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First Woman Pilot in India

Sarla Sharma Thakral was born in Delhi, India, in 1914. India was still under the rule of the British Raj. There is not much information about her childhood or adolescent years. She married P.D. Sharma when she was just 16. They moved to Lahore and lived with her husband’s family.

Sharma was a pilot and actually the first airmail pilot in India. Sarla was fascinated with flight and airplanes. I happens that there were nine pilots in Sharma’s family, and he encouraged his wife to take up the family tradition of flying. He was too busy with his work to offer her lessons but his father enrolled her in the local flying school.

"My husband was the first Indian to get airmail pilot's license and flew between Karachi and Lahore. It wasn't so much of him though. My father-in-law was even more enthusiastic and got me enrolled in the flying club. I knew I was breaching a strictly male bastion but I must say the men, they never made me feel out of place."

She was a natural in the air. After a mere eight hours and ten minutes of training, her instructor told her she was ready to solo! She climbed into the cockpit of a Gypsy Moth plane, clad in her sari.The de Havilland DH.60 Moth is a 1920s British two-seat touring and training aircraft that was developed into a series of aircraft by the de Havilland Aircraft Company. She climbed to the required altitude and landed the plane gracefully on her own, passing her first solo with great success.

Her next step was an intensive training to earn her “A” license after completing more than 1,000 hours of flight. She became the first Indian woman ever to do so. She was a wife, mother of a four year old daughter and now, a pilot at the tender age of 21 years old.

In 1929 tragedy struck. Her beloved husband, Captain Sharma was killed in an airplane crash. She was widowed at the age of 24. After a period of mourning, Sarla was undeterred and travelled to Jodhpur where she trained for her commercial pilot’s license. She wanted to make a career for herself in aviation. Sadly, it wasn’t long before her plans were derailed. The second World War broke out and all flying was suspended.

Disappointed by determined, she returned to Lahore and enrolled in the Mayo School of Art, training in the Bengal school of paining and earring a diploma in Fine Arts. She had a young daughter to support now. She began a business designing and selling costume jewelry that was very popular with Indian women. She did well and eventually began decorating Saris as well.

In 1947, India gained Independence. She was still living in Lahore that was now in Pakistani territory, because of the Partition of India which created two independent states of Pakistan and India.

Sarla became increasingly concerned about her safety as did her friends and neighbors because she was a Hindu. Threats were being made and there was danger. She was advised to leave Lahore with daughters. They took a train to Delhi, returning to the city of her birth.

They reached Delhi safely but she had to begin all over to reestablish her business. She had luck though because here work was very popular and sought after. She said, “I dabbled in designing costume jewelry, which was not only worn by the who’s of who of that tie but also supplied it to Cottage Emporium, a flagship store in New Dehli, 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 married to R.P Thakral in 1948.

Sarla, known as Mati, was strong, vibrant and independent into her 90’s. She believed in doing things herself, saying that her creativity and work kept her busy and helped to fight her loneliness. At one point she was honored as being the oldest but the fittest person in her neighborhood!

In an interview for a local paper she shared 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.”

She lived to be 94 and left a magnificent legacy behind. She was wife, mother, a pilot and a very successful businesswoman. Her life encouraged many other women both in flight and business and she became a model of perseverance and resilience.


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