The Inspiring Life Story of the First Indian Woman to Fly an Aircraft (in a Sari!) - Sarla Thakral
In 1936, when equality and women's empowerment were still just arbitrary concepts, 21-year-old Sarla Thakral became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. She flew a Gypsy Moth solo, and was dressed in a sari.
Born in Delhi, Sarla got an aviation pilot licence in 1936. By that time, she was already married and had a four-year-old daughter. Her husband, PD Sharma, whom she married when she was only 16, had nine pilots in his family. He and his father encouraged Sarla to fly.
In a 2006 interview to The Tribune, she said, “My husband was the first Indian to get airmail pilot’s licence and flew between Karachi and Lahore. When I completed my required flying hours, my instructor wanted me to fly solo, but my husband was away. All I did was ask for permission to wait till he returned... I had the support of my family. The boys who trained with me never asked a question. The only person who wanted to know ‘why’ was a clerk at the flying club. Otherwise, I have faced no opposition.”
However, tragedy struck soon after. Her husband died in a plane crash in 1939. She said in the interview, “After my first husband died in a crash in 1939, I went to Jodhpur to get a commercial pilot’s licence. Unfortunately, World War II broke out and flying was suspended. I returned to Lahore, and joined the Mayo School of Art where I trained in the Bengal school of painting and obtained a diploma in fine arts.”
She moved to Delhi after the partition, where she met her second husband, PP Thakral. She was an ardent Arya Samaj follower, which made it easier for her to remarry since it advocates widow remarriage. Thus began the second phase of her life. “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 said.
Historical records are ambiguous about when she passed away, but it's said to be between 2008-2009. Even in the later years of her life, she was just as active and involved, writing out shlokas from the Vedas as gifts for her friends and being honoured as the oldest yet fittest person in her neighbourhood at the age of 91.