Why Subramania Bharati, icon of modern Tamil culture, remains little known to the rest of India

Unlike the Bengali bhadralok intellectuals who have done a stellar job of celebrating Rabindranath Tagore and taking him to the larger world, the Tamil middle class failed Subramania Bharati | #FirstCulture

AR Venkatachalapathy May 08, 2018 12:06:49 IST
Why Subramania Bharati, icon of modern Tamil culture, remains little known to the rest of India

In the early 1980s, the playwright and public intellectual Gnani Sankaran plastered the walls of Chennai with a poster. All it had was an up-twirled moustache and a piercing pair of eyes on a plain white background. But even a child could identify it as Subramania Bharati. The poster was a teaser for his newly launched journal, Theemtharikida: an onomatopoeic word suggesting apocalyptic fury, drawn from a poem by Bharati.

Bharati is the icon of modern Tamil culture. Now, nearly a hundred years after his death, the turban, the gaze and the moustache are easily recognised by people across the Tamil world. Looking for a nom de plume? Suffix ‘Bharati’ to your name. Want a name for your new journal? You could do no better than pull out a phrase from one of his poems. A slogan for a cause? A line from one of his poems will do. Even M Karunanidhi, whose sympathies may lie more with the Dravidian movement’s poet laureate, Bharatidasan (a pen name that means ‘the disciple of Bharati’) drew the title, Nenjukku Needhi, for his multi-volume autobiography from Bharati.

How did this come to happen?

When modernity was ushered into India under colonial rule, there were huge social transformations and all Indian languages experienced profound changes. These changes threw up fascinating literary figures in every language. Few of them, however, have contemporary relevance. Subramania Bharati (1882–1921) is exceptional, an abiding influence on modern writing in Tamil.

Why Subramania Bharati icon of modern Tamil culture remains little known to the rest of India

Subramania Bharati is an abiding influence on modern writing in Tamil. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The poet began his career as a journalist. First as sub-editor of Tamil’s then only daily, and later as the editor of a women’s magazine. For his writings as the editor of a nationalist weekly, the India, he had to flee British India. His journals and some of his books were proscribed by a repressive government that tried to crush the rising wave of nationalism. The first to publish political cartoons in the vernacular, Bharati’s journalistic prose was both informed and incisive.

But Bharati was essentially a literary man — a poet, it’s hard not to use the cliché, of inspired genius. Tamil has a long literary history with great poetical riches that could weigh down poetasters. Bharati’s achievement lay in forging an old language steeped in tradition to voice contemporary concerns.

His early poems were written from the swadeshi barricades. Bharati was the earliest to write of land and language, and the pain of their subjugation to an alien power. He employed popular tunes from older songs and filled them with new content for a larger public. The songs dealt with patriotic themes: the glory of the motherland and its current fallen state, colonial exploitation, tributes to nationalist leaders. Bharati was among the first to write rousing poems in Tamil, and these became more and more popular through the decades leading up to independence. More than a century later lines and phrases from these poems have passed into common language, and many of them will live as long as a quest for freedom remains.

Even as he wrote patriotic verse, the grave social inequalities — of caste, class and gender — were very much in the forefront of his mind. ‘Without social reform’, he remarked in one of his early writings, ‘our political reform is a dream, a myth, for social slaves can never really understand political liberty.’ Pudmai pen (the new woman) was his coinage, as are such terms as puratchi (revolution) and poduvudamai (communism). Bharati’s imprint on the Tamil language is palpable.

Of an all-too brief life of less than 39 years, Bharati spent more than 10 in exile in Pondicherry, then under French rule. In the poems written in exile, we find a more reflective poet extending the possibilities of language and confronting the larger questions of life. And for all his complaints about the poetic muse deserting him often, when in its embrace, his verse was unfailingly superb. Bharati was aware of Whitman and the haiku, and experimented with free verse, thus becoming the founding father of New Poetry in Tamil.

Bharati had a wide range. He wrote stories, though they do not conform to the grammar of the short story or the novel. He introduced column writing to Tamil journalism and commented extensively if fitfully on contemporary affairs. Humour was his forte — his prose brims with satire, sarcasm, irony and parody. He was also the forerunner of the autobiographical form in Tamil. In short, Bharati touched nothing that he did not elevate.

Why then is Bharati little known outside Tamil Nadu?

Comparison with Rabindranath Tagore is inevitable. Bharati was born more than 20 years after Tagore and predeceased him by another 20. Even factoring in the Nobel prize, the comparative neglect of Bharati is difficult to explain. It can be argued that the national elite turned a blind eye to the south, uncomfortable as they were with Tamil identity politics. Bharati paid a heavy price for this. And unlike the Bengali bhadralok intellectuals who have done a stellar job of celebrating Tagore and taking him to the larger world, the Tamil middle class failed Bharati. One would be hard put to locate a good introduction to Bharati in English. This unhappy situation is compounded by the fact that Bharati’s poems do not travel well in English.

As Bharati’s death centenary approaches, let us hope that this situation is redressed, and the poet will get his due.

AR Venkatachalapathy is author of Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright (Juggernaut Books)

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