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Vol. XXXI No. 13, October 16-31, 2021

Chitira Bharathi – a visual documentation on Subramania Bharathi

Karthik Bhatt

The office of India at Broadway.

September 12 marked the death centenary of one of the greatest poets of the country, Subramania Bharathi. His fiery writings evoked the nationalistic spirit amongst the masses and greatly inspired them in the cause of independence. Several biographies and commentaries on his works have been published after his lifetime, of which Chitira Bharathi, a visual documentation brought out in 1957 by journalist R.A. Padmanabhan stands out as a unique tribute.

The story behind the making of the book makes for interesting reading. Padmanabhan, who began his career with the Ananda Vikatan magazine says that the seeds were sown when he first came across a photograph of Subramania Bharathi in 1934, which had been given by S.R.Subramaniam of Pondicherry. It had caught the attention of Kalki Krishnamurthy, who had asked him to make multiple copies of it, which was then used by various other magazines. Padmanabhan left Ananda Vikatan soon after and joined the Jaya Bharathi newspaper as the editor of its weekly. It was here that he came across a significant portion of material relating to Bharathi, which truly set him off on a journey to document the poet’s life.

R.A. Padmanabhan.

Working in Jaya Bharathi as assistant editors were two people who had interacted with the poet, Venkata Arya and K. Sadagopan. Venkata Arya had worked with Bharathi in India, the magazine run by the family of Mandyam Srinivasachariar, while Sadagopan was a resident of Triplicane who had moved closely with him. One day, Padmanabhan came across a bunch of papers in office with the name of Venkata Arya marked on it while trying to save documents and files from rain. Venkata Arya had gone on medical leave and hence Padmanabhan had kept them aside to return them when he re-joined duty. This however did not happen as Venkata Arya passed away soon after. Padmanabhan says that to his surprise, on opening the bundle, he found old issues of the India magazine from Pondicherry, from where it was published after ­being shifted from Triplicane. Having read articles by writers like Va.Ra, Akoor Ananthachari and Parali Nellaiappar on Bharathi and interacted with Mandyam Srinivasachariar over these few years, Padmanabhan decided to visit Pondicherry to delve deeper into the life of the poet. That opportunity would present itself in 1938, when he joined Hindustan, the Tamil magazine run by M.S. Kamath of the Sunday Times.

Padmanabhan pitched the idea of a project to collect ­material and photos on the life of Bharathi and bring it out in the form of a special souvenir. ­Kamath, who had great reverence for the poet readily agreed and Padmanabhan set off to Pondicherry armed with his camera and accompanied by the official photographer of the magazine, U.N. Singh. Prior to leaving for Pondicherry, Padmanabhan met Kulavai Kannan, a disciple of Bharathi who lived in Triplicane, from whom he learnt of many of the poet’s friends.

At Pondicherry, Padmanabhan was taken on a tour of various places associated with Bharathi by V. Venugopal Naicker, whose mother Ammakanu had interacted closely with the poet. He was also introduced to many of Bharathi’s friends such as N. Subramania Iyer, Arumugam Chettiar and Raja Bahadur. All these interactions were greatly beneficial and added several pieces of memorabilia to the documentation. For instance, Subramania Iyer gave a copy of Bharathi’s work in English, The Fox with the Golden Tail. The photos and information gathered at Pondicherry were brought out as a Bharathi Malar, which was well received. The success spurred them to bring out a similar publication for the next three years as well, with additional information and photographs adding incremental value to each edition.

Hindustan Bank building, Armenian Street, once the headquarters of Swadesamitran.

Padmanabhan says that the next major point of this journey was an exhibition on the life of Bharathi setup with the memorabilia gathered, which was organised by the Bharathiar Sangam at the Hindi Prachar Sabha in September 1953. The exhibition was a grand success and opened up further sources to collect ­information and documentation. Repeat exhibitions were held in December that year at the Congress Exhibition in Madras and at the Annamalai Nagar conference of the All-India Writers Association the following year. The USIS Library hosted the exhibition in September 1954 on the occasion of Bharathi’s death anniversary. It was then that the idea of a book that would be a ­visual documentation of the poet’s life took shape.

Over the next three years, Padmanabhan travelled to various places associated with Bharathi across South India such as Ettayapuram, Kadayam and Madurai and met several people who had interacted to collect more memorabilia. The visits were greatly beneficial as Padmanabhan says that he was able to gather twice as much photographs and material than what had been exhibited. Memorabilia in the form of handwritten notes of the poet, works thought to be lost and hitherto unknown ones were all gathered from various sources.

The first edition of the book, published by Amudha Nilayam was released on the occasion of Subramania Bharathi’s 76th birthday as per the Hindu calendar, November 24, 1957. ­Mandyam Srinivasachariar wrote the foreword to the book, recalling his close association with the poet.

The book comprised 183 photos divided into various segments of Bharathi’s life. Padmanabhan says that in order to make it a documentation that was as authentic as possible, a deliberate decision was taken to include only original photos and avoid any representative images and also to use as many pictures as possible from the poet’s time.

The book is a veritable treasure trove, full of wonderful images such as Bharathi’s first ever published work, Thanimai Irakkam published in 1904 in Vivekabhanu magazine, the old offices of Swadesamitran on Armenian street and of India on Broadway where he worked, a pamphlet published by him titled Engal Congress Yathirai on the happenings of the Surat Session in 1907 and the several friends who helped him in Pondicherry.

R.A. Padmanabhan lived to the grand old age of 96 and passed away in 2014. His seminal work lives on in the form of a recent edition of Chitira Bharathi being brought out by Kalachuvadu publications in 2006.

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