One of the most active campaigners of the Save Silent Valley Movement, Sugathakumari became as known for her activism as her poems, penned with pain.

Renowned poet and activist SugathakumariWikimedia Commons/ Syed Shiyaz Mirza
news Obituary Wednesday, December 23, 2020 - 11:27

Renowned poet and activist Sugathakumari passed away on Wednesday, days after testing positive for the coronavirus. The 86-year-old was very critical and not responding to medication. She was admitted to the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram and passed away at 10.52 am on Wednesday. 

A year-and-a-half ago, Sugathakumari, like a premonition, said that she had to disclose a few things to Mathrubhumi, one of the most popular Malayalam dailies in Kerala. In the interview that followed, the renowned poet and activist said that she thought 'her time was nearing.' She had just had a heart attack and went through a lot of pain. She spoke of her family, Abhaya, the home she began for destitute women and people with mental illnesses, and of her last wish to visit the Silent Valley again.

She was one of the most active campaigners of the Save Silent Valley Movement when it took shape in the 1970s. Silent Valley – a tropical evergreen forest in Palakkad district – was at the time proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) to host a hydroelectric dam. Environmentalists all over the world fought against the proposal that would not only destroy part of the forest but also threaten the lives of endangered lion-tailed macaques. Sugathakumari wrote a poem – Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a Tree) -- which was recited at every other protest to save the Silent Valley.

It was also in Palakkad that Sugathakumari and a few others created Krishnavanam, converting a stretch of barren land in Attappady to a natural forest.

In the years that followed, she became one of the first people that environmentalists in the state called when there was any sort of threat to nature. Even in her advanced years, she’d be the first to go and stand before a tree when authorities wanted to cut it without fair reason.

In 2006, when she was awarded the Padma Shri for her works of poetry, she told a reporter that she was walking away from everything, she had seen too much and a lot of it did not seem important to her anymore. But in 2018, when five nuns protested in Ernakulam against the bishop accused of raping their colleague, the then 84-year-old Sugathakumari thawed. She took part in a protest in support of the nuns outside the Secretariat and simply said that it was her duty to be with them.

Read: ‘My duty to be with them’: Why poet Sugathakumari is supporting protesting nuns

She raised her voice for oppressed women time and again, leading to the opening of Abhaya in 1985. It became a home for destitute women and a daycare centre for people with mental health issues. Sugathakumari was moved by the plight of the patients at government hospitals for the mentally ill. "The most significant achievement of Abhaya was that after 150 years of isolation, the mental hospitals of the State were thrown open to public scrutiny. Consequently the mental health scenario of Kerala has undergone a healthy change,” says the website of the organisation. They later expanded to care for drug addicts, children in distress and women who didn't find their own homes safe.

In 1996, she became the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission. Pained by the stories of dowry deaths and domestic violence and child sexual abuse, she wrote several poems, including one titled Vanitha Commission, about those disturbing days. 

Poetry as a tool 

Through all of her activism, Sugathakumari wrote — poetry has been her tool for every fight. Themes of Mother Nature appeared regularly in her poems. Like many women poets, she had first published as a young woman under a pseudonym. A decade later — in the late 1960s — she would win her first Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for Pathirapookkal (Flowers of Midnight). Another decade later, she would win the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for Raathrimazha (Night Rain).

Muthuchippi (Pearl Oyster), Paavam Maanavahridayam (Poor Human Heart), Irul Chirakukal (Wings of Darkness), Thulaavarshappacha (Green Monsoon), and Radha Evide (Where is Radha) are some of her other noted works.

The poems brought her more recognitions - Odakkuzhal Award in 1982, Vayalar Award in '84, Asan Prize in 1991, Lalithambika Sahitya Award in 2001, Ezhuthachan and Basheer Awards in 2009 among many others. Most recently she won the ONV Literary Award in 2017 and Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan Award in 2019. 

On politics

ONV Kurup, a Jnanpith Award winning poet who passed away in 2016, had shared many stages with Sugathakumari. While ONV once contested a general election on a CPI ticket, Sugathakumari stayed away from politics. However, when a fellow writer said she was a secret advocate of the RSS, Sugathakumari replied with a poem that said she had only two teachers — Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi.

Among her mentors, Sugathakumari also placed NV Krishna Warrier, former editor of Mathrubhumi, who had discovered her talent when she sent that first poem under a different name and who had then encouraged her to publish more.

But he did not always agree with her pensive outlook on life, says a writeup of the Sahitya Akademi. Her early poems had a sense of 'inconsolable sorrow', it says, 'an all pervading melancholy shrouded her youthful love'. It quotes a few lines of one of these -

Pity the human heart!

It sees a lonely star and forgets the long night,

It sees a passing drizzle and forgets the long drought;

Seeing a milky smile, it forgets death and rejoices.

Pity the human heart!

And with the same pensiveness, she commented on politics. When the Emergency happened, Sugathakumari wrote, "We've got what we deserve, we remain tame; We've turned the chalice of liberty bottom up." When Indira Gandhi lost the elections after that, she wrote, "Priyadarshini! We loved you so dearly."

After the Silent Valley movement, her poems contained her concern for the environment. Along with Hymn to the Tree, she wrote Ode to River Thames. In this way the topmost of her concerns would always be reflected in her poetry. With Abhaya and her fight for girls, she wrote The Girl Child in the Nineties.

Family

In another interview given to Mathrubumi earlier this year, Sugathakumari spoke of her mother as a teacher, who introduced her to the world of reading and writing. It was in fact her father Bodheshwaran who wrote poetry and fought for the ideologies he believed in, much like his middle daughter. But her mother, VK Karthiyayini, introduced her to world literature. The love for language that the parents put in her would stay with her forever, prompting her to fight for Malayalam and the teaching of it to young children. Together, Bodheshwaran and Karthiyayini taught the girls — Sugathakumari and her two sisters — to treat people equally and not look at their religion and caste.

Both her sisters have passed away. The elder one, Hridyakumari, was another renowned writer, teacher and critic, winning the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1991. The other sister B Sujatha Devi, also an Akademi award winning writer, was younger than Sugathakumari by 12 years and passed away two-and-a-half years ago. Sugathakumari said she lost her will to live after Sujatha’s passing.

It was Hridyakumari who translated into English, her sister's Rathrimazha (Night Rain), a poem written in six sections. 

Night rain, 

Now witness to my grief 

When on my sweltering sickbed 

In the sleepless hours of night 

Alone I reel with pain, 

Forgetting even to weep 

And freeze into stone. 

While Hridayakumari was a much respected teacher in Thiruvananthapuram, Sugathakumari too was addressed by the title fondly. Sugathakumari Teacher, addressed leaders in speeches, and the media in their many reports of her.

With roots in Aranmula, Sugathakumari was raised in Thiruvananthapuram. She did her Honours in Philosophy and began a PhD programme she didn’t complete. After her marriage to Dr K Velayudhan Nair in 1960 she moved to Delhi, which became the backdrop of several of her poems. She also expressed her love for him in some of her poems. When he passed away, she wrote of her pain. The couple’s daughter Lakshmi Devi is a poet too, and is an integral part of Abhaya.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.