The passing of a legend : Sugatha Kumari

Renowned poetess and one of the greatest literary and cultural icons that India had seen, Sugatha kumari teacher passed away on 23 December at the age of 86.  She had tested positive for COVID-19 and was undergoing treatment, at the government medical college hospital. She leaves behind her daughter Lakshmi Devi and the residents of Abhaya and Athani.

Sugatha kumari teacher, an environmentalist, a philanthropist, and a women’s activist had penned down poems that touch the conscience of the readers, as she exposes them to the harsh truth of the atrocities and the harm done by humankind to nature and his race. Her contributions to Malayalam literature with some of the most iconic works in Malayalam poetry during her shining poetic career that spanned almost six decades made her win great honours and awards including  Sahitya Akademi Award (1979), Saraswati Samman (2012), Ezhuthachan Award (2009) and Padma Shri (2006).

Her motherly love, affection, and concern that radiated towards all the beings were enough to awaken the same in whoever came in touch with her. Sugatha Kumari teacher had spearheaded many environmental campaigns and had always raised her voice for the women in distress. ‘Abhaya’ and ‘Athani’ organisation run by her is always a solace for the deprived and destitute women. Her first-hand experiences of women’s suffering made her tirelessly work for them, so She founded institutions like “Abhaya” and “Athani” which are now beacons of light for many downtrodden deprived, and destitute women. When she became the Chairperson of Kerala State Women’s Commission in 1996, she initiated many programmes for women’s safety.

She was the second among the three sisters and the other two being Prof Hridaya kumari, and Prof Sujatha Devi who also had left their footprints in the literary and cultural sphere in their own way. Sugatha Kumari teacher was left alone after the passing of Prof Hridyakumari and Prof Sujatha Devi.

It seems that the sisters had inherited their father Bodheswaran’s wisdom and love of poetry and their mother, VK Karthyayani Amma’s depth of knowledge in classics and literature. Both her sisters, Hridayakumari and Sujathadevi were well-known writers.

 It seems that the sisters had inherited their father Bodheswaran’s wisdom and love of poetry and their mother,VK Karthyayani Amma’s depth of knowledge in classics and literature. Both her sisters, Hridayakumari and Sujathadevi were well-known writers.

Her parents broad mindedness and inclusive vision is evident from their three daughters who with no   razzmatazz and hype, expressed themselves through their literary works and through an all embracing love towards the existence.

Her poetry collections include Pathirapookkal, Krishna Kavithakal, Ratrimazha, Ambalamani, Radha Evide, Thulavarshapacha to name a few. Her poems are a quest into her deeper self and are mostly on subjective themes. An ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, her poems also stemmed from the depth of her heart and seemed to be a conversation with her higher self (Krishna) and her little self.

Sugathakumari teacher’s poems appealed to a large audience because of her deep roots in the tradition of Malayalam poetry. One of her early poems, “Kaliyamardanam”, uses the myth of Krishna dancing on the hoods of the Kaliya, the vicious serpent. Here the serpent is the life that she experiences and Lord Krishna, her own higher self /the higher intelligence.

Never were these hoods lowered

Never did this soul weep…

Do not ever stop the dance;

My soul merges into a rapturous cadence.

(Translated by Atmaraman)

In one of her well-known poems, “Pavam manava hridayam” (The Poor Human Heart) she conveys man’s need to cling to hope and look for signs of life in any bleak landscape.

The poem ends with these lines:

When it sees a star, it forgets the night

When it sees the first showers, it forgets the long drought

When it sees a baby’s milky smile, it forgets death

Happiness fills it then

This poor human heart.

(Translated by Hridayakumari teacher)

In her poems, she objectifies the moral crisis of the modern woman caught in the everyday struggles of a male-dominated world. 

In her famous poem ‘Rain at night,’  she portrays a woman’s agitated mind, and the inner conflict that she endures in this modern age.

Rain-at-night

Like some young mad woman

Weeping, laughing, whimpering

Muttering without stop

For nothing

Sitting huddled up

Tossing her long hair

(Translated by Hridayakumari)

They curse, they come

my daughter, my mother,

my sister, my child,

they come in hordes and they curse

They come crawling

with a noose around their throat

They come with battered, bruised body

They come burnt black by fire

They come drowned in agony

holding their swollen belly

wailing like lost souls

But they come holding high their anklet

with smouldering eyes

(Translated by Sugathakumari)

Here her personal voice seems to merge into the collective voice of all suffering women. Their “smouldering eyes”, represents that silent inner burning before it grows into a raging fire.

Sugathakumari teacher’s role as an environmentalist was a force that cannot reckon with. She spearheaded the struggle for preserving the Silent Valley in 1980 when she understood the environmental cost of such mindless destruction of a primal forest.  She said once that she could not sleep for days together when she heard that a hydro-electric project was to come up in the rain forests of the Silent Valley. It was in 1980.  She stood up against this destruction, and Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti, an alliance of writers, scientists, activists, and common people committed to environmental causes, took Kerala by storm. If finally, the government retreated from the project, it was the result of the relentless campaigns unleashed by the activists and the media.  Sugathakumari teacher listened to her conscience, and stood for and fought for stood for and fought for the highest and noblest goals. The poet in her, the love in her got evolved into a human being who dared to step into the dark world of greed and violence, and complete her mission, yet come out clean and unscathed. Sugathakumari teacher’s name will shine among those of India’s sons and daughters who echoed the eternal wisdom of India.

Sugatha Kumari

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