These female Indian poets were all trailblazers; they were among the first, and it is on their shoulders that I stood when I first began writing poetry as a child.
I used to read poetry from the subcontinent as a child and marvel at the imagery it conjured up for me. As a little girl who often felt at odds with her culture and her identity, it was words that often grounded me, and those words came in the form of books and poetry. I wish I could tell you that in the field of literature women were afforded equal opportunities, but this was not the case. The women who wrote anyway did so with the full knowledge that they were the exception, not the norm. They left an indelible mark on literature in general, and Indian literature in particular.
Something that saddens me, therefore, is how rarely people seem to reminisce about female Indian poets. When I ask people what their favourite poems or verses are, nobody mentions Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Surayya, Amrita Pritam or Toru Dutt. They were all trailblazers; they were among the first, and it is on their shoulders that I stood when I first began writing poetry as a child. It is on their shoulders I stand today as a poet, a writer and an essayist. I am not ignorant of their contributions, and nor should you be.
1. Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Chattopadhyay was born in 1879 to a progressive academic father and a mother who was a poet herself. She began writing poetry at the age of 12, and her first collection of poems, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905. She won a scholarship to study in England, first in King’s College London, and then at Cambridge. She was a part of India’s freedom struggle and a leading figure in the Quit India Movement. She was a passionate feminist who travelled widely around India before independence, lecturing on social welfare and women’s empowerment. She played a leading role in the Civil Disobedience Movement and was arrested several times with other leading figures of Indian independence, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Sarojini Naidu was known as the “nightingale of India.”
What are the sins of my race, Beloved,
what are my people to thee?
And what are thy shrines, and kine and kindred,
what are thy gods to me?
Love recks not of feuds and bitter follies,
of stranger, comrade or kin,
Alike in his ear sound the temple bells
and the cry of the muezzin.
For Love shall cancel the ancient wrong
and conquer the ancient rage,
Redeem with his tears the memoried sorrow
that sullied a bygone age.
Princess Zeb-un-Nisa (“Ornament of Womankind”) was born in 1638; she was a Mughal princess, and the eldest child of Emperor Aurangzeb and Princess Dilras Banu Begum. She received the finest education available and was possessed of a keen intellect and a thirst for literary knowledge. She studied the Quran, which she memorized in three years, and also studied philosophy, literature, mathematics and astronomy. Besides this she was also multilingual, and was a gifted calligrapher. She was musically inclined and was a fine singer. Besides all of this, she was a keen horse-rider, and was trained in the use of arms and armaments; she is said to have fought in battle several times.
She began narrating poetry at the age of 14, but because her father frowned on poetry and did not encourage it, she began writing poetry in secret, choosing as her pen name Makhfi, or The Hidden One.
She wrote a collection of poetry called Diwan which contains 5,000 verses, and also wrote three other books of poetry, totalling 15,000 verses. She spent the last 20 years of her life imprisoned by her father at Salimgarh Fort, Delhi; the explanations vary, but we do know that she was miserable during that time, and her poetry became very bitter and lonely. She felt that she had literally become her pen name, Makhfi, The Hidden One. Zeb-un-Nisa died in 1701, and her tomb still stands in Agra.
I have no peace, the quarry I, a Hunter chases me.
It is Thy memory;
I turn to flee, but fall; for over me he casts his snare,
Thy perfumed hair.
Who can escape thy prison? No mortal heart is free
From dreams of Thee.
3. Toru Dutt
Toru Dutt was born in 1856, and is often referred to as the Keats of Indo-English literature. She was the first Indian woman to write poems in English, although she was multilingual and apparently able to master languages with ease. She died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 21, but she leaves behind an impressive collection of prose and poetry, including Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, the first novel to be written in French by an Indian writer, and another novel, Bianca, that remains unfinished. Her poetry collection A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields was published in 1876, and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan was published posthumously in 1882.
It is hard not to think of all that she might have accomplished if she had lived. Her grave is located in Maniktala Christian Cemetery, in Kolkata.
Our Casuarina Tree
When first my casement is wide open thrown
At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;
Sometimes, and most in winter, — on its crest
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone
Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near kokilas hail the day;
And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast,
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.
But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:
Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear.
Blent with your images, it shall arise
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!
What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach.
4. Kamala Surayya
Kamala Surayya was born in 1934 into a literary family; her father, V.M. Nair, was a former managing editor of the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi and her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, was a renowned poet. Her great uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, was a prominent writer, and one of the biggest influences on her literary career.
She began writing poetry as a child, and married a sympathetic husband at 15 who encouraged and supported her writing career. She wrote multiple short stories and poems, and was a syndicated columnist who wrote about varied topics. Her first book of poetry was Summer in Calcutta, which was a breath of fresh air in Indian English poetry. She had no patience with the archaic and sterile style that Indian poets were still embracing at the time, and wrote frankly about feminine love, lust, and sexual urges and desires. She was often compared to Marguerite Duras and Sylvia Plath.
Kamala Surayya was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984 and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985. She is seen as one of the most formative influences on Indian English poetry, with The Times according her the honour of the title “the mother of modern English Indian poetry” in 2009.
The Looking Glass
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers. Oh yes, getting
A man to love is easy, but living
Without him afterwards may have to be
Faced. A living without life when you move
Around, meeting strangers, with your eyes that
Gave up their search, with ears that hear only
His last voice calling out your name and your
Body which once under his touch had gleamed
Like burnished brass, now drab and destitute.
5. Amrita Pritam
Amrita Kaur was born in 1919 in Gujranwala, Punjab, which is present-day Pakistan. She was the only child of schoolteacher Kartar Singh Hitkari, who was also a poet and a scholar. She lost her mother at the age of 11, and it was this tragedy that propelled her into writing about her loneliness and sorrow. Her first anthology of poems was called Amrit Lehran (Immortal Waves), and was published in 1936 when she was 16 years old. That was the same year she married Pritam Singh, an editor, and took his name. Half a dozen collections of poems followed in the next few years.
She was deeply influenced by India’s freedom struggle, and was heavily impacted by the partition that split India into India and Pakistan. She moved from Lahore to Delhi in 1947 as a result of the partition, although her work is equally popular on both sides of the border. She was the first Punjabi woman poet, novelist and essayist, and wrote in both Punjabi and Hindi. Her career spanned six decades and she wrote over 100 books of poetry, fiction, essays, biographies, anthologies and an autobiography. Her work has been translated into several languages around the world.
Amrita Pritam was the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award (India’s Academy of Letters) in 1956 for her magnum opus, a long poem entitled “Sunehade” (Messages). She also received the Padma Shri in 1969, and the Padma Vibushan, India’s second highest civilian award, in 2004. She was also accorded the Sahitya Akademi’s highest literary honor, the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship given to the “immortals of literature” for lifetime achievement.
There were two kingdoms only:
the first of them threw out both him and me.
The second we abandoned.
Under a bare sky
I for a long time soaked in the rain of my body,
he for a long time rotted in the rain of his.
Then like a poison he drank the fondness of the years.
He held my hand with a trembling hand.
“Come, let’s have a roof over our heads awhile.
Look, further on ahead, there
between truth and falsehood, a little empty space.”