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.
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:-
"I say it is not your pride that you are a Madrasi, it is not your pride that you a Brahmin, it is not your pride that you belong to South India, it is not your pride that you are a Hindu, that it is your pride that you are an Indian". "But this must transcend even national borders and extend to humanity because if ideas be only for the prosperity of your country, it would end where it began, by being a prophet to your own community and very probably to your own self."
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 stars and
hills for witness and in their presence
consecrate your life and your talent,
your song and your speech,
your thought and your dream to the Motherland.
O Poet, see visions from the hill tops
and spreads abroad the message of hope
to the toilers in the valley."
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
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.
Sarojini Naidu was elected to preside over the Kanpur Session of the Indian National Congress in 1925, a year after the Belgaum Congress in 1924 which was presided over by Mahatma Gandhi. She was again called upon to wear the "crown of thorns" - as Gandhiji described the Congress Presidentship - over the stormy AICC session at Calcutta in 1938, following the Haripura Congress in 1937 for which Subhas Bose was elected the
President against the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi. She conducted the tense
deliberations with commendable tact, understanding and firmness. Jawaharlal
Nehru also tried hard to patch up the difference. From the Presidential Chair, Sarojini Naidu appealed to Subhas Bose in the following words:
"We are all anxious that Mr. Bose should continue as the President of the Indian National Congress and lead the destinies of the Congress. We desire to cooperate with him. We desire his cooperation with us. We desire to express that the President of the Congress is not a nonentity. He is the true interpreter of the declared policy and programme of the Congress. We shall all give the necessary cooperation to Mr. Bose for the achievement of our goal".
Yet, Subhas Babu refused to withdraw his resignation. He 'wanted unity of action, and not unity of inaction". In the midst of stormy scenes, with characteristic firmness but without prevarication, Sarojini Naidu declared:
'I consider this House is competent to elect another President for the
remaining period, of the year". This clinched the issue and the Congress
caravan marched on. Thereupon Dr. Rajendra Prasad was elected the Congress
President amidst cries of 'Mahatma ki Jai', and counter-shouts of Bose
loyalists, 'Shame, Shame'. But she took it all in her stride.
As a very discerning foreign analyst had written of our freedom struggle,
"Gandhi gave the Congress inspiration, Jawaharial broadened its vision and
imagination, Rajagopalachari sharpened its intellect and analytical faculty,
Rajendra Prasad gave it purity, Vallabhbhai Patel gave it efficiency, a
sense of throughness and power and Sarojini Naidu gave it GRACE".
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".
On May 4, 1915 Gandhiji writes back to her, addressing her as "My dear , sister' again, and this goes on for some years but strangely enough Sarojini continues to treat him as a -friend'. Her letter dated 14 June 1919 is addressed to "My dear friend" and ends with a paragraph that says : "And so my friend, whom I am proud to call my leader and guide, namaskar."
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
"She began life as a poet, in later
years when the compulsion of events drew into the national struggle, she
plunged into it with all the zest and fire she possessed.... whose whole
life became a poem and a song and who infused artistry and grace in the
national struggle, just as Mahatma Gandhi had infused moral grandeur to
This volume is a prayerful offering of 79 epistles exchanged between two
great patriotic Indians and Citizens of the World.
Gandhiji's Fiftieth Punyatithi
Martyrdom Day, January 30, 1998