Dancing in Abhaya: An Intimate Homage to Poet-Environmentalist Sugathakumari

A professor in the US pens a touching obituary to the late poet-activist Sugathakumari, and how her acts of compassion influenced uncountable lives.

By Shreerekha Pillai Subramanian, Ph.D

Along with everyone in my home state of Kerala, I too mourn the loss of this great poet, environmentalist, feminist, social justice warrior, Sugathakumari (22 January 1934 – 23 December 2020), known to all simply as Teacher.

I had the great privilege many years ago when I was a graduate student studying poetry at Syracuse University (located in Upstate New York) to spend an entire summer at Abhayagramam, where Sugathakumari had set up Abhaya, a refuge for the mentally ill and the destitute, in the 1980s.

As an immigrant, a Malayali raised in Delhi studying in the United States, often lost at the university whilst finding my footing in poetry, I was in search of my narrative of origins. I returned to Kerala in the summer of 1997 to spend time writing in the place my parents and family call home, nadu, its green the colour of our dreams.

Somehow, through friends of friends, I myself was given abhaya at a doctor’s home next door to the centre, approved by Teacher herself to spend the summer doing what only a poet could do – sit still and observe. Once in a while, I made myself useful by picking up a brush to teach some painting, or random assortment of other half-baked skills, lead sessions of aerobics and dance for the residents of the centre.

Abhayagramam, Kerala

I spent the rainy season sitting in the main room listening to stories and watching the daily activities that involved drawing, painting, gardening, meditation, talking to oneself, games and other activities that were deeply in sync with the verdant serenity of the ashram. The days always began and ended in song – litany of Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and secular prayers for strength and healing that I joined in with the gusto of a newcomer.

Since my role had never been clearly defined, I joined in singing, lining up alongside the shelter-seekers of Teacher’s abode, the fluidity of the place never fully identifying if I was present as part of the staff of healers or those who were in need of healing.

Between bursts of the heavy rain followed by the thick heat of a good monsoon in Kerala, the steaming hot cups of tea, and soft chatter of Abhaya’s occupants, I compressed my Kerala summer into several journals filled with observations, broken occasionally by a song, poem or a drawing.

Teacher’s feats of genius are so immense and her list of accomplishments lengthy and enumerated already in the long paeans on her life. At that time, I was awed at how she had fantastically created this alternate site for healing the wounded, a poet committed to remedying the ills of the material world, a social justice warrior inclined to think about the basics – food, clothing, and shelter –alongside the power of her pen.

Sugathakumari when she was younger

For her ashram, she had managed to acquire a donation of a Namboothiri home to add to the aesthetic splendor and richness of this shelter, a site she most passionately did not want to have the feeling or decor of a prison or asylum, since historically, the existing state-based systems incarcerated those deemed deficient in permanent states of lockdown.

This donated home, somehow magically transported piece by piece from Vaikom to Peyad re-constructed on the grounds of the ashram, was like a secret ‘wild’ space within the wilderness of Abhayagramam, and in the partial light of its inner courtyard, we danced.

I lined the women – young, old, from a diversity of backgrounds, education, religions, all confounded and excited about the possibility of something new. There I turned on my little cassette player to Sade, and had the women, their shawls wrapped tightly on their bodies so as not to trip, lead the colourful cadre in tiny exercises, most often ending with some student losing balance or tripping another person, all of us giggling in a heap on the floor.

Nothing tops these memories of a dozen or so women in salwars, chattering in Malayalam asking the meaning of words to Your Love is King and The Sweetest Taboo as we lunged and straddled down to Sade’s sexy contralto that somehow spoke to the pain and beauty of everything around us.

Sugathakumari at Abhaya

When I was asked to meet the Teacher at her main office on one of the days she was visiting the ashram, I felt like I had been beckoned to the principal’s office and was appropriately solemn and nervous. To her question on what I did with all my time all day long, I lost my composure and mumbled, “Kavitha” (poetry).

She smiled as I was ushered out and let me continue the rest of my time at the Ashram with greater freedom to teach the residents the little skills I had to impart. Only in her loss does it become clear that what she had done all along was bless it all – bless the land to preserve its lush fertility, the people, especially its most vulnerable – the indigent, the mentally ill, the women, and children, to thrive.

For me, personally, she paved the way with her approval of my arrival, made room for my stay, taught me through the teachers who did the daily work of supporting and healing at Abhayagramam, made room for the cacophony of singing, dancing, approving the work of a younger person to find their way in the world with words.

Today, as I teach humanities at a university in Houston and a parallel university programme in a men’s prison in Texas and practise a pedagogy firmly ensconced in anti-carceral politics of freedom, I am finally connecting the dots from my stay at Teacher’s Abhaya to the philosophical grounding for my own life’s work. Rest in power and peace, Teacher.

Shreerekha Pillai Subramanian is an Associate Professor of Humanities at University of Houston-Clear Lake where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses to free students on campus and incarcerated students at prison units in Texas.

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