India's first woman pilot, Sarla Thakral (1914–2008) was encouraged to fly by her pilot husband and his father. Thakral received her A rating after 1,000 hours of training. Life intervened—her husband died and World War II erupted—and Thakral was unable to attain her goal of earning a commercial pilot's license. Enrolling in arts college, she became a jewelry and clothing designer and artist and worked well into her nineties.
Although her ambitions were not to strike a victory for women, Sarla Thakral has the distinction of being India's first woman pilot. Thakral was born in Delhi in 1914, when India was still part of the British Raj; the British would rule India until 1947, when the region was partitioned into the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Little has been written of Thakral's life prior to her marriage at age 16, to P.D. Shwarma. As was traditional for Indian women of her era, she went to live with her husband's family in the the city of Lahore, in the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent in what is now Pakistan. Her husband, a captain, came from a family of pilots—nine in all—and he had the distinction of being India's first airmail pilot. Captain Shwarma was assigned to the route between Lahore and Karachi.
Thakral, then known as Sarla Shwarma, and her husband gave birth to a daughter within their first year of marriage. Seeing his wife's interest and potential aptitude for flying, Captain Shwarma encouraged her to also participate in the family tradition. Because he was too busy with his flying assignments to teach her personally, her father-in-law escorted then-19-year-old Thakral to the local flying school to sign up for lessons.
Captain Shwarma was correct in his assessment: Thakral was a natural pilot. She showed up for lessons wearing a sari, happily clambering into the cockpit of her instructor's Gypsy Moth biplane. After eight hours and ten minutes of training, as she recalled in an interview many decades later, her instructor, a Mr. Natoor, pronounced her ready to fly solo. In aviation instruction, the first solo includes taking off, turning back, and landing while alone in the plane. It is a crucial first affirmation one's ability to be a pilot. Thakral didn't want to solo while her husband was away, however, so she asked Mr Natoor if they could wait for his return.
Soon after Captain Shwarma arrived home, Thakral successfully flew the Gypsy Moth solo, climbing to the required altitude, and returning for a successful landing. She had passed her first solo with flying colors, and would go on to more intensive training. After 1,000 more hours of training, in between caring for her husband and young child, she received her A certificate. It was 1936 and she was 21 years old.
Tragically, in 1939, Captain Shwarma was killed in an airplane crash. After a period of mourning, his young widow persevered, eventually traveling to Jodhpur to train for her commercial pilot's license. She loved flying and hoped to make aviation her career. Unfortunately, her plans were dashed when she was informed by the school that all civilian flying had been suspended. The British Raj had mobilized its resources around the mother country, Great Britain, who was now entering a war with Germany that would become World War II.
Thakral was a resourceful and talented young woman, and flying was not the only area where she displayed an aptitude. She returned to Lahore and applied to the Mayo School of Art, where she earned a diploma in the fine arts. In her degree work she specialized in the Bengali style of painting, and she created exquisite paintings of Bengali women in elegant dress. She also started a business designing and selling the costume jewelry popular among Indian women. It was a career choice and a living; she had a daughter to raise and wished to stand on her own feet in the world. Her creations were popular and sold well. She eventually began decorating long stretches of the colorful woven silk fabric used in the elegant, wraparound dresses called saris.
Even before After World War II, the British hold on the Indian subcontinent had been weakening. The non-cooperation movement begun by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 had done much to mobilize Indians frustrated with their lack of cultural and political independence. Much of the imperial treasury financed the war effort during World War II, and the British government was necessarily pulling back from its holdings in the world. The independence movement in India took advantage of the opportunity, and with insufficient forces to cull the many instances of civil insurrection, Britain's withdrawal from the subcontinent was assured. Complicating this withdrawal were the relationships within India, a massive subcontinent containing many distinct peoples, tribes, and religions.
In particular, the Muslim population wished to have its own nation. So in 1947, Britain and India agreed to partition the subcontinent according to the two-nations theory: they established the mostly Hindu Union of India in the east, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Muslim Dominion of Pakistan, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Although analysis had determined this as the best option, since most of the Muslim population lived in the west, implementation was tragically difficult. Many families were forced to leave their homes and move across the central border to avoid religious persecution and unite with relatives who may have relocated during British occupation. Muslims living in the Union of India now moved to the new state of Pakistan, and Hindus left the mostly Muslim Pakistan and moved east to India.
Then living in Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, Thakral recognized that she would have to leave the area where she had established her home and her business. Her neighbors, recognizing her plight as a Hindu, warned her of potential violence and promised to bang on a pipe if there was an approaching threat. Thakral packed what she could and left with her daughter on the train for Delhi. Their trip went smoothly, which was fortunate indeed, given the growing climate of communal violence throughout the former British Raj.
Once she and her daughter were safely arrived in Delhi, Thakral set up housekeeping and reestablished her jewelry and sari business. Her work became very popular in the newly independent society. Leading members of the new elite, such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, diplomat and sister of Prime Minister Nehru, was one of Thakral's customers. After a time, she also remarried. In traditional Hindu culture, the remarriage of widows is frowned upon, but in Thakral's spiritual community, the Arya Samaj, widow remarriage was encouraged. She and her second husband, P.P. Thakral, remained happily married for many years.
Thakral continued her painting and operated her clothing and jewelry business for many years. After her husband died and she once again found herself widowed, she rented out rooms in her big house, keeping a room in which to paint and create. She particularly enjoyed writing out shlokas, or sayings, from the Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures, for her friends.
In her 90s, Thakral was happy to share with others her determination to always be happy. To be human was to be given the gift of laughter, she told Smriti Kak Ramachandran in an interview for Tribune India, and that, she added, was what had gotten her through the difficult crises in her life. Thakral died in Delhi, India, on March 15, 2008, at age 94.
New Delhi Television Ltd. website, http://www.ndtv.com/ (August 13, 2006), “Down Memory Lane: First Woman Pilot Recounts Life Story”(video transcript).
The Better India website, http://www.thebetterindia.com/ (March 4, 2015), “11 Interesting Things You Probably Didn't Know about India's First Woman Pilot.”
Tribune India online, http://www.tribuneindia.com/ (February 5, 2006), Smriti Kak Ramachandran, “Flying Colors and Grounded Reality.”❑