Naidu, Sarojini 1879-1949
Indian poet, lecturer, and politician.
Naidu is remembered as a virtuoso of English metrical forms and romantic imagery in her poetry, which she wrote in English. Her mastery of such difficult poetic constructs as the dactylic prompted the English writers Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons to praise her work widely and develop friendships with her. Equally concerned with India’s freedom movement and women’s rights as with writing poetry, Naidu became a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and lectured on behalf of Indian independence throughout India, Africa, the United States, and Canada.
Her political career reached its peak when she was elected the first woman governor of the United Provinces in 1947.
Naidu was born into a high-caste Bengali family in 1879. Her father, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, became, after obtaining his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a distinguished scholar and linguist who founded two Indian colleges, one for women. Naidu’s mother, Varada Sundari, was a minor poet and noted singer.
Naidu began writing poetry as a child and at the age of twelve passed the matriculation examination for the University of Madras. As a teenager, Naidu fell in love with Govindarajulu Naidu, a doctor who was neither Bengali nor of the Brahmin caste. Hoping to prevent their daughter from marrying outside her social group, her parents sent her to England in 1895. There Naidu attended King’s College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge, where she further developed her poetic style and became friends with such well-known English critics and writers as Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, who helped her to refine her work. In 1898 Naidu returned to India and married Govindarajulu Naidu despite her family’s disapproval. Because of her family’s high status, Naidu had access to many of the most prominent thinkers, writers, and political figures of India’s modern intellectual renaissance. Her first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in England in 1905; with an introduction by Arthur Symons. The book was well-received, and Naidu was encouraged to continue publishing her work until 1917, when she abruptly stopped. At this point, Naidu became active in Indian politics. She had met Gandhi in 1914 and soon decided to join him in the struggle for Indian independence. Naidu’s first cause as a political activist was women’s rights; she traveled throughout India lecturing on women’s educational needs and promoting suffrage, and became the first woman to hold several prominent positions in the Indian government. In 1925 she was elected President of the Indian National Congress, and during the 1920s traveled throughout Africa and North America campaigning for Indian independence. Naidu was arrested and imprisoned for revolutionary activities several times during her career. In 1947-when independence was achieved-Naidu was elected acting governor of the United Provinces. She died in 1949.
Naidu’s early poetry evidences the strong Western influence of her Brahmin upbringing. Crafting poems in traditional English metrical forms, she concentrated primarily on Western themes and images. Edmund Gosse, upon reading her work when he met her in London, recognized Naidu’s potential but encouraged her to incorporate Indian subjects into her work. Naidu followed Gosse’s advice, and her first volume, The Golden Threshold, combines traditional poetic forms with lush images of India. The book achieved popular and critical success in England, where Edwardian readers admired Naidu’s deft handling of the English language as well as the native view of Indian exotica it offered them. Naidu’s second collection of poems, The Bird of Time (1912), confronted more serious themes such as death and grief as well as containing poems expressing Naidu’s patriotism and religious convictions. Gosse provided the forward to this volume, noting Naidu’s rich exploration of complex issues in delicate, romantic language. In her third volume, The Broken Wing (1917), Naidu included more poems of patriotism and description of Indian culture. More important, The Broken Wing contains the work many critics consider Naidu’s greatest poetic achievement, “The Temple: A Pilgrimage of Love.” A series of twenty-four poems, “The Temple” explores the joys, pain, and vagaries of a mature love relationship in graphic, sometimes violent, imagery, and concludes in a meditation on death. The Broken Wing was the last volume of poetry published in Naidu’s lifetime.
Many critics have wondered about the reason for her apparently sudden departure from literary pursuits to political involvement. Some speculate that her popularity dwindled, particularly in England, when she moved away from the flowery, romantic style of her early poetry to a comparatively morbid and contemplative tone in her later work. Others contend that her preoccupation with patriotic themes caused readers to lose interest. In 1961 Naidu’s daughter published a collection of her previously unpublished poems, The Feather of the Dawn, but it met with little critical interest. Her poetry has since undergone reevaluation by Indian critics, many of whom regard her as one of India’s greatest twentieth-century poets.