“Call her Kamala Das, Madhavikutti or Surayya, but the woman by any name” whose introduction is given by herself in the poem “An Introduction”:
“I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
two, dream in one”.
Kamala Surayya (the name means Saptarishi or the Ursa Major, in Persian) took the literary world by storm in the mid-sixties, has created a permanent place for herself in the contemporary Indo-Anglian poetry; who was awarded P.E.N.’S Asian Poetry Prize (1963); Kerala’s Sahitya Akadami Award (1969) for the poem Thanuppu, meaning Cold; and Central Indian Sahitya Akadami Award (1985) for Colletcted Poems (1984). Though Surayya has produced only four volumes of verse to date, which is clear indication of her poetic energies getting dried up to some extent, she has been one of the most popular poets of India who have gained ground even in the West.
Kamala has surely outgrown Victorian models and accepted sex and sensuality as an integral part of poetry. Many of her poems are suffused with warmth and passion, with heat of an unrequited Love and unfulfilled desire. The frequency of Love theme may evoke repudiation from nuns and spinsters and breed boredom in the minds of general readers, but like Sappho in Greek literature, Elizabeth Barret Browning in English letters, and like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath in modern American poetry, Mrs. Das offers us a feast of vivid images of Love couched in felicitous language. No doubt, Love is her Forte in poetry.
Like the British Classic Poets, who had the obsession of writing epic, Kamala is obsessed with writing autobiographical poem which are, says Iyengar, “aggressively individualistic”; William Walsh calls it “self centered’; M Elias concludes that, when Kamala Das speaks, it is “rather the Nair maiden unburdening her collective nightmare”. For a candid articulation of her sexuality and identity as a woman, has earned her the sobriquet of Kerala’s ‘Queen of Erotica’. Critics have written at the length about her ‘desperate obsession with love’ (Sarang) or ‘more appropriately with intimacy’ (Raveendran). This made her “a prisoner of her loneliness,” says Dwivedi.
I also know that by confessing
By peeling off my layers
I reach closer to the soul…
I shall some day see
My world de-flashed, de-veined, de-blooded…
As the above lines shows, Kamala Das is a Confessional poet, whose poems are compared with Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath etc. According to William Walsh “Her poetry is self centered and unabashedly sexual although the sexuality seems more fascinating to the poet because it is hers than because it is sexual”. She speaks of her sexual experiences in a tone that “you cannot believe darling”, which are both self-indulgent and truculent:
Ask me, everybody, ask me,
What he sees in me, ask me why he is
Called a lion”.
M.K. Naik also calls her confessional poetry “sex dominated” referring nonchalantly to ‘the musk of sweat between the breasts’, ‘the warm shock of menstrual blood’. Poem after poem she hammers hard at the husband-lover and articulates her intense desire of escaping from his clutches and attaining freedom. She confesses that due to the failure of husband’s love, her
“Love became a swivel-door
When one went out, another came in
Then I lost count, for always in my arms
Was a substitute for a substitute”.
The kisses of her husband on her cheeks are the “maggots” rolling over “the corpse”. She knows only the ‘physical’ kind of love, without trying to make any emotional and spiritual contact with her. This sort of “openness and frankness” is hardly to be found in any other Indo-English woman poet. The resultant emerging picture is a man or a woman of flesh and blood, a living biological reality, with no distortions or twists. Naturally, Kamala is at her best here as a poet of love and sex as Iyengar remarks “her poetry is aggressively individualistic”
Kamala's Confessional poetry is obsessively mulling over love and ‘the body’s wisdom’ like Whitman that is why Iyengar calls her a ‘Femme Fatal’ whose poetry is of pelvic region. In her poetry, Love appears in several roles such as ‘skin communicated thing’, as overpowering force, an escape, a longing and a hunger resulting in satiety. Dwivedi remarks “She is verily a celebrant of the human body, and her poetry is glutted with images and symbols of love and lust”.
Kamala’s Confessional poems show that she is ‘every woman who seeks love’. She is ‘the beloved and the betrayed’, expressing her ‘endless female hunger’, ‘the muted whisper at the core of womanhood’. A Confessional poet often writes about death, disease and destruction. Kamala Das also has written quite a few poems on decay, disease and death.
Although a Confessional poet—that Kamala Das is—can make use of any subject for his treatment, he mostly confines herself to the regions of his own experiences. He hardly ever writes about ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’, as Wordsworth and his band of followers did. That is why Confessional poetry sounds so appealing and so convincing. It is frequently takes resort to personal failures and mental illness of its composer and Kamala’s verse is a brilliant illustration of it. In My Grandmother’s House, the following lines click:
“…………………………I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change”.
Adil Jassuwala says “Kamala wrights almost exclusively of love, sex and loneliness in the tone of insistent confession”. M Elias concludes that, when Kamala Das speaks, it is “rather the Nair maiden unburdening her collective nightmare”. Ramakrishna aptly says: “Kamala always deals with private humiliations and sufferings which are the stock themes of confessional poetry”.
Vincent and Harrex also finds her poetry “confessional poetry”; and Anisur Rahman thinks, she “mirrors her life in all its nakedness” but Nabar thinks “Kamala does not have the range of self analyses… She may be utterly sincere and make confessions which are unquestionably courageous in the Indian context, but they do not add up to a credo. She seems to describe her suffering and to provide the social context to some extent, to her experiences.”
Nabar also writes that Kamala is not confessional poet like Sylvia Plath but Kamala's poetry has a clear resemblance of Eunice de Souza whose poetry “has the anger, the frankness, the willingness, to confront unpleasantness in social as well as personal relationships” again, like her “Kamala is not being confessional but assertive”. But “the most striking single aspect of Kamala's writings is the need to bare herself, to hold nothing back as it were, to erupt in an intimate, confessional frenzy, to “have no secrets at all” from the reader”. (Nabar)
Sunanda Chavan in The Fair Voice observes an “almost exclusive concern with the experience of personal love in her poetry.” Varinda Nabar in The Endless Female Hungers reinforces the same idea when she states that in her later poetry Surayya “withdraws increasingly into a world of purely personal grievances…because they are what her love poetry embodies” and even shows an impatience with the poet’s tiresome attitude and penchant of role playing. It would be unfair to restrict that poet to a narrow confession, while ignoring other significant dimensions that call for special consideration because of her unique place among the women poets of India.
Kamala is a versatile woman who has experimented with various forms of art—poetry, fiction, drama, painting—she has now moved to being a newspaper columnist, a “professional writer”, in order to survive because “poetry doesn’t sell in this country”, as she remarks.
All in all, Kamala is one if the pioneering post-independence Indian English poets to have contributed immensely to the growth and development of modern Indian English poetry. She is one of the modernist writers to assert her femininity as a human in Indian literature; she has been something of a cult figure in her home state and a source of great inspiration and emulation for women with literary aspiration. Her life has been long drawn battle against a religious and cultural orthodox that frowns upon the somewhat uninhabited life style of his apparently forthright persons.
To conclude, Kamala Das is a typical Confessional poet who pours her heart into her poetry which is largely subjective and autobiographical, anguished and tortured, letting us peep into her sufferings and tortured psyche. Thanks to her that a reliable poetic voice has been heard in contemporary Indo-English verse at long last. Dwivedi remarks “there is a strong autobiographical touch in it, which makes Mrs. Das a Confessional poet of the first order”.