Rajaji's unknown collaborator
As is so much about Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, his song `Kurai Onrum Illai No Regrets Have I' is a paradox. In attempting to place it both within and outside Rajaji's inner being, GOPAL GANDHI believes that the metaphysical composition had a co-author; an individual who worked subliminally in Rajaji's mind ... . A special tribute to Rajaji on the occasion of his death anniversary that falls on December 25.
Rajaji... rarely moved by emotion.
WHEN Chakravarti Rajagopalachari wrote Kurai Onrum Illai, what was on his mind?
The question must arise in most listeners as they hear M.S. Subbulakshmi render that Tamil song in her magical weave of music and prayer. He was known to be, essentially, a cerebral being, an aquiline Sri Vaishnavite who could use his powers of reasoning and articulation to telling effect, often against one's own judgment. Among Mahatma Gandhi's front-ranking associates, he was regarded as one who had brought to the cause an essentially intellectual vigour, Jawaharlal Nehru saying of Rajaji, "His brilliant intellect, selfless character, and penetrating powers of analysis have been a tremendous asset to our cause". Jayaprakash Narayan described him as "a mental phenomenon" and Professor Hiren Mukerjee in a moving article has said "Rajaji came to be known as the brain behind the right-wing constellation around Gandhiji". K.P. Kesava Menon, Chief Editor of Mathrubhumi observed in a birthday assessment, "Sri Rajagopalachari is rarely moved by emotion".
Rajaji's letter to his son-in-law Devadas Gandhi.
But it needed no more than a slight engagement with Rajaji to feel the vibrations of an aquifer within him of pure emotion, of sadness, in fact, of sorrow. His life had been anything but what could be called happy. Death had stalked his contentment. His wife Alarmelamanga died when he was 37, and their youngest child, Lakshmi, three. He was to lose a much-loved son and both his sons-in-law, Varadachari and Devadas Gandhi, the elder one widowing Namagiri at 26 and the younger widowing Lakshmi at 45. At Namagiri's loss, the Mahatma telegrammed Rajaji: "God must be your rock". When a future President, R. Venkataraman met Rajaji to condole with the septuagenarian at Devadas's going, Rajaji told RV it was not a great thing to live a great age, "One has to bear the sorrows of the next generation".
He certainly had regrets, corrosive regrets. And yet, Kurai Onrum Illai.
As with so much about Rajaji, the song is therefore a paradox. It has been composed by a man of religion, born to Vaishnavite orthodoxy but disclaiming every encrustation of religiosity barring the sacred thread; a vegetarian by habit and conviction but fascinated by the culinary details of that sanguinary Scottish repast, haggis; a teetotaller and prohibitionist but an honest admirer of the Punch advertisement: "Don't be vague, ask for Haig"; a Savonarola of serious intent but Sharian in caricaturing others (T.T. Krishnamachari introducing a grandchild to Rajaji: "He is mischievous". Rajaji: "But that runs in the family"); an ardent admirer of Tilak but follower of Gandhi; a "no-changer" and "anti Council-entry" among Congressmen in 1922 but a proponent of support to the British war effort in 1942; a firm believer in free enterprise but never in possession of one extra rupee; a devotee of Rama who could yet say that the killing of Vali by the Prince of Ayodhya was and will remain indefensible. Kurai Onrum Illai is the composition of that complex mind, a mind that had its share of human sorrow but had a talent for sublimating his private sorrows into inner responses of an altogether original quality.
The Raj connection... Lord Lady Mountbatten and Rajaji (second from right) before their visit to Burma.
This article is intended to place that song both within and outside Rajaji's inner being. For I believe the song had a co-author, an individual whose name is lost to history but who worked subliminally in Rajaji's mind, through recollection merged with devotion, to create the song.
The year was 1925. The Congress had rallied its adherents satyagrahis and non-cooperators across the country to boycott the Raj's courts, symbols of its arrogance and power. There was no question of lawyers in the Congress like Rajaji taking up legal cases. But an exception arose. Let Rajaji describe the episode in his own words as written to his future son-in-law Devadas Gandhi:
My dear Devadas
I have been away from my place since 21st and will be there only tomorrow. I am writing this from Salem where I have broken journey for a day. I am returning from Chittoor where I argued a case in court!
(As perhaps you have already read in the papers) you can read a report of this unexpected event in The Hindu of 23 December.
Jawaharlal Nehru with Rajaji (left)... recognising his selfless spirit.
A panchama was convicted by the sub-magistrate of Tirupati because in a fit of devotion and exultation of mind he went inside along with other pilgrims into the famous temple at Tiruchanoor. I read a report of the judgment in the papers with indignation. Later on I was requested to help in the appeal filed by the man and I readily agreed. I went and the gentleman an MLC and Vakil in charge of the case asked me if I would argue the case. I said if I could speak in court as a private gentleman specially requested by the appellant which procedure is open to every accused person in a criminal case I would gladly do it but I could not appear as a vakil filing a vakalat. The court agreed to this course and I fired away. Of course the event is a shock to the Non-Cooperator's conscience. But every rule is observed best by breaking the letter of it when the occasion arises in a supremely compelling way. The case of a perfectly devoted and earnest pariah rushing into the temple to see his God and offer worship and the police catching him and prosecuting him took me out of the mechanical groove of doctrine. He was not a satyagrahi, he was not a reformer, nor a hero. But he was a panchama who came year after year to the temple for the last ten years and was content to break his coconut from outside the gate. This year somehow he felt he was also worthy to go nearer. I suppose the pulse of agitation had unconsciously touched his soul and when a crowd of pilgrims came shouting Govinda! Govinda! The Tirupati pilgrims' war cry, he forgot himself and the law imposed on his unfortunate class. And he went in. Surely, I can't stand aside resting on the creed of Boycott of Courts and see this man convicted for "insulting religion"!
I fear the event might be misunderstood and purposely hooked on by designers and enemies. However I have done it and I have obtained an acquittal too of the man. I felt a bit queer when standing and addressing without turban or coat and with only my khadi chaddar over my head and shoulders as at home and was prepared to be objected to and to retire. But the magistrate was all courtesy and felt keenly interested. So I went on as if I had never stopped practice these seven years.
When the Mahatma learnt of the episode his reaction was as quick as it was clear: "(Rajaji) would have been like a Pharisee if he had sat there still, gloating over the sanctimonious satisfaction of non-cooperating, while the accused could have been discharged by his intervention".
Kurai Onrum Illai telescopes the identities of the panchama and the Sri Vaishnava. If Rajaji had an intellectual difficulty in capturing the metaphysical totality of the Lord and His Consort at Tiruchanoor, he was in the company of a man who had difficulty in accessing the physicality of the deities. For both, the Divinities were behind a tirai imagined but unseen. And both were without regrets at what they had done. One at having ventured into a temple the grooves of law had forbidden him from, the other at having ventured into the court the grooves of protest had forbidden him from. Both had broken the letter of the law in a moment that had appeared to them in a supremely compelling way.
I have attempted a translation of Kurai Onrum Illai with the help of Kalki's grand-daughter Gowri Ramnarayan, knowing full well that this or any other English version can never convey the transporting force of the original. I know that this rendering would seem disastrously inadequate to those who savour Kurai Onrum Illai. But I trust they will see the non-literary, psycho-historical and cultural context of the piece. I invite their attention, particularly, to the use of the word kal by Rajaji in the song, translated as "rock". I also invite attention to Gandhiji's use of the word "rock" in his message to Rajaji on the death of Varadachari. Gandhiji certainly knew the man he was writing to.
As Rajaji lay dying in General Hospital, Madras, in December 1972, all his regrets must have crossed his mind, all his sorrows. But also, all his reconciliations of those emotions with his faith in the "rock". The last words spoken by him from his death bed, when asked how he felt were simple: "I am happy".
No one knows what the last words spoken by his Tiruchanoor client were. But if, wherever he died, the devotee had recalled the pulse of emotion he felt on the mountain doorstep, he too might well have closed his innings with the words "I am happy."
Rajaji's father, Chakravarti Iyengar.
Kurai Onrum Illai is a metaphysical composition which lends itself to more than one interpretation. But it is above all the encapsulation of a Vaishnavite's dualistic faith in a God and Goddess "yon high" who are seen but partially through the twin lenses of knowledge and devotion by the devotee.
Rajaji, with surpassing humility, holds his apprehension of Reality as limited by his own mental confines, but he accepts what he is given and does not claim more. His "co-author" is limited by physical confines and with equally surpassing humility regards his partial imagining as wholly adequate and claims no more. But both are swept on by the "pulse of emotion" to a territory they retreive from beyond the edges of temporal and celestial possibilties. It has been given to Subbulakshmi to trigger the same pulsation, through her spire of musical intelligence, among us, her listeners. Who can match her credentials for doing so?
So, along with MS and Kadayanallur Venkataraman (who has set the composition to music in a triangulated compound of Sivaranjani, Kapi and Sindhu Bhairavi), Rajaji's piece has a fourth, and perhaps most important, collaborator in the nameless devotee of the rock-incarnation of Govinda. There are those who, today, reading Rajaji's 1925 letter will turn up their noses at his use of the words pariah and panchama.
May I urge them to hear MS sing the song next time with that devotee in mind, calling him whatever politically correct name they might choose. They will find new meaning to it then and also discover a new facet in the "brain" behind the right-wing constellation of the Mahatma.
Kurai Onrum Illai
(No Regrets Have I)
A rendering of the Tamil
composition of C. Rajagopalachari
No regrets have I
Lord of the Written Word,
My light, my sight,
My very eyes
Though you stand
Where I behold you not
My light, my very eyes,
Protector of all earthlings
I know you sustain me
Lord of the Venkata Hill so pure
You meet my hunger, my thirst
My hope, my prayer
You keep me from harm,
Lord of the Sparkling Gems,
I need naught else
Father of the Seven Hills,
* * *
You stand do you not?
Veiled by a screen
Only the learned can part
For they are the learned
Which I am not
But no, no regrets have I.
Crowning this hill
You stand as rock
Giver of Boons
Father to these hills
No regrets have I
* * *
In this benighted Age of ours
The worst of all the Four
You have entered
A shaft of granite
Where though I see you not
No regrets have I.
Boulder of strength
With the Ocean,
Heaving on your breast,
Of the purest compassion
My very own, who grants
Anything I ask of her
Can I possibly have regrets?
The two of you, I know,
Stand there for me
No regrets have I my Govinda
None, none whatsoever
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