Published: Saturday, December 21, 2013
The world of Sarojini Naidu
Nazma Yeasmeen Haque
This is the first segment of a comprehensive essay on the celebrated Indian poet and politician who remains a point of reference in the history of the Indian subcontinent. — Literary Editor
Francis Bacon, philosopher and great essayist of the sixteenth century, once spoke thus about the classification of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; That is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.”
sorojini naiduSarojini Naidu: A Biography (by Padmini Sengupta and published by Asian Publishing House, India in 1966) falls in the last category. Furthermore, this in one of those books that inspire a reader to know more and more about a person whose life and work have been narrated in every dimension powerfully and in such amazing detail. Padmini Sengupta has known Sarojini Naidu closely and combined with her high erudition, she has very ably taken the readers on a journey into the tumultuous period of history of which the protagonist was an integral and inseparable part. So overwhelming and arduous has been her task that she comments, “Though I know I am inadequate to portray so magnificent a character, I have at least fulfilled my deep desire to write this biography, and to depict a great and good character to the present and future generations of India … . It is impossible for one individual to do justice to a personality which presented so many scintillating facets to the world, and there must be many features of her fife which I have not been alike to probe into or fathom…..”
Padmini Sengupta’s portrayal of Sarojini Naidu as she evolves into a great leader next to Mahatma Gandhi in British ruled India unfolds her life the way a bud blooms into a full grown flower. One feels as if every petal opens up at a time and is distinct in its own colour and fragrance, depicting her multi-dimensional personality. Sarojini Naidu is neatly and beautifully divided into six long parts, each of which is crowned with a quotation — the great leader’s poetry, which is a unique style for opening each part. Sengupta herself manifests a poet’s mind as she names the parts by choosing words that are lyrical from Sarojini Naidu’s poetry. Part one entitled The Pulse of the Morning commences with a verse from her second book of poetry called The Bird of Time, published in 1912. The verse narrates the beauty and splendor of spring and therefore is called The Joy of Springtime.
Both Naidu’s father Aghorenath and mother Varada Sundari were highly talented. That Sarojini was to be a renowned poet pulsating with emoting and ideas not only in her creative work of literary purists but also bring those down to her cherished and broader goal of working for her motherland was very natural as her father was not only a scientist of fame both at home and abroad but also a distinguished poet both in Urdu and Bengali. Sarojini was much admired for the tonal quality of her voice, which assuredly was a gift she inherited from her mother, who was a renowned singer. When she was a girl at school in a village in east Bengal she is said to have won the Viceroy’s Gold Medal for singing. Varada Sundari also wrote beautiful lyrics in Bengali. Such was the atmosphere in their home, where “ there was music, drama and verse, dreaming of great achievement, building of fantastic castles, and above all, the human touch, always present, of catering to friends, rich or poor, beggar or prince. And home, in this rich and artistic background was born and bred Sarojini, together with her brothers and sisters.”
Hers was a home where one could hear a number of languages. Although it was a Bengali family, Sarojini and her siblings never spoke Bengali. In fact, Sarojini could never read Bengali. The atmosphere at home was enriched with multiple elements, among which a profusion of languages used was one. Sarojini showed early signs of being a dreamer, a nature lover, lover of colours and bright hues. “She was not only colourful herself, but brought and took colour with her wherever she went. Sapphire and gold, scarlet and blue, topaz and saffron, red and purple, these hues and all the colours of the rainbow lit up her poetry, her lectures, her witty repartee at the many soirees and interviews she held, her letters and conversation.”
naiduTwo events from Sarojini Chattopadhyaya’s childhood are worth narrating, for they are as fascinating as her whole life whether during normal times or in pleasure or pain. As a child she was rather reluctant to learn English (which later on joyfully became her ‘own’ tongue) that her father Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya wanted her to be proficient in. Getting punished for the apparent indifference, later on she started learning it and “spoke to her parents only in English through her mother spoke back to her in Hindustani.” Another event in her pre-teenage is more interesting. Being a serious scientist, although a distinguished poet in Urdu and Bengali, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya wanted Sarojini to be a great mathematician or a scientist. She writes, “One day, when I was eleven, I was sighing over a sum in Algebra: it wouldn’t come right, but instead a whole poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down. From that day my poetic career began.”
While in Cambridge at a young age, Sarojini Chattopadhyaya was fortunate to have come in contact with renowned critics like Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, both of whom were impressed by her verses written while she was still in her teens and extended their guidance to have her fully bloom as a poet. Having gone through her poems, Edmund Gosse commented, “The verses which Sarojini had entrusted to me were skilful in form, correct in grammar and blameless in sentiment, but they had the disadvantage of being totally without individuality “… He could hear the mocking bird of English poets in them and so he advised her to “set her poems firmly among the mountains, the gardens, the temples, to introduce to us the vivid populations of her own voluptuous, and unfamiliar province; in other words, to be a genuine Indian poet of the Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English classics.”
Sarojini ‘immediately accepted’ Gosse’s advice and took to writing verses in that light. Soon three of her collections of poetry, The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken Wing (1917), appeared and drew much appreciation both at home and abroad for which Sarojini gave the credit to Gosse for showing her the way. Gosse describes his first meeting with Sarojini as follows: “When Sarojini Chattopadhyaya — as she then was — first made her appearance in London, she was a child of sixteen years, but as unlike the usual English maiden of that age as a lotus or a cactus is unlike a lily of the valley. She was already marvelous in mental maturity, amazingly well-read, and far beyond a Western child in all her acquaintance with the world.”
This is certainly one of the best compliments Sarojini ever got from her mentor and spoke volumes of her intellectual abilities. Her early poems were mostly lyrical, romantic in nature, with an element of music in them. Nevertheless she was always preoccupied with the thought of going beyond it and there lay her ecstasy for doing something for the people, for her country when she was still young. Advised by Edmund Gosse, Sarojini next based her writings on the magnificent environs of Hyderabad, her hometown in her childhood days and also after she got married. She was fascinated by the Muslim culture in all its aspects and that is probably how she developed her passion for Hindu-Muslim unity, which first grew at her father’s house, a home that was open to all. She says about her home town: “The tradition of Islam has truly been carried out for two hundred years, that tradition of democracy that knows how out of its legislation to give equal rights and privileges to all communities whose destinies it controls.” Elsewhere she says, “The first accents I heard were in the tongue of the Amir of Kusru. All my early association were formed with the Mussalman men and Mussalman women of my city. My first playmates were Mussalman children.” Thus “she steeped herself in Islamic poetry and culture.” She found the ‘lyric genius of Islam’ in Rumi, which she described as immortal. She is so much engrossed in her birthplace that she says:
She how the speckled sky burns like a pigeon’s throat
Jewelled with embers of opal and peridote .
See the white river that flashes and scintillates,
Curved like a tusk from the mouth of the city gates.
She further describes her favourite river Musi and its surroundings where one must
Hark, from the minaret, how the Muezzin’s call
Floats like a battle-flag over the city of wall.
Although Sarojini Naidu was in the forefront of the struggle for the emancipation of women, a cause for which she wandered the length and breadth of her country relentlessly, she nurtured her penchant for the beautiful women behind the ‘purdah world’ in their exotic surroundings. She spoke of these women as living “in a world within a world.” She was so profoundly fascinated by colour, beauty, grandeur and the serenity of things and people around her that she all her life she remained an aesthete and a connoisseur, a quality that she brought on to her goal of life, that is, into politics. Her life has been thus exemplary of a philosophy that underlines virtues in the making of good. In the some vein she has given expression to her sentiment regarding the custom of suttee (immolating oneself along with one’s deceased husband) in one of her poems. She praised the women’s love for their husbands and then again questioned if men of today deserve this or not. Although one may sense an apparent contradiction in her feelings and her mission in life, nevertheless one can understand it if one looks at it in a practical way, which is only so human. Sengupta wonders and, along with her we, the readers, ask: what made Sarojini Naidu so great? Rather the question could have been: who moulded her into being what she eventually became? She led a contented life in marriage. Her greatest joy lay in the fact that “her husband realised her genius, not only as a poet but as on orator. He allowed her freely to develop both these talents, for despite revelling in her home life, there seemed to have been longings within her which she could not satisfy, and for which she was compelled to have an outlet.”
What a gift he was in Sarojini’s life! Many a woman in that period and more so in the present-day world would undoubtedly envy her. Bubbling over with energy, enthusiasm, conviction of life culminating in the unity of people of all religions, castes and creeds, she transcended the barrier of being a patriot only to become an internationalist.
Dr. Nazma Yeasmeen Haque is an educationist, critic and music enthusiasthttp://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/the-world-of-sarojini-naidu/