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First Flying Woman: How Sarla Thukral made the cockpit a feminist space

Sarla Thukral

A few women set the path for other women, every woman, first in the field which presumed ‘as a space of men’ needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. So, today we celebrate Sarla Thukral, saree-clad, the first woman to soar heights. Sarla, lovingly called  Mati, is a symbol of strength for hundreds of women.

Before we move forward, let me put out a few stats on how we moved towards a stage of significant developments step by step and where you are today. Today, India is the country with the maximum number of women pilots in the world. “India tops in the proportion of women pilots than any other nation. Indian carriers employ close to 12.4% women pilots, which is much higher than the world average of 5.4%,” Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted, adding that Indian carriers employ close to 12.4% women pilots. Hardeep Puri Singh tweeted.

But before Prem Mathur, Durba Banerjee, and Padmavathu Bandopadhyay, 21-year-old Sarla Thukral, back in the year 1936 became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. Thurkal laid the foundation for Indian women to enter the sphere of aviation. Later on, Mathur was the first Indian woman to become a commercial pilot in 1947, Banerjee became the first woman pilot of Indian Airlines in 1956, and Bandopadhyay was the first woman officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to the rank of Vice Marshal in 2002, all carrying the hopes and inspiring millions of other Indian women as they measured heights. 

When Sarla Thukral flew the Gypsy Moth in 1936, she made history. At a young age, she became the first female Indian pilot. At this historic moment, she adorned a saree. It may be just a ‘saree’ for many, but her choice had immense socio-cultural implications.

Sarla Thukral’s Early Life

Sarla Thukral was born in Delhi in 1914 when India was still under British Raj and was married to P.D. Sharma at the age of 16. After her marriage, she moved to Lahore to live with her husband’s family. Her husband hailed from a family of pilots, nine in total! Sharma himself was, in fact, India’s first airmail pilot. Sharma encouraged his wife to take the family tradition forward. Occupied with his flying assignments, Thukral’s father-in-law enrolled Sarla in the local flying school.

Sarla Thukral shone as a prodigy. Call it faith in her prodigious students, or her talent that only after eight hours and ten minutes of training, her instructor deemed her ready to fly solo. Sarla, clad in a sari, escalated into the cockpit of a Gypsy Moth plane. She progressed to soar to the requisite altitude and succeeded to land the plane on her own. Hence, accomplishing her first solo flight. She then endured intensive training and triumphantly earned her “A” license after amassing more than 1,000 hours of flying, becoming the first Indian woman to ever do so, that too at the age of 21.

The Tragic Turn

In the year 1939, Captain Sharma died in an unfortunate airplane crash, however, Sarla continued her training and even travelled to Jodhpur to undergo training for her commercial pilot’s license, which would lead her to a career in aviation. Sadly, during the Second World War, all flying was suspended. 

But a woman like Thukral never stops dreaming and chasing their destiny. Thukral returned to Lahore and enrolled herself in the Mayo School of Art, got trained in the Bengal school of painting and secured a diploma in fine arts. Soon, she started her business of designing and selling costume jewellery popular among Indian women, eventually extending to decorating saris.

When India gained Independence in the year 1947, Sarla was still living in Lahore, however, post-partition, Sarla and her daughters headed back to Delhi and came back to the city where she was born.

costume jewellery

Starting Again

In an interview, she talked about her creations. “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, “ she had said. She also had a fondness for writing out shlokas from the Vedas and gifting it to her friends.

It was during the same Tribune interview that she had divulged her motto- “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.”

Sarla Thukral passed away on March 15, 2008, at the age of 94, leaving a glorious legacy behind. Acing the multiple roles and establishing her as a successful businesswoman, Mati is an inspiration to other women who want to navigate the skies but a woman who fights the odds and carves her own way. 

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