An evergreen voice in verse

Sugathakumari   | Photo Credit: S. Gopakumar

As a Malayali born and raised outside Kerala, I encountered the works of many Malayalam authors rather late in life. However, as a student of literature, I had studied a few of them in English translation. One such writer I had heard a great deal about, and whose poems I had read, is Sugathakumari. It was only after I moved to Kerala though, that I truly started to understand what she meant to the world of letters here.

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The celebrated poet may not remember me, but I have seen her at a few gatherings in Thiruvananthapuram. And I remain grateful to the late Ayyappa Paniker for introducing me to her at one such occasion. And though it was her soft voice and graceful demeanour that struck me back then, I knew she was a quiet force to reckon with. After all, she was someone who was also speaking her mind on various issues and demonstrating her support for many a meaningful cause, including the ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement. Just as she is equally known for the institutions she has established for the welfare of destitute women and children.

However, as a writer, I find myself compelled to write about her poetic persona the most. It is the manner in which stoicism and sophistication combine to create something memorable that draws me to her work. The stoicism could owe itself to a certain understanding of human nature that nourished her as a student of philosophy. Or to the wisdom passed on to her by her illustrious parents (the poet Bodheswaran and Sanskrit scholar V. K. Karthiyayini.)

Place in anthology

Undoubtedly, Sugathakumari’s is one of the finest voices of her generation. In Malayalam Poetry Today, a seminal anthology of poems in English translation (Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1984), she is one of the few women poets anthologised with her contemporaries.

I have seen many literary tags associated with her poetry, including neo-romantic and feminist. I’m not sure about these labels though, as I believe even literary criticism can be subjective. And the subjects she touches on in many of her poems — whether it is nature, angst, devotion, or the complex and ambiguous nature of love and longing — may not make her unique either. However, it’s the manner in which she approaches some of these concepts that makes her extraordinary.

In Indian English Poetry: New Perspectives (2002), K.V. Surendran makes an engaging comparison between Sugathakumari and other women poets who explored the nuances of the man-woman relationship at that time — Kamala Suraiyya (Kamala Das), Gauri Deshpande et al.

As much as I admire Das for her emphatic and often vociferous images, I equally enjoy Sugathakumari’s solemn expressions. The women in the poet’s works, as captured in her Radha or Gopika series, are distinct in the way they emote. Her Gopika, as she herself says in a musical production of some of her poems, is her own, expressing her love and devotion for Krishna quietly. She seeks him out from afar, assuming he does not know her. There is no dramatic, rapturous outpouring.

Woman’s freedom

In Abhisarika, on the other hand, we see a bold Radha. I was reminded of the Sanskrit love poetry traditions in which, quite often, the woman exercised a freedom seldom seen in the ages that followed.

Though Sugathakumari is well known for works like Paavam Manavahridayam, Irulchirakukal, and Pathirappookkal, it is Rathrimazha that has always held my attention. It is brilliantly translated as Rain-at-night by her sister, the late Hridayakumari, herself an equally accomplished writer and academic. The poem recreates rain in its myriad, disturbing forms.


Like some young mad woman

For nothing

Weeping, laughing, whimpering,

Muttering without a stop,

And sitting huddled up,

Tossing her long hair.”

(from Malayalam Poetry Today, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1984)

These opening lines set the tone for the melancholy of the poem. Rain is a young, mad woman, daughter of the dusky night, witness to love and grief, in the poet’s words. I have heard Sugathakumari recite this poem in Malayalam and later, listened to musical renditions of the composition. The rhythm, so peculiar to Malayalam poetry, remains one of the attractive features of her style.

Every period and generation gives rise to several poetic voices. A few endure. And Sugathakumari’s will.

She, along with a handful of other Malayalam writers, gives me more reason to get closer to my language and roots.

The writer is a literary journalist and author of Nine, a book of poems.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2021 12:33:04 PM |

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