Indian feminist poets pushing the boundaries on the literary narrative that has long been dominated by men deserve recognition everyday. And then a little more on occasions like World Poetry Day. Though there have been scores of talented women putting pen to paper in rhythm with important issues that concern our unique experience in a patriarchal world, the acknowledgment they receive often falls short.
In the Indian context, the thoughts that persist in the oeuvres of many female poets have been anti-status quo, raising relevant issues of sexuality, liberation, agency, marriage, oppression, violence and everything else that questions gender inequality. Throughout history, India has seen its own share of disruptors, pathbreakers, revolutionaries – women who didn’t shy away from speaking their minds in a society that restricted them. And therefore, spoke for all of us.
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Indian Feminist Poets Who Dared To Dissent Through Words:
1. Amrita Pritam
A literary giant, Amrita Pritam is known for being one of the foremost female writers from Punjab. Her career spanned six decades, crossing over from pre-Partition to post-Partition, with the most renowned of her works themed around subjects of war, love and peace. Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu and Sunehade are among her best poems.
As a single mother, Pritam’s poetry also touched upon marriage as an unhappy domain – at the time, a true act of daring. Pritam broke new ground when it came to exploring the female experience through words, every verse a challenge thrown to convention.
2. Kamala Das
Kamala Das was known by many names – from Kamala Surayya to Madhavikutty – during her lifetime. But the one that describes her best is ‘revolutionary,’ because Das’ poetry was the stuff of progressive feminism during an era that deemed it extremely controversial. Much of her writing, as depicted in her famous poem The Looking Glass, took explicit tones to explore female sexuality and form.
She was married at a young age and hence, the subject formed the foundation of a lot of her writing, alongside other topical issues of politics and women-centred policies. Another poem, Dance of Eunuchs, meanwhile questions the heteronormative prejudices associated with the marginalised community.
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3. Rochelle Potkar
Rochelle Potkar’s poetry delves into a range of themes, with those resonating with women such as sexuality and feminism notably standing out. A ‘poetry film’ she did, called Skirt, was featured by Shondaland – Shonda Rhimes’ production house – as part of their Visible Poetry Project.
“We all have music in us, we have words in us, and we have drama in us. And poetry is just that, rhythm, drama and words. As woman poets, you have to remember that there’s no one on top of you. Nobody can tell you what to do. Life and Art both come with shackles, ones that you’ll learn to unshackle,” Potkar said at a SheThePeople panel. Tune in to Potkar speaking at SheThePeople’s Feminist Poetry Festival.
4. Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy is one of the most important poets in India today, her work cutting searing through the intersection of caste and gender. Her work finds consonance with her activism and politics, about which Kandasamy is upfront on social media. She is a strong critic of patriarchal norms and the Hindu Brahmanical order.
Ms Militancy, which ranks high among her notable poems, is a fine example of how Kandasamy puts classic Tamil literature and tradition within the contemporary context to push the cause of feminism and empowerment. Her first poetry anthology Touch is another deep dive into issues that lie at the crossroads of gender oppression and caste atrocities.
Among India’s leading feminist poets, Jayaprabha is considered an authority in the Telugu poetry-literary space. Chupulu and Pytani tagaleyyali are some of her best-known poems that powerfully take on patriarchal narratives that define the world for women and how we must rebel against them.
The significance of her poetic work is compounded even further through her relevant discourse on women written from the male gaze in classic Indian literature. She founded a groundbreaking Telugu feminist magazine in the 1980s called Lohita.