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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Sarojini Naidu: I am only a woman, only a poet

#GenderAnd: The Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu was a poet, a politician and an activist. She was the first Indian woman to be President of the Indian National Congress.

Written by Sonakshi Awasthi |
Updated: March 28, 2018 9:41:14 am

Scribbling poetry at a young age, Sarojini Naidu had hardly hoped to become a poetess and be called “Bulbul-i-Hind” by then President Rajendra Prasad. Her poetry found way in her patriotic speeches and debates in the Constituent Assembly. “I shall now request Bulbul-i-Hind, the Nightingale of India, to address the House not in prose but in poetry,” said Chairman of the Constituent Assembly Dr. Sachchidananda Sinha addressing the third Assembly debate in 1946. Members of the Assembly cheered Naidu to take the microphone. Naidu recited then, “Bulbul ko gul mubarak, gul ko chaman mubarak, rangeen tabiaton ko range sukhan mubarak.”

Sarojini first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1914 at his lodging in Kensington, England. Meetings with many leaders including Gandhi happened at the behest of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, her lifelong mentor. Drawing inspiration from the two men, Naidu joined the Indian National Movement in 1905 during the Partition of Bengal.

Sarojini Naidu (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor Morton describes this encounter between Naidu and Gandhi in her book titled “Women behind Mahatma Gandhi”. At the time of the meeting, Gandhi was having supper. Morton describes the scene as a “little man” seated on the floor surrounded by tins of ground nuts, “eating a messy meal of squashed tomatoes and olive oil”.  An amused Sarojini stood silently by the door when Gandhi looked up and laughed, “Ah. You must be Madam Naidu. Come in and share my meal.” “No thanks. What an abominable mess it is,” Naidu replied and laughter of the two rang in the room.

An active participant of the freedom movement, Naidu delivered fiery speeches across the country. She spoke of women’s rights, labour rights and urged all to join the struggle. With Annie Besant’s help she founded Women’s India Association in 1917 and focused like many others in the Constituent Assembly on women’s education and abolishing child marriage. As part of the Swadeshi movement, Naidu urged women to give up foreign cloth. The second woman to become the President of the Indian National Congress after Annie Besant in 1925, she chaired the annual session of the party at Kanpur.

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Sarojini Naidu in London, 1931. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Imprisoned several times between 1930-1942, during the Satyagraha against salt tax, Naidu led 2500 people to attack Dharasana Salt Works in 1930 immediately after the Dandi March while Mahatma Gandhi was behind bars. “‘Although Gandhi’s body is in prison, his soul goes with you, she cried in an impassioned voice,” reported Web Miller, the United Press staff correspondent on May 21, 1930. Following the attack the police came down heavily on protestors. The crowd submitted to the thrashing, dropping on the ground. Naidu was arrested along with several others and sentenced to jail for nine months.

Born to a Bengali household, in 1879, with seven siblings, Sarojini finished high school at the age of 12. Daughter of  Aghornath Chattopadhyaya, a college principal and Barada Sundari Devi, Sarojini had shown willingness to to marry a doctor, Govindarajulu Naidu. She was 15 at the time and adamant about her choice. Sarojini and Govindarajulu were to wed in 1898. In the three years preceding her marriage, Sarojini went to England to study at the Girton College, Cambridge. It’s here she had met Gopal Krishna Gokhale who motivated her to join the freedom struggle.

Mahatama Gandhi with Sarojini Naidu during the Dandi March in 1930. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Poetry came naturally to Sarojini. It is said that Edmund Gosse, an English poet guided Naidu into “a genuine Indian poet of Deccan, not a clever …imitator of English classics,” writes Vishwanath S. Naravane in his book “Sarojini Naidu: An Introduction to Her Life, Work and Poetry”. After British rule, free India was represented by Naidu when the Versailles peace treaty was signed in 1919. During this time, India did not have a flag to represent herself. Naidu spoke about it at length on July 22, 1947 in the Assembly debate, pushing members of the Assembly to pioneer a flag. Naidu narrated an incident when 42 nations sent women to an International Conference in Berlin and a Flag parade was to commence. India had no official flag.

“It was also a moment of anguish for me. But at my suggestion some of the women Indian delegates tore strips from their saris sitting up till the small hours of the morning to make the Tricolour flag, so that our country should not be humiliated for the lack of a National Banner,” said Naidu at the 1947 Assembly debate.

Sarojini Naidu (third from left), Maharaja of Mysore Madeyar, Zakir Hussain, Dr. Radha Krishanan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Karan Singh and VV Giri (Express Archive)

Her perseverance and sentiments towards the flag moved members of the Assembly to elect her as the person to present the first flag of India to Rajendra Prasad, the President of India. However, Naidu was traveling during the time and therefore, the flag was instead presented by Hansa Jivraj Mehta. Leading the country, especially the women to liberation, Naidu continued to hold a prominent position post independence as well. She was appointed the first governor of the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh, and remained in office until her death March 2, 1949.  Sarojini Naidu lived a 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…”

(#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read more about the 15 women architects of the Indian Constitution: Annie Mascarene, Begum Aizaz RasulVijaya Lakshmi PanditDurgabai DeshmukhAmrit Kaur, Ammu SwaminathanHansa Jivraj MehtaDakshayani Velayudhan, Sucheta Kriplani. You can read our entire reportage here)

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