Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Prodigy, Poet and Freedom Fighter: Sarojini Naidu - Nightingale of India (1879-1949)

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Prodigy, Poet and Freedom Fighter: Sarojini Naidu - Nightingale of India (1879-1949)

Article excerpt

The fifteenth of August 2007, sixty years after India's independence and the appointment of Sarojini Naidu as governor of Uttar Pradesh, may be as good a day to remember, recollect, and re-think the life and poetry of this remarkable woman. To truly assess this "wandering singer's" life and works, we must look at her entire life and all her writings, including innumerable letters and long speeches that can be read to construct a fascinating world of politics, poetry, and personalities. Such an endeavour would reveal the poetic voice of an extraordinary, albeit highly privileged woman and her tremendous life force that moved her to assert herself in spite of fragile health and turbulent times. This essay will look at Sarojini Naidu from a postcolonial, postmodern, and global feminist perspective and place her within a broader landscape of women's voices with their particularity, and within an Indie landscape.

Recently, when I was in Hyderabad, the city where Sarojini was bom and lived most of her life, I went around the bookstores quite sure of easily locating all her works, but I was astonished to find not a single work in any of the college bookstores. One of the more posh stores had only a small illustrated biography. But booksellers were eager to sell me books by or about many of the European poets taught at the colleges. I could not help but think of the "asymmetry of ignorance" that Dipesh Chakrabarty talks about in Provincializing Europe. He argues that:

... insofar as the academic discourse of history - that is, "history" as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university is concerned, "Europe" remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call "Indian", "Chinese", "Kenyan", and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called the history of "Europe".1

He points out how remaining ignorant of all other histories while speaking authoritatively of a universal history is a prerogative of European historians: "This is a gesture ... we cannot return. We cannot even afford an equality or asymmetry of ignorance at this level without taking the risk of appearing 'old-fashioned' or 'outdated' ...."2 Although Chakrabarty is primarily speaking of history as a social science, it can easily be applied to literary history. As I wandered in the streets of Hyderabad in search of Sarojini, I felt oldfashioned, looking for an outdated poet.

In the wake of Modemist styles and their heady excitement, Sarojini Naidu was dismissed by many as a sentimentalist and a mere imitator of Victorian ways, and not relevant to poetry. In addition, as my experience showed, very few younger people today even know about her poetry or her extraordinary life as a freedom fighter and a national leader. But the wheel of time moves and perspectives change. At this point in time, when critical modes have been enjoying their romance with postmodernism, postcolonialism, and a global feminism3 maturing further every day, we may look at her with fresh eyes to recognize the contribution this woman made to the development of Indian poetry in English and to the Indian freedom movement, as well as to women's rights. While some of the criticism of her verses may have been valid, to consign Naidu to the list of discarded poets is to ignore the achievements of a remarkable woman as pioneer. Meenakshi Mukheijee re-evaluates Tom Dutt and Sarojini Naidu in The Perishable Empire and argues that they are to be seen as two "wonder-women of nineteenth-century India" who wrote in English and got published in England, and they "continue to engage us, despite many sophisticated debunking attempts in the last half century by different schools of literary thought".* * 4 Although critical of some of Naidu's failings, Mukheijee cautions, "To categorize Sarojini Naidu's lyrics as Western in conception and exotically Indian in content may lead us to a binary trap", and she points out the influence of Urdu ghazals and the Radha-Krishna lore "subtly modulating her metaphors and tone". …

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