Sarojini Naidu

Nightingale of India

Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu. Imagno/Getty Images

Sarojini Naidu Facts:

Known for: poems published 1905-1917; campaign to abolish purdah; first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress (1925), Gandhi's political organization; after independence, she was appointed governor of Uttar Pradesh; she called herself a "poetess-singer"
Occupation: poet, feminist, politician
Dates: February 13, 1879 - March 2, 1949
Also known as: Sarojini Chattopadhyay; the Nightingale of India (Bharatiya Kokila)

Quote: "When there is oppression, the only self-respecting thing is to rise and say this shall cease today, because my right is justice." 

Sarojini Naidu Biography:

Sarojini Naidu was born in Hyderabad, India.  Her mother, Barada Sundari Devi, was a poet who wrote in Sanskrit and Bengali. Her father, Aghornath Chattopadhyay, was a scientist and philosopher who helped found Nizam College, where he served as principal until removed for his political activities. Naidu's parents also founded the first school for girls in Nampally, and worked for women's rights in education and marriage.

Sarojini Naidu, who spoke Urdu, Teugu, Bengali, Persian and English, began writing poetry early. Known as a child prodigy, she became famous when she entered Madras University when she was just twelve years old, scoring the highest score on the entrass exam.

She moved to England at sixteen to study at King's College (London) and then Girton College (Cambridge).

When she attended college in England, she became involved in some of the woman suffrage activities. She was encouraged to write about India and its land and people.

From a Brahman family, Sarojini Naidu married Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu, a medical doctor, who was not a Brahman; her family embraced the marriage as supporters of inter-caste marriage.

They met in England and were married in Madras in 1898. 

In 1905, she published The Golden Threshold, her first collection of poems.  She published later collections in 1912 and 1917.  She wrote primarily in English.

In India Naidu channeled her political interest into the National Congress and Non-Cooperation movements. She joined the Indian National Congress when the British partitioned Bengal in 1905; her father was also active in protesting the partition. She met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1916, working with him for rights of indigo workers. That same year she met Mahatma Gandhi.

She also helped found the Women's India Association in 1917, with Annie Besant and others, speaking on women's rights to the Indian National Congress in 1918. She returned to London in May, 1918, to speak to a committee that was working on reforming the Indian Constitution; she and Annie Besant advocated for women's vote.

In 1919, in response to the Rowlatt Act passed by the British, Gandhi formed the Non-Cooperation Movement and Naidu joined.  In 1919 she was appointed the ambassador to England of the Home Rule League, advocating for the Government of India Act which granted limited legislative powers to India, although it did not grant women the vote.

She returned to India the next year. 

She became the first Indian woman to head the National Congress in 1925 (Annie Besant had preceded her as a president of the organization). She traveled to Africa, Europe and North America, representing the Congress movement.   In 1928, she promoted the Indian movement of non-violence in the United STates.

In January, 1930, the National Congress proclaimed Indian independence.  Naidu was present on the Salt March to Dandi in March, 1930.  When Gandhi was arrested, with other leaders, she led the Dharasana Satyagraha.

Several of those visits were part of delegations to the British authorities. In 1931, she was at the Round Table Talks with Gandhi in London. Her activities in India on behalf of independence brought prison sentences in 1930, 1932, and 1942.

In 1942, she was arrested and remained in jail for 21 months.

From 1947, when India achieved independence, to her death, she was governor of Uttar Pradesh (earlier called the United Provinces). She was India's first woman governor.

Her experience as a Hindu living in a part of India that was primarily Muslim influenced her poetry, and also helped her work with Gandhi dealing with Hindu-Muslim conflicts.  She wrote the first biography of Muhammed Jinnal, published in 1916.

Sarojni Naidu's birthday, March 2, is honored as Women's Day in India.  The Democracy Project awards an essay prize in her honor, and several Women's Studies centers are named for her.

Sarojini Naidu Background, Family:

Father: Aghornath Chattopadhyaya (scientist, founder and administrator of Hyderabad College, later Nizam's College)

Mother: Barada Sundari Devi (poet)

Husband: Govindarajulu Naidu (married 1898; medical doctor)

Children: two daughters and two sons: Jayasurya, Padmaja, Randheer, Leelamai. Padmaja became Governor of West Bengal, and published a posthumous volume of her mother's poetry

Siblings: Sarojini Naidu was one of eight siblings

  • Brother Virendranath (or Birendranath) Chattopadhyaya, was also an activist, working for a pro-German, anti-British revolt in India during World War I. He became a communist, and was probably executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin in Soviet Russia about 1937.
  • Brother Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, was an actor married to Kamla Devi, an advocate of traditional Indian crafts
  • Sister Sunalini Devi was a dancer and actress
  • Sister Suhashini Devi was a communist activist who married R.M. Jambekar, another communist activist

Sarojini Naidu Education:

  • Madras University (age 12)
  • King's College, London (1895-1898)
  • Girton College, Cambridge

Sarojini Naidu Publications:

  • The Golden Threshold (1905)
  • The Bird of Time (1912)
  • Muhammad Jinnah: An Ambassador of Unity. (1916)
  • The Broken Wing (1917)
  • The Sceptred Flute (1928)
  • The Feather of the Dawn (1961), edited by Padmaja Naidu, Sarojini Naidu's daughter

Books About Sarojini Naidu:

  • Hasi Banerjee.  Sarojini Naidu: The Traditional Feminist. 1998.
  • E.S. Reddy Gandhi and Mrinalini Sarabhai. The Mahatma and the poetess. (Letters between Gandhi and Naidu.) 1998.
  • K.R. Ramachandran Nair. Three Indo-Anglian Poets: Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu.  1987.