Sarla Thakral: India’s first woman pilot

Sarla Thakral did the unthinkable at the young age of 21, when she became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. The sari-clad lady made history when she had a four-year-old daughter.

Born in 1914, she earned an aviation pilot license in 1936 at the age of 21 and flew a Gypsy Moth solo.

After obtaining the initial licence, she persevered and completed one thousand hours of flying in the aircraft owned by the Lahore Flying Club.

Her husband, P. D. Sharma, whom she married at 16 and who came from a family which had nine pilots, encouraged her.

“In fact it wasn’t so much my husband. My father-in-law was even more enthusiastic and got me enrolled in the flying club,” says Sarla and adds,” I knew I was breaching a strictly male bastion but I must say the men, they never made me feel out of place.”

While Sharma, her husband, had been the first Indian to get his airmail pilot’s license, flying between Karachi and Lahore, Sarla Thakral became the first woman in India to attain her “A” license, when she accumulated more than 1,000 hours of flying.

Tragically, Captain Sharma died in an airplane crash in 1939. After some time, his young widow tried to apply to train for her commercial pilot license, but World War II had begun and civil training was suspended.

With a child to raise, and needing to earn her livelihood, Thakral abandoned her plans to become a commercial pilot, returning to Lahore and attending the Mayo School of Art where she trained in the Bengal school of painting, obtaining a diploma in fine arts.

If it was not for the unfortunate events, she would have even become India’s first commercial airline pilot.

Thakral was a dedicated follower of the Arya Samaj, a spiritual community dedicated to following the teachings of the Vedas. Within this community, remarriage was a possibility for Thakral.

After the Partition of India, she moved to Delhi with her two daughters, where she met R. P. Thakral and married him in 1948.

Sarla, also known as Mati, became a successful businesswoman, painter and began designing clothes and costume jewellery.

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Most of her water colors paintings followed the Bengali School of Art.

She supplied her jewellery designs to several cottage industries for over 20 years. She had also started textile printing and her sari prints were a rage with the fashionable crowd. One of the clients was Vijaylaxmi Pandit.

She died on 15 March 2008.


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