The history of our epic battle for independence that has been so far written is only about the activities of the political leaders, great and not so great. Stories of those who were not aligned with any political party and who were from diverse fields of art and culture, but yet involved in the freedom movement in their own individual ways, have been sadly forgotten or ignored. The subaltern history of such unsung men and women needs to be told in the pan-Indian context, if one has to have a comprehensive and holistic view of our freedom struggle.
The recent publication of the diaries diligently maintained by Bhaskaradas (1892-1952), primarily a theatre activist, sums up the social history of Tamil Nadu from 1917 to 1951. Anandarangan Pillai (1709-1761), who was a dubash during the French rule in Pondicherry, was perhaps the earliest diarist in Tamil. His jottings read almost like essays. But Bhaskaradas, totally unaware that in a computer age the way he wrote would be known as ‘micro-blogging’, had ‘tweeted’ a mixed bag of events and expenses of his everyday life, each such noting not exceeding 60 words.
His notebooks were in manuscripts, much of them soiled and withered, and only the readable parts have been retrieved and published, thanks to the untiring efforts of the diarist’s grandson S. Murugabhubathy, a modern theatre activist in his own right.
The names of the leaders mentioned by Bhaskaradas in his diaries in different contexts, would read like a veritable political ‘who’s who’ of the national scene during the early and mid-20th century. The most interesting part of it is that he had composed songs on almost all of them, and also about the movements with which they were associated, like the Khilafat movement, the Rowlatt Act protests, the Salt Satyagraha, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Bhaskaradas was so overwhelmed by Gandhiji that he wrote several poems on all the things that Gandhiji loved or was most passionate about — charka, ahimsa, prohibition, untouchability, and rural reconstruction. He met Gandhiji when he travelled in south India and gave him the poem he had written on him — it began thus: “Gandhi oru parama ezhai sanyasi.’ When it was translated to him in Hindi, Bapuji smiled and exclaimed: “O God! he has made me a saint!’ This was immortalised by K.B. Sundarambal, when she rendered it for a gramophone record.
Bhaskaradas was a great hit with the gramophone companies of the time, like His Master’s Voice and Odeon, and nearly 500 of his songs were rendered by an illustrious galaxy of musicians including S.G. Kittappa, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, S.D. Subbulakshmi, M.S. Subbulakshmi, S.V. Subbiah Bhagavatar, and M.S.Viswanathdas, On one occasion, Viswanathdas was arrested on the stage for singing a song of Bhaskaradas that was loaded with political import — ‘Vellai kokkugalaa’ (‘You, the white cranes’). It was a puranic play, wherein Vallli, the spouse of Karthikeya, while guarding her family millet farm, would demand that the white cranes go off the fields never to return, since they had no claim on them. To the huge audience, it was clear who were the ‘white cranes’ alluded to in the song. Bhaskaradas makes subtle, mature and factual references to all these incidents in his diaries without getting emotionally involved.
His was an inclusive art that embraced all the sections of the Tamil society — the rich and the poor, the classical elite and the street-singers, the road vendors, the fisher women, the weavers, the gypsies, and beggars. He composed songs for all of them relating to the needs of their profession and heard them sing. Since his lyrics were more commonly used by the beggars, Bhaskaradas came to be known, in the title-crazy Tamil Nadu, as ‘the poet for the beggars.’
After going through this voluminous and well-got up book, one is left wondering how such a nationalistic, refreshingly secular, liberated and open-minded Tamil society that seemed to have existed during the period in which Bhaskaradas lived, has become culturally insulated and dogmatic, refusing to look beyond its narrow domestic walls.
MADHURAKAVI BHASKARADAASIN NAATKURIPUGAL(Tamil): Compiled by S. Murugabhubathy; Bharathi Puthagalayam, 421, Anna Salai, Teynampet, Chennai-600018. Rs. 400.