Journalist and historian R.A. Padmanabhan, who made the single most important contribution to studies on nationalist poet Subramania Bharathiar, died here on Monday. He was 96 and is survived by his wife, three sons, including P. Oppili of The Hindu, and three daughters.

Today, there are only five original photographs of Bharathi available - two of them were discovered by Padmanabhan, who started his career with the Tamil magazine ‘Ananda Vikatan’ at the age of 16. Besides working as the Editor of the Dinamani Kathir, he worked at The Hindu, All India Radio and at the American Centre, Chennai.

“Fortunately, he started his work on Bharathi at a crucial time when many of the late poet’s contemporaries were still alive. He collected their memoirs about Bharathi and published them. Many of Bharathi’s works, letters, manuscripts and copies of India magazine survive only because of Padmanabhan,” said historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy.

Padmanabhan’s ‘Chithira Bharathi,’ a compilation of photographs of Bharathi and his contemporaries is a major work. It was first published in 1957. The second edition came in 1982 and the third edition in 2006. (Kalachuvadu Pathippagam).

While working for the Hindustan, another weekly, Padmanabhan published two special issues on the occasion of Bharathiar’s birth anniversary and it was these issues that first carried the five extant pictures of the national poet. “Works like ‘Chandrikaiyin Kathai’ and ‘Oolai Thooku’ would have disappeared forever but for the efforts of Padmanabhan. He kept the memories of Bharathiar’s alive by organising exhibitions on him,” said Prof Venkatachalapathy.

A writer well-versed in Tamil and English, Padmanabhan penned biographies of many freedom fighters, including V.O.C, VVS Iyer, Neelakanda Brahmachari and Subramania Siva. He also wrote on the early history of Tamil journalism.