The popular image of Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) is that of a great nationalist who relentlessly carried forward the cause of freedom struggle essentially through his writings. But, what is often overlooked is that Bharati was a great musicologist, a great advocate of music of different forms and, of course, a great connoisseur.
He did not undergo any formal training in music. Just as he acquired knowledge of different languages through his efforts, he also taught himself the nuances of music. Not contented with setting tunes and rhythms for many of his songs, he also prescribed the kind of emotion or rasa with which singers ought to sing his works.
Bharati’s view of the world of music was not narrow or conventional. He did not confine himself to possessing knowledge over music. He observed classical musicians critically; studied the pros and cons of the utility of various musical instruments and commented upon the relationship between the general public and music. In his essay titled Sangeeta Vishayam (musical matters), he came down heavily on those who sang with false voice and on those who kept repeating the same combination of songs. He even compared Carnatic vocalists with Hindustani singers. His conclusion, perhaps unpalatable to some, was that Carnatic musicians did not subject themselves to rigorous practice.
“He was for folk songs too. At the same time, he was conscious of inadequacies in this form of music and wanted the weak spots to be addressed so that the form was put on a stronger pedestal,” says Amshan Kumar, a filmmaker and one of whose works was on Bharati. Echoing Amshan’s viewpoint, Pe. Su. Mani, who authored several books on the contemporary history of Tamil Nadu, says Bharati had even argued that folk songs should form part of music concerts.
Amshan goes on to add that Bharati’s devotion to music was so much that he titled his first publication Swadesha Geetangal (1907) or songs of nationalism. This published work contained three songs.
Often, Bharati’s patriotic songs have received wider attention. But, there are other songs, particularly Kannan paattu (Krishna songs), that stand as a testimony to his lasting contribution to modern Tamil literature. In respect of Kannan paattu, wherein the poet visualised Lord Krishna as a friend, servant, teacher, child and the lover, he had set ragas, talas, besides laying down rasas.
Pointing out that Bharati’s years in Puducherry (1908-1918) [wherein he stayed away himself from the nationalist movement] witnessed the creation of many of his acclaimed works, Seeni Viswanathan, veteran Bharati scholar and author of numerous books on Bharati, says that it was during this phase that Kannan paattu was published.
It is now acknowledged among students of history that Bharati may not have attained the level of eminence but for his musical impulse. He knew that for his songs to be rendered by musicians, he should employ a simple language. Only then would his message, particularly on the spirit of freedom, reach a greater audience.
Keywords: Subramania Bharati