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Language is the One Tool that can Liberate Women’s Bodies: Kutti Revathi

[box]In an interview to  Vani Viswanathan, poet-feminist-activist Kutti Revathi opens up on what prompted her to write poetry, her focus on the woman’s body as a means of fighting against the patriarchal Tamil society and her contribution to the Tamil literary space through her publication Panikkudam.[/box] [box type = “bio”]Kutti Revathi (Dr. S. Revathi) has been an important Tamil voice in the feminist space in India, dealing with the politics of the female body through poetry, her chosen literary form. Some of her poems, such as “Mulaigal” (Breasts), have achieved iconic status all over the world. Mulaigal attracted its fair share of controversy from the conservative Tamil literary society that accused her of being sensationalist and explicit, and threats including that such poets ‘should be burnt’ were prevalent. To offer other young writers a space to air their views, she has founded and edits a feminist journal, Panikkudam, and helps younger women poets to publish their work through her publishing house. Trained in Siddha Medicine, Kutti Revathi is also a filmmaker and engages herself actively in issues of caste and violence against women.[/box] 

Kutti Revathi

A poet, filmmaker, activist, and qualified in Siddha Medicine. How does Dr. Revathi manage to do it all?

The present social condition demands us women writers to be a lot of things at once. Earlier, writers had the privilege to be only writers, because they were from the upper class or upper caste, or similar such sophisticated strata of society. No situation would have asked them to be more than writers. For them, writing was just a hobby. But for us, women writers of the 21st century, especially those from the marginalised communities, the demands are higher: many of us belong to the first generation of those communities getting a command over the language through education. So for us, the need of the hour is to write down all the memories, issues, demands and untold stories that were boiling within us all these years, without a way to express them.

Training to be a doctor in Siddha medicine, for which the syllabus is completely in Tamil, enriched my understanding of the language as a social tool, making it the obvious choice for my poetry. Medicine gave me a complete understanding of women’s biology, and with the help of poetry, I am able to construct the political body that I am allowed to live or to demand in the society.

Currently, I am also working as the scriptwriter for a film that is going to be released in December. I think I need to go beyond this to fully realise the demands of various women’s issues and how I can address them.  There is still a long way to go! I could make my career out of being a medical practitioner, poet, filmmaker and activist all at the same time as I believe they are all interconnected, directly or indirectly. That is how I am able to manage. My focus is simple: we need to liberate women’s bodies from the constraints that the social set up has created.

What would you say was the most important reason you were inspired to write?

The most important reason is the opportunity I got to understand the human body from a medical and scientific perspective, and how the opportunity for me to express the same knowledge of bodily things was denied, thanks to the stigma that surrounds the discussion of a woman’s body in our society.

Though I had been a voracious reader of classic and modern literature, I never thought I would be an active writer, because my passion then was in working as a physician to help women understand their body in the aspects of health and illness.

The reality is that as a woman, you can study well. You can raise yourself to the top-most position in society. But the stigma that is forced on you cannot be erased wherever you go. The need and the urge to fight will be cruising through your body all the time.

Though I was engaging in many kinds of social activities, I realised that only writing could subside the aggression in me and make me calm enough to derive strength to penetrate into the constructs of society to expand the space for women. This made me focus on writing more!

Your poetry is bold, and you do not shy away from openly talking about a woman’s body. What prompts you to take this approach?

Lots of things, but most importantly, it was the studying and travelling I did around the country to understand caste violence against women. It is a form of violence that is more hurtful and prevalent than domestic violence and others forms of violence against women.

And it mostly goes unrecorded. I could see every layer in society engaging in guilt-free violence against women, saying that women belong to the lower caste. But their bodies are exploited for the welfare of the country the most. Their physical power and beauty of their body are all amazing sources of energy. But they are used only as labour! That inspired me to take this approach to write and talk about women’s body.

While people have misunderstood that you write ‘shocking’ things to attract attention to yourself, what are your thoughts about using shock value as a reminder that women ought to have their rightful space in society?

People can call it ‘controversial’ or ‘shocking’. They call it so because our society’s patriarchal structure is very much a Hindu construct. They praise the country with the words Vande Maataram (I bow to thee, Mother), but they will not respect women; they follow the writings in Manu Smriti blindly or uphold aspects of Hindu religion that declare women untouchables by birth. Over centuries, women have not been allowed to utter a word in public, not to learn anything, celebrate their sexuality and body – not to perceive themselves as human beings at all. It is very much a strategy of men of the upper caste who are very used to inculcating Hindu values and practices into the people of the soil. Over time, I have come to understand the various strategies they employ to this end. Using tags such as ‘shocking’ is also a part of this strategy. As the attacks, abuses and conflicts increase, I become stronger. It helps me unravel society’s hidden agenda behind their opposition. It encourages me to continue writing.

Your poetry did certainly conflict with many writers’ opinions on what should and should not be covered in Tamil writing, by a woman that too. One such opinion came from a well-known lyricist in Tamil cinema, himself reputed for the risqué nature of his lyrics. Why is there such a conflict in Tamil – or should I say Indian? – society about how women are perceived vs. how women (are allowed to) perceive themselves? Why is our society so intent on controlling sexuality – be it in writing or the way women dress or their access to public spaces, among other things – when we are ok with seeing it ooze through our media and cinema?

Men – and that particular lyricist you have mentioned – are against women writing because they think we are against culture, Tamil culture in particular. Ironically, Sangam poetry and literature, and women poets of those times, were open about sexuality. Also, they saw their body as the door to the universe and their only asset. Ironically, the Dravidian political leaders and writers who glorify those poets with a political agenda are against the contemporary writing of women.

Cinema and print and visual media have exploited the female body in all possible ways and made it a highly insensitive and sexualised object. Our writings claim the sexual power of women that has been lost through these highly exposed and wrongly-expressed forms. We live in a period where images are extremely important. Images convey highly important information, but they are also very poisoned. Images are given to the society as opium, as Deluze mentioned, so that the society is not awakened. It is the same with dress codes. The country changes culturally as man changes. We cannot wrap eight feet of cloth around our body all through the day and manage our chores or give in to the demands of creative work. I strongly feel that chauvinistic men are alright with exposing the woman’s body in ways they want, but not in the way we want to express. There is a lot of difference between these two.

How do you see your writing as helping you negotiate through our society and its structures of oppression?

Writing definitely helps any woman because language is a very strong tool for the fight against this oppressive society. It can help her discover, explore and construct her own body with all its strengths. Our body is an expanse with abundant power, which women are not allowed to enjoy and experience on any level. This oppression has been driven in subliminally. With language, which can help us find the strength lodged in our own bodies, we can root this oppression out entirely. I maintain that language is the one tool that can liberate women’s bodies. Also important is women’s intellect, which is not at all allowed to evolve or to be utilised for the welfare of mankind. Our thinking has to be allowed to grow by liberating the body from social constraints. There is actually a strong political role to women’s creative writing. It is not direct and immediate. It is very indirect, and very serpentine, but very impactful! I am not who I was when I was not writing. I realise now what happiness is for a woman and what a healthy body and mind mean to a woman like me. Again, I still have a long way to go!

Could you tell us more about your publishing house and your magazine Panikkudam?

I started a publishing house, which I am happy to say has  published more than a dozen poetry collections of upcoming poets, as well as from the popular woman poets of Tamil. In addition to this, I am publishing a magazine called ‘Panikkudam’ (Placenta). Through this magazine, I want to engage young women writers by publishing their early works that are not given space and respect in the public literary floor.

I find publishing itself a form of activism for the writers who write about their bodies. After my ‘Breasts’ anthology, I couldn’t get my poems published anywhere. But the urge to write and publish was so strong in me, and I was desperately looking for an empty white space to fill my poems with. Panikkudam satisfied both my personal and social need.

Actually, it was like planting paddy seedlings in a vast wet field. I always feel rejuvenated when I publish a new, young poet’s collection. It makes me feel connected to the contemporary linguistic world and makes sure I am not dog-eared and worn out.

Finally, do you see a change in attitudes towards women’s writing in Tamil Nadu since when you began?

Yes, very much so! A decade of our poets’ struggle has changed a lot of things in the social and the political domain. Women have been coming into modern writing continuously and they take its values more seriously. Though male writers continue to be against our notions about our body, I can see that the coming generation’s realisation of women’s body and its sexuality are changing in a broader way. Women writers have introduced a political vocabulary that is capable of engaging common women in interpreting oppressive social customs. They will always function like keys to doors that lead us from darkened perceptions that our body is mysterious and evil, into illuminated perceptions that our body is actually an intellectual, biological space. Even a few days back, I got an anonymous letter threatening me to stop writing. But for us women, once the body is awakened through the power of intellect, there is no stopping the creativity, is there?

முலைகள் முலைகள்சதுப்புநிலக் குமிழிகள்

 

பருவத்தின் வரப்புகளில்

மெல்ல அவை பொங்கி மலர்வதை

அதிசயித்துக் காத்தேன்

 

எவரோடும் ஏதும் பேசாமல்

என்னோடே எப்போதும்

பாடுகின்றன

விம்மலை

காதலை

போதையை….

 

மாறிடும் பருவங்களின்

நாற்றங்கால்களில்

கிளர்ச்சியூட்ட அவை மறந்ததில்லை

 

தவத்தில்

திமிறிய பாவனையையும்

காமச்சுண்டுதலில்

இசையின் ஓர்மையையும் கொண்டெழுகின்றன

 

ஆலிங்கனப் பிழிதலில் அன்பையும்

சிசு கண்ட அதிர்வில்

குருதியின் பாலையும்

சாறெடுக்கின்றன

 

ஒரு நிறைவேறாத காதலில்

துடைத்தகற்ற முடியாத

இரு கண்ணீர்த்துளிகளாய்த் தேங்கித்

தளும்புகின்றன.

 

– குட்டி ரேவதி

 

 

Breasts(‘Mulaigal’ in Tamil by Kutti Revathi)Breasts are bubbles, risingIn wet marshlands

I wondrously watched- and guarded-

Their gradual swell and blooming

At the edges of my youth’s season

 

Saying nothing to anyone else,

They sing along

With me alone, always:

Of Love,

Rapture,

Heartbreak

 

To the nurseries of my turning seasons,

They never once failed or forgot

To bring arousal

 

During penance, they swell, as if

straining

To break free; and in the fierce tug of

lust,

They soar, recalling the ecstasy of music

 

From the crush of embrace, they distil

The essence of love; and in the shock

Of childbirth, milk from coursing blood

 

Like two teardrops from an unfulfilled

love

That cannot ever be wiped away,

They well up, as if in grief, and spill over

 

– translated by N. Kalyan Raman

 

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