Sarojini Naidu was born on 13 February, 1879 as the eldest of eight children. Her father, Aghorenath Chattopadhyay was a great scholar who was a close associate of Keshab Chandra Sen and a follower of Brahmoism. His favourite subject being chemistry, he later became an ardent alchemist and after taking his D.Sc from Edinburgh University settled down in Hyderabad where he founded a college and became involved in politics and social work as a revolutionary reformer.
Hence Sarojini’s girlhood was spent in Hyderabad where she was exposed to “a museum of wisdom and culture”, particularly to Moghul art and culture. Though born a Bengali, Sarojini spoke Hindustani and Telugu and not only acquired a mastery over the English language but also found in it an excellent medium for her creativity.
While only 13, she wrote a long poem of 1300 lines, ‘a la Lady of the Lake’ and a full-fledged drama of 2000 lines. She had the sensational distinction of standing first in the Matriculation Examination of Madras University in 1891 when she was only 12, but she took no academic degree, not even in London and Cambridge though with her reading in English literature and her contact with the literary world in London, she became a member of the Royal Literary Society and received doctoral degrees from many universities. Soon after her return to India she married the man she loved, Dr. Naidu in the face of great opposition from her parents.
Sarojini dedicated her first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold to Edmund Gosse and in his excellent introduction to the second volume of her poetry, The Bird of Time Mr. Gosse spoke of her as the “most accomplished living poet of India”. It was Gosse who gave a pragmatic direction to Sarojini as a poetess and both Gosse and Arthur Symons have spoken a great deal of her talents and personality.
It is significant that both Gosse and Symons were prominent men of letters at the time, Symons being a symbolist whose well-known book The Symbolist Movement in Literature was a pioneer study. It was when symbolism and mysticism were very much in the air in England that “this mystic child of India with dreamy eyes” made her appearance on the literary scene taking the country by storm with the beauty, passionate intensity and the melody of her songs.
It was little wonder that’ Sarojini was called “The Nightingale of India” and later “Bharat Kokila” by Mahatma Gandhi. With the publication of The Broken Wing in 1917, however, Sarojini’s output of poems practically came to an end. One of the possible reasons was that she became increasingly conscious that she could not fit into the modern scene with the growing popularity of Georgian poetry and that her own school of poetry was becoming old-fashioned. There were also perhaps personal reasons like her disillusionment with love and marriage and with life in general, often expressing itself in self-pity and feelings of despair and frustration.
Sarojini was not just a poet, but a many-faceted personality who made an impact on the contemporary political scene. She was in fact elected President of the Indian National Congress at the Kanpur session in December 1925. She died on 13 February, 1949 having witnessed the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and delivered a funeral oration which became almost a classic in Indian English prose.
The present selection, “Indian Weavers” was one of the poems which, appeared in The Golden Threshold. It is a poem which is characteristic of the ornate oriental beauty which is depicted in most of the poems of this volume. The poem occurs in the first section entitled ‘Folk Songs’. It portrays in all vividness and colour a common Indian scene, a scene of rural weavers weaving cloth on handlooms.
The weavers, as they are deeply absorbed in their work, answer the questions put to them by the speaker, possibly a passer-by. The poem consists of three quatrains with “a peculiar pattern of prosodic rhythm woven into each stanza”. “The first line begins with two trochees and ends with two iambs, the second and third lines begin with a troche and end with three iambs, and the fourth line has two iambs, an anapest and an iamb again. The rhyme scheme is a abb”. (A.N. Dwivedi).
Weavers, weaving at break of day,
Why do you weave a garment so gay?…
Blue as the wing of a halcyon wild,
We weave the robes of a new-born child.
Weavers weaving at fall of night,
Why do you weave a garment so bright?…
Like the plumes of a peacock, purple and green,
We weave the marriage-veils of a queen.
Weavers weaving solemn and still,
What do you weave in the moonlight chill?…
White as a feather and white as a cloud,
We weave a dead man’s funeral shroud.
The pattern followed in each stanza is that of a question in the first two lines and an answer in the next two lines. The questions are one at dawn, another at dusk and the third at the moonlight hour.
The weaving of the web at break of day is pictured as synchronising with the halcyon bird spreading its blue wings. The gay-coloured garment is being woven for the new-born child. The halcyon, a variety of kingfisher, according to ancient belief is supposed to build its floating nest on the sea which remains calm in the winter solstice while the eggs were being hatched. So, this bird, a symbol of the spirit of creation had the power to charm the very ocean, for the purpose of breeding, into a cosmic calmness. All the images employed in this stanza are associated with birth and creation and with Nature’s colourful celebration of the coming of a new life.
The weavers weaving garments so bright and colourful accords well with the glory and magnificence of a royal wedding, ental hues.
Veils: Sarojini has a strong predilection for veils and veiled beauty as seen in many of her other poems like “The Queen’s Rival” and “Purdha Nashin”.
This scene is rather unrealistic, for weavers do not weave by moonlight. It is only a romantic picture. “Sarojini has used her right of poetic licence in suiting the weavers’ products to the colours of the day, morning nightfall and moonlight, another form of synchronising time and its passage with that of life itself and its journey from birth to death” (Padmini Sengupta, p. 26). The whole poem thus lends itself to symbolic interpretation and in Prof. Narasimhaiah’s words, “Here in twelve lines is an elliptical, allusive and symbolic presentation of life’s journey from birth to death” (The Swan and the Eagle, p. 22).
There is yet another symbolic allusion in this poem. There is a possible reference to the Fates, the sisters in Greek mythology, namely Clothos, Lachesis and Atropos who are believed to weave measure and cut the web of life corresponding to the Hindu Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (the creator, the preserver and the destroyer of life).
The words “solemn and still”, “moonlight chill” “white” and “funeral shroud” are all suggestive of death which again is symbolised by the night.