Renowned poet and activist Sugathakumari passed away on Wednesday, days after testing positive for the coronavirus. The 86-year-old was very critical and not responding to medication. She was admitted to the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram and passed away at 10.52 am on Wednesday.
She was one of the most active campaigners of the Save Silent Valley Movement when it took shape in the 1970s. Silent Valley – a tropical evergreen forest in Palakkad district – was at the time proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) to host a hydroelectric dam. Environmentalists all over the world fought against the proposal that would not only destroy part of the forest but also threaten the lives of endangered lion-tailed macaques. Sugathakumari wrote a poem – Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a Tree) — which was recited at every other protest to save the Silent Valley.
It was also in Palakkad that Sugathakumari and a few others created Krishnavanam, converting a stretch of barren land in Attappady to a natural forest.
In the years that followed, she became one of the first people that environmentalists in the state called when there was any sort of threat to nature. Even in her advanced years, she’d be the first to go and stand before a tree when authorities wanted to cut it without fair reason.
In 2006, when she was awarded the Padma Shri for her works of poetry, she told a reporter that she was walking away from everything, she had seen too much and a lot of it did not seem important to her anymore. But in 2018, when five nuns protested in Ernakulam against the bishop accused of raping their colleague, the then 84-year-old Sugathakumari thawed. She took part in a protest in support of the nuns outside the Secretariat and simply said that it was her duty to be with them.
She raised her voice for oppressed women time and again, leading to the opening of Abhaya in 1992. It became a home for destitute women and a daycare centre for people with mental health issues. Sugathakumari was moved by the plight of the patients at government hospitals for the mentally ill. “The most significant achievement of Abhaya was that after 150 years of isolation, the mental hospitals of the State were thrown open to public scrutiny. Consequently the mental health scenario of Kerala has undergone a healthy change,” says the website of the organisation. They later expanded to care for drug addicts, children in distress and women who didn’t find their own homes safe.
In 1996, she became the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission. Pained by the stories of dowry deaths and domestic violence and child sexual abuse, she wrote several poems, including one titled Vanitha Commission, about those disturbing days.
Through all of her activism, Sugathakumari wrote — poetry has been her tool for every fight. Themes of Mother Nature appeared regularly in her poems. Like many women poets, she had first published as a young woman under a pseudonym. A decade later — in the late 1960s — she would win her first Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for Pathirapookkal (Flowers of Midnight). Another decade later, she would win the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for Raathrimazha (Night Rain).
Muthuchippi (Pearl Oyster), Paavam Maanavahridayam (Poor Human Heart), Irul Chirakukal (Wings of Darkness), Thulaavarshappacha (Green Monsoon), and Radha Evide (Where is Radha) are some of her other noted works.