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Home > Reference > Indian Literature > Regional Indian Literature > Malayalam Literature > Kamala Das
Kamala Das
Kamala Das is probably the first Hindu woman to openly and honestly talk about sexual desires of Indian woman.
 Kamala DasKamala Das, also known as Kamala Suraiya, the sophisticated Indian poetess was born on March 31, 1934. She is a distinguished Indian writer who composes in English as well as Malayalam, her native language. Kamala Das is looked at as one of the exceptional Indian poets writing in English, even though her reputation and esteem in Kerala is based primarily on her short stories and autobiography. Much of Kamala Das's writing in Malayalam is published in the pen name 'Madhavikkutty'. Kamala Das was born in Malabar in the maritime state of Kerala. She was born to V. M. Nair, an ex- managing editor of the widely-distributed Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi and Nalappatt Balamani Amma, a renowned Malayali poetess. A notable feature included in Kamala Das's character analysis is that she is perhaps the first Hindu woman ever to blatantly and candidly talk about sexual desires of Indian women, making her an iconoclast of her generation.

Born into a conservative Hindu Nair (Nallappattu) household possessing royal ancestry, Kamala Das had embraced Islam in 1999 at the age of 65 and assumed the name Kamala Suraiya. Just like the subjects of her stories, conversion in religious faith too had provoked much heat and storm in the social and literary circuits. Kamala Das also took active participation in politics in India and had launched a national political party, called the Lok Seva Party. The foremost aim of the party is to focus wholly on humanitarian work, as well as provide refuge to orphaned mothers and promote secularism. In 1984, Das had contested the general elections to enter parliament, but lost.

Kamala Das's journey from being an elegiac child to turn into a respected Indian poetess is pretty long one. Her love of poetry began since early childhood under the influence of her great uncle, Nalapat Narayan Menon, a well-known writer. Das had spent most of her early days in Calcutta, where her father was employed. Das reminiscences watching her great uncle "work from morning till night" and thinking that he led "a blissful life". Kamala Das was also profoundly impressed by the poetry of her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma and the sanctified writings preserved by the matriarchal community of Nayars. She received private education until the age of 15, when she was married to K. Madhava Das. She was barely 16 when her first son was born, to which she states that she "was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born". It is also known from the poetess's autobiography that Das's husband used to often assay a fatherly role for both Das and her sons. Due to the huge age difference between Kamala and her husband, Madhava Das often encouraged his wife to stay associated with people of her own age. Kamala Das corroborates this information and says that he was always "very understanding". When Kamala Das wished that she should begin writing, her husband supported her decision to expand the family's earnings. Since Das belonged to the group of the 'fair sex', she could not utilise the 'morning-till-night' agenda enjoyed by her great uncle. Hence, she had to wait until nightfall after her family had gone off to sleep, after which she would write until morning. There was the availability of only the kitchen table, where she would cut vegetables and after all the plates and things were washed up, Das would sit there and start typing. This scrupulous schedule weighed upon heavily upon the poetess's health, but she viewed her illness from the optimistic side. Her illness gave her more time at home and hence, more time to write. Such was Kamala Das's dedication, only after which did she attain the elevated Indian poetess status. As her career escaladed towards the high, her husband always remained her greatest supporter. Though he was sick for three years before he passed away, his presence brought Das remarkable joy and comfort. She avowed that there "shall not be another person so proud of me and my achievements".

Kamala Das's achievements do broaden well beyond her verses of poetry. According to Kamala Das, "I wanted to fill my life with as many experiences as I can manage to garner because I do not believe that one can get born again". True to her word, Das has made herself successfully involved in painting, fiction and even politics. Though she had failed to win a place in Parliament in 1984, yet, she had witnessed much more success as a syndicated columnist. She has moved farther from poetry because she claimed that "poetry does not sell in this country (India),". However, opportunely, her forthright columns did and still do. Kamala Das's columns were based upon everything from women's issues and child care to politics.

Kamala Das's mysterious honesty is wholly extended to her exploration of womanhood and love. According to her, womanhood calls for a specific set of collective experiences. Again, Kamala Das's attention towards eroticism is magnificently coupled with her exploration of women's needs. According to her, love should be determined by a fanatical kind of unconditional honesty. An encumbered love seems to be no love at all; only a total raptness in love can do justice such varied experiences. Much like the makers of ancient Tantric art, Das made no effort to conceal the sensuality of the human form; her work appears to commemorate its cheerful potential, while acknowledging its co-occurring perils.

Kamala Das's poems when focussed upon love treat it within more panoptic ranges of themes, more realised settings and with deeper feeling, bringing to it an intensity of emotion and speech. The rich, full complexity if life is wholly grasped in Das's writings. Her themes travel beyond stereotyped yearnings and complaints. Even her feelings of lonesomeness and distress are part of a larger-than-life personality, obsessive in its consciousness of its self, yet, weaving a drama of selfhood.

Significantly, many of her poems in English are about the warmth of her childhood and the family home in Kerala. Similar to other South Indian writers, this Indian poetess was also fond of writing about memories of childhood, family relations, and the family's great house. In Kamala Das's poetry there lies an idealised time of childhood in My Grandmother's House, when she felt the sanctuary of love within familiar surroundings innocent of sexual fears and frustrations. Despite the fickle alterations of mood, attitude and self-respect in her poetry, there is an inner nucleus of identity to which Das refers: her name and aristocratic blood, her mother's family, life in the South and her youth in contrast to her marriage.

There lies a dualism in Kamala Das's writings in English, in which soul is contrasted to body. She seemed to imagine overwhelming this dualism only through death; Das's poems are filled with yearnings for death, especially to drown in the sea, water being connected in her mind with an all-encompassing universal calmness, formlessness in contrast to the conscious mind and body of the anxious individual. The dualism results from the fall from childhood innocence into the adult realm of sexuality, marriage and life amongst strangers. Rather than a poet of free love, Kamala Das elucidates the disenchantment of sexuality.

The uniqueness of Kamala Das's English poetry is not the story of sex outside marriage, but the volatility of her feelings, the way they rapidly shift and assume new postures, fresh attitudes of defence, attack, explanation or celebration. Kamala Das's poems are placed neither in the act of sex nor in feelings of love; they are instead entangled with the self and it's wide-ranging, often conflicting emotions. They often range from the yearning for security and intimacy to the assertion of the ego, self-dramatisation and feelings of humiliation and depression. Writing is a means of etching a place in the world; the use of the personal voice and self-revelation are means of self-assertion. Das had opened domains in which previously outlawed or ignored emotions could be elucidated in ways which reflected the true voice of feeling; she showed how an Indian poetess could establish a space for herself in the public world. Kamala Das brought a sense of locality to her poems.

Surpassing every sphere in Indian English literature, Kamala Das's most remarkable achievement is her own sense of writing in Indian English. Often her vocabulary, idioms, choice of verbs and some syntactical constructions are part of what has been termed the 'Indianisation of English'. This is indeed a feat of accomplishment for Das. It has served as an important phase in the development of a national literature.

Kamala Das is also popularly known as Madhavikutty in her mother-tongue, Malayalam. She is counted as one of the principal short story writers in Malayalam. In any given listing, Das numbers amongst the top five writers, even after bearing in mind personal choices and socio-cultural background of her readers. Kamala Das's writing technique is indeed economical and the utilisation of language is pretty precise. Her vastly applauded stories in Malayalam include Pakshiyude Manam, Neypayasam, Thanuppu, and Chandana Marangal. Das also wrote a few novels, among which Neermathalam Pootha Kalam excels every other, which was received positively by the readers as well as the critics. It reanimates the nostalgia of an old ancestral home with it adjoining snake shrine. It is often stated that even Kamala Das's casual talks falls in the genre of short stories. Such is the Indian poetess' creative genius that even after buckling under several unwanted controversies, she remains a widely admired figure.

Awards Received by Kamala Das:

Kamala Das has in her ongoing career as a poet, received umpteen awards for her literary contribution.

Some of them are
Asian Poetry Prize Asian World Prize Sahitya Academy Award Kerala Sahitya Academy Award
Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries Ezhuthachan Award Vayalar Award  

Kamala Das has travelled extensively to recite poetry to Germany's Essen, Bonn and Duisburg Universities, Adelaide Writer's Festival (Adelaide, Australia), Frankfurt Book Fair, University of Kingston, Jamaica, Singapore and South Bank Festival (London), Concordia University (Montreal, Canada), Columbia University (New York), Qatar, Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi. etc. Her works are printed also in French, Spanish, Russian, German and Japanese. She has also retained positions as Vice chairperson in Kerala Sahitya Academy, chairperson in Kerala forestry Board, President of Kerala Children Film Society, Orient editor of Poet magazine and Poetry editor of Illustrated Weekly of India.

(Last Updated on : 26/10/2013)
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