10 Classic Indian Women Poets, from Akka Mahadevi to Meena Alexander

India is a rich mosaic when it comes to languages, cultures and states. This diverse selection keeps in mind the feminist angle as it journeys from the 12th century through the 21st. These classic Indian women poets are presented here in order of birth, from Akka Mahadevi (1130-1160) through Meena Alexander (1951-2018).

Though all have passed on, their voices and influence echo through the ages. Pictured at right, Kamala Das as a young woman.

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Akka Mahadevi (1130-1160)

Akka Mahadevi

 One of the earliest known women poets in Kannada literature, Akka Mahadevi is known for her 430 extant Vachanas (spontaneous mystical poetry) and enjoys saintly status in the Lingayat community, which rose as a reformist movement to Hinduism in Karnataka. 


The arrow that is shot should penetrate so deeply
that even the feathers do not show.
Hug the body of the Lord so tightly
that the bones must be crushed to crumble.
Weld to the divine until the very welding disappears.

. . . . . . . . . .

Lal Ded (1320-1392)

Indian poet and mystic lal ded

Despite being born in 14th century Kashmir, Lal Ded is considered one of the region’s most revered mystic poets, even 700 years later. Her work, known as Vak meaning words, has come down through the folk tradition and is considered as a foundation for Kashmiri literature. Her work holds value for both Hindus and Muslims. 

I have seen an educated man starve,
a leaf blown off by bitter wind.
Once I saw a thoughtless fool
beat his cook.
Lalla has been waiting for the allure of the world
to fall away. 

I might scatter the southern clouds,
drain the sea, or cure someone
hopelessly ill.
But to change the mind of a fool
is beyond me.

(from Bhaki poems)


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Muddupalani (1730-1790)

A courtesan in the court of King Pratap Singh, the Maratha King of Tanjore, Muddupalani is most renowned for her erotic poem, “Rādhikā-sāntvanam” (Appeasing Radha). Here is a portion of it:

… A face that glows like the full moon.
Skills of conversation, matching the countenance.
Eyes filled with compassion,
matching the speech.
A great spirit of generosity,
matching the glance.
These are the ornaments
that adorn Palani,
When she is praised by kings.

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Savitribai Phule (1831-1897)

savitribai phule
Besides being an engaged poet, Savitribai Phule took on the forces of caste and patriarchy forcefully during her time, and was a social reformer and educationist. She used the medium of poetry to spread awareness and the compilations are available as Kavya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar.

Learn English

Make self-reliance your occupation,
Exert yourself to gather the wealth of knowledge,
Without knowledge animals remained dumb,
Don’t rest! Strive to educate yourself.
The opportunity is here,
For the Shudras and Ati Shudras,
To learn English
To dispel all woes.
Throw away the authority
Of the Brahmin and his teachings,
Break the shackles of caste,
By learning English.

. . . . . . . . . .

Toru Dutt (1856-1877)

Toru Dutt

Referred to as the Keats of India, Toru Dutt was the first Indian poet to write in both English and French. Her best work, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields stands testimony to the lyricism and talent, which was cut short by her untimely death at the age of 21.

… Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay
Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those
Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose,—
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!
Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow; and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse.

(a portion of “Our Casuarina Tree”)


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Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)

Sarojini Naidu stamp 1964
Poet, feminist and politician, Sarojini Naidu was also known as the Nightingale of India. Sarojini spoke several Indian languages whilst she composed her poetry in English. Her three collections of poems include The Golden Threshold.

What are the sins of my race, Beloved,
what are my people to thee?
And what are thy shrines, and kine and kindred,
what are thy gods to me?
Love recks not of feuds and bitter follies,
of stranger, comrade or kin,
Alike in his ear sound the temple bells
and the cry of the muezzin.
For Love shall cancel the ancient wrong
and conquer the ancient rage,
Redeem with his tears the memoried sorrow
that sullied a bygone age.

(A portion of “An Indian Love Song”)

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Mahadevi Varma (1907-1987)

Mahadevi varma

Mahadevi Varma is considered one of the four pillars of the Chhaayavadi (shadowism) movement of Hindi poetry and interestingly the only woman to figure there. Her four poetic works are published under the title, Yama and encompass feminist concerns.

Why an introduction dear

Why an introduction dear, you are within me,
reflections on starry nights, memories of a life,
creations of life in short spells, eyes notice
creations of life in short spells, eyes notice
gentle footsteps!
I don’t much to treasure anymore,
you are the treasure I have in me.

Your dazzling, radiant smile like sunrise
Is the reflection of fragrant sorrow,
it is consciousness, and dreamy slumber,
Let me tire and sleep incessantly, for
Would I understand the creation, big-bang!!

You are drawn, I am just an outline,
you are the sweet melody, I am just a string of notes,
you are limitless, I am but an illusion of limits,
In the secrecy of real image-reflection,
why enact to be lovers!!!

Why an introduction, since you are within me.

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Amrita Pritam (1919-2005)

amrita pritam

Considered a maverick writer and poet, Amrita Pritam wrote in both Punjabi and Hindi. She moved from romantic to social commentary and was deeply affected by the Partition of India. In her most famous poem, “Aj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu” (“Today, I invoke Waris Shah”), she challenges the tropes used in the entire literary canon of romantic poetry, to question the status of a woman as a beloved. See a review of her autobiography, The Revenue Stamp.

Me—a book in the attic.
Maybe some covenant or hymnal.
Or a chapter from the Kama Sutra,
or a spell for intimate afflictions.
But then it seems I am none of these.
(If I were, someone would have read me.

Apparently at an assembly of revolutionaries
they passed a resolution,
and I am a longhand copy of it.

It has the police’s stamp on it
and was never successfully enforced.
It is preserved only for the sake of procedure.

(a portion of “A Letter”)


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Kamala Das (1934-2009)

Indian poet Kamala Das

The prolific author and poet Kamala Das, who wrote under the pen name of Madhavi Kutty, also came to be known as Kamala Sorayya, as she converted to Islam towards the last few years of her life. She brought in the concept of Confessional Poetry, very rare among women poets and has many volumes of poetry to her credit.

I don’t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.

(A portion of “An Introduction” — read this poem in full and several others in 10 Poems by Kamala Das, Confessional Poet of India)

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Meena Alexander (1951-2018)

Meena Alexander

The only non-resident late Indian poet to make this list, Meena Alexander has many volumes of poems to her credit. Some have also been set to music, including Acqua Alta by the Swedish composer, Jan Sandstrom. Her poetic influences are Indo-American and include Kamala Das and Adrienne Rich.


I watch your hands at the keyboard
Making music, one hand with a tiny jot,
A birthmark I think where finger bone
Joins palm, mark of the fish,
Living thing in search of a watering
Hole set in a walled garden,
Or in a field with all the fences torn:
Where I hear your father cry into the wind
That beats against stones in a small town
Where you were born; its cornfields

Skyward pointing, never sown, never
To be reaped, flagrant, immortal.

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Nectar in a Sieve

See also: 10 Classic Indian Women Authors

Contributed by Melanie P. Kumar: Melanie is a Bangalore, India-based independent writer who has always been fascinated with the magic of words. Links to some of her pieces can be found at gonewiththewindwithmelanie.wordpress.com.

Also by Melanie Kumar: A review of Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta

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