The demise of Sugathakumari (1934-2020)—one of the finest and surely the most humane of the poets of Kerala—has come as a distressing news to every Malayali in the world. The ingenious acquaintances she forged amid her richly diverse poetry, commitment to nature and culture and the profound determination in her fight for gender justice, ecological sustainability, the rights of children and the destitute lot were all amazing. Her devotion to poems was as important as her resolution to stay firm on myriad issues of environment, justice and rights. The most notable collections of her poems are Pathirappookal (Flowers of Midnight), Raathrimazha (Night Rain), Paavam Manavahridayam (Poor Human Heart), Muthuchippi(Pearl and Oyster), Irulchirakukal (The Wings of Darkness), Manalezhuthu (The Writing on the Sand), Radhayevide (Where is Radha?), Ambalamani(Temple Bell), and Swapnabhoomi (Dreamland). Her Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a Tree), was a tribute to dying forests.
Even as we get immersed in her works, there is something that seeps through our consciousness. There are things deeply treasured, in a contemporary sense, to discern her distinctive blend of value rationality about and deep compassion with the conditions of others—those who suffer and got marginalised, which included women, children, disabled and older persons. Perceptibly, Sugathakumari’s works–both literary and social—can invigorate, reassure or even soothe them.
The Silent Valley—a treasure-trove of rich biodiversity and one of the rarest of rare evergreen forests of the South Western Ghats—still remains with us because of the relentless struggle fought by the Save Silent Valley Movement led by Sugathakumari and others. She took the bold stand that there won’t be any compromise on the issue insofar as the forests and their indigenous biodiversity in the Valley would remain our greatest wealth. Sugathakumari was proud to say that the movement was the first of its kind in the world—the end result of which was the enunciation of the most stringent Forest Conservation Act. The fight itself was at different levels. While cases were filed in courts, the writers and social activists went on with peaceful agitation. In an interview Sugathakumari said that the movement showed the “power of words.” The poets and writers were able to communicate with the people in their own language. However, she had great respect for science and had acknowledged that the data generated by scientists were of great use in the fight against mega projects. She later carried on the environmental campaign in Pooyamkutty, Attapady, Nelliyampatty, Aranmula and other places. Sugathakumari was also in the forefront of the campaign against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu and the one under consideration in Peringom, in northern Kerala. Sugathakumari’s consistent and resolute campaign for environmental protection and the rights of women earned her the fame of an ecofeminist poet with an exceptional appeal.
The greatness of Sugathakumari also lies in her profound commitment to protecting and rehabilitating people who became destitute, disabled and mentally challenged. ABHAYA, the charitable organisation she started in the 1980s emerged out of her great concern for the mentally challenged people who were languishing in the mental hospitals of the state. The mission of ABHAYA has been to draw the attention of the state and civil society on the plight of the mental hospitals. This eventually resulted in the public scrutiny of such institutions in Kerala.
When Sugathakumari became the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission in 1996 under the Kerala Women’s Commission Act, 1990, it became a milestone in the history of women empowerment in the state. It was during her tenure that Jagratha Samithis were formed at the panchayat level to fight against attacks on women and children. Sugathakumari intervened in a number of cases of sexual assaults and harassment of women, including in the Suryanelli and Vithura cases and, most recently, in the Walayar POCSO case. She also stood with the victims of Endosulfan in Kasaragod and joined the campaign for justice along with writers and social activists.
Sugathakumari has been held in high esteem as a genuinely passionate human poet and this is reflected in her work in the past several decades. She won many national awards and international acclaim for her literary works and social interventions. With high subtlety and sensitivity, her poems unfold compassion, love, sympathy, sorrows and sanguinity. Her works also embrace the many facets of womanhood, and expand between past and future, between our ever-baffling human positions for creation and destruction. Anyone who looks over Sugathakumari’s poems can find a writer with a sharp sense of the infirmity of nature’s balance—a poet who sees the human being not as the master of creation but rather as a mere component whose survival depends on that of all phenomena.