DOES the GenNext know who Sarojini Naidu is or what she should mean to us? In a discreet, personal poll conducted, one realised that not many had heard of her and those who had had dim understanding of what she stood for. That, one supposes, is par for the course. And to think that time was when she was practically a household name, famous as a poet, freedom-fighter, a close friend of Gopala Krishna Gokhale and after his passing away of Mahatma Gandhi and his younger collegues like Jawaharlal Nehru.
Not many again know that following independence, she was appointed Governor of one of the largest provinces in India, the United Province (subsequently to be known as Uttar Pradesh) to become the first woman to hold such a post. Equally, or perhaps more importantly, she had earlier been elected president of the India National Congress in 1925, following the Mahatma’s own presidentship a year earlier. Her distinction, however, was more of that of a poet in English, though born and brought up as the daughter of a Bengali Brahmo Samajist, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, an educationist of repute in Hyderabad, and was proficient in Persian, Urdu and Telugu. She was born in February 1879, was a contemporary of some of the most distinguished men and women of those times, and passed away in March 1949. In those seventy years she made history of sorts. Though she participated in the fight for independence as a Congress member and invited imprisonment, in the end she will probably be best remembered as a poet and a feminist who also fought for Women’s Rights and, above all, for Hindu-Muslim unity, at a time when it was much talked about.
There haven’t been many books on her life and times, and this present work is the third, following the publication of two earlier short ‘biographies’, one by Naravane and another by Virender Grover and Ranjana Arora, the latter as recently as 1998. The latter is less a biography in the true sense of the term and more an anthology of articles some written by her and many on her, making a total of 103, Paranjape’s work is a collection of many of her poems and some of her speeches made over the years, consisting mostly of Convocation Addresses and speeches given on different occasions, with an excellent and critical introduction.
Sarojini’s prose compares poorly with her poetry, but both are recognised for their emotional warmth and extravagant and high-faluting vocabulary. Sarojini comes through as a fragile woman, but an indomitable spirit, forward-minded and always open to new ideas, self-disciplined, optimistic, forward-looking and utterly free from prejudice of caste, creed, race, gender, nationality and religion, determined to fight for the cause of Indian women but above all for Hindu-Muslim unity. She was famous for her wit and humour, for her capacity to laugh at herself and such was her closeness to Mahatma Gandhi that she could call him Micky Mouse and a man on whom riches had to be spent to keep him poor.
In many ways she was one of her kind. Paranjape does not, in his admiration for Sarojini let her off lightly. He notes sharply that she had no original ideas and never was a “prime mover” but concedes that because of her status, she could lend any cause she advocated “legitimacy and acceptance”. To him she was more of a “figure head” than a real leader.
Paranjape describes Sarojini as a “die-hard bourgeois liberal”, a “faithful espouser of her party line” but politics really was not her forte though she was very much in the picture as a confirmed fighter for freedom. Her real concerns were education of women in which she was genuinely interested. She wrote her poetry when she was young, but gave up the task in her middle and later years. Paranjape describes her aesthetics as feudal, which is an odd description. Her poems were lyrical with a “heightening of sensuality in the imagery, until every sense is stimulated to excess”. Sadly, few textbooks published in India on poetry carry her poems, though her last collection of poems, The Golden Threshold when published was most favourably reviewed both in the Indian, and especially in the British press. She was told early in her poetic career that she must not use English themes but restrict herself purely to Indian subjects. Thus her poems mostly have an ‘Indian’ content like Palanquin Bearers, Wandering Singers, Indian Weavers, Indian Love Song, Suttee, Vasanta Panchami, Champaa Blossoms. The purely Indian character of her poems comes through clearly and unmistakeably, as in:
“Now shall I garland thy tresses? With pearls from the jessamine close; How shall I perfume thy fingers? With th’ soul of the keora and rose”.
It is over sixty years since Sarojini passed away. In the memory of her admirers and devotees she continues to remain an icon who, in the context of her time, showed that were there is a will, there is a way and that the land of Ahalya, Dranpadi, Sita and Tara not to speak of Rani Laxmi of Jhansi can produce a Sarojini as well. Praise be to her.
(Rupa & Co, 7/16, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110 002, www.rupapublication.com)