Malayalam poet and activist Sugathakumari, who devoted her life to espousing the cause of the environment and upholding the rights of women and the deprived, died on Wednesday of post-Covid-19 complications at the Government Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, her family members said. She was 86.
One of the pioneers of green activism in Kerala, Sugathakumari’s poetry championed the causes she believed in. She warned people against exploiting nature and counselled them to think about future generations. Her poems also gave a voice to the weak and suffering.
Sugathakumari was at the vanguard of a campaign against the Silent Valley hydel power project in the late 1980s that forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to form a panel of scientists to decide if the dam should be built. The panel submitted a report against the construction of the project, which was eventually scrapped.
The last habitat of the lion-tailed macaque, the Silent Valley National Park on the picturesque Nilgiri hills is one of the richest biospheres in the southern part of the Western Ghats.
The poet-activist was born in a family of freedom fighters and social reformers. Her father Bodeswaran was a Gandhian and mother Karthuyani a Sanskrit scholar. She started writing poetry at a young age under a pseudonym before she became an established poet and writer. Her sisters Hridayakumari and Sujatha were also writers.
Sugathakumari died on the day a court in the Kerala capital awarded a life term in prison to a priest and a nun for murdering 19-year-old Sister Abhaya and dumping her body into a well in a case that dated back 22 years. . Whether it was the Abhaya murder or the Suryanelli scandal, which involved the exploitation of a minor girl enticed into the sex trade, she was always at the forefront demanding justice for the victims. Her activist friends said Teacher, as she was fondly known, would have been the happiest to hear the verdict.
Two years ago, when a sit-in was organised before the state secretariat in a gesture of solidarity with five nuns who were protesting in Kochi for against former bishop Franco Mullakal, who allegedly raped a nun multiple times, she was at the venue on a wheel chair.
“Poems were her favourite weapon to enlighten people. Her ‘Marathinu Stuti” (Hymn to a Tree) and other poems tell all,” said famous writer M T Vasudevan Nair in a condolence message. “A born fighter she interacted with people through her literary works and actions,” said poet and move director Sreekumaran Thampi.
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote in a message: “Deeply saddened to learn of the passing away of poet Sugathakumari. As a doyenne of Malayalam literature and with a career that spans decades, she has left an indelible mark on Kerala’s cultural life. We extend our deepest sympathies to her family and join them in sorrow.”
“Don’t bring flowers to me when I am dead. If you want to remember me, plant a banyan tree,” she said once when asked how she wanted to be remembered.
She set aside space for people to plant saplings on the lawns of Abhaya, a home she set up for destitute and mentally challenged women in 1992. After she was cremated in the evening on Wednesday, many of her friends planted sapling in the space to fulfil her wish.
A recipient of many honours, Sugathakumari was conferred the Padma Shri in 2006, and received the Saraswati Samman 2012, instituted by the KK Birla Foundation, for her collection of 27 poems Manalezhuthu (writings on the sand). She leaves behind her daughter Lakshmi, who manages the Abhaya home.