Remembering Sugathakumari: Unfettered wild bird who left her anthems of conservation behind

Kerala's poet-activist championed the cause of the environment, women and children before Covid claimed her on 23 December, 2020.

ByK A Shaji

Published Dec 23, 2022 | 5:21 PM Updated Dec 23, 2022 | 5:27 PM

Poet Sugathakumari. Caricature by Dwijith

“The lone wild bird with the broken wing
Tries a song from an axe-munched branch,
Softly shuffles its unbroken wing
Struggling to stay still,
Not to hurt its wing
Its tweet chokes as it sings alone
With none to sing along.”

Romanticism in Malayalam began with Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s Poomaala (Garland of Flowers). The early romantics were dreamers who introduced a fresh sensibility and aesthetics to literature.

The latter-day romantics were extreme idealists as well. They presented stark realities in poignant, heartstring-tugging verse.

Sugathakumari was one among them who used a wild bird with a broken wing, perched on an axed branch, as a metaphor in her poem, Oru Pattu Pinneyum (A Song Again — rough translation above), to highlight the gravity of deforestation in Kerala.

The bird with the broken wing could be the activist-poet herself, for, in a state like Kerala with a proclaimed progressive outlook, environmentalists are frowned upon — and often ridiculed — even today.

The Silent Valley Movement launched to protect the evergreen rainforests in the Palakkad district was perhaps India’s first successful instance of environmental activism.

Leaders across political parties are still reluctant to accord due credit to the movement, which had Sugathakumari, among others, at the vanguard. For them, the movement was the first of the initiatives that scuttled development.

The ‘environmental terrorist’

The Kerala society generally views environmentalists as unrealistic, romantic dreamers living in an imaginary world, oblivious to realities and people’s struggle to survive. Opinion makers and influencers have contributed to projecting environmentalists as Utopians, scuppering the state’s fast-paced development.


Sugathakumari at Silent Valley in Palakkad. (Supplied)

Celebrated poet and a pioneer in environmental activism in Kerala, Sugathakumari, who died on 23 December, 2020, due to post-Covid complications, had been a permanent target of the influential, development-at-any-cost group in the state.

They even termed her an “environmental terrorist”. One politician, in a bid to pull a fast one on her, even wondered how the Arabian Sea gets rains despite not having trees. The general public scoffed at him.

The vilification campaigns by politicians and bureaucrats — with the active support of religious leaders and conservative forces — did not deter the poet-turned-activist. She fiercely continued to defend the environment, like the unfettered wild bird with the broken wing in Oru Pattu Pinneyum that kept singing, forgetting the adversities.

“As it sings,
Forgetting the pain in the wing
Oblivious that it cannot soar again
Embracing the open skies with its heart
The wild bird with the broken wing
Rests against a felled tree’s stump
And sings, clear and compassionate
To the rhythm of its unbroken wing.”

The minority league

Kerala is flanked by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea with a vast stretch of evergreen forests and 44 major rivers flowing through its midlands.

Sugathakumari addressing a protest meet. (Sourced)

Sugathakumari was the guardian angel of the Silent Valley and its highly endangered lion-tailed macaques.

Her minority league of environmentalists effectively halted the construction of controversial hydel power projects at Pathrakadavu and Athirappilly, which would have otherwise turned into an environmental nightmare, inundating large tracts of forest lands.

She had also led a protracted war against implementing an atomic power project at Peringome in the Kannur district in North Kerala.

For the poet-activist, environmental protection was not just a pastime. Right from the beginning of the 1970s, when environmental concerns became topics of worldwide debate, she emerged as the champion of Kerala’s green cause.

As far as environmentalism is concerned, the poet and activist in her were inseparable.

She advised her followers to plant one banyan tree when they asked her about her last wish. She wanted such a tree as her memorial. Also, she wanted them to refrain from writing anything on or near the tree.

“Don’t keep even my ashes close to that tree. I want nothing else other than birds eating fruit from the tree. That is all I want,” she stated unequivocally.

The poet also suggested a spot to plant the tree — in the backyard of Abhaya, an institution she had established to rehabilitate destitute women and people with mental illnesses.

Also read: Kallen Pokkudan’s awe-inspiring legacy as a conservationist

Broken promises

Two years have passed since her death, and the state has almost forgotten the wars she had waged for its fragile environment and ecology. Soon after her death, the state government earmarked ₹2 crore in its annual budget for constructing a memorial to her. But nothing materialised.

Veteran Communist leader VS Achuthanandan with Sugathakumari. (Supplied)

Veteran Communist leader VS Achuthanandan with Sugathakumari. (Supplied)

The Agriculture Department’s promise to establish 1,000 mango orchards across the state has gathered dust. The Kerala University, too, has unkept promises:  A Sugathakumari Research Centre, and a memorial forest.

The city corporation is yet to rechristen the Museum-Nandavanam-Bakery Junction Road in Thiruvananthapuram as Sugathakumari Road as promised. She lived close to that road.

Sugathakumari was a long-term critic of flawed governmental policies and did not want to have any government honours post-death. She also warned her followers not to place flowers or wreaths on her body.

She was 86 when Covid-19 snatched her away. A pioneer in the country’s conservation movement, Sugathakumari possessed an unparalleled determination that forced some long-time critics find merit in her steadfast arguments supporting the forests and environment.

Also read: Narayan, first tribal Malayalam novelist, is no more

Anthems of conservation

Born as the second daughter of late Gandhian activist Bodheswaran and Sanskrit scholar VK Karthiyayayani on 22 January,1934, in Aranmula, Sugathakumari laid a solid foundation for environmental activism in Kerala in multiple ways. They included direct interventions, poetry, protests and speeches.

Sugathakumari with playback singer KJ Yesudas and scholar and cultural activist Soorya Krishnamoorthy. (Supplied)

One of the modernist icons of Malayalam poetry, Sugathakumari used her poems to convey the message of conservation. Her philanthropy and charity also underlined her strong commitment to nature and the environment.

Despite being the first chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, Sugathakumari always maintained equidistance from all political formations in the state.

However, some of her standpoints sparked the allegation that she was closer to revivalist Hindutva.

But she always summed up her political philosophy as a combination of the inclusive approaches of Vivekananda and Gandhi.

During her final years, Sugathakumari led an almost retired life, away from the vigorous literary and public life that extended for several years.

She breathed her last without realising a long-cherished dream: To revisit Silent Valley to see for herself the success of the campaign she had led at the end of the 1970s for saving the rainforests from a hydroelectric dam.

Campaigners for the protection of Silent Valley had recited her famous poem, Marathinu Sthuti (Hymn to the Tree), at every protest venue across the state.

Also read: A fuming Church makes Kerala’s LDF government scramble for solutions

Scorching reality

When asked about the turning points in her life, she told this correspondent five years ago that her visits to Silent Valley and the Oolanpara mental hospital in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram had made all the difference.

Those visits had changed her life altogether. She said the realities she found there were rude awakenings from her deep immersion in romantic poetry.

Sugathakumari (left) sprang to the defence of Madhav Gadgil Committee report on Western Ghats when its recommendations came under fire in Kerala. (Supplied)

Sugathakumari (left) sprang to the defence of Madhav Gadgil Committee report on Western Ghats when its recommendations came under fire in Kerala. (Supplied)

Sugathakumari said she had often felt her clothes were on fire after those visits. She then devoted herself entirely to green activism and rehabilitation of abandoned, mentally challenged people, especially women.

She was also at the forefront of agitations seeking justice for women and children subjected to sexual exploitation and harassment.

A strong and passionate advocate for the safe protection of the environmentally fragile Western Ghats, she earned the wrath of lobbies representing encroachers and occupiers on several occasions.

When the Gadgil committee recommendations for protecting the Western Ghats invited large-scale attacks from organised religions and encroachment lobbies, she emerged as the powerful defender of the committee’s report.

Despite the general lethargy in Kerala against environmental activism, people always regarded her as the last word on conservation.

Though labelled as the leader of a minuscule minority “living in hallucination”, governmental agencies and officials were forced to seek her views before implementing projects with environmental implications. Her passion and commitment to the cause were matchless.

Also read: How justice is eluding Attappady tribals

The contradictions

A memorial for Sugathakumari, Krishna Vanam, was established at Attappady near Silent Valley. A reforestation drive initiated by her during the early 1980s along with fellow poet and conservationist Dr NV Krishna Warrier on a vast stretch of barren land had evolved over the years as a thick forest.

Sugathakumari, an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, named the forest at Attappady, Palakkad, Krishna Vanam. (Supplied)

Sugathakumari, an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, named the forest at Attappady, Palakkad, Krishna Vanam. (Supplied)

A Krishna devotee, she affectionately named it Krishna Vanam.

As an activist, environmentalist, social worker, and poet, Sugathakumari had her shortcomingings. She evoked criticism on several occasions by taking soft Hindutva stands and forgetting her earlier positions for an inclusive and pluralistic society.

Her comments on women wearing modern dresses and using mobile phones also evoked strong protests. She was also silent about the large-scale environmental concerns raised by the Adani Group promoting the upcoming Vizhinjam Transshipment Terminal near Thiruvananthapuram.

Despite all shortcomings, she placed environmental protection as one of the top priorities of the state even when successive governments remained least concerned about it.

The poet who championed the cause of humanism and celebrated the need for coexistence will be remembered forever.