SELECTED LETTERS > GANDHI -SAROJINI NAIDU CORRESPONDENCE > Preface
In this Preface , I have taken the liberty of giving some pertinent biographical data of the many-sided splendour that was Sarojini Naidu , for the edification of post-independence generation. This has, however, made the Preface somewhat long for which I crave the reader's indulgence.
Sarojini's father, Dr. Aghorenath Chottopadhyaya, hailed from a Brahmin family of East Bengal .In his early youth, he migrated to Calcutta for studies. He had to study from borrowed books under street lamps. His inborn brilliance soon surfaced and won recognition. He was exceptionally bright in English, Bengali and Sanskrit, as also in Greek, Hebrew, French, German and Russian. But his main interest was in science, especially Chemistry. Young Aghorenath was in offered a Gilchrist scholarship for higher studies in England. He joined the Edinburgh University, where he took the degree of D. Sc, being the first Indian to become a Doctor of Science. Yet another foreign scholarship enabled him to go for further studies at the Bonn University.
While going to England for studies, he left his young wife, Varada Sundari , in in the 'Bharat Ashrama' sponsored by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who, together with Keshub Chandra Sen, had founded the Brahmo Samaj. Its Social reform activities had attracted young Aghorenath's reformist zeal, and hence his willingness to leave his wife in their care. On his return to India, Dr. Aghorenath got the job of a school teacher In Nizam's Hyderabad, where he set his home.0
Sarojini was born to them in Hyderabad on February 13, 1879.
Sarojini Naidu was a precocious child, a 'wonder girl'. When barely twelve years old , she wrote a 1300-line poem a la 'Lady of the Lake' in six days! 'The next year, she penned an impassioned poetic drama of 2000 lines!
In 1897, Dr. Aghorenath sent Sarojini to Madras to appear for the Matriculation examination which she passed with distinction. The result of her college studies at the Madras University was also outstanding. She passed in First Class first. This was a brilliant feat and her first leap into fame. The jurisdiction of Madras University at that time extended much beyond Tamilnadu into many regions of the present State of Kerala, Andhra and Karnataka.
As a college student, Sarojini had written a verse play in Persian "Mehar Munee" (a legendary romantic couple). Dr. Aghorenath printed a few copies of the play for private circulation and he ventured to present a copy to the Nizam. His Exalted Highness was so much impressed that he sanctioned a scholarship for her higher studies in England. By a happy coincidence, Dr. Annie Besant was also a passenger in the ship which Sarojini Chose for her voyage to London. Dr. Annie Besant was at that time a highly esteemed and renowned personage in India. Though Irish-born, and English bred Annie Besant made India her home, first as the head of the Theosophical Society headquartered at Chennai, and later by her full-throated championship of Home Rule for India. She was elected President of the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress in 1917. She came to love Sarojini, 'the singing bird', as a daughter and offered to chaperon her.
In London, Sarojini studied at the King's College, and later at Girton Girls College, Cambridge.
Marriage and motherhood
Sarojini returned to India in 1899.
Soon thereafter she was married to Dr. Muthyala Govindrajulu Naidu, though quite senior to her in age. Dr. Naidu had also studied abroad at the Edinburgh University. He was a family friend and treated her with tender care while she was ill as a school student in Hyderabad.
The Naidu couple were blessed with four children in quick succession-from 1990 to 1904. Sarojini celebrated their advent into this world in characteristic fashion by writing a poem dedicated to each new arrival. The eldest Jayasurya, the "Sun of Victory" who was to be the "Son of Song and Liberty"; the second Padmaja, the "Lotus Maiden", the third, Randheera, the "Little Lord of Battle" who would be the "Lord of Love and Chivalry"; and the youngest Leilamani, the " Living Jewel of Delight".
Apace, Sarojini also gained renown as a poet. Her poems, full of soaring rhetoric and sentiment, found numerous admirers. Her reading of them in melodious, inspiring voice and gestures cast a hypnotic spell on the listeners.
In 1903, when just 24, she addressed a large student audience in Madras with great fervour on the theme of national unity. She thundered:-
"Having traveled, having conceived, having hoped, having enlarged my love, having widened my sympathies, having come into contact with different races, different communities, different religions, different civilizations, friends, my vision is clear. I have no prejudice of race, creed, caste, or colour.... Until you students have acquired and mastered the spirit of brotherhood, do not believe it possible that you will ever cease to be sectarian... if I may use such word.... you will ever be national"!
In Madras again she declared:-
In 1906, at the age of 27, she attended the Indian National Conference. There she boldly moved an amendment substituting 'Indian' for 'Hindu'. The word Hindu was at that time as such accepted by the minority. No exclusivism was meant by the one or other nomenclature. To the sensitive mind of Sarojini Naidu, intensely patriotic and steeped in a culture which was a harmonious mix of the best features of a tolerant Hinduism and a catholic and liberal Islam, only the word 'Indian' was acceptable. She gently but in no uncertain terms told the delegates that she would participate in the National Conference only if her amendment was adopted. It was carried with Thunderous applause.
In the Service of the Motherland
As early as in 1905, in the wake of the partition of Bengal, Sarojini plunged into the freedom struggle. It gave birth to spontaneous civil disobedience movement, and boycott of every thing British was in the air. In that surcharged atmosphere, she use to stun her audience with soul-stirring eloquence and staunch advocacy of the national cause. The youthful enchantress concluded all her speeches dramatically by impromptu jumping down from the dais and racing to join the lady volunteers singing patriotic songs in chorus!
On the 2nd August, 1913, at Caxton Hall, London, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (founder of the Servants of Indian Society in 1905 at Pune) gave a soul stirring speech. A large number of young enthusiastic Indians, including Sarojini were in the audience. In an impassioned address, Gokhale set before them the sublime lessons of self-sacrifice and patriotism. In a personal conversation, later he bared his heart to Sarojini, and told her:
"Stand here with me with the
She took it as an affectionate invitation and a challenge to her to dedicate herself, heart and soul, in the service of Motherland. From that day, Sarojini Naidu became a dedicated Servant of the people of India. Thus it was Gokhale who inducted her into the political field. This was prior to advent of Gandhiji into Indian politics. It was Gokhale again who spoke to her of Gandhiji as the "coming man of Indian politics" and prepared her for continuing her apprenticeship under the Mahatma-in-the-making. Gandhiji himself had looked upon Gokhale as his own political Guru. Gokhale was verily a Guna Nidhi.
First meeting with Mahatma Gandhi
Sarojini's first meeting with Gandhiji was also in a way through Gokhale had invited Gandhiji to return to India from South Africa via London. But when Gandhiji reached London, Gokhale was unexpectedly held up for some days in Paris. Sarojini happened to be in London then by chance, convalescing from an illness. Later Sarojini described her momentous first meeting with Gandhiji thus:
"Curiously enough, my first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi took place in London on the eve of the Great European War of 1914. When he arrived fresh from his triumphs in South Africa, where he had initiated his principle of passive resistance and won a victory for his countrymen who were at the time chiefly indentured labourers, over the redoubtable General Smuts, I had not to been able to meet his ship on arrival. But the next afternoon, I went wandering around in search of his lodging in an obscure part of Kensington and climbed up the steep stairs of an old, unfashionable house, to find an open door framing a living picture of a little man with a shaven head seated on the floor on a blank prison blow. Around him were ranged some battered tine of parched ground-nut and tasteless biscuits of dried plantain flour. I burst instinctively into happy laughter at the amusing and unexpected vision of a famous leader, whose name had already become a household word in our country.
"He lifted his eyes and laughed back at me saying: 'Ah, you must be Mrs. Naidu! Who else dare be so irreverent. 'Come in, 'he said, 'and share my meal'. 'No thanks. I replied, sniffing, 'what an abominable mess it is'.
"In this way and at that instant commenced our friendship , which flowered into real comradeship , and bore fruit in a long . long, loyal discipleship, which never wavered for a single hour through more than thirty years of common service in the of India's freedom from foreign rule."
As Smt. Padmini Sen Gupta in her biography of Sarojini Naidu has written, "This first meeting in London was a red-letter day, an event which changed the whole course of Sarojini Naidu's life, which took her away from the honeyed drawing rooms of scholars and poets and placed her before a beggar-saint. From then on, with his magnetism, he claimed almost her whole attention".
Sarojini Naidu never forgot this first meeting and referred to it again and again. On October 2, 1947,-the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi's 78th Birthday - the last Gandhi-Jayanti during his life-time - she again recalled this dramatic unplanned first, meeting in London and added, "And so, laughingly, we began a friendship that has lasted, grown, developed through all these many years". The key phrase is "And so laughingly". Verily, she was a born, irrepressible Hasya Yogini and remained so till she breathed her last on March 2, 1949 at the Raj Bhavan in Lucknow.
In the inner circle of National Affairs
Sarojini Naidu's appearance on the Congress
platform, as aforesaid, was as early as 1905, when she became a crusader for
Swadeshi in the wake of the partition of Bengal under the leadership of
Surendra Nath Bancilea and other leaders.
Unique Guru-Shishya Relationship
The relationship between Gandhiji. and Sarojini Naidu blossomed into that of an ideal Master and Disciple-Adarsha Guru Shishyaa-the Guru with overflowing considerateness and affection for his Shishya. and the shishyaa with nothing but heartfelt veneration for her Guru. Their scintillating repartees. and delightful occasional reproaches were totally free from any -trace of malice. Utterly unselfish and transparent, both were endowed with great wit and wisdom.
How they addressed each other?
In his first letter, Gandhiji addresses
Sarojini as my dear sister" and says, "What would you say of a
brother who does not inquire about his sister's health?". This is on.23
February 1915. But, Sarojini does not address him as her brother. Her letter
dated 6 March 1915 is addressed to Gandhiji as "Dear Friend",
though she ends up by calling him as "dear brother".
Years pass. It is now 1925. There is a letter from Gandhiji to Sarojini and is addressed now to 'dear Mirabai' and a further letter dated July 6, 1925 in which Sarolini is addressed as "My dearest Mirabai". What happened between 1919 and 1925 for Gandhiji to start addressing letters to Sarojini as "dear Mirabai ?" Some time during this period there must have been some banter between the two. Mirabai, as we all know, was a great devotee of Sri Krishna who composed songs and sang them well. Did Gandhiji think of Sarojini as a singer as well as a poet ?
Significantly, a letter from Sarojini from Dinajpur, dated 20 July 1926 starts with greetings "from the Wandering Singer to the Spinner-stay-At-Home" but still she evidently considered the Mahatma more as a leader than as a brother. In one letter dated 7 August 1928 she ends up calling him "O Apostle of Peace" and in another letter addressed to him from Geneva dated 17 September 1928 she ends it with "salutations to the 'Mystic Spinner' from the -Wandering Singer... This form of salutation continues. Sarojini, writing from Cincinnati, U.S. on 19 November 1928, addresses him as "My Mystic Spinner" and apparently Gandhiji caught on and in his letter to Sarojini dated 21 July 1929 he signs himself as -Mystic Spinner'. A fortnight later, on August 7, 1929, Gandhiji writes another letter to her calling her "My dear Peace- Maker" and singing off as "Lovingly yours, Matter- of-Fact (Not Mystic) Spinner"!
Strangely enough a letter addressed to Sarojini on April 16, 1930 is signed as "M. K. Gandhi." Had she offended him ? Was he angry with her to sound formal ? But the friendship picks up.
Gandhiji's letter to Sarojini dated August 8, 1932 is addressed to "Dear Bulbul" and he signs off as "Little Man". Somewhere along the line Sarojini had described the Mahatma as a "Micky Mouse," a "Little Man" and Gandhiji must have enjoyed the description. In his letter to her on 17 September 1932 he addresses her as "Dear Mother, Singer and Guardian of My Soul." But the "Little Man" tag stuck. In her letter to him dated 17 August 1934 she addresses him as "My Beloved Little Man" and signs off as "Your singer and most loving friend" The banter continues. On November 26, 1938 Gandhiji addresses her as "My dear Fly" and in the course of his letter says, "Though you are so distinguished, you are still a fly, thank God." There is no exclamatory mark after that. He signs off as "Yours, Little Spinner, Spider, etc".
In most of the letters after that, Sarojini remains "Dear Old Singer" , "Dear Singer", "My dear Bulbul", "Dear Sweet Singer" and on a couple of occasions "My dear Ammajan" and once "My dear Bulbul-e- Hind". But always he signs off as "Spinner".
Just before he set off on a visit to Bihar to extinguish the flames of communal strife in July 1946, Sarojini movingly referred to him as "Beloved Pilgrim". And in her broadcast on 1 February 1948 following the Mahatma's assassination she was to say: "My father, do not rest".
Sarojini could tease the Mahatma, joke about him but she held him in utmost reverence. She had started by calling him "friend" and ended up thinking of him as "father". Throughout her life, one suspects, she wanted to. be treated as his daughter.
This volume of Correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu - during the three decades of India's unparalleled Pilgrimage to Freedom - reflects the heart-throbs, emotions, visions, anxieties, and intimacy of two great highly evolved patriotic souls. All the same,, one cannot but marvel at the Guru's (Gandhiji's) exemplary candour (Appendix 11) and the Shisyaa's (Sarojini's) frankness.
Let me give but one instance of Sarojlni's similar relationship with her 'beloved brother Jawahar' when she felt impelled to caution him not to be carried away or influenced in his judgements by flatterers and time-servers:
"Don't be taken in by these pretty young women's interest in socialism. They have all got their eyes on your handsome looks, not in your ideology!"
She would not even spare herself. Here is an instance where she twitted herself.
In recognition of her poetic genius, a grateful people had hailed Sarojini Naidu from her early youth as Bulbul-e-Hind (Nightingale of India). During one of her visits to South Africa, the sedate Chairman of the reception meeting in Sarojini's honour referred to her as the 'Naughty Girl of India', evidently unconsciously mispronouncing her coveted title of Nightingale of India! She would repeat the story to her acquaintances with bewitching laughter.'
One of 20th Century's greatest women in public life
Sarojini Naidu was much more than a born poetess and leader. She was a glowing landmark in the saga of India's Pilgrimage to Freedom. She was so many things rolled into one: patriot, poetess, politician, jail-bird, perfect hostess and ideal house- wife, eloquent orator and inspirer of masses, maker and singer of melodious songs and upholder of reason. In fine, a many splendour integrated personality. She always upheld the ideal of "Indians first, Indians last, and Indians always" with a world vision, like Gandhi, her Master. She had more than a man's courage and yet she ever remained feminine to the core.
To Sum up
I venture to share the opinion of many well-known students of modern world history that Smt. Sarojini Naidu is by far one of the greatest women in public life of the twentieth century. True, Mrs. Eleanour Roosevelt of the United States, Madame Sun Yat Sen, and Madam Chiang Kai Sheik of China, India's Sint. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who was elected the first woman President of the United Nations in 1948, Smt. Srimayo Bhandarnaike of Sri Lanka, and our own Smt. Indira Gandhi, were, each of them, also world famous. But they, in a large measure, inherited their eminence from the lofty political status of their fathers, husbands, or brothers. However, Mrs. Golda Meir of Israel and Mrs. Margaret Thatcher of Britain, may be cited as exceptions. Sarojini Naidu was not born rich and had no god-father to back her up. Practically her whole public life was spent in an India groaning under imperial tutelage and suppression.
Here is an assessment of Smt. Sarojini Naidu by her fellow pilgrim Jawaharlal Nehru in India's Pilgrimage to Free dom:
This volume is a prayerful offering of 79 epistles exchanged between two great patriotic Indians and Citizens of the World.
Gandhiji's Fiftieth Punyatithi