The Indian poet and nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) became famous in India after her three small volumes of verse, published between 1905 and 1917, won critical acclaim in England.
Sarojini Chattopadhyay, later Naidu belonged to a Bengali family of Kulin Brahmins. But her father, Agorenath Chattopadhyay, after receiving a doctor of science degree from Edinburgh University, settled in Hyderabad State, where he founded and administered the Hyderabad College, which later became the Nizam's College.
Sarojini was the eldest of eight children and learned English at an early age. At 16 she was sent to England, where she studied at King's College, London, and at Girton College, Cambridge, without getting a degree. On her return to India in 1898, she married Govindarajulu Naidu, a medical doctor who belonged to a low caste. The marriage caused some consternation in orthodox Hindu society, but it was a happy marriage. Sarojini Naidu gave birth to two sons and two daughters.
Naidu's birth in a state which was ruled by the Moslem nizam and where the elite culture was strongly Islamic not only gave her some of the themes of her poetry but, in her political life, made her useful to Mohandas Gandhi in his efforts to heal Hindu-Moslem hostilities.
As a girl in England, Naidu became acquainted with two eminent English critics, Arthur Symons and Edmund Gosse. Gosse read some of her early poems, and although he found them "skillful in form, correct in grammar, and blameless in sentiment," he also felt they were Western in feeling and in imagery. 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 provinces."
There is no doubt that Sarojini Naidu made these changes in her work, but the tone of a bright, tender-hearted, Victorian girl, influenced by Tennyson, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, seems to linger in her work. In any event, she received serious recognition and much acclaim and was spoken of as the "nightingale of India" long after she had ceased to sing.
Naidu's poetry is lyrical and musical, using many types of meter and rhyme and filled with rich imagery. It deals with love and death, separation and longing, and the mystery of life, all important themes for poetry. There is much rhetorical gesturing, much longing for an ideal past or an ideal love. In the end the poetry tends to become monotonous and repetitive.
Naidu's claim to lasting fame will likely rest upon her distinguished career as a leader of the Indian nationalist movement. Her poetry was transmuted into oratory. She swayed audiences both in India and abroad with her speeches about India's struggle. In 1914 she met Gandhi in London and became one of his most trusted followers. She was one of the founders of the Women's India Association, in which she worked closely with Margaret E. Cousins and Annie Besant.
At the same time Naidu was active in the work of the Indian National Congress, of which she was named president in 1925. She was imprisoned five times during the independence movement. Gandhi sent her as his envoy to South Africa to help the Indians there against the oppressive acts of the South African government. She also was sent to the United States to refute, it is said, the bad publicity created by Katherine Mayo's sensational book Mother India.
In the frequently difficult relations with the Indian Moslem League, Naidu was deputed often to try to ease tensions, and she remained always a friend of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. In 1947, after the independence of India, she became the first governor of the state of Uttar Pradesh. She died on March 2, 1949, in the capital of the state, Lucknow.
Sarojini Naidu's three volumes of verse—The Golden Threshold, written in 1905; The Bird of Time, 1912; and The Broken Wing, 1917—were published in 1916 and 1917. The three books were combined in The Sceptred Flute (1928). Some later poems are included in The Feather of the Dawn (1961). The most detailed biography of Sarojini Naidu is Padmini Sengupta, Sarojini Naidu: A Biography (1966).