Subramania Bharati may not have been from Puducherry, but this coastal town was very much a part of the poet he became, learns Olympia Shilpa Gerald
Today Easwaran Dharmarajan Koil Street is choc-a-bloc with traffic that pours to and fro, from outside the boulevard area to the heritage quarter. Retail stores, street-side shops and Puducherry’s temple elephant call the bustling street their home. But if we could turn back time to eighty years or so, this was the street where lived, walked and sang, one of the most popular poets of the last century.
Subramania Bharati sought refuge in French-governed Pondicherry to evade possible arrest from the British, after the India magazine he wrote for was prosecuted for sedition and its proprietor held. In his own words from his letter to Ramsay Mac Donald, British Labour leader, Bharathi explains how he came to make Pondicherry his home, which it was for a decade from 1908 to 1918. “I quitted Madras a few days after the “India” prosecution commenced, as many of my friends informed me that keen disappointment was felt by some high placed officials at their inability to find something which would enable them to send me to prison and that the police were trying to fabricate false evidence against me.”
How Bharathi arrived in Pondicherry is still the subject of debate. While it is generally believed that he travelled on an overnight train, Sethupathy, lecturer, Bharathidasan College for Women, here has published recent evidence, which records that Bharathi arrived by boat. The poet landed in Pondicherry with a letter of introduction from Srinivasachariar in Madras to Chitty Kuppusamy, a merchant. Bharati sensed that police persecution would follow whoever helped him, and soon moved to a house on Easwaran Dharamaraja Koil street.
Bharati lost no time in publishing the India magazine from Pondicherry with the help of a local proprietor. Barely a month after its last issue in Madras, the weekly was published in the French town in October. The newspaper was published out of a unit at the Mission Street-Jawaharlal Nehru street intersection, says Mannarmannan, son of poet Bharathidasan, one of Bharathi’s ardent disciples (Mannarmannan, a poet himself, refers to his father’s writings and anecdotes on Bharathi.) The newspaper used to be bundled up in hay and taken outside Villianur to Madras.
Bharathi is said to have lived in at least five different houses on the same street with his wife Chellamma and their two daughters, between 1908 and 1918. His last residence is now a memorial museum and research centre, though it remains locked, being in dire need of restoration. Before that, he lived in the house opposite and famously sang about it when it was struck down in a storm just after the day he moved out.
Various books by scholars confirm the fact that Bharathi was closely watched by the British spies. The British had used many wiles to lure Bharathi outside French soil, says Mannarmannan. “It has been said that Bharathi suffered from poverty and hardship at his time in Pondicherry. But in the 39 years of his life, the decade he spent in Pondicherry was the most productive and perhaps what made him happiest as a kavignan (poet),” affirms Mannarmannan. The poet's best oeuvres like Kannan Pattu, Kuyil Pattu and Panjali Sabatham were created here.
Bharathi was a young man of 27 when he set foot in Pondicherry. He soon drew around him a circle of admirers, including Bharathidasan, all of whom formed a cloak of protection for the poet. The affluent and the influential men of the time like Kalave Sankara Chettiar, Ponnusamy Pillai also supported Bharati. The Mahakavi alluded to some of his acquaintances by the nicknames he gave them — ‘Elikunju Chettiar’, for Arumugam Chettiar who had a squeaky voice and ‘Vilakkennai Chettiar’ who rented his house to Bharathi. Bharathi is believed to have lived on the income he earned from his articles published in various magazines. When ‘Vilakkennai’ approached him for rent, he would appease him with a song and he would leave. Ammakannu, a domestic help took care of Bharathi’s family when he was monitored closely. Bharati was later joined in Pondicherry by Sri Aurobindo and V.V.S. Iyer. Among the trio must have been many a stirring intellectual, literary and spiritual discussion. Incidentally it was in Pondicherry that Bharati translated the Bhagavad Gita to Tamil.