Sarojini Naidu

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Naidu demonstrated that strong-willed women can develop the statesmanship necessary to assume leadership of a nation. Her poetry, while overlooked in the West, is regarded as some of the most important in India.

Early Life

Sarojini Chattopadhyay was born in Hyderābād, the capital of the princely state of Hyderābād (Deccan) in the south-central part of India, on February 13, 1879, to Aghorenath Chattopadhyay and Vardha Sundari. Her parents were members of an old priest-caste (Brahman) family in the northeast province of East Bengal (now called Bangladesh). Her parents migrated to Hyderābād because of a teaching position that Sarojini’s father, who had received a doctor of science degree from the University of Edinburgh, had obtained. Her father, an ardent educationist, considered radical by his contemporaries because of his advocacy of education for women, hired private tutors to teach English, French, and, later, Persian to his daughter. Sarojini proved to be a child prodigy. She was graduated from one of the toughest school systems in the country with a first class education when she was eleven years old and won a scholarship from the King of Hyderābād (the Nizam) to continue her college education in England. England found the sixteen-year-old too young for college, so Sarojini was asked to attend classes in King’s College, London, for a year; later, she was formally admitted to Girton College of the University of Cambridge.

Sarojini’s life in England was far from happy. She was uncomfortable with the English image of her as an exotic—almost extraterrestrial—girl, quiet and rather aloof. She enjoyed, however, the opportunity of meeting Arthur Symons, a member of the Rhymers’ Club founded by William Butler Yeats in 1891, and Sir Edmund Gosse, a prominent literary figure of the day. The former introduced Sarojini to the English world through his introduction to the first volume of her poems, The Golden Threshold (1905), while the latter offered practical advice on how to express her unique poetic sensibility.

Life’s Work

Sarojini had changed her name from Chattopadhyay to Naidu when the English reviewed her poems favorably and the Indians exultantly in 1905, the year of their first publication. The very next year saw the need for a new impression, which was followed by two more, in 1909 and 1914, respectively. In the meantime, Naidu was busy rearing her four children and putting together a new volume of poetry. The Bird of Time (1912), with new editions in 1914 and 1916. A third volume, The Broken Wing, was published in 1917, and a fourth, The Feather of the Dawn, was posthumously issued in 1961.

Naidu was apologetic about the songlike nature of her poetry. “I sing just as birds do,” she wrote to Symons, without a “voice,” probably implying the awesome prophetic voice of a God thundering through a burning bush—a voice that, presumably, alone can transmute the flimsy material of a song into the weighty substance of great poetry. In her self-effacing humility, she forgot the tradition, exemplified by the Old Testament Song of Solomon and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” great poetry in the form of song. Her songs, after all, are songs of life, love, death, and destiny—themes the human race has always considered substantial. Further, they add a new note to the repertoire of poetry as song through a harmonious fusion of otherwise intransigent traditions, their “Eastern-ness” meticulously transposed into the Western medium of English prosody. Such a fusion is evident in the way she weaves magical strands around her themes “like a pearl on a string” (“Palinquin-Bearers”) or elevates them to mystical heights “And scale the stars upon my broken wing!” (“The Broken Wing”). In these songs, it looks as if, in P. E. Dustoor’s words, “an English garden has exotically put out the most dazzling tropical blooms.”

The dazzling English garden of Naidu’s consciousness slowly started turning into a blighted one with the fast-changing historical events under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagraha movement. In Sanskrit, satya means “truth” and graha is the act of “grasping.” Satyagraha is a blanket term that Gandhi used for all forms of peaceful efforts to gain independence from the British rule organized through the Indian National Congress, one of...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)