Sarojini Naidu – the poetess who inspired a whole generation of women to participate in the Freedom Movement

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Sarojini Chattopadhyaya was the daughter of Aghoranath Chattopadhyaya, a scientist and the founder of the Nizam College in Hyderabad, and Barada Sundari Devi, a famous Bengali poetess. She met physician and future husband Govindarajulu Naidu when she was studying in King’s College, London. The sobriquet ‘Nightingale of India’ or Bharatiya Kokila was bestowed on her because of her lyrical poems, which are rich in imagery and have a simple but timeless beauty appreciated by poetry lovers and studied by school students across the country.

A child prodigy, freedom fighter and woman leader, Sarojini Naidu was also a skilled orator and exemplary administrator.

The poet

A gifted student, Sarojini was proficient in Bengali, Urdu, Telugu, English and Persian. At the tender age of twelve, she topped the matriculation examination at Madras University. Her father wanted her to become a mathematician or scientist but she had an innate interest in poetry. Once, when Sarojini was working on an algebra problem, she could not derive the solution. Deciding to take a break, she wrote her first poem in her maths book. Soon her literary leanings became more prominent when she wrote a 1,300-line-long poem The Lady of the Lake. When her father realised that she was more interested in poetry than maths or science, he encouraged her.

Sarojini’s poems eschewed flowery language and stuck to simple words and everyday Indian milieu of forests and mountains, weavers and snake-charmers to explore themes like joy and pathos, life and death.

Hark to a voice that is calling
To my heart in the voice of the wind:
My heart is weary and sad and alone,
For its dreams like the fluttering leaves have gone,
And why should I stay behind?
– An excerpt from Autumn Song
The freedom fighter
Sarojini was inspired to join the Independence movement after meeting Gopal Krishna Gokhale. He asked her to use her beautiful poetry to invigorate the spirit of independence in the masses.
In 1916, she met Mahatma Gandhi, and threw herself completely into the fight for freedom. She travelled across the country and encouraged scores of people to join the movement. Her initiative was especially inspiring for the women of India and she can be credited with bringing them out of the kitchen and into the national consciousness. She was close to Gandhi and he affectionately nicknamed her ‘Mickey Mouse’.
Naidu was in the forefront during the Civil Disobedience Movement and was jailed along with Gandhi and other leaders. In 1942, she was arrested again during the Quit India movement.
British writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote, “It has been our good fortune, while in Bombay, to meet Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the newly elected President of the All-India Congress and a woman who combines in the most remarkable way great intellectual power with charm, sweetness with courageous energy, a wide culture with originality, and earnestness with humour. If all Indian politicians are like Mrs. Naidu, then the country is fortunate indeed.”
The leader
Naidu was the first Indian woman to become the President of the Indian National Congress. She also contributed to the drafting of the Indian Constitution.
After India became independent, Sarojini became the first woman to become the Governor of Uttar Pradesh. When she suffered a heart attack and died on March 2, 1949, she was still in office. With the passage of time, she and other greats like her are mostly forgotten. However, the vagaries of time and inevitability of death are best described in her own words.
Dream yields to dream, strife follows strife,
And Death unweaves the webs of Life.