At a time in Indian history when women were expected to belong mainly in the domestic sphere, Sarla Thakral aimed for the sky. In winging her way to the skies, she blazed a trail for Indian women in aviation, which was still an uncharted territory for them. Now, India has the highest percentage of female pilots in the world, and this percentage is more than twice the global average. And the person who sowed seeds for this, back in 1936, was Sarla Thakral – the first woman pilot of India.
On International Women’s Day 2022, Indian Eagle celebrates the life of Sarla Thakral, who continues to motivate generations of young women to aim big and achieve the extraordinary.
Taking the First Step Toward Her Dreams
Sarla was born in 1914 in New Delhi and was married off to P. D. Sharma after her schooling. The 16-year-old Sarla moved to Lahore (in undivided India) to live with her husband’s family that had 9 pilots. Mr. Sharma himself was an accomplished pilot. He was the first Indian man to get an airmail pilot’s license. Both her husband and father-in-law encouraged Sarla to pursue a career in flying and became winds beneath her wings. Her father-in-law enrolled her in the Lahore flying club.
Sarla stepped into the cockpit of a double-winged Gypsy Moth in a saree and went down in history as the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. She was 21 at that time and had a four-year-old daughter.
Can you believe her instructor deemed her ‘ready to fly solo’ only after eight hours and ten minutes of training? Such was the determination level of this skilled woman!
Gaining ‘A’ License and Aspiring for ‘B’ License
Having accomplished the required 1000 hours of flight time, Sarla became the first Indian woman to get an ‘A’ license. Her next goal was gaining a ‘B’ license, which would allow her to fly a commercial plane.
However, life had something else in store for her.
Unfortunate Turn of Events
The death of her supportive husband P. D. Sharma in an airplane crash in 1939 rocked her world. It took Sarla some time to recollect herself, but eventually, she decided to continue on her path of growth. She traveled to Jodhpur to undergo training for a commercial pilot license.
This time, World War II got in the way of her dreams. Civil training was suspended with the outbreak of the war, and thus her aviation career ended abruptly.
Sarla was not the one who would give up in the face of adversity. When life took a turn for the worse, she mustered the courage to find new paths to success.
Ambitious as she was, Sarla returned to Lahore and took to painting. She received a diploma in fine arts from Mayo School of Art. After the Partition of India, Sarla came back to her hometown with her daughters. She met R. P. Thakral in Delhi, whom she married in 1948.
She established herself as a successful designer, making costume jewelry and designing sarees. She was also a skilled painter.
In an interview with The Tribune in 2006, Sarla Thakral spoke about her various occupations. “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.
Fit and focused even during her 90s, she served as an inspiration to many women till her last breath in 2008.
A Woman Who Wore Many Hats
While the world remembers Sarla Thakral as the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft, she indeed wore different hats – she was a pilot, a designer, a painter, a successful businesswoman and an achiever in every sense.
Google has honored the incredible feat of India’s first woman pilot with a doodle on her 107th birthday last year.
She proved that all it takes to succeed in life is an unflinching faith in yourself and your goal. She had something more to say to young generations. To quote her words, “Always be happy, it is very important for us to be happy and cheerful. This one motto has seen me tide over the crises in my life.”