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Vol. XXVII No. 11, September 16-30, 2017

Bharati’s treasury of poetry

Subramania Bharathi copy

Subramania Bharati.

Prema Nandakumar remembering Subramania Bharati on his 96th death anniversary, September 12th

The renaissance in Tamil letters came to full bloom with Subramania Bharati (1882-1921). Though his father desired that Bharati should pursue ‘English education’, the boy’s heart was with Tamil. It was while working as a Tamil pundit in Madurai in the Setupati High School that he met G. Subramania Iyer, the legendary editor of Swadesamitran. He was appointed a sub-editor, which meant translating the speeches of great leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Simplified by his genius, Tamil prose glowed with a new strength. At the same time, the patriot poet was also born. It was the time of the Bande Mataram Movement and Bharati’s fiery political articles roused the Tamil Nation with immediate effect. In fact, later, he became the full-fledged editor of the Nationalist paper, India. With the help of friends, he floated other papers. Swami Vivekananda’s Prabuddha Bharata inspired him to start the magazine, Bala Bharata in 1907, as a mouthpiece of the Nationalist ideals in South India.

The influence of Swami Vivekananda is very clear in what Bharati wrote in the pages of this magazine:

“Let us dream of a service so pure, so vast, so daring that in all our life, from the first moment to the last, there shall not be found a single thread of self!

“In every question that comes before you, make it your rule to assume that India has the essential. She has only to learn how to use it.

“She has unity: must organise and direct it. Has passionate love of country – must avail herself of it. Has abundance of democratic sense and method, must discover how to make use of it.”

– (Bala Bharata, November 1907)

When Bharati went to the Calcutta Session of the Congress in 1906, he made it a point to meet Swami Vivekananda’s disciple, Sister Nivedita. As soon as he met her, he realised that this was certainly an emanation of Mother Shakti. In the course of their conversation, the Sister impressed upon him the need to overcome caste and creedal prejudices and the imperative work an educated Indian had to take upon himself, women’s emancipation. He promised to do so and was as good as his word. Considering her as his guru, he dedicated the first two volumes of his patriotic poems, Swadesa Gitangal, to Sister Nivedita:

“I place this slim volume at the Teacher’s Feet who showed me the vision of Mother Bharat and instilled in me patriotism, even as Krishna revealed to Arjuna His viswarupa and taught him the true nature of the Self.”

Bharati’s fiery and caustic editorials, poems and speeches soon drew the wrathful attention of the British Government. The paper India which he edited was an eyesore for the authorities and an opportunity was sought to arrest him. On the advice of friends, Bharati preferred self-exile in Pondicherry. He was there in 1909; Sri Aurobindo reached the sea-side French enclave in 1910. Another well-known nationalist leader, V.V.S. Aiyar, also preferred self-exile. Bharati was in Pondicherry for a decade. These years were the richest in his career as a writer; he had great friends with whom he could study sublime works like the Veda-s; but he was also to suffer intense poverty during this decade.

In 1918, he decided to return to India and was arrested at the Indo-French border and lodged in Cuddalore Jail for 25 days. He was freed later and spent some time in the village, Kadayam. Bharati was invited by Swadesamitran again, and a new and happy chapter seemed to open for the poet-journalist Unfortunately, he passed away on September 12, 1921.

The Bharati canon is sumptuous and comprises prose and poetry. Subramania Bharati’s poems deal with various subjects: patriotism, devotion, ethics, autobiography. His prose includes journalism, short fiction and an unfinished novel. Bharati’s genius transformed all that he touched into good literature, and often reached the heights of the sublime. Ninety years and more after his passing, Tamil literature still swears by the Bharati canon.

The world outside Tamil Nadu has generally known Bharati only as a poet of freedom and patriotism. Many of the songs were immediately effective when they were sung and continue to evoke national pride in the hearer. These poems were children of the Bande Mataram Movement. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song was translated by Bharati twice; and each translation is literal and poetic at the same time.

Subramania Bharati loved his mother tongue and Tamil Nadu deeply and found no contradiction in praising the Tamil land even as he praised Mother India.

Subramania Bharati’s message of such an integral unity in meaningful diversity remains very relevant even today.

Ganesa was a favourite deity of Bharati as he was a regular visitor at Manakkula Vinayaka temple which is not far from the beach in Pondicherry. His Vinayakar Nan Mani Malai lists out the good that accrues to devotees of Ganapati:

“The inner ear will open to sounds; the inward eye
Will glow; It will blaze forth; manliness will be his gift;
One can issue forth in the directions
And plant the flag of victory; why, one can
Hold the venomous serpent in hand;
One can live for all time, never cowed down
By poison, illness or dire enmity.”

His immersion in the Krishna experience was due to the poetry of the Alvars. Thus, Nammalvar’s decad, ‘Kannan kazhaladi’ inspired him in an identical rhythm:

“O mind, remember
Kannan’s holy feet;
It will give definitely
An indestructible form.
The Lord who sports
A darkling Form, Will give us riches,
Gratification and fame.”

Bharati’s Kannan Pattu (Krishna Songs) has twenty-three lyrics composed in lilting musical modes. The approaches to Krishna chosen by Bharati includes the Lord as a servant. Krishna as a servant? The manner in which Bharati projects Krishna as a domestic servant is amazing. The poet has had troubles a-plenty with servants always asking for higher salaries and giving lame excuses for their absence. And then comes Krishna to him as a servant, introducing himself as of the cowherd clan. And as the days go by with this perfect servant, Krishna has also become Bharati’s friend, counselor, teacher and even god himself! The poems, ‘Kannamma – my child’ and ‘Krishna – my mischievous boy’ are justly famous. It is pure Perialvar, cast in the Bharatian mould.

The Sufi inspiration is clear in Bharati’s songs to Kannamma. Here the poet-devotee is in search of the divine beauty and personifies the same as Kannamma and seeks in Nature without and the imagination within by inditing six songs titled, ‘Kannamma – my Lady Love’:

“Are those flame-bright eyes, Kannamma!
The Sun and the Moon?
Does the dark eye-ball, Kannamma!
Reflect the inky skies?
Are those woven diamonds gleaming
On the raven-like silken robe
The star-clusters above
In the middle of the night?”

Kuyil Pattu is a narrative poem of 750 lines. It is a fable where we have a kuyil (koel), a monkey and a bull. It is Bharati’s dream-vision of the spirit of beauty and is pure romance. We cannot dismiss it as mere fancy, for the poet concludes with a challenge thrown at the reader:

“How be it a fictional tale, O wise old poets,
Could my story yield on closer study
A deep philosophical meaning,
Won’t you explain what it is indeed?”

If there is God’s plenty in Bharati’s poetic canon, his prose writings yield an equally rich treasure. The unfinished novel, Chandrikayin Kathai deals with widow-remarriage. One-Sixth is about the tragedy of untouchability in India. Jana Ratham is an account of the imaginary travels of the author in “the chariot of knowledge”. He goes to Gandharva, Satya and Dharma worlds. Dharmaraja reminds him of Bal Gangadhar Tilak! Soon the author’s Mind grows restless and he is back in this world of human affairs with a thud.

Always tuned to the future, Bharati did not have time for regrets. His philosophical poems underline this aspect very well. We must build for the future generations, not keep raking the past, he said and issued a command:

“Stumble not, fools, into the pit –
The preying, destroying recapitulation
Of things past and done with –
Nor with the agony of vain regrets.
The Past will not return!
Rather grapple to your heart the thought
That you have today achieved
Another birth.”

There have been innumerable books written about his priceless contribution to Tamil literature. The best tribute to Subramania Bharati comes from the legendary scholar-administrator Navaratna Rama Rao:

“So long as men love motherland and goodness, so long will Bharati continue to be read. Even if he lives only as long as the glorious Tamil language, it would not be incorrect to call him immortal.” – (Courtesy: Sri Aurobindo’s Action).

The translations from Subramania Bharati quoted in the article are by Prema Nandakumar.

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