Nevinson’s report of a 1907 meeting at Marina Beach where Subramania Bharati spoke is probably the first journalistic description of the great revolutionary
On November 23, 1907 on Chennai’s Marina Beach, ‘between the esplanade and the surf’, a huge crowd had gathered around a small platform. A large lamp had been set on the platform to dispel the quickly enveloping monsoon darkness. In the teeming crowd, a lone European stood out. What was a white man doing at an extremist meeting being held at the height of the Swadeshi movement? He was no official or trader or missionary or even a vagrant. He was one of the finest late Victorian war correspondents, Henry Woodd Nevinson (1856–1941) whose work had been commended by writers such as Lawrence of Arabia. His biographer, Anjela V. John (War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century: The Life and Times of Henry W. Nevinson, London, 2006) describes him as the man who ‘brought warfare to British breakfast tables’.
Nevinson had arrived on the shores of Bombay barely a month earlier. Prior to his Indian visit he had covered the Graeco-Turkish War (1897), the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Russian revolution (1905). His reportage would continue through the two World Wars until his death. A self-confessed liberal, he supported women’s suffrage, and voiced Irish grievances.
Following the Partition of Bengal in 1905, large parts of India were on a nationalistic boil. In its wake, this first phase of nationalist mass mobilisation brought in state repression triggering a cycle of sporadic violence. Nevinson’s brief was to “discover the causes of the present discontent and to report, without prejudice, the opinion of leading Indians as well as officials.” Nevinson travelled across India for four months and his reports were carried by Manchester Guardian, Glasgow Herald and Daily Chronicle. He re-edited these pieces into a book: The New Spirit in India that appeared in the autumn of 1908.
A thorough journalist, Nevinson did his homework: according to his biographer he met Dadabhai Naoroji, William Wedderburn, and Henry Cotton, apart from Lord Morley, before he set out from London. Coming at the back of Labour MP Keir Hardie’s visit, Nevinson’s travels and reports alarmed the rulers even though, despite his evident sympathy for Indian nationalism and abhorrence of state repression, Nevinson sided with the gradualism of the moderates.
In Pune, Nevinson met Tilak and Gokhale, and was impressed by both (later he would meet Aurobindo as well, and would describe him in exalted terms). Armed with Gokhale’s introduction to G.A. Natesan, editor of the Indian Review, he arrived in Chennai in the latter part of November 1907. From Chennai he would proceed to Orissa, visit Bengal, Varanasi and Punjab, and be strategically present in Surat to provide one of the most reliable accounts of the Congress split.
At Chennai Nevinson first visited the temples at ‘Mailapur’ and Triplicane. Confirming standard descriptions of Madras as “the benighted province,” he observed that “there was no part of India where the anti-English feeling was less to be expected than in Madras.” He visited a swadeshi cotton factory “among the palms of the north of Madras” run by “a wealthy Hindu” — Nevinson for some strange reason took no names in the two chapters on Chennai — undoubtedly Pitti Theagaraya Chetti who later founded the non-Brahmin Justice Party. Nevinson also spoke at a meeting of the Madras Mahajana Sabha, and was interviewed by The Hindu and the Madras Standard. What took a full chapter of his book was a description of the swadeshi meeting noted at the beginning.
Before the meeting commenced, cries of Vande Mataram rent the air. Despite the charged nature of the meeting — to celebrate the release of Lala Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh after six months of deportation “without notice, charge, or trial” — the crowd was disciplined enough to earn Nevinson’s commendation that “A Trafalgar Square crowd is more demonstrative and unrestrained.”
The meeting itself commenced with the singing of the Tamil version of Vande Mataram — most certainly the translation by Bharati — by a little boy.
“When this national anthem was finished, the Tamil poet of Madras recited a lament he had written for Lajpat Rai at the time of his deportation. It was the common lament of exiles — the fond memory of home, the deep attachment to the land of childhood, the loneliness of life among strangers and unknown tongues — all very quietly and simply told.”
Who is this “Tamil poet of Madras” of Nevinson’s reportage? Undoubtedly Subramania Bharati. And this must surely rank as the first journalistic description of the great poet. Then barely 25, Bharati had cut his political teeth in the Swadeshi movement, and the greatest cultural achievement of the movement in Tamil Nadu was his emergence. Bharati had arrived in Chennai in late 1904 to join the editorial staff of Swadesamitran. Less than two years later, he would quit this Tamil daily to serve as editor of the extremist weekly, India. During these years, until his flight to Pondicherry as political exile in August 1908, Bharati often sang nationalist songs at swadeshi meetings.
The song that Nevinson refers to is Bharati’s “Lajpat Rai Pralapam,” Lajpat Rai’s lament. Consisting of 20 couplets, it speaks movingly in the voice of Lajpat Rai, of his pain at being forced to leave his homeland. According to Nevinson’s report, Bharati’s singing continued. “Then by a sudden change, the poet turned to satire, and described a dialogue between Mr. John Morley and India, on the subject of Swaraj or Home Rule.”
Dialogue between Morley & India
“‘You are disunited,” says Mr. Morley: “what have you to do with Home Rule? You don't speak the same language, you haven't got the same religion; what have you to do with Home Rule? You cannot fight, you are too fond of law, you are the victims of education; what have you to do with Home Rule? You are born slaves, you prostrate yourselves before the Englishman: what have you to do with Home Rule? You are seditious, you are a prairie on fire, you are a barrel of gunpowder, you cry for the moon, you are not fit for a fur coat; what have you to do with Home Rule?’
“To which India makes a firm and dignified reply. She has tasted freedom, she has learnt from England herself what freedom is; even John Morley has been her teacher, and she will not cease to labour for Swaraj. Having drunk the nectar of freedom, can she turn back to the palm-tree ‘toddy’ of a government shop, or cease to labour for Swaraj? She claims the right of other nations, the rights for which England herself has fought; she claims the same freedom of person and of speech, and she will not cease to labour for Swaraj. From north to south her people are becoming united, from east to west the cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ goes up, and slowly the sun of freedom is arising: it may rise slowly, but India will not cease to labour for Swaraj.”
As journalistic reportage, especially by a British journalist with no Tamil, this may be taken as a reasonably accurate paraphrase. Nevinson’s error lies in collapsing two distinct poems. For the first paragraph can be recognised as the poem beginning with the words Thondu seyyum adimai…, and the next, the more famous Veera suthanthiram vendi nindrar…
Even though it is more than evident that the ‘The Tamil poet of Madras’ is Bharati, we have further evidence to prove this. Despite Nevinson’s complacent remark that not “a single soldier or policeman [was] visible,” this meeting was reported by the CID police. The abstract of the relevant intelligence report states that the meeting was held on 23 November 1907 under the auspices of the Swadeshi Vastu Pracharini Sabha to celebrate the release of Lajpat Rai.
If Nevinson reckoned that “between four and five thousand” people attended the meeting, the police put the figure at a more modest one thousand five hundred, “mostly students.” The meeting was chaired by G. Subramania Iyer, the founder of both The Hindu and Swadesamitran. Nevinson described him as “a well-known writer and journalist of Madras” whose effusive praise of Morley’s liberalism only evoked guffaws from the audience. The other names mentioned in the police report include V. Chakkarai Chettiar, S. Duraiswami Iyer, G.A. Natesan and “H.W. Nevinson of Daily Chronicle.” The report also stated that ‘The proceedings began with the singing of national songs by C. Subramania Bharati’.
Did Bharati know of Nevinson’s report? In late 1908, Bharati published a three-part essay in his India introducing Nevinson’s book. Describing him as an English scholar characterised by large-heartedness, education and wisdom, Bharati praised Nevinson’s liberalism and evident support for Indian nationalism. He also provided large chunks from the book in his own distinctive translation. Understandably the passages were those in praise of Tilak and Aurobindo, and avoided any reference to Gokhale. Rather, notwithstanding Nevinson’s endorsement of the constitutional methods of the moderates, Bharati selectively quoted him to ridicule the mendicancy of the moderates. Undoubtedly Bharati had read Nevinson’s book, and would have easily recognised himself. Bharati died largely unsung, and he justifiably aspired for recognition from outside. Why then did he make no note of Nevinson’s admiring report?
Nevinson met Tagore more than once, and appreciated being in the presence of a great poet. Did he ever realise that he had met an equally great poet on the sands of Marina?
(Today is Subramania Bharati’s 130th birth anniversary. A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)