The poet of silent valleys and silenced voices

Sugathakumari stood for nature conservation and the cause of the downtrodden through her poetry and her presence

When a young Sugathakumari began writing poetry in the early 1950s, she chose to hide herself behind a pseudonym, until she was discovered by poet N.V. Krishna Warrier. But in the decades that followed, until her passing away at the age of 86 on Wednesday, she lived a life much more public than most other poets of her generation, being in the forefront of many an environmental and social movement, with her poetry and her presence.

Born in Aranmula in 1934, the early sparks of language and concern for society came from her father Bodheswaran, poet and social reformer who took part in Vaikom Satyagraha and the freedom struggle and her mother Karthyayini Amma, a Sanskrit scholar. In those early days, her poetry was filled with romantic themes, with her devotion for Krishna coming through in some of these works. Yet, the sorrow and pathos that marked much of her poetry were visible in the early days too.

Saviour of Silent Valley

Nature as a theme began entering her poetry when she became involved with the Save Silent Valley Movement of the 1970s, spearheaded by John C. Jacob, M.K. Prasad and others. Her Marathinu Sthuthi (Ode to a tree) became the movement’s anthem. The movement led to shelving of the proposed hydroelectric dam project which would have destroyed the evergreen forest. Sugathakumari later became part of several environmental protest movements in the State, with the most notable in recent times being the protest against the Aranmula airport, which was proposed to be built after reclaiming paddy fields.

A shelter for women

In 1986, a visit to the Government Mental Hospital at Oolanpara here, during which she witnessed the appalling living conditions of the inmates, led her to launch Abhaya, an organisation for destitute women and mental health patients.

“Young women were stuffed inside box-like cells. Many of them were naked and others were in dirty clothes. I left the place in tears. That was the second turning point in my life, after the Silent Valley agitation,” Sugathakumari told The Hindu in 2016.

Her interventions opened up the mental hospitals in the State to public scrutiny and led to a sea change in the living conditions there. Within a few years, the Abhayagramam was set up on 10 acres of land in the capital, which became a shelter for victims of abuse, chronically mentally ill women patients and children from low-income families.

In 1996, the government chose her to be the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, where she set the standards for her successors.

All these issues that she intervened in reflected in her poetry, which was filled with deeply moving laments for the trampled upon. Amid all her activism, she continued to pen lines which fetched her accolades from all around. She won her first Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Pathirapookkal. Rathrimazha, one of her most popular works, won her the Kendra Sahitya Akademy Award.

Muthuchippi, Paavam Maanavahridayam, Irul Chirakukal, Thulaavarshappacha, and Radha Evide are some of her other noted works.

Much adorned

She has been conferred with almost all the major literary awards, including the Odakuzhal Award, Vayalar Award, Asan Prize, Ezuthachan Award and the O.N.V. Literary Prize. In 2006, she was honoured with Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour.

Although some of her conservative views had led to criticisms from progressive circles in recent years, she continued to strongly voice her opinions on various issues. Even in 2018, when she had cut down on public functions owing to her deteriorating health, she took part in a protest in solidarity with the protesting nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus, demanding the arrest of rape-accused bishop Franco Mulakkal.

Her elder sister and literary critic Hridayakumari, younger sister Sujatha Devi and husband K. Velayudhan Nair passed away earlier.

As she walks away, one can remember her lines which had words of thanks to the sunlight that lit my path, to the shades on the way, to the small cuckoo on the tree branch and to the pain-inflicting thorn on my path. Many a tree still standing because of her, would remember her for the verses which saved them.

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