Sugathakumari, extraordinary poet, was a moral presence that transcended Kerala’s political divides
Unsure of their merit, she published her earliest poems under a male name. However, a handful of poems were enough for the world to recognise that they were reading a prodigy. By the time of her death on Wednesday, Sugathakumari, 86, had been recognised as one of the greatest poets in Malayalam language. She had turned into an iconic public figure, a moral presence in Kerala’s public sphere, who always, fearlessly and selflessly, spoke the truth to the powerful. Politicians, in and out of office and across ideologies, did not always follow her advice, but very few ever dared to openly question or challenge her. She had become a mother figure, asserting her feminine self, and forcing Kerala to confront the ugliness of destructive masculinity.
The Silent Valley movement in the late 1970s turned her into an environmental activist. News reports about the appalling state of the mental hospital in Thiruvananthapuram and violence against women strengthened her resolve to champion public causes in the later years. Her social vision mirrored the Gandhian resolve of her father, poet and freedom fighter Bodheswaran, and mother, Sanskrit scholar V K Karthiayayani Amma — she has a short poem in which she calls Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda her guiding lights. Her campaigns attracted attention to the problems of people with mental illness and destitute women. She lobbied with state agencies to reform policies and attitudes. Later, she took it on herself to set up institutions that provided care and shelter to victims of domestic violence and trafficking.
Sugathakumari once wrote — “I write for you, my soul-mate”. Thousands found solace in her writings. Poems like Pavam Manava Hridayam (Poor human heart), Krishna Nee Enne Ariyilla (Krishna, You Don’t Know Me), Ambalamani (Temple Bell), Ratri Mazha (Night Rain) are peaks in Malayalam poetry. They will be read as long as the language lives. However, her work as an activist is no less significant. In public life and poetry, she spoke with karuna not only about fellow humans, but also trees, rivers, birds and beasts. And she lived her words, a rare state of advaita few public figures of our times have managed.
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