Now that we have celebrated the 73rd Independence Day, let us remember that 2019 is also the 140th birth anniversary year of Sarojini Naidu. Amidst the political turmoil and clampdown in Kashmir, there is a need to revisit our political legacies and the right to dissent. Naidu’s political poetry invites us to reconsider if the personal is synonymous with the political. Her poetry, written from within the nationalist arena for our fight for freedom, significantly shaped her persona. She was the first Indian woman to become the President of the Indian National Congress and the first woman to become the Governor of an Indian State. Naidu’s poetry is usually described as lyrical, personal, mellifluous and sentimental. However, her deployment of poetry in her speeches and her political poetry provide a more complicated picture. As a feminist and a nationalist, Naidu’s poetry guided her role as a public intellectual. As is evident from her most anthologized poems, such as ‘Coromandel Fishers’ or ‘Palanquin Bearers’, Naidu’s canonical poems are similar in tone and tenor. The reception of her poetry continues to revolve around her lyrical aesthetics and the female body in writing.
Instead of discrediting one for the other, it is more useful to look at her political poetry as we rethink Naidu’s legacy today. While critics have often noted her cosmopolitan stance, equal attention has not been paid to the local aspects of that cosmopolitanism. Without this deep rootedness in the quotidian, Naidu’s poetry would appear naïvely vacuous and romantic. As we see from her poems on Hyderabad, it is the rich colours and flavours of the locale that intimate her nationalism. In the section entitled ‘In the Bazaars of Hyderabad’ from ‘Songs of My City’, she echoes the vibrant rhythms of the bazaar:
What do you weave, O ye flower-girls
With tassels of azure and red?
Crowns for the brow of a bridegroom,
Chaplets to garland his bed,
Sheets of white blossoms new-gathered
To perfume the sleep of the dead.
Naidu’s successful political persona drew on precisely such a configuration that was cosmopolitan with a finger on the pulse of the provincial. In fact, it can be argued that Naidu’s politics enacted a rhetoric that is poetic in its inspiration, in its commitment to nonviolence and civil disobedience. In 1930 she played a major role in the Civil Disobedience Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. She also participated in the Salt March as part of the Direct Action campaign of tax resistance and non-violent protest against British Salt monopoly.
As in her poetry, Naidu’s politics too emphasizes concrete action based on a symbolic conception of self and action. In her poems like ‘Invincible’, ‘A Challenge to Fate’ or ‘The Soul’s Prayer’ that centre on notional tribulations, the poet issues defiance as the answer again and again. Is her defiance spiritual or political—or both?
Naidu’s poetry is sometimes speciously dismissed as merely imitative of European styles. Writing in English as a result of her complex linguistic heritage, she also delivered speeches in English. Her parents were Bengali but she grew up in Hyderabad where she learnt Urdu. This historical background also tells us about her colonial British education, and her indebtedness to it for her intellectual and artistic growth. Her usage of English is a dynamic negotiation of these overlapping identities to appeal to the masses as a public figure akin to the colonial administrators.
It is with this understanding that we should also consider the female self in Naidu’s poetry. The ‘woman question’ taken up by the Indian nationalists is further problematized by Naidu’s vision of India. More than a few poems directly link the deprivation of the Indian subject to female suffering. Why is subjectivity cast through female selves and figurations? As a woman poet, the public turmoil of the nation is allied with the female figure.
This poetic engendering has two implications; one, in the projection of her gender onto the canvas of the nation, the national identity is personalized as female for herself and for all women. Secondly, in Naidu’s poetry, personal despair is not overshadowed by political commitments or propagandist exhortations. Her poetic craft retains the deeply personal dimension in what is ultimately the communal activity of politics. It also implicates the subjugation of the nation in the oppression of women and necessitates the uplift of women in the nation-building she envisions. Indeed, the Civil Disobedience Movement saw women becoming mass participants in the struggle for freedom. Naidu was, in fact, one of the first women to be arrested for breaking the Salt Law. This gendered role is evident in ‘To India’ where she writes,
Thy Future calls thee with a manifold sound
To crescent honours, splendours, victories vast;
Waken, O slumbering Mother and be crowned,
Who once wert empress of the sovereign Past.
As a bard of Indian English poetry, this was the public face of her Indian Independence activism. Even as she was portrayed by Europeans as an exotic ‘other’, and also too easily dismissed by some male Indian nationalists, by aligning herself with the goal of Indian freedom in her poetry, she resisted being constructed as an outsider. This is evidenced in her writing about her own poetry as a creative style that is demanded of her by the Indian public. In this niche, she actively embraced the personal and the emotional to sustain her political project.
Naidu’s political poetry also institutes the role of the poet in a public economy. In her refusal to disentangle poetry and politics, it is the function of the poet to inspire the masses. In ‘Awake’, she writes:
The night is aflush with a dream of the morrow,
Why still dost thou sleep in thy bondage of sorrow?
Awaken and sever the woes that enthral us,
And hollow our hands for the triumphs that call us
In one of her speeches, she directly addressed the role of the poet: ‘…and often they have said to me: “why have you deserted the pipes and flute of the poet to be the most strident trumpet of those who stand and call the nation to battle?” Because the function of the poet is not merely to be isolated in ivory towers 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 battle is the poet’s destiny. The one reason why he is a poet is that in the hour of danger, in the hour of defeat and despair, the poet should say to the dreamer: “If you dream true, all difficulties, all illusions, all despair are but Maya: the one thing that matters is hope. Here I stand before you with your higher dreams, your invisible courage, your indomitable victories.”’
It is intriguing how Naidu’s political poetry does not fully subscribe to binary divisions between the home and the world, or the household and the political community. Rather than posit such a dichotomy, we find Naidu conflating the personal and the private. The personal does not then signify the individual only as a socio-political unit of the nation, but it also comprises personal angsts and sorrows. This compelling formulation allows Naidu to be lyrical and yet not subsume the individual within the national agenda as an accidental footnote. In ‘Medley—A Kashmiri Song’, she writes:
The poppy grows on the roof-top,
The iris flowers on the grave;
Hope in the heart of a lover,
And fear in the heart of a slave.
This is fascinating considering how usually writers’ political commitment finds form in their work that is indistinguishable from their politics. Naidu’s poetics resists such a regimented conformity in reimagining the individual vis-à-vis the nation. She is not just an ideologue, but also a poet. But, of course, that is why she was popularly known as the Bharatiya Kokila—the Nightingale of India.
Susan Haris is a doctoral candidate in Literature and Philosophy in IIT Delhi.