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An Introduction to the Poetry of Kamala Das

Sometimes you read a poet’s work and it resonates with you so deeply that you feel something shift inside you. Things click into place and your experience and understanding of events feels complete. Sometimes a writer manages to blow you away by writing what you didn’t think it was possible to articulate. Kamala Das’ poetry does exactly that. It bolsters your faith in the magic of words and the promise of the potential they hold.

Credits: Dan Husain

Das’ poetry is a movement in itself. When female poets write about their oppression and the double standards of society, we celebrate them as ‘brave’ and hail them for displaying the courage to defy the norms of society. However, Das’ ‘bravery’ is not anchored in the desire to resist but the need to remain true to herself. Her poems offer both the diagnosis and the treatment for the plight of women in postcolonial India. While reflecting upon the associations a woman is supposed to maintain in her life, Das traces the sources of her own misery and exposes the forces responsible for it. Her poetry is a scathing attack on the systems, thought processes, norms and conventions that control and circumscribe a woman’s life. Her poems provide prudent insight into the themes of motherhood, sexuality, matrimony and family life while confronting and maneuvering around the complexities of each. Through her poetry, Das makes it clear that she will not allow any God or person to be the arbiter of her life and regardless of circumstances, she will not surrender to a life governed by someone else’s rules.

While Kamala Das doesn’t hold back from optimizing the power of words to strike back at the power structures conspiring against her, she doesn’t forget that the energy stored in words can be used in beneficial and destructive ways as well. In her poem ‘Words’, Das explores the potential of language to inflict pain and damage. At the same time, in ‘Volcano’, she urges the reader to write from their lived experience and understanding of history. Compared to Sylvia Plath for her poetry’s unapologetic and blunt nature, Kamala Das is recognised as a confessional poet. ‘Fame‘, ‘Researchers‘ and ‘Light A Bonfire‘ are some of her poems that introduce creative ways to interpret and understand events in life and employ stunning imagery. One of her most celebrated poems, ‘An Introduction,’ is admired globally for its commentary on the ownership of language and patriarchal Indian society.

Kamala Das wrote in free verse. Her work is tangible, direct and replete with demotic cultural figures and practices. It explores a woman’s identity in the backdrop of India’s social and political landscape. Das wrote in English and under the pseudonym Madhavikutty in her mother tongue Malayalam. Her work shreds the cloak of silence imposed on Indian women and defies the codes of the traditional patriarchal society. Das’ poetry mirrors her life and is unforgiving to the systems that aspire to decimate her ambitions and shrink her voice.

Credits: Medium

Her work was met with hostility and criticism throughout her life by people who considered it revolting for a woman to freely express her views on taboos like sexuality and human intimacy. Despite the backlash, Das continued to write and founded Bahutantrika, a club of poets, playwrights, publishers, editors and dancers. This little club provided Das and other artists of her time a safe space and a creative forum to explore their talents, bring them to others and glean inspiration.

In one of his novels, DH Lawrence calls “the artistic creation of ordinariness” the ultimate achievement of any creative pursuit. Kamala Das’ poetry excels in that and carves diverse ways of engaging with the insignificance of reality and twisting it into clever and innovative ways. Her life becomes the blueprint for her work, and in her career, she conquers the forces that otherwise proved too large and powerful for her to annihilate.

Zainab Wahab is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee

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Written by Zainab Wahab

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