SAROJINI DEVI: AN APPRECIATION
BY Prof. T. VIRABHADRUDU, M. A.
Mrs. Sarojini Naidu’s death which took place on March 2, last year, created a gap in modern Indian life which may not be filled for a, long time to come. Her sweet lyrics, her colourfu1 personality, the charm of her conversation, her stubborn patriotism and the marvellous oratorical gift she possessed made her a most unique figure in India, Born in any other country or age, she would have been equally prominent. She would not only have attracted notice; she would have easily eclipsed everyone of her contemporaries. So far as Hyderabad is concerned, the people of the State have every reason to be grateful to her, for it was an honour done to them that she was born here. More than that, by singing Songs of My City and by making her native town the subject of many poems, 1 she made the place of her birth and upbringing immortal in literature. Whenever she was in Hyderabad The Golden Threshold 2 was a great pilgrim centre for people interested in poetry and culture, but now one finds the city Vipadmaamiva padmineem (a pond with no lotus in it). It is true she finished the biblical three score and ten but her passing away is a national calamity and, as the Krishna Patrika put it, we did not know in the hour of sorrow who was to condole with whom.3
One or two facts relating to Mrs. Naidu’s academic or literary career may not be quite out of place here. As is well known, she passed the Matriculation Examination of the Madras University at the age of twelve or thirteen and, though this might not be a great achievement for a girl of Sarojini’s genius and attainments, that event, simple as it looks, must have created a sensation in Hyderabad at the time, and we have it on the authority of some elderly gentlemen of the place that when the first Hyderabadi passed the Madras Matriculation, people came from Aurangabad (a distance of 320 miles) to see what he was like. At sixteen, Sarojini proceeded to Europe and spent some time at King’s College, London, and Girton (Cambridge). While in England, she met two distinguished critics, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, who not only gave her advice and encouragement but also introduced her to the English-reading public. She published between 1905 and 1917 three song-collections, The Golden Threshold, The Bird of Time, and The Broken Wing. In 1914, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was also associated with the P. E. N. for a long time and was the President of the Indian Branch for about eight years before her death. In 1938 she delivered the Convocation Address of the Andhra University and had an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Allahabad, the Osmania following some years later with another Hony. D. Litt. These are a few of the ‘distinctions’ conferred upon her by academic or literary bodies, if distinctions they may be called for a person of Sarojini Naidu’s 8tatus in the world of poetry and culture.
Mrs. Naidu is one of the greatest poets of Modern India and the lyric, written in beautiful English, is her contribution to contemporary literature. She has a supreme mastery over the English tongue and but for the Indian subjects 4 and the Indian names, 5 it might not be easy to find out that the poems and songs had been composed by an Indian. In our country several men and women have distinguished themselves by their proficiency in the English language and their writings (in Prose) and their speeches have surprised foreigners. But few have attempted with success the writing of English verse Sarojini Naidu, on the other hand, sang directly in English. The example of Rabindranath Tagore, who is of course one of our greatest masters of English, is not relevant to the context, for, he, for some reason or other, chose to write originally in Bengalee 6 and afterwards translate the poem or song into English or entrust the translation to some one else. Mrs. Naidu had also an extraordinary feeling for English metres and, in the opinion of The Times, but for her interest in politics, “her mastery of metrical form and jewelled phrase might have carried her much farther in the poetry of our time.” Along with this excellent grasp of English prosody, she possessed a very intimate knowledge of the folk-songs of our country, and thus she not only adapted English poetry to Indian themes but also reconciled English words to Indian tunes. Those who have heard songs like,
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. 7
Tell me no more of thy love, papeeha, 8
sung by the poet herself or by any young girls of Hyderabad who learned it from her, will readily see how nicely English verse is wedded to Indian Music. To quote Sir C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar, “Mrs. Naidu was a great reconciler.” For instance, we find in her the love of freedom and spirit of challenge, which are generally associated with the West, combined with the mysticism of the East. In her we note also a reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam. An aristocrat by birth and breeding, she did the meanest duties of the household for over four months when her daughter in-law, a European, was seriously ill and nursed her in a way which no mother could, and when she was in Yerravada jail undertook all the cooking for Gandhiji and his comrades, often going without any food for herself, An aristocrat by intellect; she had the democrat’s sympathy for humbler workers in the field of literature, poets attempting to compose verses or teachers trying to interpret poetry to students. A lover of beauty and the good things of life, she was one of the most ‘orthodox’9 disciples of Mahatma Gandhi and went to gaol more than once for the nation’s cause. Thus in Sarojini Naidu’s character, as in her poetry, there is a mixing up of ‘opposites’ but it is only a richness or variety based on an essential unity.
Poet Sarojini was called ‘the Nightingale of India,’ and with due deference to the distinguished personality 10 that bestowed this title on her, we venture to say we have not been very happy over it. The nightingale (lit. night-singer), or Philomel 11 as the bird is sometimes called by poets, has always been associated with sorrow while Sarojini Devi was Cheerfulness Incarnate. Several English poets have praised the music of the nightingale but the song has always been a ‘plaintive anthem’. 12 Spenser admits,
The Nightingale is sovereign of song,13
but that the bird is symbolic of misfortune, the following will show:
But I will wake and sorrow all the night
With Philumene, my fortune to deplore,
With Philumene, the partner of my plight. 14
Milton in his Il Pcnseroso addresses the bird thus:
Sweet bird, that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
And Shelley in describing Albion’s grief over the untimely death of Adonais writes:
Thy spirit’s sister, the lorn nightingale,
Mourns not her mate with such melodious pain.
Sarojini might be more appropriately called the Song-Bird of India or the Kokil (the cuckoo). The Kokil and Spring are inseparable, and can we find among our modern poets a greater lover of the spring season than Mrs. Naidu? That ‘the Bird of Melancholy’ would be least, suitable to her could be supported from the tribute paid by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, famous throughout India for his sobriety rather than emotional extravagance:
Her (Mrs. Naidu’s) entry into any room or gathering was as though several candles were suddenly lit. Wherever she went, she lent a light and lustre which could penetrate through the darkest gloom.
Sarojini Naidu, was a great reader. A few years ago – she was sixty-three at the time –when she had a little leisure, saying that she should renew her acquaintance with Shakespeare, whom of course she admired very much, she devoted herself for a couple of weeks to the reading of some of the tragedies and comedies of England’s great dramatist. She seems to have had also a particular liking for the poets of the Romantic School, and in her own lyrics we come across here and there an echo of an earlier English poem. In some cases, they might be mere coincidences which only shows that great poets think (or feel) alike. To give a few examples, the lines,
Tell me no more of thy love, papeeha, 15
Wouldst thou recall to my heart, papeeha,
Dreams of delight that are gone,
When swift to my side came the feet of my lover
With stars of the dusk and the dawn?
are similar in spirit to
Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause Luve was true.
In one of her poems, Solitude, the poet expresses a desire to get away from the noise of the town to a place of silence and when she suggests,
Let us rise, O my heart, let us go where the twilight is calling
Far away from the sound of this lonely and menacing crowd,
To the glens, to the glades …………….
Come away, come away from this throng and its tumult of sorrow,
There is rest, there is peace from the pang of its manifold strife
Where the halcyon night holds in trust the dear songs of the morrow,
we wonder whether the author had not in mind Shelley’s Invitation:
Best and brightest, come away.
The brightest hour of unborn Spring
Through the winter wandering,
Found, it seems, the halcyon Morn.
To hoar February born;
Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs–
Ecstasy and The Coming of Spring reveal not only Mrs. N aidu’s enthusiasm for Nature but also the change that has come over her, and when she laments,
O Spring! I cannot run to greet
Your coming as I did of old.
or asks in Ecstasy,
Shall we in the midst of life’s exquisite chorus Remember our grief,
O heart, when the rapturous season is o’er us Of blossom and leaf?,
we are reminded of Wordsworth’s attitude to Nature as described in Ode on Intimations:
Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong.
And her concluding appeal,
Think not my love untrue, unkind,
Or heedless of the luring call
To your enchanting festival
Only my weary heart of late
is similar to the English poet’s,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
Again, when in June Sunset we read,
And a young Banjara 16 driving her cattle
Lifts up her voice as she glitters by
In an ancient ballad of love and battle,
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
(The Solitary Reaper)
But in each case, granting the poet had the earlier English poem in mind when she composed these lovely lyrics, the sweetness is enhanced by the Indian atmosphere and imagery; the mellifluous Koels making their paeans of love, the sumptuous peacocks dancing in rhythmic delight, the author’s lying alone and dreaming beneath tangled boughs of tamarind and neem, and the little Sarojini running with silver anklets on her feet to greet the Spring.
It must be remembered however that Mrs. Naidu’s reading was not confined to the poets of the West. The literature of the East had also claimed her attention. One day a gentleman from Rajahmundry, a scholar in English and Sanskrit, who was on a visit to Hyderabad, paid a call at her place when she discussed with him the greatness of Kalidasa and other Sanskrit poets for nearly three hours. 17 Anyone who wrote poems, stories or novels in English or any Indian language was sure of a welcome at the ‘Golden Threshold’ and the writer would go back with a feeling of gratitude for the appreciation shown or the advice and encouragement given. One of her favourite poets was Omar Khayyam, and The Bird of Time and The Broken Wing, the titles of her poetical collections published in 1912 and 1917 respectively, were presumably based on
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly –and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing.
And if Omar had said,
When I am dead wash me with wine, 18
Say my funeral service with pure wine.
Sarojini Naidu sings:
Hide me in a shrine of roses,
Drown me in a wine of roses
Drawn from every fragrant grove!
Bind me on a pyre of roses,
Burn me in a fire of roses,
Crown me with the rose of Love!
Written at least thirty-two years before her death, the lines are both prophetic and pathetic. To those of us who saw the Asti, 19 Urn (buried under a heap of roses) brought to Hyderabad, from Lucknow where she died, kept in the compound of the ‘Golden Threshold’ and taken to the Sangham 20 two days later, the song, Hide me in a shrine of roses, has a special meaning. The stanza is tear-compelling but it is as it should be, the Queen of Flowers discharging her duty by the Queen of Women whose life was crowned with the rose of Love!
The most outstanding feature of Sarojini Naidu’s poetry is love of beauty, beauty in Nature and beauty in human life. The Spring is the subject of many of her lyrics and not less than sixteen songs in The Sceptred Flute21 are devoted to it. We have A Song in Spring, The Joy of the Spring time, The Coming of Spring, The Magic of Spring and so on, and each poem is an excellent illustration of the Poet’s boundless enthusiasm for the season of seasons. The plantain blossoms, the neem with its odorous breath, the dear sirisha trees, the crimson gulmohurs all come in and add to the charm of the verse. The poet is so full of rapture when she thinks of Spring that she asks:
Springtime, O Springtime, what is your essence,
The lilt of a bulbul, the laugh of a rose;
The dance of the dew on the wings of a moonbeam,
The voice of the zephyr that sings as he goes,
The hope of a bride or the dream of a maiden
Watching the petals of gladness unclose?
In another poem, The Call of Spring, she addresses her two daughters thus:
Children, my children, the Spring wakes anew.
I know where the ivory lilies unfold.
I know where the dragon-flies glimmer and glide.
And telling them how the myna and the dove are singing carols of welcome, she not only exhorts the girls to respond to the call but also says how she is ready to join them:
The earth is ashine like a humming-bird’s wing,
And the sky like a kingfisher’s feather,
O come, let us go and play with the spring.
Like glad-hearted children together.
The season exercises such a powerful influence upon her that she will have all the excitement which we associate with children at play. Not only that. The fascination is so great that it inspires in her a desire to emulate Radha who, along with her lover, wandered, in the season of Vasant (Spring), in the forest of Brindavan on the Jumna bank in search of romantic adventure. “Tired of painted roofs and soft and silken floors,” she longs to go with her Love into the woods,
And roam at fall of eventide along the river’s brink,
And bathe in water-lily pools where golden panthers drink!
And the lovers would forget all cares and wander,
Companions of the lustrous dawn, gay comrades of the night,
Like Krishna and Radhika, encompassed with delight. 22
If any one were to ask, “Is life all sugar and honey? Have we no troubles ahead of us?”, she would at once answer:
Their joy from the birds and the streams, let us borrow,
O heart! let us sing,
The years are before us for weeping and sorrow...
To-day it is spring!
Spring being a time of flowers, the poet shows a wild enthusiasm for flowers of all varieties. Once she would exclaim,
Love, it is the time of roses!
Another time, if she sees the golden cassia, she would say with a similar feeling of joy,
O brilliant blossoms that strew my way,
You are only woodland flowers they say.
But, I sometimes think that perchance you are
Fragments of some new-fallen star.
The Champak with its ambrosial sweetness claims a similar tribute from her. She knows that it ‘shrivels and shrinks’ after an hour of transient glory, but the little flower is more honest than much bigger creatures of God’s creation:
You make no boast’in your purposeless beauty
To serve or profit the world.
The poet admits that the Champak is quite unlike the mango or the orange blossoms which ‘live anew in the luscious harvests of ripening yellow and red’,
Yet, ‘tis of you thro’ the moonlit ages
That maidens and minstrels sing,
And lay your buds on the great god’s altar,
O radiant blossoms that fling
Your rich, voluptuous, magical perfume
To ravish the winds of spring,
The pomegranate is one of the Poet’s favourites. We learn from her poem, Alone, how she sometimes seeks,
The, bright, accustomed alleys of delight,
Pomegranate-gardens of the mellowing dawn,
Serene and sumptuous orchards of the night,
In The Royal Tombs of Golconda, she gives us her musings “among these silent fanes” but does not forget the pomegranate groves–a particularly interesting feature–in which the tombs lie. Four years ago, she had to attend a small party in her honour at Secunderabad and as she was leaving, she noticed a pomegranate tree in full blossom a few feet away from the place where the car was parked. Turning to the host and asking, “V –can I steal one of these beautiful flowers?”, she plucked one lovely little thing and showered all her appreciation on it, reminding those standing by of her famous line,
The bright pomegranate buds unfold, 23
which has since become all the sweeter for this little incident. It may be noted that Mrs. Naidu’s love of Nature is not confined to the flowering year, as the song of the Coromandel Fishers will show:
Sweet is the shade of the cocoanut glade, and the scent of the mango grove,
And sweet are the sands at the full o’ the moon with the sound of the voices we love,
But sweeter, O brothers, the kiss of the spray and the dance of the wild foam’s glee:
Row, brothers, row to the blue of the verge, where the low sky mates with the sea,
Thus we see in Sarojini Naidu one of the most ardent lovers of Nature that we know of. Natural objects and phenomena and loved for the feast they supply to the eye and the joy they give to the heart. But there are deeper reasons also. She says:
Here shall my heart find its haven of calm,
By rush-fringed rivers and rain-fed streams
That glimmer thro’ meadows of lily and palm.
Here shall my soul find its true repose.
Secondly, she feels that it is only when we are in such places and away from human life that
We may glean a far glimpse of the Infinite Bosom
In whose glorious shadow all life is unfolded or furled.
This may surprise many who knew Mrs. Naidu as a highly social being and a brilliant conversationalist. She loved to be surrounded by friends and talk to them and was in fact the ‘autocrat’ of the drawing-room. Still, it was only in solitude or in the company of Nature that the Poet found her true self!
In one of her letters, Mrs. Naidu speaks of the “poet’s craving for Beauty, the Eternal Beauty,” and it is this desire for what is beautiful that makes her a great lover of life. If scholars find ‘life in poetry’ and ‘law in taste’ she sees poetry in life. ‘Trivial’ things and ‘ordinary’ folk appeal to the poet in her, as poems like The Snake-Charmer, Corn-Grinders, In Praise of Henna, The Festival of Serpents 24 and Street Cries show. She loves children and her Cradle-Song is actually based on the Laalipaata which Indian mothers sing to lull their babies to sleep. The Old Woman is full of pathos. The lonely old woman sitting out in the street beneath the boughs of the banyan tree in the face of the sun and the wind and the rain is a moving spectacle, but we have to remember,
In her youth she hath comforted lover and son.
She is poor and she is blind, but with a brave voice she sings the praise of God. And,
Be the gay world kind or unkind,
her faith in the Lord is unshaken, which makes her repeat cheerfully La ilaha illa-i-Allah. The Indian Gipsy is another example of our seeing poetry in what may be called unexpected quarters. In our towns and villages we often come across a Gipsy or Lambadi or Irani woman whose ways of life are peculiar and whose dress looks outlandish. She walks in ‘tattered robes’ but the poet’s eye sees in her a grandeur all her own:
Behold her, daughter of a wandering race,
Tameless, with the bold falcon’s agile grace,
And the lithe tiger’s sinuous majesty.
The woman’s wants are simple and her profession is only to look after the heifers or sheep, but she is a creature on whom the lapse of centuries makes but little impression. She is unique:
She is twin-born with primal mysteries,
And drinks of life at Time’s forgotten source.
It is interesting to note that Sarojini Devi celebrated scrupulously every one of our Hindu festivals, Vasant Panchami (Spring Festival), Ugadi (Telugu New Year Day), Deepavali (The Festival of Lights) etc. It was not that she was superstitious that she observed them. It only tells us how she appreciated fully the poetry associated with many of our social customs.
Poetry and beauty go together and since, to Mrs. Naidu, life is only a synonym for beauty, she has a keen relish for enjoying it. She declares,
The world is full of pleasure,
Of bridal-songs and cradle-songs and sandal-scented leisure.
She is deeply attached to the ‘Sweet Earth’ in whose lustrous bowl,
The limpid flame of hope’s perennial wine.
Being a person of very delicate health all her life, she knows that anything might happen to her any day but she does not want to leave,
While yet my sweet life burgeons with its spring.
She cannot go, for, her blossoming hopes are unharvested, her joy ungarnered and her songs unsung. But die we must all of us soon or later, and if the call should come, she would only make this appeal:
“Tarry a while, till I am satisfied
Of love and grief, of earth and altering sky;
Till all my human hungers are fulfilled, O Death, I cannot die!
The world might of course ask, “But did she not complete psalmist’s seventy?” Those, however, who knew Sarojini Naidu intimately would only answer, “Yes; she was seventy. But she never old, old in the sense in which that word is understood by the world.”
From her poem, At Twilight, we learn how she was once in a very melancholy mood. The thought of the vanity of all human hopes and endeavours and the strife between creed and creed in our country made her very unhappy. She was so depressed that,
Weary, I sought kind Death among the rills.
She was going towards Golconda and, as ill-luck would have it, she saw on the route a funeral procession. It was the bier
Of some loved woman canopied in red,
who was being carried
To the blind, ultimate silence of the dead.
The situation was pretty bad but Mrs. Naidu was not the person to sink under a load of despair. Remembering life’s gifts, “the beckoning joys that wait”, the privilege of motherhood, the sweetness of love, the beauty of Nature and the pleasure one would have in pursuing one’s dreams or ideals, she quickly became her old self again. Life is dear; it confers upon the human being many blessings:
Laughter of children and the lyric dawn,
And love’s delight, profound and passionate,
Winged dreams that blow their golden clarion,
And hope that conquers immemorial hate.
Thus Mrs. Naidu’s poetry is full of the joy of life and in this respect she resembles two other poets, both unique in the field of poetry, Rabindranath Tagore who looks upon life as a ‘feast’ and Robert Browning who boldly proclaims:
This World’s no blot for us,
Nor blank – it means intensely, and means good. 25
Another aspect of Mrs. Naidu’s poetry is her interest in Love. In The Broken Wing there is a whole section entitled ‘The Temple’ (containing 24 lyrics) devoted to it. There are, besides, many songs dealing with the same theme in the other two volumes of verse published by her. Nature, Life and Love are three subjects in which Mrs. Naidu the poet is deeply interested but they all emanate from the same source, her passion for Beauty. Lyric poetry is generally the expression of personal emotion and when she sings, in
Song of Radha The Milkmaid,
“But my heart was so full of your beauty, Beloved,
They laughed as I cried without knowing:
we know there is more than meets the eye. 26 Again when in An Indian Love-Song She raises the question, “How shall I profane the law of my father’s creed!” and He answers,
Love recks not of feuds and bitter follies, of stranger, comrade or kin,
we cannot help noticing the personal element, for she herself defied social custom in loving and marrying one outside her own caste. Love recognises no barriers between race and race. In Humayun to Zobeida she rises to greater heights when she refuses to accept Duality and speaks in a mystical vein:
What war is this of Thee and Me? Give o’er the wanton strife,
You are the heart within my heart, the life within my life.
What is love and what is its relation to man’s life? In the first place, it is Heaven’s reward to man, a ‘guerdon’.
To field and forest
The gifts of the spring,
To hawk and to heron
The pride of their wing;
Her grace to the panther,
Her tints to the dove……
For me, O my Master,
The rapture of Love!
It is an ‘ecstasy’; it is a ‘sweet madness’. It is an endowing the person to whom you are attached,
With the whole
Joy of my flesh and treasure of my soul.
It is committing many ‘sins’, ‘the sin of mine eyes’, ‘the sin of my hands’ and ‘the sin of my mouth’, and ‘the sin of my heart’ and, as any one can easily see, the first three are all the offspring of the last. What was the nature of the sin, we can make out from the poet’s apology:
Forgive me the sin of my hands...
Perchance they were bold overmuch
In their tremulous longing to touch
Your beautiful flesh, to caress,
To clasp you, O Love, and to bless
With gifts as uncounted as sands–
O pardon the sin of my hands!
Love is next an eagerness to respond, when there is a call,
Swifter than a snake that flies
To the charmer’s thrall...
Obstacles big and small there will be but love is unflinching loyalty to the desire of the heart, irrespective of consequences:
Life’s dark tides may roll between,
Or Death’s deep chasms divide-
If you call me I will come
Fearless what betide.
It is also a readiness to undertake, without hesitation or doubt, the impossible. Love being omnipotent,
My weak hands with such dauntless delight would endow.
To capture and tame the wild tempest to sing like a bird,
And bend the swift lightning to fashion a crown for your brow.
Love is its own reward and expects no return. If however on the occasion of the ‘Feast’ some presents have to be brought, she would say, “no fragrant sandal-paste, no lotus-wreath, no pearls, no gems”;
Grant me, Love, in priceless boon
All the sorrow of your years
All the secret of your tears.
Love has its phases. It has its moods and, as the well-known Elizabethan dramatist has said, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’. Among Mrs. Naidu’s lyrics we find The Desire of Love, The Worship of Love, The Fear of Love, The Sorrow of Love, The Silence of Love and so on, each song describing a particular mood or phase. Due to a variety of causes, it may be that
All my days are a consuming pyre
Of unaccomplished longing and desire.
or, owing to Pride or ‘wisdom’ on one side there may be
A wide and troubled sea
’Twixt you and me.
One may, under such circumstances, be reconciled to one’s lot and, for Love’s sake bear
A load of passionate silence and despair,
and, whatever the harshness and the bitterness of the blows, gladly accept the decree of Fate and treat the loss of life and its happiness as a sacrifice offered to the noblest of gods:
You plucked my heart and broke it, O my love,
And bleeding, flung it down!....
Sweeter to die thus trodden of your feet,
Than reign apart upon an ivory seat
Crowned in a lonely rapture of renown.
The Menace of Love, however, warns us of a possible, though not probable, danger. The lover who is now full of ‘ruthless pride’ may repent by and by, He might become a victim to the tumult of his wild heart or ‘the subtle hunger in his veins’ but the pent-up anguish on the other side and the clash of pride with pride may be too strong, and then
God knows, O Love, if I shall save or slay you
As you lie spent and broken at my feet!
Lyric poetry is the description in musical language of a passing mod or sentiment, and so we have the Poet praying that death may unite where life meant division:
If you were dead I should not weep-
How sweetly would, our hearts unite
In a dim, undivided sleep,
Locked in Death’s deep and narrow night,
All anger fled, all sorrow past,
O Love at last!
These different moods are only passing clouds but the fundamental fact remains, that love is the chiefest thing in human life. It is the essence, and all the hopes and griefs of man are summed up in the one word. From The Vision of Love; we learn how
My foolish heart and eyes,
Have lost all knowledge save of you.
If mystics see the One in the multifarious objects and scenes that are before them, the lover who has a similar experience says:
To my enraptured sight you are
Sovereign and sweet reality,
The splendour of the morning star,
The might and music of the sea,
the reason being,
All joy is centred in your kiss.
You are the substance of my breath
And you the mystic pang of Death.
Love, in Mrs. Naidu’s opinion, is a purifying force. It is a pilgrimage. Only, when the priest says,
Bring new-blown leaves his temple to adorn,
Pomegranate-buds and ripe sirisha-sprays,
Wet sheaves of shining corn,
the pilgrim replies,
O priest! only my broken lute I bring
For Love’s praise-offering!
and when the cry,
Behold! the hour of sacrifice draws near,
is heard, the feeble answer that is given is:
O priest! only my wounded heart I bring
For Love’s blood-offering!
Love is devotion, and the quotation from Rabindranath Tagore,
My passion shall burn as the flame of Salvation,
The flower of my love shall become the ripe fruit of Devotion,
printed as motto for the section, The Temple, indicates the Poet’s lofty conception of love, that love which begins as a violent or childish outburst of emotion becomes eventually a spiritual tie between man and woman. The Temple is in three parts, I. The Gate of Delight, II. The Path of Tears and III. The Sanctuary, the meaning of which is obvious. Love is, at first, being suddenly thrown into a new world of joy and beauty. It is an intoxication, a thrill. Then lack of response, misunderstanding, separation or other difficulties come into play and bring in their wake sleepless nights and mental torture. Love, says Mrs. Naidu, is ‘a crucible’ and her prayer is:
Still let thy chastening wrath endure.
It is with this ladder of suffering that she hopes to reach the mountain-top:
So shall my yearning love at last
Thro’ sorrow find deliverance
From mortal pride,
So shall my soul, redeemed, re-born,
Attain thy side.
The Poet laughs at people who hold that Love is
As all men say
Only a transient spark
Of flickering flame set in a lamp of clay.
It may be true but it is no consideration with her,
Since you kindle all my dark
With the immortal lustres of the day.
If others do not see anything extraordinary in her Beloved, it does not matter very much either, since, so far as she is concerned,
You make most audible
The subtle murmurs of eternity.
Nor does the fact that human life is short and circumscribed stand in the way of the pursuit of love:
And tho’ you are, like men of mortal race,
Only a hapless thing
That Death may mar and destiny efface–
I care not...since unto my heart you bring
The very vision of God’s dwelling-place.
In other words, love not only brightens up our lives but also brings us into touch with the Infinite. To love is to reach Heaven.
Sarojini is a singer but that she is interested in the deeper things of life a careful reading of her poetry will show. To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus is one of her most popular pieces and the poem is based on a figure of Lord Buddha in a meditative posture which every visitor to ‘The Golden Threshold’ must have noticed – it is there in the drawing-room still and is the first thing that greets you, or you greet, as you enter the building, The “praying eyes and hands elate”, the “mystic rapture” and “the peace, supremely won” make such a profound impression upon her that she prays the Lord:
The end, elusive and afar,
Still lures us with its beckoning flight.
How shall we reach the great, unknown
Nirvana of thy Lotus-throne?
In Salutation to the Eternal Peace is another example of how the Poet could, in the midst of life and its activity, attain absolute tranquility of mind. On such occasions, the world’s desire and pride or the terror of the tomb do not touch her,
For my heart is drunk and drenched with thee,
O inmost wine of living ecstasy!
O intimate essence of eternity!
Some years ago, Professor Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, the great vocalist, who had been invited to the local Tyagarajotsavam 27 was at Secunderabad for a few days as the guest of an Andhra gentleman and gave, one afternoon, in response to a request from his host, a little music at his place. It was a very small and quiet gathering, consisting of not more than twenty people including Major M. G. and Mrs. Naidu, who were both great lovers of music and in whose honour it was really arranged. When the music began, Mrs. Naidu, who was all by herself on the verandah adjoining the hall in which the musician sat, lay down in her chair and remained absolutely motionless as though in Samadhi and opened her eyes only after the music ceased. The music which went on for an hour or more was exquisite – it could be nothing else – and whether “the concord of sweet sounds” penetrated into her soul,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony,
or her soul passed into the tunes sung so that the music in the Poet’s heart and the music of the violin became one, it was hard to say.
Coupled with this mystical turn of mind, Mrs. Naidu possesses a courage and a determination which are the despair of ordinary mortals. Soft as her heart is, it hides within itself a fire which could burn away the cowardice of a whole country. In Life, she tells young people how it is foolish to think of the world as “a carnival of careless joys”. No one, says she, can be considered to have lived till he (or she) bas passed through suffering and disappointments,
Till ye have battled with great grief and fears,
And borne the conflict of dream-shattering years.
In The Soul’s Prayer, she wants to learn from The Master “Thine inmost laws of life and death”. People like ourselves, if they knew that God was ready to hearken to their prayers, would have asked, “All weddings and no funerals!” Sarojini Naidu, on the other Hand, prays for something else:
Give me to drink each joy and pain
Which Thine eternal hand can mete,
For my insatiate soul would drain
Earth’s utmost bitter, utmost sweet.
She is ever ready to face dangers, and though her own life is one long struggle with ill-health and chronic heart-weakness, she plunges headlong into the battle of life as also into the battle for India’s freedom. Invincible and A Challenge to Fate are noble illustrations of this spirit. In the latter which is reminiscent of Out of the night that covers me by W. E. Henley, who was similarly placed in life, she hurls defiance at Fate:
For all the cruel folly you pursue
I will not cry with suppliant hands to you.
While admitting that out of malice the Relentless Power may make her blind, deaf or dumb or fetter her limbs with some compelling pain, she asks:
How will you tether my triumphant mind,
Rival and fearless comrade of the wind?
O Fate, in vain you hanker to control
My frail, serene, indomitable soul.
Again, it is this firm resolve that brings her into the Indian National Struggle. Health or no health, she cannot be found wanting when the Motherland is pulsating with a new hope, and so the song-bird announces her decision:
Behold! I rise to meet the destined spring
And scale the stars upon my broken wing!
It is this love of liberty that makes her also a stout champion of the cause of women, and her idea of human self-respect is such that she gets angry with those who offer Saashtaanga Namaskaaram, one human being prostrating himself before another–it is not uncommon in our country–as a mark of reverence. We might all remember how last year when the whole country was sunk in sorrow and shame and was passing through depression as the result of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, she gave the nation a most heartening message, one which would restore dead creatures to life. We might also recall to memory the stirring and impassioned address she delivered at Delhi as President of the Asian Relations Conference in the course of which she said, in a voice characteristic of the most courageous of prophets,
Asia shall redeem the world……..I bid you
rise from your graves. I bid you become part of
an eternal springtime. I bid you rise and say,
‘there is no death; there shall be no death.’
Sarojini Naidu’s poetry and speeches have a vitality which is contagious. “Sarojini,” says her illustrious brother Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, “is a blend of the lyric and the epic.” In her character, personal and poetical, there is an excellent combination of sweetness with heroism.
This leads us on to Sarojini Devi’s work as one of the important political figures of India. In this connection her critics raise two questions. “Poetry is Mrs. Naidu’s first love; did she not commit a mistake,” they ask, “in sacrificing a very promising poetic career in taking to politics?” Secondly, did she write enough? To the second question our answer would be that ‘personality’ and ‘performance’ are two aspects of a man or woman, and in our rigid insistence upon the latter, we are apt to miss all that the former means. The following from a modern English author and critic may be read with interest in this context:
There are a good many vivid and charming people who have given themselves freely in all directions......Such men and women have inspired deep emotions, have loved intensely, have cast a glow upon the lives of a large circle, have said delicate, sympathetic, perceptive and suggestive things, have given meaning and joy to life, have radiated interest and charm…..Their talk with all its quick and glancing effects has never been recorded, their glances and gestures, so unforgettably beautiful, can hardly be rendered in words....Yet, they have shown what we all most need to feel–the beauty and significance of life. 28
Those who had a personal acquaintance with Mrs. Sarojini Naidu will accept every word of this description as absolutely true of her. Then as to whether she was wise in devoting herself to politics in preference to poetry in the latter half of her career, it may be said that national life is not always in water-tight compartments and the poet cannot be divorced from the life of the time. John Milton, whose life was one of dedication to the worship of the Muses and who very early in life made up his mind to attempt a noble poem which would make him and his English tongue immortal in world history, could not keep quiet when his countrymen were striking a blow for freedom. “I considered it base,” he wrote, “that while my fellow-countrymen were fighting at home for liberty. I should be travelling abroad for intellectual culture,” the result being the poet’s involving himself in the political strife of the time and suspension of poetic activity for two decades. Here is Mrs. Naidu’s explanation of her ‘conduct’ in deserting the pipe and the flute:
The function of a poet is not to be merely isolated in an ivory tower of dreams set in a garden of roses, but his place is with the people: in the dust of the highways, in the difficulties of the battle is the poet’s destiny .......
Therefore, today in the hour of struggle, when in your hands it lies to win victory for India, I, a weak woman, have come out of my home. I, a dreamer of dreams, have come out in the market-place and I say: “Go forth, comrades, to victory.” 29
That Sarojini the poet was full of love for the country from the beginning of her career, To India, The Lotus and Awake! amply illustrate. The first of these is an address to the Motherland:
O young through all thy immemorial years!
Rise, Mother, rise, regenerate from they gloom.
And, in imploring her to wake up, she tells why:
The nations that in fettered darkness weep
Crave thee to lead them where great mornings break.
Words which look like a prophecy considering India’s relations with the Asiatic nations today! In The Lotus, which is dedicated to M. K. Gandhi, she shows how that mystic flower, ‘sacred and sublime’, is symbolical of this ancient country. “Wild-bee hordes” from far-off places have come but none could “devastate thy lovelines,” or attain “Thine ageless beauty” and the Lotus remains,
In myriad-petalled grace inviolate,
Supreme o’er transient storms of tragic Fate.
The third poem, Awake!, which was recited at The Indian National Congress of 1915, reveals her faith in a United India. Hindus, Parsees, Mussalmans, Christians and people belonging to all creeds offer their ‘dauntless devotion’ to the Mother and give this assurance:
Lo! we would thrill the high stars with thy story,
And set thee again in the forefront of glory.
Mrs. Naidu’s entry into politics may be, in the opinion of some, loss to the cause of poetry, but has she not enriched the country’s life in her own way? “Her whole life,” says Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, “became a poem and a song. She infused poetry into our national struggle just as the Father of the Nation had infused moral grandeur into it.” In other words, whatever the sphere of her activity, the poetical faculty was always there. She was a poet first
and poet last.
If Poet Sarojini’s verse is limited in quantity, she has given us a good deal of prose-poetry in the shape of speeches delivered at meetings, political or other. She is essentially a lyrist and whether the subject is ‘The Message of the Indian National Congress’, ‘Poetry and Life’ or ‘The Candle of Vision’, it is all lyric prose, all sweetness. Her marvellous command of English idiom and accent, her melodious voice, and the easy flow of poetic imagery from her lips made her one of the greatest orators of the world. She never wrote out her speech beforehand. Whether it was a long speech like the Inaugural Address of a College Union or the Indian Writers’ Conference, or a short one, not going beyond fifteen minutes, like the President’s concluding remarks at meetings where others spoke, the audience felt inspired; they were in fact carried off their feet. To those of us who were in Madras during the time of Mrs. Annie Beasant and listened to her speeches in the city or elsewhere, 30 Dr. Beasant was the last word in English oratory, and to us in India that place was, after her death, taken by Mrs. Sarojini Naidu.
It seems to us that this type of eloquence is fast disappearing in the modern age. The Rt. Hon‘ble V. S. Sastri, who spoke and wrote flawless English and who cultivated the language with great assiduity, was expressing, sometime back, his disapproval of the increasing popularity of ‘manuscript eloquence’ in India. Commenting on the decline of oratory, a contributor to the B. B. C. Quarterly says that, “broadcasting is the conquering enemy of that traditional oratory which has moved mankind through all the ages.” 31 One can see, then, what a loss to Indian literary life has been the death of Mrs. Naidu. Here is an appreciation of her oratorical gifts by Madame Halide Edib of Turkey which is interesting. It is a homage paid by one famous woman of the modern world to another:
To speak is as easy for her as it is for a fish to swim…Her body rises with her edifice of words and imagery, so that, curiously enough, the short woman who begins the speech grows taller and taller as she reaches the end, electrifying audiences, almost hypnotizing them into believing in a free India. She is the earliest of the sowers of the seed and without her Modern India would be inconceivable.
An account of Mrs. Sarojini Naidu’s life and work cannot be complete without a reference to her wonderful sense of humour. Humour is the recognition of incongruity in men and things. It is one’s capacity to get amusement out of life and is, therefore, a sign of one’s enjoyment of life. Whether it was a private conversation or a lecture on a platform to a big audience, Mrs. Naidu’s wit and humour were the first things that struck anybody. A few instances might be quoted here. She was one day giving the Valedictory Address of the Nizam College Union and the student who took the chair referred more often than necessary, to the members of the fair sex, students of the college, who were present at the meeting in large numbers. In the course of her speech, Mrs. Naidu, suddenly remembering this, said, “I make this appeal to the members of the fair sex on my right and those of the unfair sex on my left.” The student-president was of course seated on her left! On a certain morning one of the frequent visitors to the Golden Threshold took with him a scholar and educationist and in introducing him to Mrs. Naidu said, “This is my cousin, Professor–” “Cousin on the father’s side or mother’s?” “Mother’s side.” “Yes, I knew that.” She wanted to suggest, just for the fun of it; that all good things must come from the mother than the father! Once the Principal of one of the local college asked Mr. E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India who happened to be in Hyderabad at the time, to tea and invited about a dozen guests including Mrs. Naidu. It was a most pleasant afternoon. Mrs. Naidu being the principal ‘talker’. While the tea was going on she asked the chief guest, “Have yon seen–?”, showing with signs and gestures whom she had meant, for the moustache was the most conspicuous part of the gentleman’s personality! “He is a sight; you must see him before you leave.” The fact that he was highly placed or that he was a good friend of hers was no consideration with her. Her humour made no distinction between friends and foes and she enjoyed nothing more heartily than a joke at her own expense! When she was at Lucknow in the gubernatorial Gadi and people who had gone, there to pay their respects to her referred to her as Governor, she said, “I am only a Governess, you know!” She had such an abundance of humour that she spared nobody. She was probably the only one among the leaders of India who could take that liberty with Tagore and Gandhi, in whose presence others talked only in whispers. Otherwise,
To quote what the latter said to her years ago, “Who else dare be so irreverent? 32 In the year 1933, when Tagore visited Hyderabad, one of his engagements was a reception arranged by the Teachers’ Association at the City College. Mrs. Naidu, who presided, in introducing the distinguished guest, said (by way of pointing out that, though old in years, in enthusiasm he was younger than the youngest of them), “Do you think simply because this man has a white beard he is old?” There was thunderous applause from the audience and the Poet smiled and began to stroke his beard–probably he was not conscious of it–as though to tell every one that he relished the joke as much as anyone else. A few years ago, the political leaders of India headed by Mrs. Naidu were gathered at Sewagram in connection with the Kasturba Memorial Fund and as she was putting the purse, containing one crore of rupees, into Mahatma Gandhi’s hands, the poet-dreamer said, suppose I run away with this money. What will you do?” To this the great mystic immediately replied, “I know you are capable of doing that.” Humour is the salt of life and without it life would be tasteless. Where it is healthy and genuine and not bitter or cynical, it is a proof not only of our success in getting the best out of life but also our ability in making others happy.
To conclude, Sarojini Naidu was a most uncommon personality ‘a rare creature’33 who occupied a peculiar place in our national life. She was not merely a poet, patriot and orator. She was an empress among women. She was the glory of womanhood. She was a Sarojini(Lotus) as in the Sarovar (Lake) of Indian culture. In her sympathies and affections, breadth of outlook and castelessness, she resembled Anandamoyi. Tagore’s ideal of motherhood as presented in his Gora. A Suhaasini (Smiling One) and a Sumadhura Bhaashini (Sweet-tongued One), she had the attributes of the Bhaarata Janani (the country as mother) to whom Babu Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, one of the makers of Modern India, whose lofty poetic imagination and deep patriotism have given us the immortal Vande Mataram, 34 pays reverent homage. In her power of eloquence, she was like Vaani (Goddess of Speech). In being a Lalita (Charming One), Sarva-Mangala (Ever-auspicious One), Visaalaakshi (Big-eyed One), Sakti (Heroic One) Vijaya (Victorious One) and Mahaamaaya (Great Illusion), she represented better than any other person of her time, several phases of the Eternal Woman who is the shape in which the Supreme Creative Force of the World is worshipped by millions of people in this ancient land.
Sarojini Devi was all this for us. She has gone. When comes such another?
1 Nightfall in the City of Hyderabad,’ ‘The Royal Tombs of Golconda,’ ‘Ya Mahbub,’ ‘The Hussain Saagar,’ ‘At Twilight’ (On the Way to Golconda), etc.
2 Major M. G. and Mrs. Naidu’s home in Hyderabad. It was named after the first volume of poems published by the latter in 1905.
3 Cp. Editorial of March 5, 1949.
4 Cp. ‘Indian Weavers. ‘The Pardah Nashin’ ‘Vasant Panchami,’ ‘Bangle-sellers’, ‘The Festival of Serpents’, ‘Kali the Mother’ etc.
5 Cp. Sirisha, Neem Champa, Koel Papeeha., Ghazals, Muezzin, Ram re Ram, Ahura Mazda, ‘La ilaha illa-Allah, etc.
6 Only one poem ‘The Child’ was written directly in English.
8 ‘A Love Song from the North’.
9 Cp. Tribute to Sarojini Naidu by Sri T. Prakasam.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Cp. Babu Rajendra Prasad on Mrs. Naidu.
11 According to Greek legend, Philomela, an unhappy woman, was transformed by the gods into the nightingale.
12 Cp. ‘To the Nightingale’ (Coleridge), ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (Keats), ‘Philomeal’ (Arnold), ‘Nightingales’ (Bridges).
13 ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’.
15 From ‘A Love Song from the North’. Papeeha is a bird that comes in the mango season.
16 A person belonging to the aboriginal hill tribes of India.
17 What we read ‘Song of Radha the Milkmaid.’ we call to mind ‘Vikretukama kila Gopakanya’ from ‘Srikrishna Karnamritam’.
18 Cp. Ah with the Grape my fading Life provide
And wash my Body whence the Life has died
And in a Winding sheet of Vine-leaf wrapt
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.
19 The ashes of the dead.
20 The confluence of the rivers Musi and Kusi, where the Asti immersion ceremony took place.
21 The collected poems of Sarojini Naidu.
22 Cp. Jayadeva’s ‘Radhamadhavayorjayanti Yamunakule Rahahkelaya’.
23 From ‘In a Time of Flowers.’
25 Fra Lippo Lippi.
26 Govinda (The Cowherd) is not only the name of Krishna Radha’s Lover, but also that of Poet Sarojini’s husband an eminent doctor of medicine and a noble specimen of taste and culture whose full name is M. Govindarajulu Naidu. What was said of Shelley by one of his biographers, that his life and his bit poetry are indissolubly connected may not be untrue of Sarojini Naidu. Among her poems we find four little pieces addressed to her children to whom she was a most affectionate mother and ‘In Salutation to My Father’s Spirit,’ a poem in honour of Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, the first Principal of the first college founded in the Hyderabad State, of whom she always spoke with pride. There is a poem in memory of Gokhale and there is one inscribed to Gandhi, not to speak of Odes etc., relating to others who enjoyed her friendship and esteem.
27 Music festival named after Tyagaraja, the great South Indian Bhakta (Devotee) and song-maker.
28 A. C. Brown: ‘The Art of the Biographer.’
29Address delivered at Conjeevaram as President of the Madras Provincial Conference in 1917.
30 In the December of 1917, Mrs. Besant spoke at several places in Andhradesa and the addresses she delivered at Rajahmundry were two of the very best speeches in English ever heard by anybody.
31 Quoted from ‘The Hindu’ of March 28, 1949.
32 33 ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ by H. S. L. Polak etc. p. 7.
34 ‘Greetings to Thee, Mother!’ a national song which has been a source of inspiration to hundreds of thousands of our countrymen during the last forty or fifty years.