Das, Kamala (Poetry Criticism)
Kamala Das 1934-
(Has also written under the pseudonyms Madhavikutty and Kamala Suraiyya.) Indian poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Das is one of the best-known contemporary Indian women writers. Writing in two languages, English and Malayalam, Das has authored many autobiographical works and novels, several well-received collections of poetry in English, numerous volumes of short stories, and essays on a broad spectrum of subjects. Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, Summer in Calcutta (1965), Das has been considered an important voice of her generation, exemplified by a break from the past by writing in a distinctly Indian persona rather than adopting the techniques of the English modernists. Das's provocative poems are known for their unflinchingly honest explorations of the self and female sexuality, urban life, women's roles in traditional Indian society, issues of postcolonial identity, and the political and personal struggles of marginalized people. Das's work in English has been widely anthologized in India, Australia, and the West, and she has received many awards and honors, including the P.E.N. Philippines Asian Poetry Prize (1963), Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for her writing in Malayalam (1969), Chiman Lal Award for fearless journalism (1971), the ASAN World Prize (1985), and the Sahitya Akademi Award for her poetry in English (1985). In 1984, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Das was born into an aristocratic Nair Hindu family in Malabar (no Kerala), India, March 31, 1934. Her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were Rajas, a caste of Hindu nobility, and her love of poetry began at an early age through the influence of her maternal great-uncle, Narayan Menon, a prominent writer, and her mother, Balamani Amma, a well-known Malayali poet. Das was also deeply affected by the poetry of the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nairs. Das's father, a successful managing director for a British automobile firm, was descended from peasant stock and favored Gandhian principles of austerity. The combination of “royal” and “peasant” identities, along with the atmosphere of colonialism and its pervasive racism, produced feelings of inadequacy and alienation in Das. Educated in Calcutta and Malabar, Das began writing at age six (her poems were “about dolls who lost their heads and had to remain headless for ever”) and had her first poem published by P.E.N. India at age fourteen. She did not receive a university education. She was married in 1949 to Madhava Das, an employee of the Reserve Bank of India who later worked for the United Nations. She was just sixteen years old when the first of her three sons was born; at eighteen, she was “a mother and a disgruntled wife” who began to write obsessively. Although Das and Madhava were romantically incompatible (Das's 1976 autobiography, My Story, describes his homosexual liaisons and her extramarital affairs), Madhara supported her writing. His career took them to Calcutta, New Delhi, and Bombay, and Das's poetry is influenced by metropolitan life as well as by her emotional experience. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and autobiography, Das served as editor of the poetry section of The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1971-72 and 1978-79. In 1981 Das and her husband retired to Kerala. Das ran as an Independent for the Indian Parliament in 1984. After her husband died, Das converted to Islam and changed her name to Kamala Suraiyya. She currently lives in Kerala, where she writes a syndicated column on culture and politics.
Das published six volumes of poetry between 1965 and 1985. Drawing upon religious and domestic imagery to explore a sense of identity, Das tells of intensely personal experiences, including her growth into womanhood, her unsuccessful quest for love in and outside of marriage, and her life in matriarchal rural South India after inheriting her ancestral home. Since the publication of Summer in Calcutta, Das has been a controversial figure, known for her unusual imagery and candor. In poems such as “The Dance of the Eunuchs” and “The Freaks,” Das draws upon the exotic to discuss her sexuality and her quest for fulfillment. In “An Introduction,” Das universalizes and makes public traditionally private experiences, suggesting that women's personal feelings of longing and loss are part of the collective experience of womanhood. In the collection The Descendants (1967), the poem “The Maggots” frames the pain of lost love with ancient Hindu myths, while the poem “The Looking-Glass” suggests that women are the Untouchables of love, in that the very things society labels dirty are the things the women are supposed to give. The poem implies that a restrained love seems to be no love at all; only a total immersion in love can do justice to this experience. In The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1975), poems such as “Substitute,” “Gino,” and “The Suicide” examine the failure of physical love to provide fulfillment, to allow for escape from the self, or to exorcise the past, whereas poems such as “The Inheritance” address the integrity of the artistic self in the face of religious fanaticism. In Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (1979), Das invokes Krishna in her explorations of the tensions between physical love and spiritual transcendence. The Anamalai Poems (1985), a series of short poems written after Das was defeated in the 1984 parliamentary elections, rework the classical Tamil akam (“interior”) poems that contrast the grandeur and permanence of nature with the transience of human history. Poems such as “Delhi 1984” and “Smoke in Colombo” evoke the massacre of the Sikhs and the civil war in Sri Lanka. Das is also the author of an autobiography, My Story, a novel, The Alphabet of Lust (1977), and several volumes of short stories in English. Under the name Madhavikutty, Das has published many books in the Malayalam language.
Critical response to Das's poetry has been intimately connected to critical perception of her personality and politics; her provocative poetry has seldom produced lukewarm reactions. While reviewers of Das's early poetry praised its fierce originality, bold images, exploration of female sexuality, and intensely personal voice, they lamented that it lacked attention to structure and craftsmanship. Scholars such as Devindra Kohli, Eunice de Souza, and Sunil Kumar find powerful feminist imagery in Das's poetry, focusing on critiques of marriage, motherhood, women's relationship to their bodies and control of their sexuality, and the roles women are offered in traditional Indian society. Much criticism analyzes Das as a “confessional” poet, writing in the tradition to Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Denise Levertov. Some scholars, such as Vimala Rao, Iqbar Kaur, and Vrinda Naur, find Das's poetry, autobiography and essays frustratingly inconsistent, self-indulgent, and equivocal, although they, too, praise her compelling images and original voice. They suggest that Das is both overexposed and overrated. Other scholars, such as P. P. Raveendran, connect the emphasis on the self in Das's work to larger historical and cultural contexts and complicated, shifting postcolonial identities. Indian critics disagree about the significance of Das's choice to write of her experiences as an Indian woman in English, with some scholars suggesting that, in her shunning of traditional aesthetic form, she has created a new language for the expression of colonial contradictions. Despite disagreement over the aesthetic qualities and consistency of Das's body of poetry, scholars agree that Das is an important figure whose bold and honest voice has re-energized Indian writing in English and provided a model for other Indian women writers.
Summer in Calcutta 1965
The Descendants 1967
The Old Playhouse and Other Poems 1975
Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy 1979
Collected Poems 1984
The Anamalai Poems 1985
Kamala Das: A Selection, with Essays on Her Work [edited by S. C. Harrex and Vincent O’Sullivan] 1986
Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das 1996
Tharisunilam [Fallow Fields] (short stories) 1962
Tanuppa (short stories) 1967
Pathy kathakal (short stories) 1968
Thanuppu [Cold] (short stories) 1970
Premathinte vilapa kavyam [Requiem for a Love] (short stories) 1971
Draksakshi Panna [Eyewitness] (juvenilia) 1973
My Story (autobiography) 1976
The Alphabet of Lust (novel) 1977
A Doll for the Child Prostitute (short stories) 1977
The Heart of Britain (nonfiction) 1983
Kamala Das: A Collage (plays) [edited by Arun Kuckreja] 1984
Padamavati, the Harlot and Other Stories (short stories) 1994
The Sandal Trees and Other Stories (short...
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SOURCE: Kohli, Devindra. “Kamala Das.” Literary Criterion 12, nos. 2-3 (1976): 173-86.
[In the following essay, Kohli argues that Das's confessional poetry, with its unusual metaphors and original tone, represents a distinctly Indian voice that bows neither to the English modernists nor to Indian transcendentalist philosophy.]
Kamala Das was born on 31 March, 1934 in Malabar in Kerala. She was publishing short stories in Malayalam, her mother tongue, before she brought out Summer in Calcutta, her first volume of poems in English, in 1965. She was immediately and widely noticed and soon recognized as a poet of promise, for her poems were, and still continue to be, characterised by a striking vitality of metaphor and an originality of voice which cannot be missed: the authenticity of both demonstrated to the Indian poet in English that one could write well without parading Eliot and Auden in one's pocket and that one could be a distinctly Indian poet without striving to be one and without leaning on the crutch of transcendental philosophy.
At the conscious level, her favourite theme has always been the shadowy borderline between fulfilment and unfulfilment in love. For example, ‘The Dance of the Eunuchs’ objectifies through what is a familiar sight in India the contrast between the symbolic frenzy of the dance of the eunuchs and their actual ‘vacant ecstasy’ so that in...
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SOURCE: Mishra, D. S. “The Confessional Mode of Kamala Das: Romanticism and Realism.” Contemporary Indian English Poetry: A Revaluation, edited by Vallabh Vidyanagar, pp. 55-62. India: Sardar Patel University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Mishra situates Das's poetry in the confessional genre and discusses her attempts to mythologize her personal experiences.]
Kamala Das, a recognized feminist poet, writes “autobiographical poems” to “mythologize” her personal life. She expresses her strong feeling of love and admits her inability to realise it in the world of self-centred men. Obviously, her poetry is suffused in emotion. This emotion seems to be a subjective emotion, but it is not so. It is really the psychological consequences of poetic experience and knowledge. Her poetry, therefore, is not merely the confession of “the facts” of her life; it is also the expression of universal truths experienced by an individual soul that longs to be one with men and with the world.
How does Kamala Das “mythologize” her personal life? What are the conventions that govern the structure of her poems? Efforts are made to answer these questions in this chapter. In a sense, the structure of her poetry is “atectonic”, for it is not immediately discernible. It seems to flow and uncoil itself in a spontaneous, haphazard and rambling way as her moods dictate. But within her...
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SOURCE: Nair, K. R. Ramachandran. “Napalat House.” In The Poetry of Kamala Das, pp. 76-82. New Delhi, India: Reliance Publishing House, 1993.
[In the following essay, Nair addresses the significance of the poet's ancestral home, Nalapat House, to several of her important poems.]
Kamala Das is at her best as a poet of private sensibility. Her dreams do not overstep her reach. Though she has the modern Indian woman's ambivalence, her consciousness is firmly yoked to the world around her, a world characterised by ecstasy and pain, love and despair. Her poems are the gestures that counter the luridness of the world. She is essentially conventional in her mental makeup and her outbursts are always restrained by the age-old sober proprieties of her Nair lineage. One of the recurring symbols in her poetry is the ancestral house Nalapat with all its inspiring associations. These associations include the nostalgic memories about her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, father, brother and sons. Some of the finest poems have their source in these familial memories.
Kamala Das belongs to Nalapat family, well-known in Kerala. Her mother Balamoni Amma is one of the most outstanding Malayalam poets and her grand uncle Narayana Menon was a scholar-poet of considerable reputation. Nalapat house has been a typical Nair tharavadu (family house). Kamala Das has been emotionally attached to...
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SOURCE: Raveendran, P. P. “Text as History, History as Text: A Reading of Kamala Das's Anamalai Poems.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 47-54.
[In the following essay, Raveendran examines how Das's later, more political poems, embody tension between the timelessness of the landscape and the minutiae of human history.]
Anamalai Poems are a series of short poems that Kamala Das wrote during her sojourn at the hills of Anamalai in Tamil Nadu following her defeat at the parliamentary elections of 1984.1 Although she has reportedly written twenty-seven poems as part of the sequence,2 only eleven have so far been published.3 Inhabiting a space “too near [the poet' s] nerve”,4 and expressing the pain and anguish of a lonesome soul, these poems provide a peephole into the troubled psyche of a writer, Third World and female, and quite unsure of her position in a world growing increasingly mercenary. They are different from her earlier work in that here one would not find narrated childhood memories, marital disharmony, anxieties regarding old age and other “ordinary / events of an / ordinary life”,5 which, in a sense, are the staple themes of her earlier poetry. The Anamalai Poems celebrate the self in the tradition of the classical Tamil akam (“interior”) poems.6 What is laid bare in...
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SOURCE: Nabar, Vrinda. “The Old Playhouse and Other Poems.” In The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das, pp. 62-82. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Nabar provides extensive stylistic and thematic interpretations of Das's later poetry.]
Kamala Das's third volume of verse, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, appeared in 1973. It was published by Orient Longman and contains 33 poems, of which 14 had appeared in the first book and 6 in the second. This gives us only thirteen new poems in six years, a fact which speaks for itself.
Kohli has already listed the 20 poems which had appeared in the earlier volumes. They are “The Freaks”, “In Love”, “Love”, “Summer in Calcutta”, “An Introduction”, “The Wild Bougainvillea”, “My Grandmother's House”, “Forest Fire”, “A Relationship”, “The Snobs”, “Corridors”, “Loud Posters”, “I Shall Some Day”, “Drama” (all from Summer in Calcutta), and “Composition”, “The Suicide”, “Luminol”, “Convicts”, “Palam”, and “The Descendants” (from The Descendants).
In this third book there are no radical shifts in tone, no obtrusive breaks made with the essential themes and approaches of the first two. It combines the essence of both volumes, the uninhibited abandon and enthusiasm for life...
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SOURCE: Das, Kamala, and Eunice de Souza. “Kamala Das.” In Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets, pp. 29-40. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[In the following interview, Das discusses her writings and her life.]
Kamala Das was born in 1934. Her collections of poetry include Summer in Calcutta (Delhi: Rajinder Paul, 1965), The Descendants (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (Madras: Orient Longman, 1975), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (Kottayam: D.C. Books, 1966). With Pritish Nandy she published Tonight This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1979). Collected Poems was published in 1984 (Trivandrum: Nava Kerala Printers) and her autobiography My Story in 1976 (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers). She has published one major novel, several novelettes and volumes of short stories in Malayalam, under the pen-name Madhavikutty. She has also published short stories in English and in English translation. She was awarded the PEN Prize in 1964, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for fiction in 1969, the Chaman Lal Award for Journalism in 1971, the Asian World Prize for Literature in 1985, the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award in 1988, and the Valayar Award and the Sahitya Parishad Award in 1998. In 1984, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the World...
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Blackwell, Fritz. “Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das.” Journal of South Asian Literature. 13, nos. 1-4 (1977-78): 9-14.
Comparative study of the use of Hindi mythology in Das's poetry.
de Souza, Eunice. “Kamala Das.” Osmania Journal of English Studies 13, no. 1 (1977): 19-27.
Takes issue with some of the stylistic devices—for example, repetition—that Das uses to evoke pathos in her confessional poetry.
Dwivedi, S. C. “Kamala Das: My World Defleshed, Deblooded.” Creative Forum 5, nos. 1-4 (January-December 1992): 65-72.
Examines Das's attempts to establish her identity as an Indian woman writing in English in postcolonial India.
Elias, Mohamed. “The Short Stories of Kamala Das.” World Literature Written in English. 25, no. 2 (1985): 307-12.
Explores nostalgia in postcolonial India in ten of Das's stories.
Geok-Lin Lim. “Terms of Empowerment in Kamala Das's My Story.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, pp. 346-69. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Presents a critique of Das's feminist writings in postcolonial India.
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