Artful language is not just embellished artifice like the most cynical would say; artful language is a precise language that when skillfully wielded, is possible of accomplishing the most revolutionary of things. For our next installment in our Poetry’s Pioneering Women series, we take a look at the ingenious poetic talent of Sarojini Naidu whose poetry and politics solidified her position as one of the most important figures in India’s independence movement from British colonial rule.
We want deeper sincerity of motive, a greater courage in speech, and earnestness in action.Sarojini Naidu
Becoming India’s Greatest Revolutionarie
The eldest of eight children, Sarojini Naidu was born Sarojini Chattopadhyay in Hyderabad State on February 13, 1879 to Aghorenath Chattopadhyay and Varada Sundari Devi. Born into a family of educators, creatives, and revolutionaries, Naidu’s family was well regarded in Hyderabad State during British ruled India. With her father the principal of Hyderabad school (later named Nizam College) and her mother a poet of the Bengali language, Naidu was nurtured by their progressive and creative values and was surrounded by India’s leading intellectuals. Naidu passed her matriculation examination for university at the age of twelve, earning the highest rank, and began her university studies at King’s College, London and then Girton College, Cambridge from 1895-98. When she returned to Hyderabad State upon completing her studies in 1898, she married Govindarajulu Naidu, a physician, and had four children.
1904 marked the beginnings of Naidu’s political activism. An impressively eloquent speaker, Naidu consistently gave speeches promoting anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, women’s rights, and women’s education. Her activism led her to cross paths with Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Rabindranath Tagore (also a writer and poet), and Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. Naidu soon became involved in Gandhi’s movement of nonviolent resistance against British rule and participated in conferences and movements where she was subsequently imprisoned by the British for months on end. Naidu was also a founding member of the All India Women’s Conference in 1927. In 1947, following India’s independence from British colonial/imperial rule, she was appointed as the governor of the United Provinces, making her the first woman governor in India. Naidu remained in office until her death in 1949.
Naidu’s Versatile Ingenuity
As a poet, Naidu was beautifully gifted and demonstrated incredible skill over language. She began writing relatively young at the age of twelve and continued writing for the rest of her life. Called the “Nightingale of India,” Naidu’s poetry was distinctive in its lyricism. An admirer of the British Romantics, specifically lyrical poetry, she was inspired by it and developed a poetic style that was both euphonious and intense with vivid meaning and depth.
When thinking about her poetry, you must consider that Naidu’s poetry exists within the historical context of British colonialism in India. Although, as mentioned, an admirer of British Romanticism, she supported anti-imperialistic ideas and was a leading figure in India’s independence movement from British colonial/imperialistic rule. So asking questions that challenge how Naidu’s poetry exists within that historical context is just one aspect of her poetry to consider. How does Naidu allow us to see a glimpse of her India as not only a woman but as a champion for an independent India from British colonialism? It’s a two-fold question and just only one way to approach her poetry.
A Gleam Into Naidu’s Poetry
“Palanquin Bearers” (1903) from The Golden Threshold
Lightly, O lightly we bear her along,
She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;
She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream,
She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream.
Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.
Softly, O softly we bear her along,
She hangs like a star in the dew of our song;
She springs like a beam on the brow of the tide,
She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride.
Lightly, O lightly we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.
The above poem, “Palanquin Bearers,” was published in Naidu’s 1903 poetry collection, The Golden Threshold. From a first read, “Palanquin Bearers,” flows with a musical resonance. Here, her two-verse lyricism follows a rhyme scheme of: AA BB CC DD. The lyricism of the poem lends a lighthearted and jubilant atmosphere and depicts a bridal procession, bearing a woman from the upper class on a palanquin to her husband’s home.
Seemingly from the perspective of the palanquin bearers, the bride is admired for her beauty and youthful bloom “like a flower in the wind”. From the musical rhythm of the poem, the active imagery from consistent similes (“like a flower in the wind of our song”; “She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream”; “She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream”; “like a star in the dew of our song”; “She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride”; “We bear her along like a pearl on a string”), and the vivid imagery that the combined elements portray, the poem progresses full of life. However, there is an underlying sadness on the bride’s part: “She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride”. She is a beautiful bride, the center of the wedding, but she is saddened by the fact that she is leaving her family home to live at her new husband’s home. From just two verses, Naidu captures the emotions, the momentous occasion of an Indian bride concisely while full of meaningful language and imagery.
Sarojini Naidu is India’s legendary poet, full of talent and intelligence. Her work in poetry and politics has changed the world and left a legacy for young women in India and everywhere to look up to.
To read more from Bookstr’s Poetry’s Pioneering Women series for Women’s History Month, click here.