Disavowing Naidu: Nationalism and Decadent Poetics in India


  • Sriya Chakraborty


When I was first introduced to the work of Sarojini Naidu in my graduate class, ‘Globalization and Transnational Decadence’, I was shocked and uncomfortable – shocked because, in my twenty-plus years of education in India, I had only tangentially encountered Naidu’s poetry as ‘nationalist’, or at best, lyrically redolent of precolonial pastoralism; and uncomfortable, because the history of sexual excess, narcissism, and misogyny in decadent literature was sharply at odds with the Naidu I remembered from my middle school English classes. Intrigued by what I thought was a taxonomic inaccuracy, I reviewed the current curricula of a few top- and middle-tier Indian universities, which, predictably, yielded no surprises – Naidu is still being taught in India under modules that examine ‘themes such as nation-building, the politics of language, and the rewriting of history’[i] or ‘the polyphonic images of the Indian society’. While the University of Calcutta syllabus makes a passing reference to the ‘ambivalent attitude towards colonial resistance realized since the latter half of the nineteenth century’, the term ‘decadent’ – which faced conservative backlash after the widely publicized Oscar Wilde trials – is conveniently missing from prefatory accounts of Naidu’s poetry in India.