Kamala Das Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kamala Das 1934-

(Has also written under the pseudonyms Madhavikutty and Kamala Suraiyya) Indian poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and autobiographer. The following entry presents an overview of Das's career through 2000.

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 who exemplifies 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.

Biographical Information

Das was born into an aristocratic Nair Hindu family in Malabar (now Kerala), India, on March 31, 1934. Her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were Rajas, a caste of Hindu nobility. 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 for Das. Educated in Calcutta and Malabar, Das began writing at age six 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 sixteen years old when the first of her three sons was born; at eighteen, she began to write obsessively. Although Das and Madhava were romantically incompatible according to Das's 1976 autobiography, My Story, which describes his homosexual liaisons and her extramarital affairs, Madhava supported her writing. His career took them to Calcutta, New Delhi, and Bombay, where Das's poetry was influenced by metropolitan life as well as by her emotional experiences. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and autobiography, Das served as editor of the poetry section of The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1971 to 1972 and 1978 to 1979. 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.

Major Works

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 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 the very things society labels taboo are the things that women are supposed to give. In The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), poems such as “Substitute,” “Gino,” and “The Suicide” examine physical love's failure to provide fulfillment, escape from the self, and exorcism of 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, reworks 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. In My Story, originally published in serial format, Das provides details of her extramarital affairs and her unhappy marriage to Madhava Das. She is also the author of a novel, The Alphabet of Lust (1977), and several volumes of short stories in English. Under the name Madhavi Kutty, Das has published many books in the Malayalam language.

Critical Reception

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 have 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 have found powerful feminist images in Das's poetry, focusing on critiques of marriage, motherhood, women's relationships to their bodies and power over their sexuality, and the roles women are offered in traditional Indian society. Many critics have analyzed Das as a “confessional” poet, writing in the tradition of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Denise Levertov. Some scholars, such as Vimala Rao, Iqbar Kaur, and Vrinda Naur, have deemed Das's poetry, autobiography, and essays frustratingly inconsistent, self-indulgent, and equivocal, although they, too, have praised her compelling images and original voice. Such commentators have suggested that Das is both overexposed and overrated. Other scholars, such as P. P. Raveendran, have connected the emphasis on the self in Das's work to larger historical and cultural contexts and complicated, shifting postcolonial identities. Indian critics have disagreed about the significance of Das's choice to write of her experiences as an Indian woman in English; some scholars suggest 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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tharisunilam [Fallow Fields] (short stories) 1962

Summer in Calcutta (poetry) 1965

The Descendants (poetry) 1967

The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (poetry) 1973

My Story (autobiography) 1976

The Alphabet of Lust (novel) 1977

A Doll for the Child Prostitute (short stories) 1977

Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (poetry) 1979

The Heart of Britain (nonfiction) 1983

Collected Poems (poetry) 1984

Kamala Das: A Collage...

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Fritz Blackwell (essay date 1977-1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blackwell, Fritz. “Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das.” Journal of South Asian Literature 13, nos. 1-4 (1977-1978): 9-14.

[In the following essay, Blackwell contrasts the use of the Krishna motif in four poems by the Indian poets Kamala Das and Sarojini Naidu.]

Traditional imagery in modern poetry in English

Let us consider four poems, two each by two Indian poets writing in English. The older of the two is Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), who is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken...

(The entire section is 2149 words.)

R. Raphael (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Raphael, R. “Kamala Das: The Pity of It.” Indian Literature 22, no. 3 (1979): 127-37.

[In the following essay, Raphael contends that Das's autobiography, My Story, is flawed but provides insight into the author's personality and work.]

David McCutchion says that Kamala Das, the Indo-English poet, uses the technique of free verse in her poems, the ‘originality’ and ‘freshness’ of which arise out of her personality. Roger Iredale says that “In many of the poems of Kamala Das there is an almost violent frankness that expresses itself through an outspoken use of languages as she explores the nuances of the personal relationship.” In a review...

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P. K. J. Kurup (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kurup, P. K. J. “Revolt.” In Contemporary Indian Poetry in English, pp. 144-63. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Kurup offers a thematic and stylistic examination of the poems in The Descendants.]

In the second volume of the poet—The Descendants—the same existential despair of the self emerging from the failure to establish an eternal bond and to realise the meaning of existence is intoned, this time with heightened intensity. The difference here is that most of the poems in this volume provide evidence to her painstaking efforts for a fuller encounter with life. In a bid to receive the...

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Shirley Geok-lin Lim (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Terms of Empowerment in Kamala Das's My Story.” In 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.

[In the following essay, Lim discusses My Story as a provocative and transformative work of women's autobiography.]

A popular approach to Western women's writings is to categorize the best of them as the achievements of exceptional women, women who were able to move beyond the sociocultural confines that kept other women “domesticated” and invisible. Such exceptional women forced a...

(The entire section is 10036 words.)

Sunanda P. Chavan (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chavan, Sunanda P. “The Unity of Vision in the Poetry of Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, edited by Iqbal Kaur, pp. 142-49. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.

[In the following essay, Chavan identifies the unifying aspect of Das's poetry, asserting that “the extraordinarily subjective nature of her vision establishes a vital link between her poems about private life, and about external life.”]

Due to its unusualness in the Indian context, Kamala Das's poetry has received a variety of interpretations from critics. But it is seen that the criticism has so far been primarily concerned with her poems about personal...

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P. P. Raveendran (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Raveendran, P. P. “History in the Anamalai Poems.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, edited by Iqbal Kaur, pp. 150-55. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.

[In the following essay, Raveendran examines the role of history in the Anamalai Poems.]

The Anamalai Poems are a series of short poems that Kamala Das wrote during and after her sojourn at the hills of Anamudi in Tamil Nadu following her defeat at the parliamentary elections of 1984.1 Along with “The Anamalai Hills” which closes the group of poems dating from 1981-90 in The Best of Kamala Das (1991), this cycle of poems provides a peephole into...

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Alladi Uma (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Uma, Alladi. “What's in a Genre?: Kamala Das's My Story.Literary Criterion 32, no. 3 (1996): 69-75.

[In the following essay, Uma investigates the genre of My Story.]

My Story is my autobiography which I began writing during my first serious bout with heart disease” (Das 1991:v). The author herself has given us sanction to read it as an autobiography. So we proceed to do so, taking with us at first a lay person's understanding of what an autobiography is—factual recounting of one's life—and therefore we take whatever is written as sacrosanct truth. Then suddenly we realise that we are not “naive lay readers” but “sophisticated...

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Ranjana Harish (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harish, Ranjana. “My Story.” In Women's Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, pp. 213-22. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 1996.

[In the following essay, Harish underscores the novelty and appeal of My Story.]

This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books in my life time, but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of My Story has given me. I have nothing more to say.


In Virginia Woolf's view any woman who sets her pen to paper and adopts the writer's profession,...

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Iqbal Kaur (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaur, Iqbal. “Protest against Sexual Colonialism: Kamala Das's My Story.” In Women's Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, pp. 223-32. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 1996.

[In the following essay, Kaur explores Das's attitude toward gender roles and views My Story as a protest against the sexual discrimination of women.]

Sexual colonialism refers to the relationship between the sexes which is ‘a relationship of dominance and subservience’. It refers to the relationship between sex and power and as Kate Millett puts it “Through this system a most ingenious form of ‘interior colonization’ has been achieved”. Men are...

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D. Murali Manohar (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Manohar, D. Murali. “Man-Woman Relationship with Respect to the Treatment of Love in Kamala Das's Poetry.” In Kamala Das: Treatment of Love in Her Poetry, pp. 14-53. Gulbarga, India: Jiwe Publications, 1999.

[In the following essay, Manohar traces Das's depiction of the male-female dynamic in her verse.]

In the life of a woman or a man there are happy as well as sorrowful events. Neither the sorrowful events nor the happy events can be forgotten. In order to understand the man-woman relationship in terms of love in Kamala Das's poetry one could ask questions like:

a) What is man-woman relationship?

b) What is man's...

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Rosemary Marangoly George (essay date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: George, Rosemary Marangoly. “Calling Kamala Das Queer: Rereading My Story.Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (fall 2000): 731-63.

[In the following essay, George reads My Story as a “queer” text.]

… When
I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door. He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breast and womb crushed me. I

—Kamala Das, from “An Introduction,” 1965

At this time my husband turned to his old friend for comfort. They behaved like lovers in my...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Perfected Passions: The Love Poetry of Kamala Das and Judith Wright.” Literary Half-Yearly 20, no. 1 (January 1979): 116-30.

Finds parallels in the poetry of Das and Judith Wright.

Narayan, Shyamala A. “A Note on Kamala Das' My Story.Commonwealth Quarterly 3, no. 9 (1978): 148-53.

Regards My Story as a disappointing and flawed autobiography.

Additional coverage of Das's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series,...

(The entire section is 96 words.)