Sarla Thukral

Sarla Thukral – India"s First Woman Pilot and An Inspiration for Many Others

There have been many amazing and inspirational stories of women in Indian history. Many of these stories have not been glorified in the history textbooks. A woman who got married at the age of 16, lost her husband at the age of 24 with two kids, but was still able to pursue her dream and became India"s first woman pilot. She is Sarla Thukral, an inspiration for millions of other women to become pilots.

In today"s world, where women are leading from the front in many industries, being a woman pilot may not be a big thing for many. However, Sarla Thukral"s achievement of flying a plane and becoming a pilot was not only an act of courage and bravery, but also broke the glass ceiling of the patriarchal culture that existed in the society during those times.

An aviation pilot license just at the age of 21

  • Born in 1921 in Delhi, Sarla Thukral, a ferociously ambitious lady created history by getting an aviation pilot license in 1936, when she was 21 years old.

  • She completed 1000 hours of flying and got "A" license.

Flying the Gypsy Moth Solo

Sarla Thukral was the first lady pilot to step into the cockpit of the Gypsy Moth. This was at a time when the aviation industry was all about men.

Inspiration and backing by her husband

  • It is said that "Behind every successful man, there is a woman". However, the reverse was true in Sarla Thukral"s case.

  • She was inspired by her husband, PD Sharma, who was a successful pilot too. He was the first Indian to get an airmail pilot"s license, and flew between Karachi and Lahore.

  • He backed her dream and desire and gave her the support and strength required to reach the blue sky.

  • Sarla Thukral was constantly encouraged by her husband to pursue her passion of flying.

  • There were nine pilots in PD Sharma"s family.

The tragic loss of her husband 

  • Unfortunately, her dream of becoming a commercial pilot was brought to a halt by the catastrophic death of her husband in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II.

  • She became a widow only at a young age of 24 with two children.

The end of her dream

  • Sarla had already got "A" license and was all set to get the "B" license as well. This would have given her the opportunity to fly a commercial plane.

  • However, her dream had to wait. 

  • While working hard for the "B" license, World War II erupted, and her training was halted.

  • Sarla gave up her plans of becoming a commercial pilot as she had to support herself and take care of her daughters as well.

Return to Lahore and getting a diploma in fine arts

  • After World War II broke out, she returned to Lahore with her two daughters and decided to join the Mayo School of Arts. 

  • She earned a diploma in fine arts, specializing in Bengali style of painting.

  • She painted delightful works of art of Bengali women on dresses.

  • She also began the business of designing and selling costume jewelry, which was quite popular among Indian women.

  • Sarla Thukral was an empowered woman and made a career decision in which she had to stand on her own feet and take care of her daughters.

Second innings of Sarla Thukral"s life

  • Keeping in mind the communal tensions during the partition, Thukral moved to Delhi with her two daughters.

  • She reestablished her clothing and jewelry business that became very popular in independent India.

  • Vijayalakshmi Pandit, a diplomat and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru"s sister was one of her clients.

  • During her second innings, she also began designing for the National School of Drama.

  • She also started saree designing and block printing.

  • She supplied costume jewelry for 15 years to Cottage Emporium.

  • Being a passionate follower of Arya Samaj spiritual group, where remarriage is encouraged, she got remarried to P.P. Thukral.

Sadly, after her demise at the age of 94 in March 2008, Sarla Thukral"s inspirational story was forgotten. Her story truly reflects an empowered woman who was strong and courageous.

Women often face challenges in their life. Sarla Thukral was not set aback by the personal tragedies in her life. Flying was not the only area where she displayed courage and competence.  She went on to pursue higher education and became a successful entrepreneur as well. Sarla Thukral was a highly talented and skilled woman.Mrs. Sarla Thukral has set an example for all other women, not just in India, but all over the world by pursuing her dreams and aspirations despite many challenges and difficulties. Even though she is no longer with us, her inspirational story will live on for many years for showing everyone the real empowered woman meaning.