‘Tree Poets’ of Silent Valley: How Sugathakumari and other poets fought for the forest

·7-min read

In the late 1970s, India’s famous ornithologist Dr Salim Ali described the Silent Valley as 'a fine example of the richest, most threatened and least studied habitats on earth’. Ali had visited the evergreen forests in Palakkad during the peak of a decade-long fight to save it from a hydroelectric project. This fight ended in a sweet win with the government abandoning the project in 1985. Not just for the victory, the Silent Valley Movement is also remembered for its poetry, infused by the ‘Tree Poets’  - Kerala’s celebrated literary minds who, in the time of crisis, united to fight industrialisation with passion and powerful verses.

Notable among the ‘tree poets’ was Sugathakumari teacher, who passed away on Wednesday morning. Celebrated for her lyrical genius, Sugathakumari teacher was a key figure in the Silent Valley protests and the face of the movement for many years.

Some who knew her in the 70s say that the teacher's lifelong marriage to mother nature and conservation started with the Silent Valley. “She wrote her poems asking for trees to not be cut. The fight to save Palakkad’s pristine forests inspired her most celebrated environment-related poems,” says MK Prasad, environmentalist and former President of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) that played a key role in the movement.

Known to be among the fiercest people-led environment protests of the 70s and early 80s, the fight to save Silent Valley inspired professors, students and the adivasis alike.

“The most learned and the least learned of people in Kerala knew of the importance of the Silent Valley ecosystem. It was just the power hungry political class and pro-development groups who accepted the project,” says M Mohandas, a Thrissur based environmentalist and professor who plants native species of mango in Kodakara.

The project was proposed by the debt-ridden Kerala State Electricity Board or KSEB in a bid to increase power generation in the state. It was accepted without questions by the big parties in the state - the ruling Congress and the CPI(M) which was in opposition then. “Barring KV Surendranath, a CPI veteran, who opposed the project, nobody from the political ranks raised any issue when it was proposed,” explains MK Prasad. Ironically, the student wings of these parties rebelled against the party lines and supported the protesters and the Save Silent Valley movement .

‘The Tree Poets’

The fight to save Silent Valley was, from the beginning, patronised by literary greats. The issue was first brought to public attention in a 1969 report published in the Mathrubhumi Weekly edition. The report was written by MK Prasad and commissioned by NV Krishna Warrier, a poet, prolific writer, and the then editor-in-chief of Mathrubhumi.

“None of the ruling classes were speaking about it. Even the media in Kerala had not dared to bring out the topic. But Warrier insisted that we publish the story. Following this, as punishment, Mathrubhumi fired Warrier from his post as Chief Editor,” Prasad recounts. However, this report not only became a precursor to several other legacy papers including The Hindu, the Indian Express, the Telegraph and others taking up the Silent Valley Movement, it also gave the protest support from Sugathakumari and other poet greats such as Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri. Teacher founded the Paristhithi Samrakshana Samiti (Environment Protection Committee) for the Silent Valley agitation with  KV Surendranath, NV Krishna Warrier, Namboodiri and others as its members. Warrier was the committee's first President and Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri served as Sugathakumari Teacher's second-in-command.

In one of her writings, Sugathakumari Teacher mentions that it was Krishna Warrier who encouraged her to write more poetry, after he realised her genius upon reading a poem she submitted to Mathrubhumi under a pseudonym years ago. With the silent valley protest gathering steam it was Warrier and Sugatha teacher who rallied the poets and writers to lend their voices to the cause.

"She was key in getting the greatest poets of the time to pledge their support to the cause. As the protests gathered steam, all of the poets gathered at the VJT hall in Thiruvananthapuram for a meeting to pledge their support for the protests. It was here that ONV Kurup first read out his famous poem - 'Bhoomikkoru Charamageetham' (an elegy to planet earth)," recalls RVG Menon, former President of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), who participated in the protests in the capital back then.

All the while, the poets who joined the movement were mocked by a section who used the moniker ‘tree poets’, and chastised the poets for their 'anti-development’ stance. But they carried on undeterred. 

RVG Menon recalls the famous lines uttered by poet Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer to Sugathakumar Teacher, when he pledged his support. "He said 'even though it is a losing battle, I will support it'," he recalls. 

But the movement was far from being a losing battle as time would later reveal. Perhaps,the biggest achievement of Sugatha Teacher during this time was a book she published with all the literature dedicated to the forest.  Titled ‘Vanaparvam’, the book had poems by ONV Kurup, Vylopilli Sreedhara Menon, Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan, Ayyappa Panicker, Deshamangalam Ramakrishnan, D Vinayachandran, Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri and Sugathakumari teacher. All of these poets penned verses on the forest to pledge their support to the green movement. ONV’s ‘Kaad’ or forest and Vinayachandran’s ‘Kaadinu Njan Enthu Peridum’ (what will I name the forest) were among the notable poems from the book.

"The book led to more information in public circulation on the issue. Meanwhile the participants used their own money to file cases against the KSEB and the state government in the high court," says Mohandas. 

RVG Menon adds that it was Teacher's brother-in-law Gopalakrishnan, who helped file the petitions in the court. "Gopal was Teacher's sister Sujatha Devi's husband. He was a practicing lawyer at the High Court then and offered legal counsel to the participants" Menon explains. 

Among the hundreds of verses dedicated to Silent Valley, Sugathakumari teacher’s  ‘Marathinu Stuthi’ or ‘Ode to the tree’ stood out as it assumed the status of an anthem for the fight. At every meeting organised for the Silent Valley protests, Teacher's poem was recited as the introductory prayer.

Despite the movement being scattered across different parts of Kerala, it caught the attention of nature lovers world over. Several prominent individuals and groups such as Salim Ali of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, Romulus Whitaker of the Madras Crocodile Bank, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) called for the project to be dropped and the forest to be preserved. 

"TN Seshan, then secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and a close friend of Sugatha Teacher, understood the importance of the movement and advised PM Indira Gandhi against it. It was following this that a committee was set up to study the forest and the effects of a hydroelectric plant in the area," RVG Menon says. 

In 1982, a committee led by Professor MGK Menon as chairman and Madhav Gadgil, Dilip K. Biswas and others as members, was set up to check if the hydroelectric project was feasible without significant damage to the Silent Valley Ecosystem.

Early in 1983, Prof. Menon's Committee submitted its report and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to shelve the plan. A year after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Silent Valley was declared as a National Park and was inaugurated by her son and PM Rajiv Gandhi. 

That was the bitter-sweet end to the years-long agitation. Today, the movement is a quarter-century old story of people’s will triumphing over corrupt governments. However, the poetry that was born during this fight lives on, immortalising the great moment in Kerala’s history.