Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

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“Wild bees that rifle the mango blossom, / Set free awhile from the love-god’s string, / Wild birds that sway in the citron branches, / Drunk with the rich, red honey of spring, / Fireflies weaving aerial dances / In fragile rhythms of flickering gold, / What do you know in your blithe, brief season / Of dreams deferred and a heart grown old?”

Sarojini Naidu threw herself into the Indian struggle for independence and various women’s causes tied to the nationalist movement(Wikimedia Commons)
Sarojini Naidu threw herself into the Indian struggle for independence and various women’s causes tied to the nationalist movement(Wikimedia Commons)

Titled ‘A Song in Spring’, this poem of Sarojini Naidu is from the collection ‘The Sceptred Flute – Songs of India’. With her 145th birth anniversary (on 13th February) and 75th death anniversary (on 2nd March), it is time to pay homage to this fiery, fearless feminist whose lyrical words continue to weave a timeless web of beauty and joy, pain and sadness, patriotism and tragedy.

ALSO READ: Sarojini Naidu: Poetess, icon of freedom quest

Hindustan Times – your fastest source for breaking news! Read now.

“Hailed as the “Nightingale of India” for her remarkable lyrical and oratorical gifts,” wrote Sheshalatha Reddy in an essay titled, ‘The Cosmopolitan Nationalism of Sarojini Naidu, Nightingale of India: “Sarojini Naidu’s qualified acceptance by the literary and political establishments of both India and England has resulted in a near-canonization of her work. Yet the very lyricism that brought international recognition to her poetry simultaneously undermined Naidu’s status as a politician, making her seem less than fit for the weighty and masculine work of nation-building.”

Her cosmopolitanism was her identity: born into a privileged Bengali Brahmin family settled in Hyderabad. Her father Dr Aghorenath Chattopadhyay was a professor of science, the first Indian to be awarded a Doctor in Science degree in the UK. Their home was filled with poetry, which her mother wrote, and discussions on science and politics which the Doctor initiated; and eight children, each of whom grew up to contribute to the struggles for India’s freedom.

ALSO READ: Interesting facts about the ‘Nightingale of India’

When she was barely 12 years old, with her poetic genius already recognised, Sarojini topped in her matriculation exam and was awarded a scholarship by the Nizam of Hyderabad, to study at King’s College, London and later Girton College, Cambridge. Three years in the UK, from 1895 to 1898, Sarojini interacted with artists and aesthetes, poets, and writers, and continued writing poetry.

It was only after she returned to India that she broke the conventional mold twice. First, when she announced her ‘inter-caste marriage’ to Govindaraju Naidu, a doctor whom she met in England; it was scandalous for those times but the parents did not object.

Second, she threw herself into the Indian struggle for independence and various women’s causes tied to the nationalist movement, such as women’s suffrage, by taking on the rhetorical role of representative Indian woman for Indian women.

“Not only did she ‘sing’ for the nation, she spoke on its behalf in public forums around the world (including South Africa, England, France, and the United States) as an ambassador and spokeswoman of Indian nationalism. Naidu also acted in an official capacity as the first female Indian president of the Indian National Congress in 1925 and the appointed governor of the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh, in 1947,” explained Sheshalatha Reddy, drawing up the illustrious time-line of Sarojini Naidu’s political career.

“O Death, am I so purposeless a thing / Shall my soul falter or my body fear / Its point hour of bitter suffering, / Or fail ere I achieve my destined deed / Of song or service for my country’s need?” To read ‘Death and Life’ is to feel Sarojini Naidu managing the political and poetic, being the nationalist and yet aware of international ideas and events, of being a woman in a colonial world where biases and misperceptions were commonplace.

Her patriotism is unflinching; her words eloquently strong: “’Tis mine to carry the banner of song, / The tidings of joy when Peace shall triumph, / When Trust shall conquer and Love prevail.”

When addressing a group of men in 1903, she proclaimed her unifying Indian nationalism with characteristic flamboyance and authenticity: “I was born in Bengal. I belong to the Madras Presidency. In a Muhammadan city [Hyderabad] I was brought up and married, and there I lived; still, I am neither a Bengali, nor a Madrasi, nor a Hyderabadi, but I am an Indian, not a Hindu, not a Brahmin, but an Indian to whom my Muhammadan brother is as dear and as precious as my Hindu brother.” Reddy quotes from the Collected Speeches of Sarojini Naidu; safe to presume the applause from the college-going men must have been thunderous.

On 3 March, 1943 with the passing away of Sarojini Naidu, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his speech at the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi. He said, “It has been my painful duty to refer from time to time to the passing away of the illustrious sons and daughters of India…we say often enough that it will be difficult to replace them, that they are irreplaceable. But, today, I would like to refer to the passing away early yesterday morning of one about whom it can be said with absolute truth that it is impossible to replace her or to find her like.”

Sarojini Naidu, Nehru said, “was for the last year and a half the Governor of a great province with many problems and she acted as Governor with exceeding ability and exceeding success as can be judged from the fact that every one in that province, from the Premier and his Ministers and Government to the various groups and classes and religious communities down to the worker and the peasant in the field, had been drawn to her and had found a welcome in her heart. What she was exactly it is a little difficult for me to say, because she had become almost a part of us, a part of our national heritage of today and a part of us individuals who had the great privilege of being associated with her for a multitude of years in our struggle for freedom and in our work.”

The ‘Nightingale of India’ had flown into eternity.

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