Born in 1879 to Aghorenath Chattopadhyay, an administrator at the Nizam College, Hyderabad and Barada Sundari Devi Chattopadhyay, a Bengali poet, Sarojini Naidu was one of eight siblings – all of whom were famous artists at the time in Hyderabad.
She was regarded as an exceptional student and linguist. Owing to her exemplary academics, her father hoped she would pursue mathematics, however, after reading a poem of thirteen hundred lines titled “Lady of the Lake” and authored by her, he was convinced of her abilities as a poet and encouraged her to pursue a career in the field. Upon completion of her matriculation exam from the University of Madras, she was awarded a scholarship to study at King’s College, London and then later at Girton College, Cambridge.
Sarojini Naidu is regarded as one of the foremost women leaders in the world and also received the Kaiser-i-Hind medal by the British government for her vehement work during the plague epidemic in India. In 2016, an award by the Asia Academy of Arts was instituted in her name – the Dr Sarojini Naidu International Award for Working Women, to develop and promote strong relations with the people of the world.
Her exemplary poetry earned her the title of “Nightingale of India” and her works were greatly appreciated in India and England alike. She also authored essays and articles on the Indian freedom struggle, the role of women in it, and the need for empowerment of women. She believed that the country’s strength lies in the upliftment and liberation of its women. She used her poetic genius to highlight the need for reforms of social mores that were to the detriment of women.
The first volume of her poetry, titled ‘The Golden Threshold’ was published in 1905, and vividly encapsulated the loneliness of a purdah-nasheen woman. The poem describes the world created for these women – one that incapacitates them to even visualise a world of equality between men and women; she highlights the social conditioning that has led to a lack of education for women and thus their inability to dwell into individualistic power. The voice of reason that Sarojini Naidu gave these women continues to be relevant even today to the scores of women forced to remain in the purdah and merge their personal preferences and individuality in the personalities of the men.
Sarojini Naidu joined the freedom struggle after the partition of Bengal in 1905, and soon became a prominent figure in Indian politics. Throughout her political career, she met key figures of the Indian freedom movement and also travelled across the world, speaking on the Indian cause for independence.
The following decade saw her becoming more political – she toured India, giving speeches on the welfare of the young, equality and empowerment of women and the Indian freedom struggle. In 1916, she fought for the indigo farmers in Champaran; in 1919, she went to England as one of the members of the All India Home Rule deputation as a delegate; and in 1925, she joined the Indian National Congress (INC) and presided over the annual INC session. She also represented India at the International Women’s Congress in 1929 in Berlin.
Work in women’s rights
Sarojini Naidu, aside from becoming a key figure in India’s independence movement, was a vociferous advocate for women’s rights. She, along with Annie Besant, moulded the Women’s Indian Association in 1917 — which sought the right of women to vote and thus, be represented. She elevated and pursued the need for more women to join the INC. In 1918, she, along with other British feminists, started a magazine called “Stri Dharma” which presented international news from a feminist perspective. Her persuasive work on women’s participation led to the INC promising the women’s right to vote when it gained power. The universal adult franchise was enacted along with India’s independence and continues to be a major facet of the Indian constitution. She was made the Governor of Uttar Pradesh in 1947. She passed away in 1949, while still in office.
Although India has a long way to go in terms of freedoms for women, we have come a long way with the aid of Sarojini Naidu.
(Edited by Kanishk)