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SAROJINI NAIDU (1879–1949)

Sarojini was a poet and freedom fighter. She was born on 13 February 1879, at Hyderabad. Her father, Aghorenath Chattopadhyay, was a brilliant scientist, a linguist and scholar. He established the Nizam’s College in 1878, a pioneering women’s educational institute. Sarojini began to write aged eleven. She passed her Matriculation at the age of twelve and went to King’s College, London and later to Girton College, Cambridge. She married, against the wishes of her supposedly liberal family, Dr Govindarajulu Naidu in 1898 under the Brahmo Marriage Act, as he was a non-brahmin. They had four children and lived in their famous home, ‘The Golden Threshold’ in Hyderabad. Her daughter was Padmaja Naidu (q.v.).

After her experience in the suffragist campaign in England, she was drawn to the Congress and the Non-Cooperation Movement. In 1908, she addressed a conference on widow remarriage in Madras. Along with Annie Besant she lectured all over India on the welfare of youth, dignity of labour, women’s emancipation and nationalism. The main mission of her life was Hindu-Muslim unity and a secular India. From 1917 to 1919 was the most dynamic phase of her career as a public figure. She campaigned with regard to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, the Khilafat issue, the Rowlatt or ‘Black Bills’, the Sabarmati Pact and the Satyagraha Pledge. She was Gandhi’s most faithful lieutenant when he launched the Civil Disobedience Movement on April 6, 1919, continuing the work after he was imprisoned, although she could also good-naturedly criticise what she considered his more impractical ideas. She returned the Kaiser-i-Hind medal, which the British Raj had awarded her for her outstanding work during the plague epidemic. In 1924 she travelled to South Africa to care for the interests of fellow Indians there, and became president of the Congress the following year, 1925. Her anti-British activities sent her to prison in 1930-32 for being re-elected as Congress president after it had been declared an illegal institution, and again in 1942–43. She accompanied Gandhi to the inconclusive Second Round Table Conference held in 1931 in London. She was a great peacemaker. She organised the ‘National Week’ in 1940, virtually running the whole Congress campaign at this stage.

In 1945 she served as a member of the Constituent Assembly from Bihar. After Independence, she brought grace to the office of the UP state Governor. She presided over the Asian Relations Conference in 1947. She died while in office, at Lucknow, at the age of 70. Her first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905. It was followed by The Bird of Time (1912), The Broken Wing (1917), The Sceptre and the Flute (1928) and The Feather of the Dawn (1961). In 1914 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Reena Jain
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