by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: July 1, 2002
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014
Known as the "Ccuckoo of India", Sarojini Devi was a distinguished poet, renowned
freedom fighter and one of the great orators of her time. Her father Aghoranath
Chattopadhyaya was a good scholar of Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Persian and
English languages. He was the principal of The Nizam's College at Hyderabad, now capital of Andhra
Pradesh. Sarojini's mother Varadasundari Devi wrote poetry in Bengali and knew
Sanskrit. Sarojini was the eldest among their eight children. All the children grew
learning and speaking besides Bengali, their mother-tongue, Urdu, Telugu and
English. One of her brothers Birendranath was a revolutionary and spent his life
outside India all the time for fear of getting extradited for sedition and black waters.
Other brother Harindranath was a poet, dramatist and actor.
K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Portrait of Sarojini Naidu
Picture from the 1938 Congress Convention Volume
Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)
Nizam's Hyderabad at that time had made no progress in women's education.
Hence Sarojini was sent to Madras for schooling. She topped the matriculation
examination at the age of twelve, raising innumerable eyebrows. Women's college
eagerly awaited for her entry but she returned to Hyderabad due to frail
She had started writing poetry in English by then, and the Nizam, very much
impressed by her brilliance offered her a scholarship to study in England. She
did not appreciate the stiff and mechanical life in the British university
(Cambridge). Her health was also delicate and she had to bid goodbye to higher
education. But she undertook journey through entire Europe, read art books and
continued writing poetry. She met English authors Arthur Simon and Edmond Gausse.
It was Gausse who convinced Sarojini to stick to Indian themes--India's great
mountains, rivers, temples, social milieu, to express her poetry. "To be a
genuine Indian poet of Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English
classics" as was the trend. He helped to bloom her poetic talent. "The
golden threshold (1905)", "The bird of time (1912)", and
"The broken wing (1912)" were the collections which attracted huge
Indian and English readership.
She depicted contemporary Indian life and events. Snake charmers, beggars,
fishermen, widows, bangle sellers, milkmaids, palanquin bearers, etc., which
became immensely popular.
A brahmin, she married Govindarajulu Naidu, a non-brahmin, and a doctor by profession, with the
concurrence of her parents -- a revolutionary step in that conservative age. They
had a happy married life and four children.
Role in India's Freedom Movement
India's freedom struggle was in full force and she came under the influence of Gopalakrishna
Gokhale and Gandhi. Gokhale advised her to spare all her energy and talents for
nation's cause. She gave up writing poetry and fully devoted herself to
emancipation of women, education, Hindu-Muslim unity etc. She became a follower
of Gandhiji and accompanied him to England. Whenever in England, she openly criticized
British rule in India which caught the attention of scholars and intellectuals.
Towards Gandhi, Sarojini had both respect and mischief. She was famous for
wit and humor, and called Gandhi "Mickey Mouse." because of his
frail structure. She has an amusing
narration of her first meeting with Gandhiji in England. "A little man with
a shaven head ...eating a messy meal of squashed tomatoes and olive oil out of a
wooden bowl" she burst instinctively into happy laughter. Gandhi lifted his
eyes. "Ah! You must be Mrs. Naidu! Who else dare be so irreverent? Come and
share my meal!" he is reported to have said.
Her joke "It costs a lot to keep Gandhi poor!" is well-known.
She presided over the annual session of Indian National Congress at Kanpur
(1925). It was a great honor. The president was all powerful and had to work out
many constructive projects for the entire country for full one year. She earned
a name as a remarkable organizer with originality and dash. She had a leading
role in Salt Satyagraha and consecutive struggles. She was jailed with Gandhiji and
other leaders. She was President of National Women's' Conference for many years
and could train many volunteers who took up women's cause.
She was appointed Governor of Uttara Pradesh, a large province of
India, as soon as India became independent. "I
am a Governess!" she used to joke.
Sarojini had very fine aesthetic sense and was known for selection of
exquisite silks and jewelry. But she gave up everything for the sake of national
struggle and began to wear coarse Khadi.
Sarojini Naidu Spinning Yarn
Detail from a picture postcard c. 1945
Tryst with destiny
Introduction | Tryst With
Destiny | Brief
Mutiny | Indian National
The People | The Events