One hundred (and thirty) years of a Tamil firebrand

  • Anand Venkateswaran
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Subramanya Bharathi, a legend unto himself

Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi with his wife Chellamma.
Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi with his wife Chellamma.

Subramanya Bharathi is a phenomenon.

Over the last century, his words and his attitude came to redefine the identity of the Tamil-speaking world.

Not only was he a poet who transformed the genre, he was the first Tamil cartoonist, among the earliest short story writers in the language and an excellent journalist, who wrote for The Hindu and Swadesamitran simultaneously.

Even if one removed poetry from the equation, Bharathi’s contribution to Tamil prose and journalism would by itself define him as a legend. To commemorate his 130th birth anniversary, we spoke with three persons who have, in distinct ways, carried on his legacy. Like all poets after Bharathi, lyricist Vairamuthu has been influenced by his verses, often adopting his persona in person and on paper.

Filmmaker K. Balachander drew deeply from Bharathi’s social consciousness. His films, many of them trendsetters, explored themes of societal change and empowerment of women. For Rajkumar Bharathi, the poet’s great-grandson, the legacy was more of a challenge. He embraced and transcended it by giving ardent devotees of Bharathi something priceless – songs, in tunes the poet had composed.K. Balachander

The history of Tamils can be split into ‘before Bharathi’ and ‘after Bharathi’. Such is the impact of that poet. Bharathi is my superhero. As a boy, I was awestruck by his patriotism, devotion, active social awareness. The effect he had on me percolated into my cinema.

The strength and refreshing pride my women characters portrayed were imbued from his verses. Poverty never mellowed his fire or dampened his ideals. His used his words as weapons against injustices. Bharathi is needed now more than ever. As corruption and avarice run riot, who among us does not wish he were with us?

For a video, go to balachander


A good poet draws inspiration and sustenance from the time or age he lives in. A great poet, a ‘Mahakavi’, transforms the time he lives in. 

After Kamban, Tamil waited for 800 years for a void to be filled. Until Bharathi arrived, Tamil was a tool for entertainment, for mundane worship; it was a jumble of sound. Bharathi wielded it as a weapon against oppression, made it a language for the future, a conduit for development. With it, he transformed devotion into patriotism.

For a video, go to


Rajkumar Bharathi

What is the ideal tribute to the indelible verses of Subramanya Bharathi? It is to understand, assimilate and put them to practice.

Today, there is palpable love for Bharathi, but a chasm still exists between society and his dreams for it. Until that chasm is bridged, there is no next step.

His sense of responsibility, his repeated call for love, for an undivided India, is relevant to this day.

He wielded the strongest pen for the uplift of women. I am lucky to have been born in this lineage.

As a boy, everyone glorified him and so did I. It was only over the last 10 or 15 years that I began to truly understand him.

The grandness of his vision, his impatience, his anxiety — I get that now. Bharathi was ahead of his times. He remains ahead of ours, too.



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