With Subramania Bharati's 127th birth anniversary falling earlier this month, it is time to take another look at the poet's paradoxical personality. On a warm day in June 1921, a man stood by the gopuram of the Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai, feeding the temple elephant. The worshippers hurrying by would glance at him and move on, noticing nothing unusual except for a turban worn in a manner unusual for Tamils. The man's erect carriage was in stark contrast to signs of a certain privation; an unmistakable fragility of form, the sunken face showing up the cheekbones. Only the luminous eyes blazing out at the world showed something of the man within.
The elephant squealed and suddenly swung its trunk, hurling the man to the ground. People ran up with cries of alarm but none dared go near the beast for fear of being trampled till a corpulent Vaisnavite Brahmin dashed up to the animal and scooped the fallen man to safety. The unconscious victim's name was Subramania Bharati, and though he recovered briefly, by September 1921 he was dead at the age of 39.
Much has been written about the literary legacy of Subramania Bharati. He looms over 20th century Tamil like a titan; the man who broke with centuries of Tolkappiam tradition to create a new voice – modern and passionate – yet with a deep feeling for the past. Bharati's songs have become perennial favourites, incorporated into that hallowed institution – the kutcheri.
Though his voice continues to reverberate through his popular songs and poems, it is the man that eludes us, a subject both enormously interesting and controversial to this day. Bharati scholars generally agree that he was a man driven by an intense inner life that defies conventional analysis of motive and intent. He once said, “He who writes poetry is not a poet. He whose poetry has become his life, and who has made his life his poetry, it is he who is a poet.” It was the same for everything that Bharati did. He gave himself up completely to the causes and beliefs he held true, without regard to the consequences - to others and to himself. In the end, these consequences would combine to destroy him.
Bharati's life can be sketched briefly through four main punctuations. Born in 1882 in Ettayapuram in Tirunelveli district of today's Tamil Nadu, the boy named Subramanian lost his mother at the age of two, was married when he was 11, and when his father too died shortly thereafter, was sent to Benares to live with his aunt. Significantly, in this early period in Ettayapuram, the young Subramanian displayed such facility in Tamil that the local Raja conferred upon him the title by which he would become forever known? ‘Bharati', or one blessed by the goddess Saraswati.
Benares formed Bharati. He entered this ancient city – then, as now, the melting pot of India's vast and diverse Hinduism – in 1898, a precocious but gauche village youth. By 1902, at the age of 20, he emerged a lettered man?proficient in Sanskrit and English. But there were also several life-changing encounters. In one incident, he is repulsed by the sight of bulls being sacrificed at a Kali shrine, the gutters running red with blood. In another searing scene, he sees child widows tonsured and taken away to live out the rest of their lives alone and uncared for in a widows' home.
These and other experiences changed Bharati forever. He became convinced that Hinduism, while remaining sublime in essence, had become debased in practice. There, on the banks of the Ganges, he renounced two powerful symbols of his Brahmin identity: he cut off his tuft and threw away his sacred thread. Benares had made a radical of Bharati.
The second punctuation covers the years 1902 to 1908, when Bharati threw himself into journalism, first joining the Madras-based political weekly Swadesamitran. At Swadesamitran,Bharati had a vantage view of the undercurrents that were beginning to shake the nation, and his impetuous and fiery nature was drawn to Tilak's call. When the Congress split between the radicals and moderates at the Surat Congress of 1907, he threw in his lot with Tilak's Revolutionary Party.
Those were heady days. In the company of friends, he roamed Madras spreading the message of equality through ‘samabandi bhojanam'or the eating together by all castes and creeds. Then, after a full day at the editorial desk, the political rallies and meetings would begin. There is a moving contemporary account of a gathering on Madras' Marina beach by the English journalist Henry Nevinson around 1908. Amidst a crowd of 5000, against the backdrop of waves rushing upon the shore, Bharati's voice is raised in song:
Vande mataram enbom?engal
manila thaiyai vanangudu menbom
(We say vande mataram, our
Respectful mother we salute)
“Through it all, there is utter peace in the gathering. There is not a policeman in sight,” writes Nevinson. Another contemporary of Bharati's, the lawyer Doraiswamy Aiyar, described the revolutionary Bharati of this time. “He was full of energy and curiosity. He spoke what he thought, directly and without dissimulation—” — clearly a trait that won him both admirers and enemies. However, ominously, “Bharati's body was weak; his constitution frail; there were times when we felt that the smallest push would send him staggering.” Even at the age of twenty six, this was a man who lived life on the edge.
1908 was a year of stepped-up repression by the British in India. Thilak was arrested and sentenced to Mandalay prison for six years. Other associates of Bharati including VO Chidambaram Pillai, a leader of the Revolutionary Party in the south, were rounded up. Waves of other arrests followed and it was clear that Bharati's turn was fast approaching.
Persuaded by friends, Bharati decided that his supreme task was to continue the resistance through his writings and so slipped over the border into French Pondicherry. A new and, in many ways, dark period in Bharati's life was commencing.
The author is a research and innovation entrepreneur. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org