Why Bharathi is called a 'Mahakavi'?

The works of the fiery poet, a pillar of the freedom struggle, are unknown to non-Tamils

Updated - July 14, 2018 11:43 am IST

Published - July 12, 2018 05:12 pm IST


Recently, scholar and administrator Gopalkrishna Gandhi raised a question in the course of a speech: “Why does Subramania Bharati mean so little to non-Tamils?” This essay is not an answer to that question, as he has dealt with the subject in detail. In the second of the series of monthly lectures on books and literature in Kitabstani , published on May 26, he has elegantly (or vehemently?) put his perspective thus:

“I believe, the answer lies in two ‘facts’ which have nothing to do with Bharathi and everything to do with us as a nation today. India, as the North dominates her political and cultural imagination. Second, that ‘upper’ India is, today, using distortion and co-option to iconise, selectively, those Indian heroes (very few heroines among them) who serve a neo-nationalist agenda. And Bharathi being a south Indian, Tamil to the boot, and totally non-sectarian is not among them.”

Here is an attempt to bring to the fore, some of the issues in the context of Bharati literature. Two books on the poet have surfaced recently and a booklet by renowned Bharathi scholar Seeni Visvanathan has been in circulation among his admirers.

First, the book, Who Owns That Song?: The Battle for Subramania Bharathi’s Copyright? by Prof. A.R. Venkatachalapathy. “With globalization” writes the Professor, “we have entered a new and more stringent intellectual property regime. Fair-use clauses should be strengthened. As long as copyright holders don’t have a stranglehold — as was the case with Visva Bharathi and Tagore until 2001 — there is the case for state intervention. Ironically Tamil Nadu, which was a pioneer in this regard, has in the last two decades reduced this to a farce by nationalising all and sundry.”

Amrith Lal, writing ‘A Song Called Bharathi’ in a Sunday supplement (‘Eye’) of a newspaper in western India, recently, says, “Very few writers would be so confident of the worth of one’s creations, their public purpose. Bharathi, chased down by colonial administration and chastened by poverty, knew his worth, but there were few takers for the poet’s grand plan, which was estimated to cost Rs. 20,000 for production and Rs.10,000 for advertising expenses. A year later, in the wee hours of September 12, 1921 Bharathi passed away at his home in Triplicane, Chennai, at the age of 39. As the poet had predicted, they sold like ‘kerosene and match boxes.’ Sakthi Karyalayam’s edition in 1957 sold 15,000 copies in one month.”

There are several Subramania Bharati admirers, but the devotion and determination of octogenarian scholar Seeni Visvanathan is unparalleled. He has set the works of the poet in chronological order, in twelve volumes, besides authoring various other books such as Mahakavi Bharathi Varalaru , Bharathi Aayvugal-Sila Sikkalkal,Mahakavi Bharathi Noor Peyar Kovai and Kavi Pirantha Kathai . (Alliance Company has brought out 16 volumes of his works recently.).

Seeni Visvanathan says he researched all these years to bring out flawless authentic versions of the poet’s works, dedicating his life to the revival of Bharathi literature. “I have no issues with writers quoting them. I only want an acknowledgement of my painstaking research!” he says.

Describing how Bharathi became popular and, a writer of the masses, nearly a decade after his death Prof. Venkatachalapathy says in Who Owns That Song... “First, very little of Bharathi’s works were published in his lifetime. Even the published works were not available in book form. Secondly, for over ten years of his rather short life, he was exiled in Puducherry and was cut-off from Tamil Nadu. Thirdly, as Bharati himself has mentioned, Tamil publishing was still in its infancy.

“From the 1920s, there was great turbulence in the political climate in the wake of the boycott of the Simon Commission, Civil Disobedience Movement and so on. Mass movements began in the State and Bharathi’s patriotic poems became hugely popular. By this time, the Dravidian Movement, the Tamil movement and the labour movement were also on the rise. Bharathi’s writings addressed most of these issues that these movements were highlighting.”

Bharathi scholar Seeni Visvanathan

Bharathi scholar Seeni Visvanathan

The second book that has been launched recently is by Prof. J.B.P. More ( Subramania Bharati in British and French India , by Palaniappa Bros. Chennai). Prof. More states that French Pondicherry was the most productive place for Bharathi’s literary and revolutionary creations. The author’s assertion is based on works of Bharath scholars like Seeni Visvanathan, Ra. Padmanabhan, P. Thooran and Pe.Su. Mani apart from the books of Chellamma, Thangamma and Sakuntala, besides S. Vijaya Bharathi. According to Prof. More, Kuyil Paattu , Panchali Sabadam and Kannan Paattu which Bharati wrote in Pondicherry, went a long way in making him Mahakavi.

Bharati, of course, was different, far ahead of his times. The title was conferred on him by the Ettayapuram Raja in 1893 when he was hardly 12. Bharati left for Banaras to live with his uncle and aunt, to read English and here his love and feeling for India as a single national entity was born. In Banaras, he learnt not only Sanskrit, but also Hindi, Urdu and Bengali! He knew several languages so much so that he could declare, ‘Yam arinda mozhigalile Thamizh mozhi pol inidavadu engum kanom.’

It is also to be considered whether any other author has triggered so much discussion as Bharathi, after his demise, with regard to nationalisation of his works. Says Prof. Venkatachalapathy: “The nationalization of Bharathi was the result of peculiar circumstances. Bharathi became a posthumous best-seller. His wife and two daughters made a distress sale before its commercial potential was known. But the clinching factor was the exclusive broadcast rights that AVM enforced — legally correct but unpopular — that pressurised the Government to intervene. If the profits had accrued to Bharathi’s family alone, there would have been no case for state intervention.”

What is sad is that not all of Bharathi’s writings have seen the light of the day, according to Prof. Venkatachalapathy. “Many scholars have traced uncollected writings and published them. But many issues of the journals he edited are still missing.”

Has Seeni Visvanathan claimed exclusivity of Bharati literature? “No,” says the scholar and adds that there is no necessity for doing so. In a recently circulated booklet, he has only meant to bring to the notice of Bharati admirers and Tamil literary world about the errors and contradictions others make in their works, despite truths and reliable statements already made available by him.

For instance, it is recorded in a book thus: “In the context of Calcutta Congress held in 1906, including Bharathi a delegation travelled to Calcutta, of which V. Krishnaswami Iyer was one. He took the delegation to Calcutta on 28.12.1906. In the meeting Iyer spoke derogatorily about Tilak. Bharathi could not digest it and left the venue in a huff.”

Calcutta Conference

Seeni Visvanathan clarifies: “The Congress conference was held in Calcutta on December 26, 27 and 28. It is wrong to say that on the concluding day, Bharathi and others were taken as a group. Bharati and V.K. Iyer were poles apart in their political outlook. It is wrong to mention that Bharathi was taken by V.K. Iyer to Calcutta.” It is a different story that later on Krishnaswamy Iyer, moved by the poems of Bharathi, printed and distributed them free!

Even the dates of Bharati’s arrest and release are wrongly mentioned in recently published books, according to Visvanathan. “Bharati was arrested on November 18, 1918 and released on December 24, 1918. It is wrong, therefore, to say that ‘Bharathi left with his family on November 24, 1918 from Pondicherry and was arrested at once and was jailed in Cuddalore. The fact is known to everyone. After spending twenty days in the prison, on December 14, 1918 afternoon, he was released and he left via Cuddalore along with Chellamma and on December 15 (1918) entered Kadayam,” he says.

“My only goal in life has been to worship Bharathi. I continue to do this,” declares Seeni Visvanathan. There may be many Bharathi admirers who would support Seeni Visvanathan, the relentless researcher .

At this juncture, what the Tamil Nadu Government could do is this — instead of paying floral tribute on Bharati’s birthday, it could buy the 16 volumes of the collected works of the poet and distribute them among all the public libraries and the school libraries so that the youth of free India come to know about the courage and conviction the poet exhibited during his short span of life.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of this essay — ‘Why is it that Bharathi, so much of whose poetic genius was about India and her future, means so little to non-Tamils.’ Prof. Venkatachalapathy suggests that his poor luck with translations could be a major issue. If that is the case, Sahitya Akademi could look into it.

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