Show Summary Details

Page of
<p>Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see <a href="https://global.oup.com/privacy" target="_blank">Privacy Policy</a> and <a href="/page/legal-notice" target="_blank">Legal Notice</a>).</span></p><p>date: 18 July 2019</p>

Naidu [née Chattopadhyay], Sarojinifree

(1879–1949)
  • Tapan Raychaudhuri

Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949)

by unknown photographer, 1930 [[Left to right] Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) and Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949 ), during the salt march]

Naidu [née Chattopadhyay], Sarojini (1879–1949), politician and poet, born on 13 February 1879 in Hyderabad, was the second child and eldest daughter of Aghornath Chattopadhyay (Chatterji; 1851–1915) and his wife, Baradasundari, otherwise Varada Devi. Her younger brother, Virendranath (Chatto) Chattopadhyaya, became a noted Indian nationalist and communist. Their father, a DSc of Edinburgh University, came from a family of Sanskrit scholars of east Bengal and was a bon viveur with a wide range of interests which included literature (Western and Indian) and alchemy. As principal of Nizam's College, Hyderabad, he developed an empathy with Indo-Islamic culture, and his ardent patriotism at times got him into trouble with the authorities. His wife was a skilled musician and dancer. Between them they created a joyous home imbued with high culture. Sarojini was deeply influenced by her father and the environment at home. Educated more at home than at school, she became a celebrity when at the age of twelve she stood first in the matriculation examination of Madras University. The following year she wrote a long poem in English modelled on Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake. A volume of her poems was published in 1895. She had been sent to England in 1895 on a scholarship granted by the nizam and spent three years at King's College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge. Always opposed to structured education, she did not take any degree but acquired two important literary friends, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons. The former advised her to give up imitating English romantic poetry and try instead 'to be a genuinely Indian poet'. Sarojini took this advice to heart and began to write verses with an exclusively Indian background. The very lush poems which resulted were first published in a volume entitled The Golden Threshold (1905). In his introduction to the volume Gosse described her as India's most accomplished poet, at least among those writing in English.

Following her return to India Sarojini married Dr Govindarajulu Naidu in December 1898, with whom she had fallen in love as a teenager. The marriage, registered under the Act III of 1872, was a civil marriage and ‘progressive’ on several counts—a marriage of love, between individuals belonging to different castes and linguistic cultures. The couple had two sons and two daughters. Their Hyderabad home was described by a friend as an expression of perfect artistic taste.

From 1903 Sarojini Naidu entered the public phase of her career without abjuring her poetic pursuits. Between that year and 1917, she came into close contact with some of the most illustrious figures of India's political and cultural life—Gokhale, Tagore, Mrs Besant, Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1904 she attended the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress and by 1909 she had emerged as a political leader of the first rank, thanks to Gokhale's patronage and her prominent role in the 1907 Calcutta meeting condemning the partition of Bengal. Besides, she had participated in the Madras conference on widow remarriage in 1908, beginning thereby to play a prominent role in the women's movement. She was awarded the kaisar-i-Hind medal by the government for her services during a plague epidemic. Her socially radical views were given a practical expression when she participated in the All-India Depressed Classes conference. Her concern for Hindu–Muslim unity made her a great admirer of M. A. Jinnah, whom she first met in 1919.

But the one encounter which changed Naidu's life was her meeting with Gandhi in 1915. Nationalist politics rather than poetry now became her dominant concern. In 1925 she presided over the Cawnpore session of the Indian National Congress. In 1928 she went to the USA as an unofficial ambassador of the nationalist movement and pleaded the cause of Indian independence in a very effective lecture tour from coast to coast. In 1930 she was arrested for her participation in the civil disobedience movement. She was also one of the hand-picked group of followers who accompanied Gandhi on the famous Dandi march to violate the British government's salt laws. In 1931 she participated in the round-table conference in London. She was appointed governor of United Provinces, India's largest state, in 1947, and died there while she was still holding that office on 1 February 1949. She was cremated three days later.

Sarojini Naidu was an outstanding example of India's pioneering women who achieved a high level of education, championed the rights of women, participated in the struggle for independence, and contributed to many areas of national life. She was a person of great charm, with a strong sense of humour. Her opposition to colonial rule notwithstanding, she, like Nehru, was deeply influenced by English culture, and English was in effect her mother tongue. The cosmopolitan ambiance of her paternal home had given her a sense of empathy with the grand tradition of Indo-Islamic culture, and one of her dominant concerns in public life was the achievement of Hindu–Muslim unity. The partition of India and the communal violence which accompanied it tarnished for her, as for many others in her generation, the sense of fulfilment when India became free.

Sources

  • P. Sengupta, Sarojini Naidu: a biography (1966)
  • M. E. Cousins, The awakening of Asian womanhood (1922)
  • T. Zinkin, Reporting India (1962)
  • S. Naidu, The golden threshold (1905)

Archives

  • BL OIOC, letters and papers, MS Eur. A 95
  • Nehru Museum, New Delhi
  • National Archives of India, New Delhi, Home Department files

Film

  • IWM FVA, documentary footage
  • Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi, films division, documentary footage

Sound

  • IWM SA, oral history interviews

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1930, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • portrait, Indian Parliament Building, New Delhi, India
  • portrait, Raj Bhavan, Lucknow, India