.
She is remembered to this day for she faced the obstacles of life with a light heart, with a song on her lips and a smile on the face.
I.Nair Ramachandran K.R. – Three Indo-Anglian Poets (Delhi, Sterling Press 1987)
II.Rajyalakshmi V – The Poetic Achievement of Sarojini Naidu (New Delhi, Abhinav Publications 1977).
III.Sengupta Padmini – Sarojini Naidu (New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi 1989)
IV.Payne Richard – The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi London, The Bodley Head 1969).