Sugathakumari (1934- 2020): A nature loving poet, liberal feminist and activist

In her poem Ullarinjazhanmuleshan, set in the backdrop of Aranmula Boat Race, Lord Krishna in the guise of an ordinary man, without his familiar peacock feather and flute, glides his canoe in the river, and no one seems to recognise him, except the resplendent river Pamba who gleefully acknowledges by flowing rhythmically next to him in reverence. At that moment, Krishna lovingly calls her his Yamuna. It is this incandescent love affair with nature and mankind that is the Tao of every Sugathakumari poetry. It is always for nature that she has rebelled, agonized, and wrestled with the Universe through her poems. And more often she has stepped out of her role as a wordsmith, wore the garb of a foot soldier and fought for humanity, for compassion, for a better world.

Her father, Bodheswaran was a Gandhian thinker and a poet and mother VK Karthyani, a Sanskrit scholar. Sugathakumari and her two sisters were born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram. “But my mother always carried a slice of Aranmula along with her,” recalls the poet. In a way it was the summers she spent at Aranmula which drew her closer to her favourite consort—Pampa. Then she would take a scoop of its water to quench her thirst, today all she does is fold her palms by way of apology. An apology on behalf of humans for contaminating a water stream brimming with sweetness and purity.

Though she always knew the essence of a beautiful poetry, she never mustered the courage to publish it in her name. That is when she took refuge in her cousin’s name, Sreekumar, to publish her poems. Each piece of work got her 6 annas, out of which 2 annas went to her cousin. The deceit continued until one day her cousin accidentally sent her poem to Mathrubhumi in his name and their College Magazine in Sugathakumari’s name. He tried to cover it up by claiming, his sister tore a page, containing the poetry from his book. But when the college students prudently sent both the versions to the Mathrubhumi Editor, N V Krishna Warrier, she was called for an explanation.

She apologized to her father’s friend and later Warrier made sure all the poems under the fictitious name were printed with Sugathakumari’s byline.

There was no looking back after this. Eleven years later (1968), she won a Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for Pathira Pookal and in 1978 won the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for Rathrimazha and Vayalar Award for Ambalamani. Interestingly, her poems have traversed through the various shades of love and longing before venturing into environmental issues and women's liberation.

She has also written for children and is the founder chief editor of Thaliru, a children's magazine published by Kerala State Institute of Children's Literature.

Gandhi and Vivekananda follower

Sugathakumari with her father Bodheswaran.

Her father’s social activism had a deep influence on her. She had a Master’s degree in Philosophy and did research on the 'Comparative Study of the Concept of Moksha in Indian Schools of Philosophy.'

But the thesis never got completed.

A fan of Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley, she loved Bernard Shaw and Pearl S Buck and even took a liking to Gabriel García Márquez.

A staunch Gandhian in spirit, it pained her when writer Paul Zachariah wrote her off as “as a closeted RSS supporter.” But then typically, she responded with a poem—My twin Gurus (Gandhi and Vivekananda).

Politics never fascinated her, one reason why she declined the then Chief Minister AK Antony’s invitation to contest in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha Constituency. “You need a strong voice outside the party to remind you of the Gandhian ideologies,” she wrote to him.

A liberal feminist and activist

Sugathakumari (right) with her sisters.

Her ideal feminist was a brave, kind, outspoken woman who does not let anyone trample her self-respect and keeps her family together.

So, when Sugathakumari forayed into humanitarian activism, it somehow seemed predestined, the profound route for someone who had this palpable bond with nature.

She always underlined the formation of ‘Abhaya’ as the turning point in her life. It was through a friend that she first came to know about the pitiable state of mental hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram and the images she saw there shook her up. “Nude and semi-nude women aimlessly walking inside the cells. An elderly woman lying naked on a towel. And their hungry wails and curses. I shut my ears in agony,” recalled the poetess. That evening ‘Abhaya’ was born. KV Surendra Nath, who was an MLA, became its president.

He addressed the issue at the Parliament. Media gave support but it was an unbelievable struggle. She saw the same images at another Government Mental hospital in Kozhikode. With the support of activists, she marched to the streets in protest. Soon a case was filed against the government and the Justice Narendra Menon Commission verdict came out. Today Abhaya (which is completing 30 this year) which prides itself on being a secular organization has branched out into other districts as well as providing shelter to destitute women and children.

“First-ever funding came during the reign of the current govt through the Finance Minister Thomas Isaac. We are also getting a lot of help from philanthropists from all over the world. Having said that I wish we were able to offer better pay for our workers. It’s my wish to start a rehabilitation centre for mentally ill patients.”

She was equally committed in her role as a conservationist and led a nationwide ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement to preserve some of the oldest natural forests in the country in the late 1970s.

And fittingly her poem, Marathinu Stuthi became the opening song of most of the Save Silent Valley campaign meetings.

“I have so many body ailments but nothing that will affect my mind. I feel there is still so much to be done. We like to call ourselves as the soldiers of a lost war. What won? Who won? Nothing really. Just some little progression, that is all,” she had said. Truly, Sugathakumari was a revolutionary, a philanthropist and a humanist in every sense of the word. And then she also changed the world through her poetry.

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