Kamala Das Das, Kamala (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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 stories) [translated by V. C. Harris and Mohamed Ummer] 1995

The Path of the Columnist (essays) 2000

Devindra Kohli (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 reality their dance is mere ‘convulsions’. ‘In Love’ considers the gap between the sensuous completeness of sexual love, ‘this skin-communicated thing’, and the questions which, because the memory of the experience lingers somehow, pop up in the moody mind:

Of what does the burning mouth
Of sun, burning in today's
Sky remind me … Oh, yes, his
Mouth, and … his limbs like pale and
Carnivorous plants reaching
Out for me, and the sad lie
Of my unending lust. Where
Is room, excuse or even
Need for love, for, isn't each
Embrace a complete thing, a
Finished jigsaw, when mouth on
Mouth, I lie, while pleasure
With deliberate gaiety
Trumpets harshly into the
Silence of the room … At noon
I watch the sleek crows flying
Like poison on wings—and at
Night, from behind the Burdwan
Road, the corpse-bearers cry ‘Bol
Hari Bol’, a strange lacing
For moonless nights, while I walk
The verandah sleepless, a
Million questions awake in
Me, and all about him, and
This skin-communicated
Thing that I dare not yet in
His presence call our love.

It is part of the strength of Kamala Das's exploration of the love-theme that it also follows her compulsions to articulate and understand the workings of the feminine consciousness. Her best known poem in this category, ‘An Introduction’ is concerned with the question of human identity, but it effectively uses the confessional and the rhetorical modes in order to focus pertinent questions relating to a woman's or an Indian poet's identity in English. ‘Fit in’, they said. ‘Belong, cried the categorizers’. But she responds to this by transforming her alienation from ‘critics, friends, visiting cousins’ who say, ‘Don't write in English’, into a larger and more universal alienation (sexual, social, and artistic) that seems to characterize some of the best literature of our age and is perhaps at the heart of any attempt at self-exploration and self-integration. First, the freedom to choose her language, and a confidence in her creative talent:

          The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest.
It is as human as I am human …
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of the rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre.

Then, the puzzling adolescence and the pain of growing up:

I was a child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair. 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 breasts and womb crushed me. I shrank

Followed by a desire to be even with the male world on its own terms despite the family and social pressures to conform to the traditional feminine role:

          Then … I wore a shirt and my
Brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl,
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don't sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role …

And finally, self-realization through empathy:

I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him … the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me … the oceans' tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself
I in this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the

Kamala Das's tone of voice as well as the nature of her experience—its spontaneity and uninhibited treatment of a woman's experience—belongs centrally to the history of the recent years in which there has been a heightening of interest in the work and achievement of women, and women writers in particular. Not surprisingly, more anthologies of women poets have been brought out by women writers in the last few years in America than ever before. The important issue is the way in which a woman writer can redefine herself and her world without or, as some of them think it inevitable, by breaking away completely and violently from the traditional roles of women. In their introduction to Psyche: The Feminine Poetic Consciousness (New York 1973) Barbara Segnitz and Carol Rainey point out that a ‘conflict between passivity and rebellion against the male-oriented universe’ is one of the themes that preoccupies some of these women poets. Others go to the extreme: Denise Levertov warns: ‘Don't lock me in wedlock, I want / marriage, an / encounter—’, and Sylvia Plath, though she was capable of tenderness, was concerned more than any other woman poet with just the unbearability of being a woman.

Some of Kamala Das's poems will no doubt find a natural and honourable place in any future international anthology of contemporary women poets. And though she deals with the ‘conflict between passivity and rebellion against the male-oriented universe’, her poetry is in the final analysis an acknowledgement and a celebration of the beauty and courage of being a woman. Kamala Das is essentially a poet of the modern Indian woman's ambivalence, giving expression to it more nakedly and as a thing-in-itself than any other Indian woman poet with the possible exception of Amrita Pritam in Panjabi. The reason for this is, I think, that Das seems to have a good deal of the conventional woman in her makeup, so that not only can she speak of the common woman and her basic need for love and security with inside knowledge, but cannot help, in addition, expressing an ambivalence proceeding from her own duality, proceeding from, that is, the combination in herself of a need for domestic security and the desire for an independence, an independence consistent with a non-domestic mode of living. Married at the age of fifteen, and finding, herself tied, as she tells us time and time again, to a hollow relationship which she could not untie, Kamala Das's story, despite its sensationalism which is sometimes heightened by the directness of her manner, makes poignant reading and in essence strikes one as representative of a not so uncommon social phenomenon in India. When she speaks of love outside marriage, she is not really recommending adultery, but merely searching for a relationship which gives both love and security and which should have been hers right at the start. The editors of Psyche ‘discovered that in searching for mythic ancestresses, women poets reject images glorified by the male imagination, such as Aphrodite, Helen, and Eve—those dual-natured archetypes of Beauty, virgin/seducers, and purveyors of man's joy and destruction. Instead, they find their psychological ties with such figures as Leda, Cassandra, and Lot's wife—all victims of the gods or society, struggling to comprehend their circumstances and to express themselves’. When Kamala Das mythologizes her search for true love, she identifies herself, as in ‘Radha Krishna’ and ‘Vrindavan’, with Radha, or with Mira Bai who relinquished the ties of marriage in search of Lord Krishna, the true and eternal lover who is also the epitome of the fullest consciousness that a human being can contemplate:

Vrindavan lives on in every woman's mind,
          and the flute, luring her
          From home and her husband
who later asks her of the long scratch on the brown
          Aureola of her breast, and she shyly replies,
          hiding flushed cheeks,
It was so dark outside, I tripped and fell over
          the brambles in the wood.

This interiorization of Vrindavan involves a living through of the conventional roles. ‘Captive’ in ‘The Descendants’, her second volume of poems (1967) describes her love as ‘an empty gift, a gilded empty container’, and herself as a prisoner of ‘the womb's blinded hunger, the muted whisper at the core’. This theme of the glory of childbirth as the fulfilment of love...

(The entire section is 4189 words.)

D. S. Mishra (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2350 words.)

K. R. Ramachandran Nair (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

P. P. Raveendran (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3445 words.)

Vrinda Nabar (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7977 words.)

Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza (interview date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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:...

(The entire section is 3113 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 745 words.)