Sarojini Naidu was an Indian independence activist, poet and politician. A renowned orator and accomplished poet, she is often known by the moniker ‘The Nightingale of India’. As a prodigious child, Naidu wrote the play "Maher Muneer", which earned her a scholarship to study abroad.
She became the second woman president of the Indian National Congress. She was the first woman Governor of an Indian state after independence. Her collection of poems earned her literary acclaim. In 1905, she published her first book, a collection of poems, under the title of "Golden Threshold". A contemporary poet, Bappaditya Bandopadhyay quoted "Sarojini Naidu inspired the Indian renaissance movement and had a mission to improve the life of Indian woman.”
Childhood and Early Life
Sarojini Naidu was born on February 13, 1879 in Hyderabad. Her father, Dr. Aghore Nath Chattopadhyay was a scientist, philosopher, and educator. He founded the Nizam College of Hyderabad. Her mother, Varada Sundari Devi was a poetess in the Bengali language. Dr. Aghore Nath Chattopadhyay was the first member of the Indian National Congress in Hyderabad. For his socio-political activities, Aghore Nath was dismissed from his position of Principal. One of his brothers, Virendranath Chattopadhyay, played key role in establishing the Berlin Committee. As a political activist involved in India’s on-going struggle for self-rule, he was heavily influenced by Communism. Her second brother Harindranath Chattopadhyay was a renowned poet and a successful playwright. Her sister, Sunalini Devi was a dancer and actress
Since childhood, Sarojini was a very bright and intelligent child. She was proficient in multiple languages including English, Bengali, Urdu, Telugu and Persian. She topped her matriculation exams from Madras University. Her father wanted Sarojini to become a mathematician or scientist, but young Sarojini was attracted to poetry.
She applied her prodigious literary skills to write a 1300 lines long poem in English titled ‘The Lady of the Lake’. Impressed with Sarojini’s skills of expressing emotions with appropriate words, Dr. Chattopadhyaya encouraged her works. Few months later, Sarojini, with assistance from her father, wrote the play "Maher Muneer" in the Persian language.
Sarojini's father distributed some copies of the play among his friends and relatives. He also sent a copy to the Nizam of Hyderabad. Impressed with the works of the little child, the Nizam granted her a scholarship to study overseas. At the age of 16, she got admission in the King's College, England and later joined Girton College in Cambridge. There, she had the opportunity to meet prominent English authors like Arthur Simon and Edmond Gausse who inspired her to write on themes relevant to India. They advised Sarojini "To be a genuine Indian poet of Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English classics" which led her to seek inspiration from India’s natural beauty, religious pluralism and the essence of the country’s social milieu.
Sarojini met Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu, a South Indian, and a non-Brahmin physician while she was studying in England and fell in love. After returning to India, she married him at the age of 19, with his family’s blessings. They were married by the Brahmo Marriage Act (1872), in Madras in 1898. The marriage took place at a time when inter-caste marriages were not allowed and tolerated in the Indian society. Her marriage was a very happy one. They had four children.
Role in the Indian National Movement
Sarojini was initiated into the Indian political arena by iconic stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Gandhi. She was deeply affected by the partition of Bengal in 1905 and decided to join the Indian freedom struggle. She met regularly with Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who in turn introduced her to the otherleaders of the Indian freedom movement. Gokhale urged her to devote her intellect and education for the cause. She took a respite from writing and devoted herself fully to the political cause. She met Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C. P. Ramaswami Iyer and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Her relationship with Gandhi was that of mutual respect as well as of benign humour. She famously called Gandhi ‘Mickey Mouse’ and quipped "It costs a lot to keep Gandhi poor!”
She met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1916, worked with him for the disheartening conditions of the Indigo workers of Champaran in the western district of Bihar and fought vehemently with the British for their rights. Sarojini Naidu travelled all over India and delivered speeches on welfare of youth, dignity of labor, women's emancipation and nationalism. In 1917, she helped found the Women’s India Association with Annie Besant and other prominent leaders. She also presented to Congress the need to involve more women in the freedom struggle. She travelled extensively to the United States of America and many European countries as the flag-bearer of the Indian Nationalist struggle.
In March 1919, the British government passed the Rowlatt Act by which the possession of seditious documents was deemed illegal. Mahatma Gandhi organized the Non-Cooperation Movement to protest and Naidu was the first to join the movement. Sarojini Naidu religiously followed Gandhi’s example and actively supported his other campaigns like the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, the Khilafat issue, the Sabarmati Pact, the Satyagraha Pledge and the Civil Disobedience Movement. When Gandhi was arrested after the Salt March to Dandi in 1930, she led the Dharasana Satyagraha with other leaders. She accompanied Gandhi to London to take part in the Round Table Talks with the British Government in 1931. Her political activities and role in the Freedom struggle led to several stints in prison – in 1930, 1932, and 1942. Her 1942 arrest led to imprisonment for 21 months.
She went to England in 1919 as a member of the All-India Home Rule Deputation. In January 1924, she was one of the two delegates of the Indian National Congress to attend the East African Indian Congress. As a result of her selfless contribution to the cause of freedom, she was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress Party in 1925.
Naidu played an immense role in presenting the nuances of the Indian non-violent struggle for freedom to the world. She travelled to Europe and even to the United states to disseminate Gandhian principles and was partly responsible for establishing him as this icon of peace.
After the independence of India, she became the first governor of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and remained in the role till her death in 1949. Her birthday, February 13, is honoured as Women's Day in India.
Besides her role and contribution to the Indian Nationalist Movement, Sarojini Naidu is also revered for her contribution in the field of Indian poetry. Many of her works were transformed into songs. She drew her inspiration from nature as well as surrounding daily life and her poetry echoed with the ethos of her patriotism. In 1905, her collection of poems was published under the title "Golden Threshold". Later, she also published two other collections called "The Bird of Time", and "The Broken Wings", both of which attracted huge readership in both India and England. Apart from poetry, she also penned articles and essays like ‘Words of Freedom’ on her political beliefs and social issues like women empowerment.
Death & Legacy
Sarojini Naidu was the first women Governor of Uttar Pradesh. On 2nd March 1949, Sarojini Naidu died at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. She lived her glorious life by her own words, “As long as I have life, as long as blood flows through this arm of mine, I shall not leave the cause of freedom…I am only a woman, only a poet. But as a woman, I give to you the weapons of faith and courage and the shield of fortitude. And as a poet, I fling out the banner of song and sound, the bugle call to battle. How shall I kindle the flame which shall waken you men from slavery...” Her childhood residence at Nampally was bequeathed to the University of Hyderabad by her family and it was christened as ‘The Golden Threshold’ after Naidu’s 1905 publication. The University renamed its School of Fine Arts and Communication as ‘Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication’ to honour the Nightingale of India.