Tamil Women's Poetry: A Current of Contemporary Voices

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An anthology of 40 Tamil poems in English translation by as many woman poets from Sri Lanka and Tamilnadu


  • Tamil womans poetry:

    a current of contemporary voices

    Selected with an introduction by: Kutti Revathi

    English Translation by: N Kalyan Raman

    Published in

    INDIAN LITERATURE Issue 254, November-December 2009

    Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi INDIA


    Of what our written language speaks, by Kutti Revathi i vi

    Part One: Tamil women poets from India 1 - 20

    Part Two: Tamil women poets from Eelam 21 - 57

    Notes on Poets and Contributors 58-60

  • (i)

    INTRODUCTION Of what our written language speaks

    Kutti Revathi

    Translator N Kalyan Raman and I worked jointly on this anthology towards documenting

    the contemporary voice of modern Tamil womens poetry. When the idea was first mooted by

    the poet K. Satchidanandan, I could have scarcely imagined that the task would prove to be so

    difficult, challenging and absorbing. To select, from among hundreds of Tamil poets, clear

    articulations of the modern Tamil voice was indeed a major challenge. In this effort, I received a

    great deal of co-operation from the translator, Kalyan Raman. I wish to express my gratitude to

    poet Satchidanandan for selecting me for this prestigious assignment and to the translator,

    Kalyan Raman, for his efforts to bring contemporary Tamil poetry to a wider readership through


    Although Tamil women poets have written prolifically over the years, these poems have

    been selected giving importance to the politics they advance, bearing in mind the language used

    and the manner of its animation. This anthology may bring the reader the voice of women who

    combine, in their writing, categories such as modernity, Tamil nationalism or ethnicity, female

    gender and the domain of poetry with humanities in general. Modernity has a varied history

    specific to the literature of each language. Moreover, with respect to Tamil, the language should

    be seen as possessing a modernity that is tied equally to a millennia-old tradition. Therefore,

    besides moulting its skin regularly over time, the shape of modern Tamil literature is also one that

    evolves through continuously ingesting and assimilating contemporary politics, culture and

    societal trends. Only through such a process does the evolution of a language come about.

    Tamil womens poetry

    Womens poetry in Tamil has not only assimilated the Tamil poetic tradition, but has

    emerged also as the articulation of an Indian voice. During occasions that demand the

    articulation of alternate voices, instead of remaining silent and inactive, it has served as a focal

    point for ideological debate. Going beyond mere expression of conventional dissent on societal

    issues, it has also mutated into an expression of the politics of such issues. Although, feminist

    poetrys beginnings in all countries are generally on similar lines, its political ascendancy in a

    society and transformation into a movement will be a function of the ideological vigour already

    prevalent there. On this score, there are several reasons underlying the stiff opposition that has

    emerged in Tamilnadu to such political expression. For one, ours is a social space which has

    excluded women from any form of sexual dialogue. Another reason is that Tamil womens poetry

    was totally opposed to the extant dominant voice of Tamil nationalism. Just as the body belongs

    to man, so do the words that denote the parts thereof, is another reason. So, too, is the exclusion

  • (ii)

    of women from poetry, the finest literary form. And where her entry is permitted, such

    permission is granted only on condition that her poetry must subject itself to self-censorship.

    We can understand the backdrop to this development by taking into account the criticism

    such poetry engendered in our society, the repression it was subjected to and the strata of social

    life that it represented. After womens participation in the age-old Tamil tradition of classical

    literature, it was only in the twentieth century that the female voice chooses an overt language of

    poesy. I see literary forms like the novel and short story as essentially alien to the poetry form, for

    I believe that poetry constitutes a kind of weaponry for a language, an essential articulation of

    that society and a form of its activism. Therefore, even in the very adoption by women of poetry

    as their literary form of choice, there is a profound politics as well as activism. In a novel or a

    short story, it is possible for the author to insert poetry or an imagined reality that does not

    represent her own. Poetry, however, mostly demands introspection from the poet. In order to

    engage with it, a woman also needs adeptness at her language which has been denied her since

    ancient times; she also needs courage.

    After participating regularly and continuously in poetry seminars held in the neighbouring

    states, I was able to recognize that what set apart Tamil womens poetry and preserved it was the

    politics that it has dared to articulate. In other words, even as western feminism that was thrust

    upon India gave licence generally to identify all women poets as feminists, it merely encouraged

    opposition to the same social frameworks that it has been opposing: therefore, feminists here

    confined themselves to contributing in the struggle for enforcing womens rights in the public

    sphere as in religion, marriage, family and workplace. But only in Tamilnadu has it been

    possible to articulate the subtle forms of politics present in the aforesaid frameworks through

    words of poetry. In particular, it has been possible to render in poetic language the politics

    enforced on the female body by the age-old repressive structures of the caste system. Moreover,

    while not being directly a voice of propaganda, this articulation was also imbued with the

    aesthetics of language, literary richness and the formal elegance of poetry. It cannot be construed

    merely as an elucidation of what is referred to as body politics in western countries. Instead, it

    should be seen as a means of making the complex and subtle systems of power active in all of

    India a subject for public debate.

    Era. Meenakshi arrived during the initial phase of modernism in Tamil womens poetry.

    Though her poetry expressed resistance to the traditional oppression of women, her poems

    constituted a new voice in the Tamil milieu. In the world anthology of poetry published in the

    80s, the lone Tamil poem included was Meenakshis. As the second phase, we can cite the period

    when the poems of Perundevi and Rishi began to be read widely. They wrote poems distilling

    poetic language and inherent theme into an experimental form. It may even be said that through

    their work, the language of Tamil poetry brought a kind of centrality to the new form. Perundevi

  • (iii)

    and Rishi gained recognition as poets who, while challenging the poetic diction of contemporary

    writers of that period, functioned as part of the mainstream without claiming a separate identity.

    In the next phase, Tamil womens poetry was dominated by poets who propounded the politics

    of the body. Among these, Sukirtharani, Salma, Malathi Maithri and Kutti Revathi gave

    expression in their poems to a voice that had perceived and grasped the repression practised on

    the body through religion and caste. Rising like an enormous wave, the impact of their advent led

    to much controversy, debate and criticism. These poets described in their poems, with

    unimpaired aesthetics and undiminished linguistic richness, body parts and the instances where

    these body parts became politicized. Poetry in this phase was besieged by opposition from all

    sides Tamil nationalism, cultural police, media hostility, and even direct attacks from

    contemporary male Tamil writers. Even as it created a huge impact on the literary and intellectual

    planes, the creative output and contribution of women poets who came later continued this


    In my view, the body politics of our society subjects to question all constructs of that

    society; and besides, it is completely divergent from the contours of the body politics being

    articulated in foreign countries. To understand, without missing the smallest nuance, the net cast

    over women is also a way to tear it apart. Ornamental discourses are only fit for a society that is

    steeped in luxury. Through our writing, we discovered that proscribed words, clandestine words

    and words denied are the ones that belong to communities of oppressed people. Our mission has

    also been to renew the prevalent age-old meanings of such words. It was under these

    circumstances that womens poetry from Eelam emerged as an extension as also the peak

    achievement of Tamil womens poetry.

    Womens poetry from Eelam

    While doing research for this anthology, I was able to discover that a significant evolution

    of Tamil womens poetry has occurred through poetry from Eelam. As for woman poets from

    Eelam, it was through Selvi and Sivaramani that Eelam poetry first made its advent in Tamilnadu.

    For very different reasons, both are no more among us. They were not alive even when their

    poems were first published as books. Sivaramani killed herself in 1991, at the age of twenty-three.

    The final phase of Selvis life remains an unsolv