Kuntala Kumari Sabat
The birth centenary of Kuntala Kumari Sabat (1900-1938) passed by, unremembered by the nation.
The neglect in national memory of one of the foremost crusader women poets of the last century reminds one of Thomas Gray's elegy about the unsung and unrecognized: "Some village Hamden that with dauntless breast/ the little tyrant of his fields withstood/ some mute inglorious Milton here may rest/ some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood..."
With the exception of a modest celebratory function held by Orissa's Lekhika Sansad and a little souvenir, nothing has been done at the national level to commemorate the saga of this historic woman; nothing that would have matched her achievement. Kuntala Kumari was a radical voice that spoke for the liberation of human spirit. An intensely romantic poet, she wrote some of the immortal verse in Oriya. The mystic strain and her reformative zeal in her poetry at once trace a Blake and a Shelley in her creative persona. It was her passion for social reform that powered her creative writing. She fiercely championed the cause of oppressed masses and repressed womenfolk in a male dominated, feudal India.
Kuntala Kumari Sabat was born in the old state of Bastar, once a part of Orissa, but afterwards separated from it. Her father Daniel Sabat was doctor, who had stayed away in Burma of those days for several years. Her mother Monica Sabat took keen interest in Kuntala education. Kuntala Kumari studied medicine at Cuttack Medical School where she earned her LMP degree in 1921.
The period between 1921 and 1927 was a productive phase of her literary life. She wrote several volumes of poems like "Anjali" and "Archana"; and novels on social issues like "Bharati" and "Parasmani" in Oriya. Through her writing she protested against purdah, child marriage, casteism untouchability, discrimination against women, and advocated women's rights, steps towards their empowerment and widow remarriage.
For some years Kuntala Kumari worked as the superintendent of Cuttack Red Cross, but in 1927 resigned her job and left for Delhi, where she practiced medicine. That was a turning point in her life. She became an Aryasamajist and married Krushna Prasad Brahmachari, ignoring caste and religious taboos. She began to write in Hindi, alongside her writing in Oriya. She came out with a volume of Hindi poems Baramala. She also became an influential editor of several Hindi periodicals such as Mahabir, Jeevan and Nari Bharati. Kuntala Kumari was invited to deliver convocation addresses in Allahabad University and Benaras Hindu Viswavidyalaya. That was a mark of rare recognition accorded to a woman of those days.
Kuntala Kumari's literary gifts and role in the public life of her time are comparable to those of Sarojini Naidu, a contemporary. Sarojini, like the young Kuntala Kumari, always desired to be (in her own words) "a wild free thing of the air like the birds, with a song in my heart." A Romantic at heart, Sarojini Naidu wrote to Arthur Simons in 1904 "the very 'Spirit of Delight' that Shelley wrote of dwells in my little home."
In personal life, Sarojini was far more privileged than Kuntala Kumari was. She studied three years in Britain. Kuntala Kumari, on the other hand, was homespun - as a poet, thinker and individual. In their social and political thinking and actions they were markedly similar and yet dissimilar. Both were champions of secularism. Both broke free of casteism; Sarojini married a non-Brahmin Dr Govindarajulu Naidu, "to the scandal of all India", as did Kuntala Kumari some 25 years after Sarojini marry an Aryasamajist, outside her Christian community.
Sarojini Naidu and Kuntala Kumari both were followers of Gandhi and were deeply committed to the Indian National Congress. Sarojini Naidu was elected its President at the Kanpur Session in 1925; Kuntala Kumari did not live long enough to gain that honor, but she played a leading role in the AICC session held at Puri. In their position with regard to Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu was in principle closer to Gokhale's liberalism than to the relatively greater activism of Gandhi, but Kuntala Kumari avowedly believed in Gandhi's policy above that of any other national leader.
The points of difference between the two great women go further. Sarojini Naidu ardently participated in the freedom movement against British rule but, strangely enough, opposed the struggle for freedom of the people of the Nizam ruled State of Hyderabad; she was on the side of Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan. Kuntala Kumari Sabat showed no such ideological inconsistency in her single-minded devotion to people's struggle for freedom.
The centenary of Sarojini Naidu's birth was celebrated at a national seminar held with the Central Government's participation in Osmania University in 1979. But Kuntala Kumari's birth centenary went unnoticed, outside Orissa.
Kuntala died while still in her thirties. A glorious life of service and creativity was cut short by death. The nation can yet pay tributes to one of India's brave daughters who sang as they led the people in their historic struggle for liberation. This author feels that at least a road should be named after Kuntala Kumari Sabat in the national Capital, and a commemorative postal stamp is issued.
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