The Freedom Fighter and the Poetess

Jul/11/2022 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Sarojini Naidu
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Sarojini Naidu was a renowned political activist and a leader, and one of the famous 20th century poets from India. She was an important figure in the later stage of India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. She was also a passionate supporter of civil rights and women’s education.

Sarojini Naidu was the first woman to become President of the Indian National Congress and the first woman to be appointed as the Governor of an Indian state. She is also known by the moniker ‘The Nightingale of India.’ Sarojini Naidu got this title because of the mellifluousness, lyrical quality and vivid imagery of her poetry.

Sarojini Naidu was born as Sarojini Chattopadhyay in a Bengali family in Hyderabad, on 13th February 1879. Her father was Aghorenath Chattopadhyay and   her mother was Varada Sundari Devi. Her father was the Principal of Hyderabad college, which later became Nizam College, in Hyderabad. He was a Doctorate of Science from Edinburgh University while Varada Sundari Devi used to write poetry in Bengali.

Early Signs of Creativity

The vibrant cultural atmosphere in her home might have contributed to the nurturing and growth of the personality of Sarojini who was the eldest among the eight siblings. From an early age, Sarojini showed a predilection towards literature. She began writing poetry from a very young age and was fluent in five languages.

Her family displayed progressive values for that age, and the children were encouraged to pursue their passions. Sarojini’s intellectual development thrived in the conducive environment of her home.

Sarojini Naidu was also very good academically. She was also one of the very few Indian women of her era who were lucky to receive a good education. She passed her matriculation examination from Madras University with flying colors in 1891, at the young age of twelve. She topped her matriculation exams.

Her father was earnest that Sarojini pursued science and mathematics for her higher study but when Sarojini wrote a thirteen-hundred-line long poem titled ‘The Lady of the Lake’ he was impressed by her poetic talent and began to encourage her to explore her literary endeavors.

Some months later after she wrote that voluminous poetry she wrote a play in persian, titled ‘Maher Muneer.’ Her academician father sent it to the Nizam of Hyderabad which resulted in Sarojini being granted scholarship by Nizam’s Charitable Trust to study at King’s College in England.

While discussing about Sarojini Naidu it needs mention that she did her higher education from the King’s College, London and then with Girton College, Cambridge. In the UK, Sarojini Naidu interacted with artists which probably further heightened her aesthetic sensibilities. During that time in the UK, she also served as a suffragist, which reflects her calling towards social justice and women’s rights from an early age.

For Freedom and Women

She returned to Hyderabad in 1898 and in the same year married a general physician named Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu. The inter-caste marriage was quite groundbreaking and considered scandalous for the highly conservative society of those times. However, her progressive family fully supported the marriage.

Soon after a young Sarojini Naidu got drawn to Indian National Congress’s freedom struggle movement from British rule and emerged as a popular orator in the beginning of the twentieth century. She was endowed with brilliant oratory skills which helped her in promoting the cause of Indian independence in many of her speeches. Sarojini Naidu was often seen promoting India’s independence and espousing women’s rights, especially women’s education.

In 1905, she joined India’s freedom struggle following the partition of Bengal. She also travelled to many countries, which included Europe and America, where she voiced her concern about India’s independence struggle. In 1906, she addressed the Indian National Congress and the Indian Social Conference in Calcutta, which is now named Kolkata.

In 1911, she earned the Kaisar-i-Hind medal for her social work for flood relief, which she returned to the British government in protest over the infamous April 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

In 1914, she met Mahatma Gandhi and was greatly inspired by him with a new commitment towards political action.

With the passing of the years her role in the charged political climate of early twentieth century India became more active. In 1917, Sarojini Naidu joined Gandhi’s famous satyagraha movement, which was a sustained nonviolent resistance effort against British rule, and in 1919, as part of her efforts to advocate India’s freedom, she went to London as a part of the All India Home Rule League. In 1920, Sarojini Naidu took an active part in Gandhi led non-cooperation movement.

During 1920s-1947, she helped in raising consciousness of a modern nation in the making by giving stirring speeches across India; advocating India’s freedom from colonial rule and on welfare of the young, and freedom of women. In 1925, she was elected as the first woman President of Indian National Congress.

Along with contributing towards India’s freedom struggle, she was also championing the cause of women’s welfare. In 1909, she became acquainted with the doctor and social reformer Muthulakshmi Reddy. They shared several beliefs and worked together to establish the Women’s Indian Association in 1917.

In 1927, she became one of the founding members of All India Women’s Conference, which was founded in Pune with the objective to promote women and children’s education and social welfare. Today AIWC is an NGO based in Delhi and its scope of work has expanded to cover other women’s rights issues too.

She also had the distinction of presiding over the East African and Indian Congress’ s1929 session in South Africa.

Marching Ahead

Gandhi did not approve of women to undertake the highly strenuous salt march in1930 as it was a physically demanding exercise involving risk of arrest. Sarojini Naidu and some other female activists persuaded him to change his stance and they too joined the historic march; shoulder to shoulder with men. When Gandhi was arrested on 6th April 1930, he appointed Sarojini Naidu as the new leader of the salt march movement.

Sarojini Naidu along with other Congress party leaders also took part in the Second Round Table Conference (the three round table conferences held during 1930-32  were organized by the then British Government and Indian political personalities to discuss constitutional reforms in India).

Her campaign for freedom of India also led her to a jail term in 1932. She was jailed again in 1942 for 21 months by the British government for participating in the Quit India Movement, which was a movement launched by Gandhi at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee on 8th August 1942. The objective of the movement was to demand the end of the British rule in India.

After India got independence on 15th August 1947, Sarojini Naidu was appointed as the Governor of the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), thereby becoming India’s first woman Governor.

Her Vivid Verses

No biography of Sarojini Naidu would be complete without exploring her contribution as a poet. Her reputation as a poet can easily match her renown as a political leader. Her long literary journey began at a young age of 12.

Majority of her poetic works are written in English and they seem to be largely influenced by the tradition of romanticism, an artistic movement that originated in the late 18th century Europe. Her poetries are characterized by vivid sensory imagery and lyrical writings.

Her poetry covers a wide variety of themes ranging from patriotism, romance to life’s tragedy among other. She also wrote poems for children.

Three books of poetry of her were published during 1905-1912. Her first book of poetry is titled ‘The Golden Threshold,’ which was published in London, in 1905. Besides poetry, the book also included a sketch of Sarojini Naidu as a teenager. She is being shown in a ruffled white dress. The artwork was drawn by John Butler Yeats.

The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken Wing (1917) are her other books of poetry. The Broken Wing was dedicated to Muhammad Ali Jinnah. ‘In The Bazaars of Hyderabad,’ which gives a vivid description of traditional bazaars of Hyderabad, and ‘The Gift of India’, where she critiqued the British empire’s exploitation of Indian mothers, are among her famous poems.

A collection of all her poems, including her unpublished poetic works, was published in the form of a book in 1961. It was titled ‘The Feather of the Dawn.’ The book was edited by her daughter Padmaja Naidu.

She died on 2nd March 1949 from a heart attack. The age of Sarojini Naidu at the time of her demise was 70 years.

Her birthday, 13th February, is being celebrated in India as Women’s Day to recognize and honor powerful voices of women in the vast spectrum of India’s history.


Why was Sarojini Naidu called The Nightingale of India?

Her poetry, which are often very lyrical and carry vivid imageries, earned her the sobriquet of ‘The Nightingale of India’ or ‘Bharat Kokila’ from Mahatma Gandhi.

Did Sarojini Naidu get Nobel Prize?

No, she didn’t get that prize.

Who was Sarojini Naidu’s husband?

Her husband was a general physician named Dr. Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu. They had four children.