(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.
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.
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 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.