Sugathakumari– Excerpts from an Interview

 Renowned poetess and environmentalist of Kerala, Sugathakumari was born at Aranmula in January 1934. She is the second daughter of poet Bodheswaran and Prof. V. K. Karthiayani Amma. Soon after getting her Masters Degree in Philosophy, Sugatha Kumari devoted herself to writing poetry. She married Prof. K. Velayudhan Nair who taught at University College where she did her Post-graduation. She was later principal of Jawahar Balbhavan, Thiruvananthapuram and also editor of the magazine Thaliru. She received the Sahithya Academy Award for her work ‘Pathirapookal’(Flowers of Midnight). ‘Rathrimaza’ (Night Rain) won the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award. Other honours bestowed on her include the OdakuzalAward(1982), the Asan Prize (1984), and Vayalar Award for her work ‘Ambalamani’ (Templebell).This was followed by the Asan Smaraka Award for her poem ‘Kurinjipookal’ (Kurinji Flowers). Her other works include ‘Swapnabhoomi’(1965), ‘ Pavam Manava Hridayam’(1968), ‘Radha Evite’(1995), and ‘Krishna Kavithakal’(1996). ‘Devadasi’ was published in 1998. SugathaKumari has also received the Bhattia Award for social science, the Sacred Soul International Award and the first Vriksha Mitra Award from the government of India. She is the founder secretary of the Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi, an organisation for the protection of nature and of Abhaya, a center for women destitutes. In the late seventies she led a successful nation wide movement to save Silent valley. Sugatha Kumari shows a conscious quest for women’s identity and integration in her writings. Her feminism verges on humanism. She believes that all the dimensions of a woman’s personality can be nurtured only in an atmosphere of love. Mary Nirmala speaks to the poet.

The poetry of Sugathakumari makes an odyssey into the very essence of womanhood. She probes into the psychology and tensions that lie behind the submissive and docile façade of Indian women. Her poetry underscores the psychosocial realities that stifle a woman’s identity, thus holding a mirror to this murky facet of the post-Independent Indian society. The injustice and violence done to women is highlighted in all its stark nakedness. She journeys into the psychological subtleties of man-woman relationship.

As a woman poet, Sugathakumari believes that true love has many positive powers. Love, which is a liberating force, has the potential to drive away many ills such as domination, limitations, submission, and restriction of every kind. The women speakers in Sugatha’s poetry want their men to love them for what they are. For a woman to be engaged in the act of loving is to be engaged in a productive activity. It implies knowing each other, responding to each other, caring for each other and enjoying each other.

In her early poetry, which is more lyrical, love has the freshness and fragrance of a fully blossomed Ezhilampala tree. She believes that only love can redeem this valueless world which is almost like a wasteland. Even when love is thwarted, she goes on loving, because to her, to exist is to love without reservations. In her early poetry love is a mute feeling. The more mute it is, the more intense it becomes. In her heart’s pitcher, the brimful milk of love is for everboiling.(ThilachaPalalloKudathil) The Radha-Krishna myth appears most beautifully in the poetry of Sugathakumari. In Krishna NeeyenneAriyunnilla (Krishna You Don’t Know me)”, the poet identifies herself with a Gopika who adores Krishna silently. Sugathakumari’s Krishna Kavithakal (Krishna poems) form a class of its own. Her love poetry abounds in an eternal search for Krishna.

Mary Nirmala: “In ‘OruBrindavanaRangam’ (A Scene from Brindavan), you say: ‘In my country, my too poor a country, isn’t every woman a Radha at heart?’ In this age when values change and man-woman relationships crumble, do you still believe that a woman’s life is an endless search?”

Sugathakumari: “In my heart there is a bunch of fragrant flowers which is symbolic of love. They will remain unfaded until my death. I still carry in my heart a vibrant young girl. The ‘girl’ has not yet died within me. Though I try to suppress and bury her, at times she peeps out with sparkling eyes that speak of love. But a woman’s longing for perfect love is only a great dream. No woman can fully realize it. A man is incapable of quenching a woman’s thirst for love in the manner in which she needs it. Perhaps the spiritual aspect of love is unnecessary as far as a man is concerned. So a woman stretches her hand to God, who according to me, manifests Himself in Time or in Death. Hers is a long quest. There is no life without this quest. This quest is continued through birth, death and rebirth”.

[The poet’s Radha Evite? is a search to find out what has happened to Radha, Krishna’s beloved. This poem is a great saga of love. The spirit of Radha who wanders restlessly through streets, river banks, mountains and valleys with a never ending longing to be united with Krishna is the symbol of woman’s psyche that yearns for perfect love. There is no other poet in Malayalam who has made use of the beautiful archetypal concept of Radha-Krishna love so elaborately and elegantly as Sugathakumari.

The Hospital poems of Sugathakumari unravel her psychological traumas. Physical illness seems to reflect the mental illness that women in general suffer due to male supremacy and oppression. Ward boys, X-ray rooms, Intensive Cardiac Care Unit etc., recur in her poems. Sugathakumari was attacked by a fatal illness more than once. She underwent four major operations and was the victim of a serious heart attack. Long hospitalization in the I.C.C.U and a serious accident, which almost took her life, prompted her to write several poems. Ratrimazha (Night Rain) AthramelSnehikkayal (Because I Loved so Much), Gajendramoksham (Salvation for Gajendra) etc. deal with the illness of the body as well as the illness of the mind that women suffer. In ‘Haemophilia’ Sugathakumari says that her mind is infected with haemophilia. Even the slightest pain or pressure from the external world can do havoc to her mind. A hundred memories, which she had buried long back, would come crowding and swelling in her mind making it bleed and bleed endlessly.

“Isn’t there any medicine for this ailment?
To stop the memories
That makes my heart bleed without a stop?
Isn’t there any medicine? I ask again
Somebody says, “there is only one cure”
Hot ashes from the cremation ground.
(Devadasi 117-118)

In Kollendathengane? (How to Kill?) the poet draws the pathetic picture of a mother and her imbecile daughter. Sugathakumari’sSthreeparvam (WomanCanto) depicts a woman who in her old age returns to her ancestral home, weak, tattered and powerless. She has come to this doorstep with a wish to die. Referring to her illness she says:

How many mechanical touches by indifferent hands
Silent fears, the sour taste of medicines
Filthy sights and dirty smells
Shameless lying on beds stinking
Of past diseases…
Needles that search deep…
Drugs that never kill the pain…
The black teeth of darkness (Ambalamani 125)

In OruPachakakkurippu (A Recipe), the poet says that in life’s market there is many a defective heart. Poetic career according to her, is the fate of those who are destined to serve these hearts with the salt of tears and the sauce of futile anger.]

MN: “Your mind seems to oscillate between frenzy and pain, between longing for love and death wish…”

SK: “Illness haunted me throughout my youth. I was face to face with death many a time. The only certainty in life is death. Death is not something to be feared. To me death is enchanting. It is a great tranquility, which awaits me with love. It is a long and deep slumber. In my thoughts, God, death, and Krishna co-exist. They are inseparable. They may be one and the same.”

[Abhisarika (The Prostitute) portrays death most beautifully. Here we get the picture of Radha who can never resist the loving call of Krishna’s flute. She steps out of her hut to answer that call leaving her husband and sleeping child. She runs through the perilous forest to reach her lover, panting and bleeding.

At last I reach your smiling self
And fall into your arms broken to the core
And when upon your sandal scented breast
I unload the burden of my woes
I know, Oh dark and handsome Lord
That ‘Death’ is also your name (Krishna Kavithakal 36)]

SK: “When I write ‘dark and handsome’, it doesn’t refer to the lover alone. It is sorrow. It is death. A woman can reach her ideal lover only through death. This union is like the union of Jeevatma with Paramatma. [The tone of Suganthakumari’s later poetry is one of righteous indignation, which speaks about gender disparities and the victimization of women. Poems like Jessy, Amma (Mother), Ivalkkumatramay (Only for Her) Sthreeparvam (Woman-Canto) etc. project the miserable predicament of women in a largely man made society. The poet longs for the woman who would raise her voice against male chauvinism and redefine her roles.

It is such women who resist and assert their individuality that Sugathakumari projects through her subversive re-righting- of the epic in RadhaEvite?, the poet seeks Radha, not Krishna. Down the centuries, Radha has come to the earth as Meera, Chaitanya, Andal and Kururamma. But she was never accepted. The poem reaches its anticlimax when Radha turns her back on Krishna rejecting his sympathy for her. She wants nothing less than love from him and if he is unable to give her love she would fling his sympathy away. In the same manner the myths of Sita and Urmila are subverted in PadaPrathishta (Worship of the Feet) and Oru Ramayana Rangam (A Scene from Ramayana) respectively. In Sugathakumari’s poetry these heroines reject the men who reject them, a total inversion of their epic versions.]

MN: “The lyrical quality which is the most beautiful characteristic of your early poetry is slowly but steadily disappearing from your later poetry. In your latest work Devadasi, you seem to be fed up with this world. Is it because of your feminist impulses…?”

SK: “In my youth I did write lyrical poetry. Do you still expect the same language of youth from me? When the sun scorches you can’t speak in soft and flowery language. Language changes as you grow up and become more aware of your society.”

[ She reacts strongly and vehemently when she exposes the hollowness and hypocrisy of the patriarchal society. It is the strong voice of the New Woman that we hear in her poetry. The image of the sophisticated woman is almost absent in Sugathakumari. Apart from the mythical women, they are mostly less than ordinary women who belong to the streets and the slums, deprived of love, the nourishing milk of life. She also depicts tribal women, who, like the Black women are doubly exploited, because of their gender and because of their ethnicity. The various levels at which a girl child is exploited are exposed in Penkunju 90 (Girl Child ’90). In the darkness of the night, the speaker of the poem, a mother, places her illegitimate girl child, a little Sita, as she calls her, on the lap of Mother Earth. She asks:

When the sun rises tomorrow
Will a new day dawn for her?
Or …………………………
…………….. Will she reach an orphanage?
Will she be a guinea pig

To be sent abroad for experimentation?
Or ……………………………………
Will she be burnt alive? Or divorced
Or starved to death? Or beaten
In fits of liquor? Will she be auctioned?
And squeezed in the Red Street?
(Thulavarshapacha 95)

The victimization of women in a patriarchal set up is powerfully represented in Enthu Patti Namukku (What Happened to Us?). It is a sharp and vehement question aimed at the phallocentric and oppressive society. Men are always victimizers and women are forever their victims. Here the victim is a baby girl and the sight is the most pathetic spectacle of our times. The baby lies like a wounded bird on the railway track as if flung by a storm:

Her soft and tender body
Like a single wound that is red and blue
Warm blood between her fair and tender thighs!
(Devadasi 114)

The atrocities against the Adivasis under the pretext of the Literacy Campaign form the theme of Adivasi Saksharatha (Literacy for the Tribals). The authorities are blatantly flouting the right of the adivasi women to develop their lives. Women are used as commodities and they are robbed of all their freedom. Sexual exploitation and plundering of the forest and its resources make the Adivasis poorer and poorer. Starving children with their sunken eyes and hollow cheeks stare at their mothers who live in abject poverty. The Adivasis, stripped of their primordial gifts, present a poignant picture. Women hunted down by hunger and poverty are sometimes driven to prostitution against their will to feed their hungry children. Apart from raising her voice for these helpless beings through her poetry, she is also engaged in several humanitarian programmes such as the rehabilitation of destitute women.]

MN: “You are engaged in several social welfare activities for the betterment of prostitutes and destitute women. Your institutions…?”

SK: “The sad truth that women in the Thiruvananthapuram Mental Hospital were sold outside for prostitution, was something more than I could bear. Hunger, rejection and sexual exploitation of women in the dark corridors of the hospital paved the way for ‘Abhaya’ in 1985. “Athani and ‘Koottathani’ followed ‘Abhaya’. ‘Abhayabala’ is a house for small girls who were cheated by men at a tender age. We train the inmates to become self-sufficient in life. I am relieved at the thought that at least a small portion of such women and girls are saved and given a new life”.

[ Sugathakumari the lover of the forests and rivers worked with unceasing zeal and commitment to save the Silent Valley and the Narmada. She laments the selfishness of human beings, their incapacity for true love, the high handedness of politicians, man’s instinct for violence and his loss of inner freedom. She raises her voice against deforestation, injustice done to Adivasis, pollution of rivers due to industrialization, sexual exploitation of women etc.]

MN: “Do you think you have succeeded in your ceaseless fight against deforestation and exploitation of women?”

SK: “It’s my cause. I keep on striving. Whether I succeed or fail is immaterial. Stopping half way through … I call it ultimate failure. Only rarely have I succeeded. But I toil upward… As long as I am plunged in Karma, I derive strength from it”.

[ There is a conscious quest for woman’s identity and integration in the poetry of Sugathakumari. She may not be a feminist in the strict sense of the term. Her poetry may not have a verbatim adherence to the theories and principles of staunch feminists. She believes in the Ardhanariswara concept of man and woman being complementary and would rather protest against the cruelties and injustice done to womanhood, without losing the fine balance between being feminine and being a feminist.

Sugathakumari believes that without a positive concentration on love in all its forms, womankind cannot be rescued. When a man loves a woman selflessly, he seeks no power. Hatred and violence disappear. He understands and accepts her. When he loves her for what she is, harmony and equality is born. In SnehathinentheNiram (The Colour of Love) Sugathakumari says:

It is what flows and flows filling your soul!
Do you know the colour of love?
Love is what fullness is
And never with a colour? (Kurinjipookal 25)

The intense anguish of Sugathakumari at the plight of women and her genuine concern for the destiny of women seem to be the impelling force behind her poetry, and love, she feels, is the key to open up a new scenario of liberation and acceptance. Love seems to be her poetic creed and it is her faith in love that enables her to dream even on the verge of disaster, of a better new world for women, free from physical and mental bondage. Her poetry becomes a clarion call for, and a quest after true and selfless love, which alone can lift the yoke of patriarchal domination and establish the individuality and identity of women.]

When asked about her message to women, she smiled and said.

“Be proud of your womanhood”.

Her Ph. D is on the thesis “The Image of Woman in the Poetry of Kamala Das and Sugatha Kumari”. She taught English at the St. Xavier’s College, Thiruvananthapuram and has now retired. Writes poems and has contributed to various journals and magazines.

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Her Ph. D is on the thesis “The Image of Woman in the Poetry of Kamala Das and Sugatha Kumari”. She taught English at the St. Xavier’s College, Thiruvananthapuram and has now retired. Writes poems and has contributed to various journals and magazines

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