Environmental crusader Sugathakumari of Silent Valley fame dies

She died following complications from COVID-19

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 23 December 2020

Malayalam poet, writer, literary critic and environmentalist Sugathakumari passed away December 23, 2020 in Thiruvananthapuram due to complications related to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The poet breathed her last at 10.52 am at the government medical college in Kerala’s capital.

Sugathakumari had been a leading light in the literary, cultural and social spheres of Kerala for the last 60 years. She had been at the forefront of environmental movements and those for marginalised groups including women, Adivasis and the mentally-ill.

Born on January 22, 1934 in the town of Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district, Sugathakumari was the middle of the three daughters born to poet Bodheswaran and scholar VK Karthiyayini.

Her parents instilled the love of reading, writing and poetry in her from a young age. Sugathakumari was educated in Thiruvanathapuram.

Environmental movements

Sugathakumari was already an established poet by the time the Silent Valley Movement began in the 1970s. Silent Valley is a forest near Palakkad that was threatened when the Kerala State Electricity Board decided to construct a hydroelectric dam there, threatening the forest and especially lion-tailed macaques.

Sugathakumari wrote a celebrated poem titled Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to a Tree), which became an anthem of the movement to save the forest.

Following the agitation, the environment featured in a large part in Sugathakumari’s poetry.

For example, here is her work Thaivakkal, whose opening stanza talks about the pathetic condition of a polluted river.

We have taken this from the paper Exploring the anguish of the crippled green: An ecocritical reading of select poems by Sugathakumari by Archana B. It was published in the Journal of the Gujarat Research Society, Volume 10, Issue 10, November 2019

It has two parts; in the middle

A dead river flows with black water,

On one side there is a city

Immersed in smoke and

And with oozing blood.

Another of her celebrated poems is Raathrimazha (Night Rain) for which she won the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi Award:

Night rain

Pensive daughter of the dusky dark

Gliding slowly like a long wail

Into this hospital

Extending her cold fingers

Through the window

And touching me

Sugathakumari was also noted for her work with the mentally-ill. Moved by the sight of mentally ill inmates in Kerala’s government hospitals, she opened her home Abhaya in 1985.

Her interest in improving the living conditions of the mentally-ill was the reason behind the improvements in the state’s psychiatric hospital, according to the website of her organisation.

Today, Abhaya also caters to drug addicts, abandoned women and children in distress. Sugathakumari was married to K Velayudhan Nair. She is survived by her daughter Lakshmi Devi, who is also a poet.

A number of eminent persons tweeted tributes for her as news about her death spread December 23. These included former Union Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh:

Conservationist Vivek Menon, also tweeted in tribute:

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