A year and half ago, like an omen, acclaimed Malayalam poet, activist, and Padma Shri awardee Sugathakumari said that “her time was nearing” and it turned out to be true. The celebrated Malayalam poetess passed away today, days after testing positive for Covid-19.
In an exclusive interview with a leading media house in Kerala, she opened up about her concept of funeral. Her last wish was to plant a banyan tree. In her will, she even stressed where it should be planted — at the rocks behind ‘Abhaya’. She emphasised that nothing should be engraved on the tree and her ashes should not be kept there. ‘Abhaya’ is a home for the abandoned, aimed to bring cheers to the lives of thousands of distressed, rejected women including victims of sexual violence.
In 1992, during the foundation stone laying ceremony for Abhayagramam, Dalai Lama said, “I am not a refugee. Let this land be a refuge for the homeless and unfortunate.” A true crusader for weaker sections of society, Sugathakumari tirelessly worked for the successful completion of the initiative. Abhaya, expanded its wings and started taking in drug addicts and disowned children, and provided free accommodation to rejected women. Sugathakumari was the founder secretary of Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi, an organisation established to protect nature. In 2001, she was made the Chairperson of Kerala State Women’s Commission.
Sugathakumari spent her entire life to literature and nature. She considered poetry as a tool for her fight and nature was a regular theme in her poems. She had organised campaigns to protect and preserve nature, including against Ganja cultivators in the Attappady tribal belt in Palakkad. Her initiatives aiming eco-restoration programmes in and around Silent Valley have also been one of the most important ecological protests in the country.
Kerala saw Sugathakumari whenever nature was hurt. In 1986, Sugathakumari and members of the tribal communities planted trees in Krishnavanam in Attappady. Three decades ago, she spearheaded the campaign against government’s proposal to introduce a hydel project in the Silent Valley in Western Ghats. In the 1970s, during the Save Silent Valley Movement, Sugathakumari even wrote a poem named Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a tree), which later became a prayer of the movement, with it being recited before any meeting. Eminent personalities such as Ornithologist Salim Ali, Ecologist Madhav Gadgil, and entrepreneur CV Radhakrishnan took part in the agitation. Salim Ali even wrote to the Centre, stating that the project is “short-sighted” and has “limited objectives”. Most recently, Sugathakumari was at the forefront of protests against the construction of an airport at Aranmula.
An environmentalist and frontline worker of feminist movements in India, Sugathakumari was raised in Thiruvananthapuram with roots in Aranmula. She was born on 22 January 1934 to freedom fighter Kesava Pillai —also known as Bodheswaran — and Sanskrit scholar VK Karthiyayini. In 1960, after marrying writer and educationist Dr K Velayudhan Nair, she moved to Delhi. The couple’s daughter Lekshmi Devi is also a poet. Sugathakumari’s sisters- Hridyakumari and B Sujatha Devi have passed away. The eldest Hridyakumari was a noted writer and teacher who had won the Kerala Sahithya Akademi Award in 1991 while Sujatha Devi was also a noted writer and a recipient of the Kerala Sahithya Academy as well.
Like many other female poets, Sugathakumari’s first poem was published under a pseudonym in a weekly journal, and it gained attention in 1957. Later, she won Kerala Sahithya Academy award for her work Pathirappookkal and, in 1978, Raathrimazha won the Kendra Sahithya Academy Award. As a poetess, she had contributed to children’s literature for which she received an Award for Lifetime Contribution to Children’s Literature. She was also the Founding Chief Editor of Thaliru — a children’s magazine published by the Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature.
In the world of letters, she was remembered for her much acclaimed works like Muthuchippi (Pearl Oyster) (1961), Pathirappookkal (Midnight Flowers) (1967), Paavam Maanavahridayam (Poor Human Heart) (1968), Irul Chirakukal (The Wings of Darkness) (1969), Raathrimazha (Night Rain) (1977), Ambalamani (Temple Bell) (1981), Kurinjippookkal (Kurinji Flowers) (1987), Thulaavarshappacha (The Monsoon Green) (1990), and Radhayevide (Where is Radha?) (1995).
As a poetess, Sugathakumari was bestowed with the Kendra Sahithya Academy Award in 1978, Odakkuzhal Award in 1982, Vayalar Award in 1984, Lalithambika Antharjanam Award in 2001, Vallathol Award in 2003, Kerala Sahithya Academy Fellowship in 2004 and Balamaniamma Award in 2004. In 2006, she was honoured with the prestigious national award, the Padmashri, recognising her tireless determination to uplift those treated unfairly in the society.