India has the highest percentage of women commercial pilots in the world today, but it is also more than double that of the global average. When we think about women in aviation names like Prem Mathur, Durba Banerjee, and Padmavathi Bandopadhyay come to mind. Prem Mathur was the first Indian woman to become a commercial pilot in 1947, Banerjee became the first woman pilot of Indian Airlines in 1956 But, In 1936, Sarla Thakral, at only the age of 21, became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft and laid the groundwork for Indian women to enter the field of aviation.
Sarla was the first Indian woman to get an aviation pilot licence. She flew a Gypsy Moth solo. The feisty woman completed 1,000 hours of flying Gypsy Moth solo, between Karachi and Lahore. She was the pilot who soared into the blue skies in a saree, India’s very own traditional attire.
Just after getting the license, she completed her thousand hours of flying by the aircraft owned by the Lahore Flying Club. At that time she also had a daughter aged four.
Sarla Thakral was born in the year 1914 in Delhi. She got married at a very early age to P.D Sharma. P D Sharma belonged to a progressive family and many of the members of her in-laws family were pilot. Her husband was also the first man in India who has got an airmail pilot’s license to fly between Lahore to Karachi. He was the one encouraged Sarla to gather courage to make her dream of flying come true.
Later, Sarla started her training in order to complete her solo journey. And in the year 1936 she received her aviation pilot license and she flew from Lahore flying club, a Gypsy moth solo. She had been found quoting that there hasn’t been any opposition for her decision to choose the field.
Unfortunately, in the year 1939, Sarla’s husband P D Sharma was killed in an airplane crash. Later, Sarla persevered and travelled to Jodhpur to train for her commercial pilot’s license, hoping to make a career in aviation. Sadly, the Second World War soon broke out and all flying was suspended. Thakral returned to Lahore and enrolled herself in the Mayo School of Art where she trained in the Bengal school of painting and obtained a diploma in fine arts. She also started a business of designing and selling costume jewellery that was popular among Indian women, eventually dabbling into decorating saris too.
Sarla said, “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.”
Soon in 1947, after the partition of India, Sarla Thakral moved back to Delhi. Being an ardent follower of the Arya Samaj, she got married again. Life was not easy for her with two daughters until she met R.P. Thakral and married him in the year of 1948. She also established herself as a painter.
Sarla Thakral passed away on March 15, 2008, at the age of 94, leaving a glorious legacy behind.