My life is not in vain, my friend, when I sing for you.
My song is not in vain, my friend, when you hum along with it.
Writing on ecopoetry two decades back, the English writer and scholar Andrew Jonathan Bate said:
What are poets for? They are not exactly philosophers, though they often try to explain the world and humankind’s place within it. They are not exactly moralists, for at least since the nineteenth century their primary concern has rarely been to tell us in homiletic fashion how to live. But they are often exceptionally lucid or provocative in their articulation of the relationship between internal and external worlds, between being and dwelling (The Song of the Earth, London: Picador 2001:251-252).
Sugathakumari (1934-2020), who left this world on 23 December 2020, surely belonged to this genre of poetics, lucidly articulating a symbiotic relationship between “internal and external worlds, between being and dwelling” as Bate commented. The relationship Sugathakumari thus strove to sustain has all the constituents of eco-aesthetics as exemplified in her poems. They also lay bare what Bate called the intricate “relationship between external environment and ecology of mind.” Her poems from 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?), (Temple Bell), Swapnabhoomi (Dreamland) to Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a Tree) interlace this aesthetic yarn between “being and dwelling.”
Even as Sugathakumari’s inner world of poetry kept embracing the pangs of the external world, she never hesitated to become part of social struggles for justice, rights and dignity. The contemporary history of environmental movements and women’s struggles of Kerala bears a clear testimony to her social commitment and aesthetic of civic ardour. The fact that the Silent Valley still remains undisturbed is a classic example of this determination to protect one of the rarest of rare evergreen forests of the South Western Ghats. Sugathakumari was not just part of the ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement; rather she herself became a movement demonstrating the “power of words” in the struggle to save the indigenous biodiversity in the Valley. The government had to eventually abandon its ambitious mega power project in the wake of the intervention of writers like Sugathakumari who wielded only ‘pen and patience’ in the struggle. The more stringent Forest Conservation Act put in place after the Silent Valley struggle became a grim reminder to the powers-that-be that they can no longer play tricks with the precious forests and their rich biodiversity. Sugathakumari’s life hereafter became a relentless struggle against all mega projects—in Pooyamkutty, Attapady, Athirappilli, Nelliyampatty, Aranmula and other places. She also took part in anti-nuclear campaigns against power projects in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and Peringom in Kerala. Similarly, Sugathakumari stood firm on the rights of the victims of Endosulfan in Kasaragod and appealed to the government for justice.
Sugathakumari’s concerns for the poor, helpless people were quite genuine as she was deeply involved in the protection and rehabilitation of people who were suffering. The launching of ABHAYA, a charitable organisation set up in the mid-1980s, was part of a project intended to take care of the mentally challenged patients who remained in the mental hospitals of Kerala for years. ABHAYA has been a successful venture which drew wide support from all sections of the state and civil society. The most significant outcome of this project was that the situation in mental hospitals began to improve with public scrutiny.
Sugathakumari’s role as an institution builder became evident with her assumption of office as the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission in 1996. The women empowerment campaign in the state got momentum with the enactment of the Kerala Women’s Commission Act, 1990, which became a historic step in the protection of the rights and dignity of women. A major step initiated by Sugathakumari after her taking over the Commission was the setting up of Jagratha Samithis at the panchayat level. These Samithis were given enormous responsibilities to protect the rights and dignity of women and children. Sugathakumari intervened in several cases of sexual assaults and harassment of women (which included Suryanelli, Vithura Walayar cases) and thereby enhanced confidence of the victims to fight for justice. The setting up of family courts and adalats in all districts helped reinforce the voices of the victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults.
Even in her advanced age with several health problems, Sugathakumari kept herself engaged in watching and responding to issues such as the flood disaster in 2018 and 2019. She believed that the disaster that struck Kerala in two consecutive years was essentially man-made with quarries and illegal constructions having altered the structure of many ecologically sensitive regions. She had also warned that our continued interreference with the nature destroyed the fragile ecosystems and rendered the state prone to disastrous landslides. Sugathakumari also landed herself in social media outrage when an ‘interview’ given to a right-wing newspaper flashed very sensitive statements about minorities and migrants. She later clarified that such ‘interviews’ tended to take issues to unimaginable proportions without scrutinising ‘facts of statements.’ Sugathakumari said that she could not but be a Gandhian in her heart and his philosophy of ahimsa continued to inspire her thoughts and action.
Sugathakumari’s demise has caused a cultural vacuum in the state though her poems and the legacy of social interventions will live longer as significant milestones in the history of Kerala. Her identity and stature as a writer of eco-aesthetics and social empathy would remain ensconced within the contemporary struggles for environmental ethics and women’s rights and dignity.
The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He writes in Global South Colloquy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org