Quest for Ancient Wisdom :
A Study of Ecofeminism in the Poetry of Nandini Sahu
Dr. Santosh Kumar Padhy, Lecturer in English, Shakti Nagar, 1st Lane (Extension) Berhampur, Ganjam (Odisha) - India
Ph. 09776512872 <>

Growing out of multi-faceted and multi-located social movements, ecofeminism is a new term, which also quests for ancient wisdom as it is one of the major characteristics that counter all the encircling disillusionments of human life. From the worldwide resources, "What is ecofeminism?" it is authenticated that:

Ecofeminism,’ a new term for an ancient wisdom ‘grew out of various social movements in the late 1970sand early 1980s.Though the term was first used by Francoise D’ Eaubonne, it became popular only in the context of numerous protests and activities against environmental destruction, sparked off initially by recurring ecological disasters.

This is a woman-led movement defying patriarchy, protesting militarism and capitalism at the initial stage, is now radical to the threat of atomic annihilation to the human mass and ecology. Ecofeminists have a firm faith and deep understanding that not only the theory but also the practice can save the exploitation of women and nature. Such an activism against masculine’s mentality and attitude has rightly identified the feminist concerns as ecofeminism is about intersectionality, a connectedness and wholeness. With the impressive slogans like "the future is female", "no more waiting"," we are in a state of emergency and we must do something about it now…" which are cited by Val Plumwood and Lynn Wenzel in his article "Uprooting the Patriarchy" quoted by Joy Pincus in his WIN Magazine. Thus ecofeminists have explored the unexplored frontiers of present-day critical approaches, literary critiques and cultural theories. Searching for veganism, against non-vegetarians, solar energy against Grid co, indigenous roots of progress against hybridity and ancient wisdom for cultural devastation, ecofeminism has metaphorically and dramatically expanded its activist movement as it is a philosophy, an essentialism, and an academic movement opposing social inequality, injustice and discrimination between age, race, sex, class and gender. Besides, standing against western living style such as ‘tame nature’, ‘rape the land ‘and ‘reap nature’s bounty’, ecofeminism not just sees the oppression of women but also includes man as oppressed. In order to sustain the world as a global village, it tries to dismantle binary oppositions and broadens the scope of living together and strengthening human relationship by inviting all categories of people to raise voice for a better, meaningful, prosperous and peaceful life.

This paper intensifies to examine the echoing voice of Nandini Sahu, a contemporary Indian woman poet writing in English in which one can easily find the potency, the strength and the integrity both in her poetry and personality that she can rather be called as an ecofeminist, ecowomanist and an ecosocialist. Her poetic exploration of her four collections of poems, The Other Voice (2004), The Silence (2005), Silver Poems on My Lips (2009) and Sukama and Other Poems (now under publication) not only depict her major voice against ecological destructions but also her pronounced feminist quests for the old human values and ancient wisdom that her poetry too is a woman-identified movement and a special kind of work to cope with these imperiled times. To her, poetry comes like a spontaneous flood in a tranquil mood and by that time she listens to the silent songs of falling leaves singing and rejoicing in the wind. Here one can firmly recollect the greatest romanticist, William Wordsworth and his poetic over flow that has highly influenced Nandini Sahu to be drawn to Mother Nature as the glory and greatness of her poetry lay there in the roots of wisdom. The title poem of her second collection, The Silence seems to be a more powerful speech for which the poet becoming highly ambitious orchestrates:

Glorious as sunshine
the roots of wisdom penetrate the
cells of my being
till I merge with Mother Nature
I tether my words
bury my thoughts
splinter every other image
and think
does my silence
have long enough arms
to touch the stars
in heaven above? (The Silence, 89)

Nandini Sahu’s quest for human values and the wisdom she seeks for is only sustainability for better human living in this world. This is indeed the need of hour because of the uncontrolled violence of man against nature and the exploitation man does against it for which nature often becomes turbulent and out of control to reciprocate tremendous hazards all over the globe beyond expectation. The poet is much obsessed with ozone hole, acid rain and other ingredients of destruction of nature, which are not only delineated in her poetry as the very problems of the day but also predicted green hope with the dream of an ever green world as remedial steps.In"Giving Them a Smile" (For Tsunami –affected People), the poet tries to wake up people with the wisdom that its seeds and the new sprouts are buried in dust. Her ecofeminist voice regards the earth most and the poet more hopefully waits for a new dawn that can give a smile to the affected mass. She wants to mend their lives once more and green the curly, leafy hill in this poem:

The ominous ozone hole
staring with the kill
at the north and south pole.
Acid rains behind cool smiles,
Green hopes descending
Shrinking when the sea
Would swell and pull all.
The alien secrets of Nature
Dancing with the Fall
Heavy winds stare, then yell
Agonizing, alluring, unwanted
unfinished, sybelline dream
of the night
broke with a gall. (90)

In this connection, Mary Mellor (UK) in her "Introduction" to Feminism and Ecology observes:

Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It emerged in the mid 1970s alongside second wave feminism and the green movement (Mellor, 1).

Nandini Sahu being conscious of recent trepidations on the earth appeals her readers to nourish love for nature and to become closer to nature. Yet in another poem," The Passing Time" in the same volume, The Silence the poet tries to spread love to fill the void of relationship between nature and nourish love for wind and rain without human ego. For her, love is like diamond dew drops in autumnal mornings to shine, smile, live and mend the cracks of relationship so that the gaps of the passing time would never witness any kind of natural calamities:

No holocaust, no earthquake,
no separation, no annihilation
may make love lifeless
for life begins and ends in love’s
unclaimed legislations. (74)

Nandini Sahu’s faith in celebrating love in a good deal of poems is not only an effort to knit a new world but also a technique she has perhaps perceived from her teacher and ideal poet, late Niranjan Mohanty who in his poetic contribution to literature, Krishna (a long poem), an exceptional work tries to justify the message of love between Radha and Krishna of our native tradition, culture, myth and mythology that has been a great source of inspiration to the Indians to be more conscious of Yamuna, kadamba, agriculture and husbandry suited to our climate and sub-continent. Besides, the poet’s goal of seeking for ‘satya ‘, ‘Shiva’ and ’sundar’- these are truth, God, beauty from the choking earth’s whittled breath what one is definitely reminded of John Keats’. In her poem, "Tandav in Rain " from her first collection of poems, The Other Voice, the poet’s wonder of Lord Shiva’s tandav, (a dance for destruction) in the rain raises question in her mind and soul "is it a will to exist or resist?"(36). Both Carolyn Merchant and Sallie Mc Fague while depicting specific areas of science and religion emphasize the new as well as old organic model of cosmos development:"The ‘common creation story ‘and the growing field of ecology, as well as some new cosmologies emerging from physics, provide fertile ground for ecofeminist entry into dialogue with the natural sciences." It is obvious that sometimes nature becomes wild, violent and uncontrollable that none can guess the ultimate result of the natural havoc what really happens now- a- days. The poet’s distinction between shower and torrential rain seems to be forsaken dreams as the former whispers into her the melody of the overcast clouds in an August sky and the latter is the result born out of the present day exploitation of nature. Nandini Sahu’s poetry seems to be conscious enough of the roots to the on-going problems:

In the dim light of the vaccum
beyond the thick vein of this smoke
filled my empty corners with a waning moon
I started knitting a new world
with a thousand needles of hope
choking earth’s whittled breath
while my threads were running races
with wild winds and lightning.(36)

With a strong hope of reaching the unreached and naturalizing the world of fancy, Nandini Sahu quenches her feminine thirst representing the woman mass and pouring desire into feminine dummy. She readily accepts her different woman role as a daughter, daughter-in- law, wife, mother, poet, teacher and researcher in the fret and fever of time. Along with these all, her poetry also tries to cover morning, evening, night, afternoon, all seasons, climates with her feelings, emotions, thoughts, dreams, perceptions like Jayanta Mahapatra in recording childhood, youthful days with much hyped experiences and inexperienced alchemies and dichotomies of life where the poet appears to have left nothing about her life at a tender age. Her obsession of another woman role in our pious land as people treat woman as ‘Devi’ or Goddess what in Sanskrit we usually recite ‘ya Devi sarva bhutesu’ authenticates her own voice in "Aside’ when she brings an end to this poem:

I’m the Goddess
who knows what are
the things to happen and
what not since time
has ploughed scars
on my virgin mud.(80)

It is true that exploitation of woman and nature is prevalent in our society since time immemorial for which our history and mythology have been bristled with instances. If we take into account, not only Sita, Draupadi, Mira, and Radha but also countless women have become the worst sufferers of time by burning themselves like moths as it is their rites for the society and social welfare. Here Nandini Sahu’s associa tion of female world with insect world is exemplary when she poses women as Dewali moths in a poem, "Moth":

Like woman they bathe in fire,
a fire that enjoys burning them in desire
burning their tiny soft body, coloured,
their wings transparent like heart.
A fire that destroys their moon dreams,
and smiles proud, a male smile.(81)

At one hand, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring focused attention on the effects of pollution on the human and non-human world making the question of life on earth a public issue. On the other hand, the ‘male smile’ Nandini Sahu refers to here is not only a raising voice against patriarchy that the ecofeminists revolt against male chauvinism but also a comparison between man and woman pride in which the poet’s heart always cries in favour of own gender who loves burning for the sake of devotion and sacrifice. The poet has further shown male pretension and betrayal in many of her poems like Kamala Das but her love for natural world seems to be an unending part of the earth as well as her poetry. She rather acts as a staunch believer of natural objects as human congeners that play a vital role to make the world ever green and colourful. In "Tide" the poet while bringing co-relation between human and non human world wants to grow with them all:

The to and fro
about them
the change of colours
the passion
the soft and the leaping
the spirals and swirls
whining and wheezing, and
the ebb and flow,
their warm secrets
remind life and time
are but tides, for
the tides only know to seize and then grow.(96)

Thus natural world has a tremendous effect on the human world. For the poet nature is a living force and an inspiration that activates life in the tune of time. To be conscious of time for an easy and better living not only strengthens our relationship with our ecology but also teaches us to take care of it. Keeping the mythological characters abreast of all in her mind, Nandini Sahu’s feminist view and her vision of poetry cherish Kunti who asks Lord Krishna for pain and the Lord gives her a mighty and powerful son like Karna. Since that day Karna remains as the gathering pain and choked anguish in Kunti’s heart. Similarly the poet also before getting blessed with a son desires for a son in her pain during pregnancy that is considered as her seven lives’ gain. The poet as a mother has endured all kinds of pain while carrying a child in which she not only shows the real pangs of a mother but also correlates woman’s body as a metaphor. The connection Nandini Sahu draws between woman and nature is authentic and blissful for a woman to bag pain for the entire life when she harps on her language of pain in "Pain":

That day I will think over
Your cherished dream
Of uniting your and mine pain.
That night I’ll let you drown
in my beach-coloured belly, petal coloured
lips, sea-coloured eyes, alone.(99)

In its publication, Nandini Sahu’s third collection of poems, Silver Poems on My Lips appears to be more mature enough than the two previous volumes. The poet has a sharing attitude in this volume to peep into the gleaming eyes of the people and reflects all of them with sober accent. She smells the tastes, flavours, and delicacies of life and breathes them into poetry. She tries to sing a chorus that sounds quite melodious and enchanting for which the age-old poet, Jayanta Mahapatra observes on the blurb: "And there is no doubt that she is serious about this quest. It is longing for identity for words that will indicate her own place in our world."This really makes Nandini Sahu quest-motif for which she writes:"With no respite enroute / I budge in a journey endless" (116)and "my world of poetry is prosperous"(117).It is true that Nandini Sahu’s attitude changes a little about the world who seems to be optimistic enough and becomes more a psychotherapist than a psychoanalyst. The blurb of the volume further maintains:

She pours out poetry that oozes from the secret chambers of the heart, though she knows well that in an age of material pleasures perhaps it is difficult for the heart to fit in. Thus an insecurity and reservation move her the most in her expedition through life. Her idea rotates around a belief in human values. Love and poetry are her therapy to live, breathe and sing.

Like other theorists of ecofeminism, Nandini Sahu’s anti-war/anti- militarism attitude is reflected in a number of poems. In "The Thirteenth Impurity" the poet quotes Manu’s (the sage) speech of the twelve impurities of man such as oiliness, semen, blood, coughs, urine, ordure, ear wax, nails, mucus, tears, rheum of the eyes, and sweat. The poet adds another impurity to the twelve impurities that is the notion of hell that lives in the human mind. It is the poet’s intuition, the sixth sense, the most powerful insight and vision that makes her able judge the human mind with this extra impurity instead of setting up global peace hurls atom bomb on Hirosima and Nagasaki; oils the fire of war in Palestine and Israel; loves watching American vengeance on Saddam Hussain by killing the innocents; the consequence of Vietnam War and Kargil War. What is estimated by the poet here is surely a sadistical mind that succumbs to sin, redness, jealousy and blackness over the mind. The poet closes the poem with a view to brightening the human mind:

Perhaps Manu was never sure
of any cure of the global impurities,
world terrorism, nuclear misuses.
Because he had never dreamt
of the black roses of hatred,
anger ,jealousy, death
blooming right at the moment of our birth. (107)

To the poet, war is futile. What else is more useful and valuable for human life is to accord the way of theology and spirituality. She understands the value of life whereas war is inhuman, anti-social, and destructive in nature. In order to change the human mind and thought, holy books offer the highest essence. Seeking for an enlightened future the poet nestles down on the values and wisdom of the past because the present trend of mindset cannot avoid the darkness of human mind without accepting the holy books as ecofeminism approaches to look on their values. In a poem, "War" the poet while making an attempt for a better future, stable society and healthy atmosphere cites the past, which was replete with wars, bloodshed and heinous activities. She bemoans for the same trend going on even today and tries to wake up her readers contrasting both the past and present with an intention to build up a well-matching future:

Is our future
a match for the past?
Why are these fingers pointed?
Doors thumped!
Gitas, Qurans, Bibles
are folded, guns encumbered…
What reminisces
is a past
that eclipses all future,
annihilates us in death.
In war. Futile war. (96)

The poet does not like to hit any more in words and just wants to live and make the world livable. Her emotion runs very high when she deals her poetry with an ecofeminist voice like Alice Walker who in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden "draws the beautiful comparison that womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender"(Walker,xii) . In this manner the poet’s love for the sky and regard for the earth are endless. With her silence and core of the heart she limns in "A Numb Corner in the Heart":

I am tossing the words
that go beyond the clouds
across the many clouds
Wishes kiss the sky, revere the earth
embracing all directions
the smell of an intoxicating efflorescent

The intoxicating and exotic world the poet sees needs to be changed into serene, victorious and accessible one. She rejects the mortality of time and feels the hunger, poverty, pleasure and pain of the men around and knows the people who rinse their home and heart. Her patient quest for the nest is not just of a woman who knows to smile with velvet luster, the dusky forehead and heaving breast but she sees a world that is humane where souls do not go waste. Like one of the characteristics of the ecofeminist search to dismantle the binary oppositions, Nandini Sahu’s poetry aims at extending her ecology to the four-walled global village but never wishes to jump the ‘Laxman rekha’, the limitation and the restricted boundary of a woman. Then she more fondly tries to bring correlation and connection between woman and tree in "Poem, in the Morning", which is quite metaphorical in its true sense and sensibility. Here tree is a metaphor for both poetry and womanhood:

I am I, once again
living in the eaves.
I am the tree
my roots claw through
the empty wind and sky
new leaves sprout and fall each day,
I only stand rooted to its place
never walking away
Jumping the ‘laxman rekha’.
I know how to
laugh with my buds and flowers. (78)

Nandini Sahu’s poetic journey always looks back to home from her present living in Delhi to her nativity, Udayagiri at the foot hillock in Kandhamala District, Odisha where her long cherished desires live. This is such a beautiful place where the poet takes delightment and utmost satisfaction to watch peacocks’ dance to the tune of the wild rain, camels’ graze, birds’ of hue sing lullabies to her tired soul. There she gets the real peace of life. In ‘My Home", the poet while searching for the self and harmonizing the lonesome hours discovers a newer world close to nature:

The passionate rain
with its vibrations
twinkle my inner self, here.
I discover a newer world
close to nature, close to
a power, unknown and
rediscover myself.(75)

It is obvious from Nandini Sahu’s poetry that Delhi is a dream home and her parental home at Udayagiri is the home of her reality. Her real freedom lies therein. She knows well about the liberty of a woman and offers "her soul to God for the attainment of life and the body to an earthly pilgrimage and the heart to the unknown" (72). One is often obsessed with the mother of mother and the greatest of the great grandmother who on one’s birth, gives air to breathe, food and water to live on, fire to cosy up living-the five basic elements. Thus one’s birth usually follows the death and the corporeal body starts merging into the same five constituents and the soul goes towards the heaven for its divine merge. Therefore the poet wants to give up herself to Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the universe by metamorphosing the body into a mermaid, a shape of half- woman and half- fish to dissolve into God’s one of the incarnations-Mastya Avatar in a poem, "I am the Mermaid". The poet seems too much engrossed with nature in this poem. She opens:

I love the blue, the all encompassing blue
showered on me as a gift by Nature divine
I sing of the waves that droop down
who pardon the sins enjoyed by man. (106)

The poet’s love for the coastal town and cultural hub of Odisha, Puri, the sea beach at Puri and the world famous Lord Jagannth who is the lotus feet, the creator and the destroyer of the universe, the sea of mercy and the poet’s merman must cherish the poet’s mermaid frame as she designates her the Goddess of blue hills ahead fourteen worlds. Besides, the poet’s lust for her native land, Odisha remains mystified when she writes about the Sun temple at Konark and wants to devotionalise the self and her poetry like Jayanta Mahapatra to the historical, cultural and mythological wonder of the world. In "An Evening at Konark", the poet is so absorbed in the Konark temple that she more passionately cites Dharama ,a twelve year boy who has sacrificed himself for twelve hundred lives of his own roots, ancestors and forefathers with a glowing and elevating message for the despised mankind. The poet enjoys Konark in this evening drawing herself to the ancient tales of Odisha, the myth, history, songs and sonnets curved on the stones of the temple:

In the moon motif on the Sun Temple
In the tales of nights on the temple of sunrise
Konark metamorphoses everything but itself and
Konark discloses all secrets but itself. (108)

In her poetry one can’t deny Nandini Sahu as an ecofeminist who seeks for saving the historical monuments and old sculptures of the past to add rarest of the rare values to ecofeminism and its approaches as much as it is now a broader topic in its theory expanded dramatically day by day. Yet in another poem, "December Again" in her maiden volume, The Other Voice, the poet while renewing other historical importance like the Rajputs and Maharanis of Rajasthan rediscovers her love for mountain tops of Udaipur mirrors, whirling-dazzling skirts, camels, grand, decorated elephants, dreamy forts, dancing puppets, yellow mustard fields and long deserted deserts of Rajasthan. The poet is so fascinated by all these scenes and sceneries that she recollects the December again, the past at present:

Away in the ground mirror-palaces of the
I roam alone
where past shaped life royal
their attitude forming an edifying quest. (53)

Through her poetic quest, Nandini Sahu becomes a mythic figure when she writes:"slowly I am becoming a myth" (17) and her intention to make the world weaponless when she articulates:"I disarm the world" (18) by taking up all kinds of pain as her "capital investment for future/beyond price (18). Her memory often haunts her to sharpen the past and then she recollects her blood relationships, mostly her sisters, parents, grandparents and the stories usually told by her mother and grandmother. These are all about the familial ecology that the poet has extended from the unforgettable past to the present in her poetry. Her mother’s tale of far off lands, ghosts and spirits and the grandmother’s stories of princes and princesses all occupy still in her mind and her poetry what can be referred as ‘family tree’ perhaps she has captured the term from the poetry of A.K.Ramanujan that never sanctions a sharing entertainment at present because the poet has a dubious distinction and fears that the stories as a habit of telling from generation to generation for a strong association with the parental home that would drop her once more in a cracked ground. As its ultimatum, keeping concrete faith on nature/ecology the poet turns to share with natural objects as they are living forces and spirits to accommodate mankind well. She further accepts nature as the soul of both animates and inanimate without which life becomes more complex, frustrated and even impossible. In this way, Nandini Sahu’s poetry works as an eye opener in these days of excess pollution, uncontrolled wrath and anger of nature. One can easily therefore observe her poetry in which she regards nature like William Wordsworth and accepts as mother. Her use of rare animal and bird symbols in her poetry is an import aspect of her wisdom not only to receive them to decorate her poetry but also likes to save them from their extinction. Carolyn Merchant in her book, Earth Care: Women and the Environment (1995) links women with the environment and an ethic of earth care and writes:

Earth care explores the many aspects of the association of women with nature in western culture and their roles in the contemporary environmental movement. It looks at the age-old connections between women and nature, symbols of nature as female, and women’s practices and daily interactions with the earth (Merchant, xv).

Thus, to the best of ecofeminist study, Nandini Sahu’s poetry functions as a feminist peace institute to heal the wounds of the earth as the ecofiminists today promise to renew and reweave the world. In this regard, Nandini Sahu as a poet can aptly be termed as an emergent ecofeminist in her poetry.

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1962.Print.

Mc Fague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. Print.

Mellor, Mary. Feminism and Ecology, New York University Press, P.1, 1997.Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1980.Print.

-------------Earth Care: Women and the Environment, Rout ledge, New York, 1995. Print.

Plum wood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Rout ledge, 1993.Print.

Sahu, Nandini. The Other Voice, New Delhi, Authors Press, 2004.Print.

----------- The Silence, New Delhi, Authors Press, 2005. Print.

------------ .Silver Poems on My Lips, New Delhi, Authors Press, 2009. Print.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple, The Women’s Press, London, 1992.Print.

What is ecofeminism?

Wenzel, Lynn qtd. in "Uprooting the Patriarchy" by Joy Pincus, WIN Magazine.


(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2014)