Sarojini Naidu, Cultural Exchange and Anti-Imperialism

Sarojini Naidu was a nineteenth century poet and political activist. Her upbringing was, in a sense, privileged because she was born into a middle-class family of well-educated Brahmins. Her father was a scientist and her mother a Bengali poet, so she also had strong literary ties. This gave her the space and opportunity to write and develop her English poetry and yet this was not the sum of her ambition. She used her connections, English education and social standing to embark on a political career that would advocate for women’s rights and Indian independence from Britain.

A precocious and driven young woman, she started writing poetry aged just thirteen, in the style of Tennyson. At sixteen her family sent her to study in England, first at King’s College London and later at Cambridge. This was, in part, a bid to separate her from the man she loved, a man much older than her and of a different caste, yet she remained defiant and despite her parents’ objections married him when she returned to India aged nineteen.[1]

She had four children in rapid succession and it was in this period of domestic bliss that she dedicated herself to composing poetry. Her poems rejoice in varying meters and using highly decorated, trilling cadences akin to singing, in order to create a romantic vision of India – recalling an ancient mythic India. They also provide idyllic re-enactments of life in India’s provincial towns and bustling metropolises, as well as revealing her abiding patriotism.[2]

Political Activism

However, she had always been attracted to the nationalist cause and was known for her brilliance as a public speaker. In 1914, she met Gandhi and committed herself to Indian Independence from Britain – he gave her the title ‘the Nightingale of India’.[3] Today she is mainly remembered as an Indian national icon rather than as a poet, though there has been an attempt in recent scholarship to revive her poetry and its contribution to the decadent period.

Sarojini Naidu with Gandhi in London (1931). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Among the early Indian feminists, Naidu was a committed egalitarian, promoting Hindu-Muslim unity and the rights of women by speaking out in favour of suffrage, widows’ remarriage and the need for women’s education. She became the first women president of the National Congress in 1925, survived a number of stints in prison and after independence was made the Governer of Uttar Pradesh in 1947. She died while in office.

To return to her juvenilia, though, it is in ‘Sunalini: A Passage from Her Life’, an unpublished fragment composed in Switzerland before marriage, that Naidu describes being struck by the epiphany that she was a poet with ‘new irresistible, unutterable longings and sensations’.[4] She expresses these newfound longings continually in her poetry through a celebration of woman and womanhood, and a deep devotion to the country she loved dearly.[5]

The Symons and Gosse Effect

Arthur Symons (1906) Photographed by A.L. Coburn, NYPL. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

During her time in England, Naidu met Arthur Symons and Edmund Gosse. Symons, who penned an introduction for The Golden Threshold (her major work), praised the ‘bird-like quality’ of her poems, which ‘hint, in a sort of delicately evasive way, at a rare temperament, the temperament of a women of the East finding expression through a Western language and under partly Western influences’. [6] They became fast friends and would continue to correspond after she returned to India.

Yet it was to Edmund Gosse that Naidu dedicated this major work, crediting him with showing her ‘the way to The Golden Threshold’.[7] Hence it is unsurprising that Naidu closely followed his recommendations, seeking out a poetic style that was not a hangover ‘of Anglo-Saxon sentiment in an Anglo-Saxon setting but some revelation of the heart of India’.[8]

Portrait of Sir Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent (1886). Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Both Symons and Gosse demonstrate that characteristically decadent fascination with, and categorisation of, the East as exotic, so it is interesting that what they revel in and encourage Naidu to do in her poetry is to fulfil their expectations of how Indian poetry should read – they suggest that the project of her poetry is, and should be, to get at the heart of the East. That is, it should luxuriate in the sensual, colourful, strange and spice-filled air of India so culturally different from home. This need to define, pierce and unveil the mysteries of the colonies is something that is rife in this period though it takes a slightly different form, say, in for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but what is recurring is this view of the colonies as exotic, as Other, as mysterious and essentially unknowable or ungraspable and yet a problem that must be solved, pinned down and owned.

Naidu took Gosse’s advice, noticeably Indianising her verse with relish. Notably, her poems never mention her experiences in Britain; rather, they gives us mythic heroines like Sita and Savitri, legendary figures like Padmini of Chittor and Princess Zebunnissa; images and conceits from the Urdu ghazal and the Gita Govinda: champak and rosebud, bulbul and nightingale. These romanticized images began filling her poetry, framed in the alliterative and melodic stanzas that were to become her trademark.[9]

East is East

If we consider one of Naidu’s poems, “The Snake-Charmer”, on first appearance this poem looks like it is just fulfilling the brief of Symons/Gosse, appealing to a call for verse that is exotic, opulent and other-worldly:

Whither dost thou hide from the magic of my flute-call?

In what moonlight-tangled meshes of perfume,

Where the clustering keoras guard the squirrel’s slumber,

Where the deep woods glimmer with the jasmine’s bloom?[10]

Everything is designed to appeal to the senses; in fact, there is something of a sensory overload in these stanzas. Naidu provides an over-abundance of fragrances: ‘perfume’, ‘jasmine’s bloom’ and pleasing sounds, ‘flute-call’, all suffused under the light of the moon.  Nature itself seems to guard the peace of the woodland with its world-wearied and slumbering squirrels being shielded from the snake by ‘clustering keoras’, a flower whose scent is said to attract snakes.

Perhaps unexpectedly, what we get is no simple, sensationalized description of a snake charmer, whereby someone entertains a crowd by playing music and causing a snake to rise out of a basket; rather, what Naidu presents the reader with is a harmonious, almost Edenic scene that has been inverted. This speaker is no Eve and the snake does not mean her damnation; it is the site of an unabashed female desire, even if the object of her affections evades her:

Whither dost thou loiter, by what murmuring hollows,

Where oleanders scatter their ambrosial fire?

Come, thou subtle bride of my mellifluous wooing,

Come, thou silver-breasted moonbeam of desire![11]

Naidu inverts gender roles by presenting her speaker as sexually forward, active in her ‘wooing’, and knowledgeable about sexual conduct. She reveals the speaker’s anxiety that her ‘beloved’[12] may have fallen into the arms of another women in the first stanza when she asks ‘In what moonlight-tangled meshes of perfume’ are you that you cannot hear my ‘flute-call’? Her speaker knows the rules of the game of seduction and she seeks to turn the tables, seducing the ultimate tempter – the snake. These expressions of female desire are not just for the undeniably phallic ‘snake’, so are not limited to conveying sexual desire, but for the creative power of poetry that has previously been a male domain, especially considering the wider Western and Eastern literary canon, which has tended to be densely populated by male figures. In the literature of the Indian sub-continent this may be exemplified by the influence of male poets like Kabir, Ghalib and Iqbal.

Significantly, then, the speaker imagines her beloved ‘Where oleanders’ – a poisonous evergreen shrub grown for its pretty flowers – scatter their ‘ambroisal fire’. This phrase fuses together classical allusions to ambrosia (the food of the gods) with Promethean fire, which represents the gods’ ability to control life and death but also the creative power of the artist. Prometheus, in giving fire to mankind, not only allowed them to see, be illuminated, to create, and find sustenance but also be autonomous beings – no longer utterly dependent on the mercy of the gods. Thus, the speaker locates the snake where nature doles out its creative, artistic energy, in a hollow of poetical allusions, and calls out in hope that this creative force will be merged with her as her ‘bride’. This final gender reversal calls attention to the way in which the female poet seeks to outdo her male predecessors.

Criticism has tended to suggest that Naidu’s poetry suffers because it has a fetishizing Western vision of what the East is imposed on it by male aesthetes, who paternalistically taught her to write in the ‘language of slumberous, savage sexuality,’[13] which her English friends thought fit for her, though this is changing.[14] As such, I would like to point out that for all her exoticizing and romanticizing of India, Naidu was keenly aware of the oppressive legal and social constraints imposed on Indians, especially women, interrogating and actively fighting against the power structures that would limit her poetic, personal, and political agency. Bangles, the emblems of a woman’s marital status and duties, are smashed to pieces by the speaker of “Dirge” at the precise moment of her husband’s passing.[15] Naidu presents this grief-stricken act as a rebellion against the society that would rob a woman of all her finery, social freedom, and condemn her to wear white for the rest of her life to mark her as a widow:

Shatter her shining bracelets, break the string

Threading the mystic marriage-beads that cling

Loth to desert a sobbing throat so sweet,

Unbind the golden anklets on her feet

Divest her of her azure veils and cloud

Her living beauty in a living shroud.[16]

If Naidu were able to answer such accusations of fetishization, she may well have repeated her words to the All-India Writers Conference in 1948. Public speaking was always her calling and here she powerfully reveals her Romantic approach to writing poetry, stressing the need for impulse and spontaneity, and sums up her nationalistic opinion of the issue of Indian literature in English[17]:

Be masters of whatever language you like, so long as it is the language of the human heart and spirit. Literature is the only way the truth can be kept alive.[18]


Zaynub Zaman (@zizizaman) completed her PhD in English from the University of Liverpool earlier this year, researching the presence of Dante in the works of Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti with particular interest in medieval mysticism and sexuality.  She has contributed articles to Pre-Raphaelite Society Review including ‘The Passion: the influence of the High Church on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Aestheticism’ (27.3, 2019) and ‘Talking that Talk: negatively speaking’ (23.1, 2015) both examining Rossetti’s poetry.  Other research interests include the relationship between literature and religion at the turn of the nineteenth century, post-colonialism and Islamic mystical poetry from the Early Mystics to Ghalib.

Notes & references

[1] Lisa Rodensky, ed., “Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949),” in Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, (London: Penguin, 2006), 294.

[2] Ranjana Sidhanta Ash, “Two Early-Twentieth-Century Women Writers: Cornelia Sorabji and Sarojini Naidu,” in A History of Indian Literature in English, ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrota (London: Hurst & Co., 2003), 131.

[3] As quoted in Izzat Yar Khan, Sarojini Naidu: The poet, (New Delhi: S. Chand and Co, 1983), 17.

[4] Sarojini Naidu, “Sunalini: a passage from her life,” Manuscript, EUR A95. British Library.

[5] Ash, 132.

[6] Arthur Symons, ed., “Introduction,” in The Golden Threshold by Sarojini Naidu, (London: Heinemann, 1905), 10.

[7] Naidu, The Golden Threshold, p.3.

[8] Edmund Gosse, ed., “Introduction,” in The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death & the Spring by Sarojini Naidu (London: Heinemann, 1912), 5.

[9] Ash, 132.

[10] Naidu, “The Snake-Charmer”, in Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, 215, lines 1-4.

[11] Naidu, “The Snake-Charmer”, 215, lines 9-12.

[12] Naidu, “The Snake-Charmer”, 215, line 6.

[13] Talia Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England, (University Press of Virginia, 2000), 28.

[14] See Malashri Lal, “The Golden Threshold of Sarojini Naidu,” in The Law of the Threshold, (Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000), who contends that Naidu’s poems are not written in her own voice but follow the mandate of Edmund Gosse for Indian poetry. For an approach that defines Naidu’s modernism in terms other than mimicry or nostalgia, see Anna Snaith, “Sarojini Naidu, Feminist Nationalism and Cross-Cultural Poetics,” in Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London 1890-1945, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014), 67-89.

[15] Ash, 133.

[16] Naidu, The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death & the Spring, 14, lines 13-18.

[17] Ash, 134.

[18] Sarojini Naidu, Proceedings of the Second All-India Writers’ Conference (All India Centre, 1950), p.22.

Header image: A young Sarojini (1912). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Works Cited

Ash, Ranjana Sidhanta. “Two Early-Twentieth-Century Women Writers: Cornelia Sorabji and Sarojini Naidu”. In A History of Indian Literature in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrota, 126-135. London: Hurst & Co., 2003.

Khan, Izzat Yar. Sarojini Naidu: The Poet. New Delhi: S. Chand and Co, 1983.

Lal, Malashri. “The Golden Threshold of Sarojini Naidu”. In The Law of the Threshold. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000.

Naidu, Sarojini. The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death & the Spring. London: Heinemann, 1912.

—— The Golden Threshold. London: Heinemann, 1905.

—— et al. Proceedings of the Second All-India Writers’ Conference. All India Centre, 1950.

—— “Sunalini: a passage from her life,” Manuscript, EUR A95. British Library.

Rodensky, Lisa, ed. Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu. London: Penguin, 2006.

Schaffer, Talia. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Snaith, Anna. “Sarojini Naidu, Feminist Nationalism and Cross-Cultural Poetics”. In Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London 1890-1945, 67-89. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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