Sarojini Naidu was more than one of the bravest Indians who fought for freedom from the British. Sarojini was a great poet, an advocate for women’s rights, an outspoken voice of reason and humanism, and a loving daughter, wife, and mother. She combined many activities with cheerful energy and was a modern Indian decades before anyone else.
A key feature of Sarojini’s early life is her exposure to different cultures and people in India and Britain. Sarojini was born in 1879 to a Bengali family living in Hyderabad. Her father had a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University, and her mother wrote Bengali poems. Her brothers and sisters were all creative, and the family encouraged her to develop her talents freely.
A precocious child, Sarojini completed schooling in Chennai when she was only 12 years old, and that too stood first in her class. At 16, she went to Britain and studied at King’s College, London. She joined the suffragette movement fighting for women’s right to vote.
At 19, she returned to India and married Govindarajulu Naidu, a doctor. Naidu was from Andhra Pradesh, and this inter-caste marriage was called scandalous. However, Sarojini did not care, and she and Govindarajulu remained happily married with four children till Sarojini died in 1949.
The Freedom Struggle
While continuously writing poetry, starting in 1904, Sarojini also became involved in the freedom movement. In addition, she was a great orator and was asked to speak at many gatherings, including at the Indian National Congress in 1906.
Sarojini was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, with who she forged a close partnership in the freedom movement. While a firm believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s Non Violent struggle, she also stood up to him on some issues. In particular, she influenced Mahatma Gandhi to change his views on the participation of women in the freedom struggle.
When Mahatma Gandhi began his Salt March in 1930, he did not want women to participate. However, Sarojini was part of a small group of women who persuaded him that they could do as much as the men. Mahatma Gandhi agreed and found Sarojini so effective that he made Sarojini the new leader of the Salt March when he was arrested.
Sarojini became the first woman president of the Indian National Congress, founded the All India Women’s Conference, and contributed tremendously to India’s freedom.
Sarojini became India’s first woman governor (of Uttar Pradesh) in 1947 but died in 1949 at the age of 70.
Through all her public work, Sarojini remained creatively involved as a poet. She wrote for a wide audience and on many themes, serious and playful. One of her best poems was dedicated to India and titled “Awake.” The poem applies as much today as when it was written in 1917. In it, she urges the people of India to awake to their destiny and to work for harmony and peace for all. The first stanza of this beautiful poem is reproduced below:
“Waken, O mother! thy children implore thee,
Who kneel in thy presence to serve and adore thee!
The night is aflush with a dream of the morrow,
Why still dost thou sleep in thy bondage of sorrow?
Awaken and sever the woes that enthrall us,
And hallow our hands for the triumphs that call us!”