In a candid interview with Liz Dougan, well known contemporary Tamil feminist poet Kutti Revathi asserts that her poetic manifesto is all about conveying the essence of the female experience as it unfolds in the female body, a truth that most women are divorced from, as they are strangers to their own bodies, an assertion that often has the poet caught in poetic storms and literary wars
Kutti Revathi’s mother was so furious by her decision to pursue writing that she threw the first copy of her published work across a room, asking her, “Why should I read it?” When her second collection of poetry, Poonaiyaippol was released in 2001, the response by critics in the media was so vicious that she stepped off the public domain for nearly two years. At the time, a fellow writer questioned whether she would continue as a poet; yet fifteen years on, her work is stronger than ever and her mother is reluctantly coming to terms with her daughter’s move into the world of creative arts.
We met Revathi in a leafy park in central Chennai early on a Sunday morning. Although one of the more unusual suggestions for an interview location, it was one of the most pleasant urban environments I’d come across since arriving in India. People strolled past, others sat on benches reading the paper under the shade of trees and children played. But when I spotted her determined stride and bold presence, there was no mistaking her.
Born to win
Born in Malailoyal, Thiruverambur, as a child, she experienced what it was to be poor. At times even rice was hard to come by and opportunities limited. Yet the dignity with which Revathi holds herself suggests that her upbringing helped her to use these experiences to strengthen rather than diminish her character.
Her career has been prolific spanning medicine, magazine editing to script writing and the publication of numerous controversial poetry collections. She is a contemporary Tamil poet whose use of language, content and perspective is uncompromising. And her disregard for the censure and accolades she has received makes her story even more intriguing.
A supportive father
What struck me during my research of the two feminist poets Sukirtharani and Kutti Revathi, was the emphasis they placed on their fathers’ influence. From a Western perspective, this initially struck me as odd, as more often than not it is our mothers who are the source of feminist ideals. As I slowly began to understand the complexity of feminism in India, which is complicated by caste and a severe patriarchal structure, it appears to be an almost essential ingredient that a father, or male role model, has notions of equality.
She doesn’t like me being a writer, still!
Revathi admits her father played the pivotal role in developing her independent spirit through his dismissal of gender and caste restrictions. But I was still intrigued by her mother’s influence, and so my first question was about their relationship. She laughed at my directness but didn’t hesitate to open up, “It was always tough with her, she was brought up in a very conservative family, with very traditional values,” and in turn struggled with the sense of freedom that her daughter possessed. Revathi explains, “She’s always blaming my father for allowing me to grow up like this.”
However, after his death, Revathi began to understand her mother’s point of view more clearly. In such a vulnerable situation she could see her mother’s fear of loneliness, and how that feeling extended to her daughter. “She is afraid of me being alone, being independent, not married. Writing, not doing something else...not earning much.” But Revathi suggests they differ because her mother was never given the chance to experience the liberty that she holds, though she assures me her mother is a bold woman in her own way. Her disapproval of Revathi being a writer seems to stem from the difficulties of living outside of cultural norms. She had hoped Revathi would become a doctor and for a time she was.
Blending medicine and poetry
Revathi didn’t always see herself as a writer, though she always had an interest in language from an early age and was an avid reader since she was a child, her father encouraging her with an array of books. However following school, she studied Siddha medicine, one of the oldest medical systems in the world that derived from her native Tamil Nadu. The study requires a sound understanding of linguistics as all the texts are in word form. “Whenever you study the text, you have to memorise the poetry, understand the poetry,” some of which dates back to the 13th century.
For a time this satisfied her interest in both medicine and language and she excelled within the field. Though studying in a rich cultural environment where discussions and conversations about literature were commonplace, she was also introduced to the world of contemporary poetry. After attending several literary meetings and reviewing poetry collections by fellow students, she began working on some of her own pieces. When she showed them to a friend, he confirmed that she was indeed a poet! However she resisted the urge to pursue writing while she studied and later practiced. “I took it very seriously, I liked it very much.” But the pull of language overcame her in the end, after facing a long and drawn out dilemma.
Revathi always viewed her medical studies as a valuable addition to her writing though, as it provided her with knowledge of the body’s function. “I could talk about my body, I could write about my body and know what was inside my body.”She suggests that most women do not have this privilege. Had Kutti Revathi pursued medical practice, she would have specialized in women’s health, as she feels women should be treated differently by doctors and be made to feel comfortable while sharing their problems. “A lot of women are ashamed talking about their body,” and these are perceptions she has strived to change, albeit in a different field.
In the eye of a poetic storm
Speaking with Kutti Revathi, I am eager to hear how women have been regarded within the Tamil poetry circle since its origins. She assures me that they have been hushed within the confines, but have been a definite presence for a long time, affirming that “women are the rulers of poetry form.” Women have a strength and sense of adventure that is not fully recognised, and she believes this is still the case today. She suggests that some men fear these traits in women, and she saw this first hand when Breasts was published in 2001.
The response by critics and members of the literary establishment deteriorated into a degrading personal attack about the perversion of Kutti Revathi’s mind. She was forced to endure obscene phone calls, letters and threats. One male interviewer was permitted to report how surprised he was about the size of her breasts when they met, and in another incident, post cards of lurid pictures were sent to her home. Vicious debates ensued about feminist writers, with one television commentator suggesting writers of such ilk should be burnt alive in the street. This public humiliation lead Kutti Revathi to step outside of the public domain for nearly two years. But she reveals that despite the difficulty of the period, it confirmed the importance of her poetry. It also provided her with a great insight into minds of men and to study the extent of male domination both within the literary circle and beyond.
She claims that male editors of publishing companies are always more reluctant to allow her the full scope of her language and content, preferring the work be modest and pleasing. Yet she assures me the art of poetry is not financially lucrative, and so sees no reason to back down, yet I doubt she would regardless. She admits she is always nervous when her work is being published, not only because of the media but also because of the reaction of family and friends. She is adamant though that her poetry should and will remain orientated and focused on contemporary women. Her other publications have included Light Prowls Like A Cat (2000), The Thousand Wings of Loneliness (2003) and Body’s Door (2007), Shattered Boundaries (2012) all released through different publishing houses.
The continual battle to publish work that is uncompromised led her to establish the only feminist publication in Tamil Nadu, Panikkudam, meaning embryonic sack. The title was chosen as it is specific to women and representative of their importance. The purpose of the quarterly magazine is to give young female writers a platform to publish without the regular restraints. Curious about her following, she tells me it is a dedicated group of literary fans, and others who are interested in how modern ideologies are conflicting in India, including the operation of caste.
Despite earning notoriety, I am curious whether she has received any accolades within this environment. But she suggests progressive writing is not of interest to the Tamil literary establishment. Last year she was given a beginner’s award for poetry that she refused, and regarded as an insult after fourteen years. She believes caste writing is popular within the awards system, and this subtle yet defining factor means it is not something she values. “I think modern writers from Tamil Nadu and India should have come out of that caste set.” Issues such as women’s rights, body politics, sexuality and expression are not topics of interest.
Kutti Revathi helps me to understand that ‘girl power’ in India is not a familiar concept. When she talks about feminism she suggests, “It’s like a downloaded subject from different countries.” Familiar with Western feminism, she claims the caste system is the distinguishing factor in India that prevents women uniting. “Every woman is identified in the name of her caste. Not in the name of her gender identity, it (caste) comes first. So naturally you are isolated from the next woman.” Subsequently Kutti believes women think within the boundaries of caste, and end up working against each other. “You can have a good degree, same income, same social class, but there will be a difference.” As a result, it is difficult to create a platform to discuss women’s issues here from the ground up, and religion, race and the vastness of the country complicate the issue further.
Kutti admits there are many misconceptions about India in other countries. She says, “It is shameful to talk about the treatment of lower caste women overseas, including the labour demands on their bodies, along with high incidences of gang rape and murder.” She suggests women’s oppression here is “highly fabricated, designed and executed in a very subtle way.” The degree of oppression means that basic women’s rights associated with body politics need to be addressed first. She understands how feminism is highly saleable globally, but believes it is difficult get everybody’s attention in here - “people are not ready to talk about feminism” in a Western sense. Though a self-proclaimed feminist herself, she believes the first step is for women to start viewing themselves differently, and to dismiss the idea of being the weaker sex.
Kutti, always returning to the importance of the body, seems to work at inspiring women in her own subtle way, with a gentle solidarity, and unique feminine voice. As we sit on the park bench, my mind reels at the depth of our conversation, and as though reading my thoughts she notes how rare it is to open our hearts and to talk about things that really matter.
We discuss about our current projects and hopes for the future and discover we have a mutual interest in cinema. Kutti is currently working on a film with director Bharath Bala that will be released this April. He had been looking for a Tamil scholar to assist with scripting and ideas. The success of their collaboration has provided her with a positive and ongoing drive to enter the film world, eager to understand the mechanics of filming and merge her poetry with film in the future. I felt privileged to meet Revathi, and was impressed by her balanced and informed opinions. Her determination and confidence is neither overpowering nor showy. In fact she had such an impact on me, I found myself attempting some poetry on my way home, something that I haven’t done for some time.