#100PENMembers No. 94: Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Naidu was a prominent Indian writer, feminist, activist and civil rights campaigner, a brilliant orator, and a leading figure of the freedom struggle against British rule.

When the PEN India Center was founded in 1933, she served as one of its Vice Presidents of PEN, and replaced Rabindranath Tagore as president of the Indian organization, when he passed away in 1941, until her own death in 1949. 

She won the Nizam’s scholarship to study at King’s College in London in the early 1890s, and in Cambridge, and was lauded as a poet exemplifying the highly-exoticised nineteenth century India. Her first collection of poems The Golden Threshold was published in 1905, with an introduction by Arthur Symons, her second by Edmund Gosse. Mahatma Gandhi called her ‘the Nightingale of India’ or ‘Bharat Kokila’.

Whilst studying in London she was an active suffragist. When she returned to India she became involved in the movement to overthrow British rule in India and became part of the Indian nationalist movement led by Gandhi. She joined the Indian National Congress in 1904 and was very active on women’s rights alongside trailblazing feminists such as Mithan Lam, Herabai Tata, and Annie Besant. In particular, she played a foundational role in shaping the Women’s India Association in 1917.

Naidu was awarded the Kaisar-I Hind Medal by the British government for her work during the plague epidemic in India but she returned it in April 1919 in protest at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (Amritsar massacre) in which the British Indian Army, led by Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians killing around 379 and injuring more than 1,200 people.

In 1929 Naidu presided over the East African and Indian Congress in South Africa where she was arrested alongside Gandhi and fellow early PEN member Jawaharlal Nehru. A leading figure in the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement, alongside Gandhi, she was repeatedly arrested by British authorities, spending more than 21 months in prison for her political activities.

She was appointed President of the Indian National Congress in 1925 and became Governor of the United Provinces in 1947. She was the first woman to hold the office of Governor in India, serving Uttar Pradesh from 1947 – when India finally gained independence from British rule – until her death in 1949.

Naidu’s significant contribution to art and politics in India is commemorated in the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication at the University of Hyderabad, formerly her father’s home.

Naidu, alongside her contemporary Sophia Wadia, represents the incredible feminist and political energy which characterised the women of Indian PEN in its early days, and took part in the most important meetings and conferences of the organization until her death. Her words, speeches and lectures are regularly featured in The Indian PEN newsletter. In 1936, she urged Sophia Wadia, sailing to the International PEN Congress in Argentina, to bring to the world the following message: that with its many languages, provinces, capitals and types of literatures, India could also ‘prove the reality of the word “unity”.’ And in her presidential addresses at the first and second All-Writers’ Conferences organized first in Jaipur in 1945, and then in Benares in 1947, she both stressed the ‘undivisible’, undivided heart of India, and urged writers to transcend ‘narrow nationalism’.  

At the emotional “PEN Memorial meeting” held in her honour in Bombay, PEN members asserted that all of Sarojini Naidu’s life bore testimony to her faith in the ideals for which the PEN stood, and that they will never forget her ‘single-handed pioneering fight to uphold the freedom of expression”, when the British government’ banned Gandhi’s Hind Svaraj. By breaking the law and selling copies of the book, she was also telling the authorities that “freedom of expression is the divine birthright of every individual”.’ 

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