Have you heard of a lady called Sarla Thakral? Well, she was the first Indian woman pilot, getting her aviation license when she was just 21 years old, in 1936. She got it for flying a Gypsy Moth solo from Karachi to Lahore. So what? Well she was then a married woman with a 4 year old kid and had become the first woman to enter the cockpit in a saree.
Wow! That is interesting! Tell some more!
An early start and her first innings
In 1914, Sarla was born in Delhi. Pertinent to the times, her marriage took place early at the tender age of 16. She tied the knot with P D Sharma, also a pilot, and the initiator behind her achievement. Not only was her husband, but even more enthusiastic was her father-in-law, who was very eager that she take up flying lessons. In fact it was he, who got her to join a flying club.
Like she said, “My husband was the first Indian to get airmail pilot’s license and flew between Karachi and Lahore. It wasn’t so much of him though. My father-in-law was even more enthusiastic and got me enrolled in the flying club. I knew I was breaching a strictly male bastion but I must say the men, they never made me feel out of place”.
Her husband P. D. Sharma, also a Captain, came from a family of 9 pilots. Naturally there was an environment and the encouragement that she received, helped her to become a pilot. Sarla attained her ‘A’ license when she accumulated over 1000 hours of flying in 1936! That was when she was 21 and mother to a four year old child.
She went on to try for the ‘B’ license that would then allow her to fly commercial aircraft. Three years later, in 1939, when she was in Jodhpur for her training, she lost her husband in a flight crash, and she, alone at 24, with two daughters to support, was yet to get her ‘B’ license. By then World War II had broken out, civil training was suspended and her dreams came crashing to the ground.
In 1939, this dedicated follower of the Arya Samaj, though she had a fierce ambition to become a commercial pilot, dropped her plans for the sake of her children. Instead she went on to pursue a Diploma in fine arts at Mayo School of Art at Lahore, where she trained in the Bengal school of painting for a career and obtained a Diploma in Fine Arts.
A second innings in life
After the Partition, she along with her two daughters moved to Delhi. Here she started life afresh as an entrepreneur and businesswoman. One of her clients was Vijayalaxmi Pandit! “I dabbled in designing costume jewellery, which was not only worn by the who’s who of that time, but also supplied it to Cottage Emporium for 15 years. After that, I took to block printing and the sarees designed by me were well sought after. This too continued for 15 years. Then I began designing for the National School of Drama and all along I kept painting.”
Arya Samaj, a spiritual community dedicated to following the teachings of the Vedas was broad-minded and liberal where re-marriage was a possibility for Thakral. Being an Arya Samaji made it easier for her to remarry her second husband P.P.Thakral, as widow remarriage was encouraged.
Lessons in life from the lady called Sarla Thakral
Sarla Thakral was an independent, strong-willed woman right till her last. Once when she was being interviewed, close to her last years, she said, “I believe in doing things with my own hands. I don’t waste time, don’t take an afternoon nap and don’t need help to cook and for other chores. Working keeps me busy, helps me fight loneliness,” She was honoured for being the oldest yet the fittest person in her neighbourhood.
Always active and involved, writing out shlokas from the Vedas as gifts for her friends, she practiced the art of calligraphy passionately and rued that children of the day did not practise writing as much as it was necessary to write neatly and legibly.
Thakral succeeded in establishing herself as a renowned painter and supplied her jewelry designs to several cottage industries for over 20 years. She also had started textile printing and sari prints that did amazingly well in the fashionable crowd. All going to show, that her dynamism was unflagging to the end. “Every morning I wake up and chart out my plans. If there is plenty of work I feel very happy otherwise I feel a precious day has been wasted,” she said.
Her motto was a very big asset “Ever since I was a girl guide in school, my motto was: always be happy. It is very important for us to be happy and cheerful. After all we humans unlike animals have been blessed with the gift of being able to laugh. This one motto has seen me tide over the crises in my life”.
A salute to Sarla Thakral
There have been many firsts in Indian women’s aviation. Prem Mathur, who became the first Indian woman commercial pilot to fly a domestic airline in 1947, Durba Banerjee, who became the first woman pilot of Indian Airlines in 1956 and Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, who was the first woman officer of the IAF to be promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal in 2002, are all news to cheer. But Sarla Thakral, when she became a pilot way back in 1936, when women fliers were a rare breed and India had yet to see one in a male monopolized profession, her achievement is extremely laudable as a pioneering effort despite the odds.
Her passing away is ambiguous with some putting it as end of 2008, others as March 2009. For millions of Indians she represents a bright spark and resurgent spirit that remains alive till this day and will continue to be so.