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Vol. XXX No. No. 15, December 1-15, 2020

The Bharati debate

by K.R.A. Narasiah

Understanding Bharati – differing perceptions

There were two ideological groups in Tamil writing during the 1930s, vertically divided in their perceptions of Literature, Culture and Fine Arts. Though they had mutual friendship, they were quite bitter in expressing their concerns in writing.

The avant garde Manikkodi group was interested in modern writing in simple readable Tamil while the Ananda Vikatan group was more into popular and escapist forms of writing. Kalki was dominating the latter group as his storytelling capacity and usage of Tamil language was very well received by the common Tamil reader.

At that point of time he was emerging as the most popular writer and was also responsible for increasing the reader base of Ananda Vikatan manyfold. The Swadesamitran, a popular and liberal daily then provided a common platform for the groups to publicly discuss the issues especially when their differences peaked. Manikkodi swore by Subramania Bharati while Kalki Krishnamurthy held his own opinions about the poet.

Unfortunately, Bharati suffered from penury throughout his life, though he always was very large at heart. His most productive years, at Pondicherry, were also spent under testing conditions. Later when he returned to the then Madras, he continued in the same state but unlike Thomas Gray’s writing “Chill penury repressed their noble rage and froze the genial current of their soul” the unquenched fire in Bharati was always alive and lit many others’ imagination as well. When he passed away on September 11, 1921, S. Satyamurti wrote, “Had he been born in England he would have been the poet laureate and been adored by his race.

Had he been born in any other free country, he would have risen to such heights of eminence that he would have lived longer and enriched his language and race more than he was able to do here. Had he been born even in Bengal, he would have been a Rabindranath Tagore.

Those who know his poems will know I am indulging in no exaggeration. But born in India and in Tamil India, Subramania Bharati had to spend the best part of an all too short life in exile from those who were near and dear to him. No wonder that he pined and suffered and has gone to a premature grave. So long, however, as the Tamil language lives, and there is a spark of patriotism in Tamil India, Subramania Bharati’s songs will live.”

Very few attended Bharati’s funeral that was financially (a mere Rs. 50/-) supported by the trusted family friend, Duraiswamy Iyer. At the brief funeral function, Chakkarai Chettiar, Krishnswamy Sharma and Ramachandra Aiyar paid tributes in Tamil while Surendranath Arya spoke in Telugu. The pyre was lit by Harihara Sharma, a distant relative, and as the mortal remains were consumed, the fire he lit in the minds of the people continued to glow.

It was the Manikkodi group that had been propagating Bharati and his writings and nearly a decade and half later in 1935, a public debate about him took place where the dramatis personae were, Va. Raa, Kalki R. Krishnamurthy, Chitti Sundararajan and Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan.

Va. Ramaswami Aiyangar, (Va. Raa), was a close associate and a great admirer of Bharati and was with him in the then Pondicherry and was the poet’s first biographer. When Va. Raa., wrote his novel Sundari in simple Tamil, it became a pathbreaker since he highlighted the ordeals of a Hindu widow. It also revealed the idealist and social reformer in him. After editing Swatantram, a weekly from Tanjore, he joined Dr. P. Varadarajulu Naidu to run the Tamil journal Thamizh Nadu.

After being with Manikkodi for a while, he joined Veera Kesari, a daily from Colombo, in October 1934 as desired by V. O. Chidambaram Pillai. A literary tremor was caused when in an article titled Three days with Va. Raa, N. Ramarathnam, in the Manikkodi, (August, 1934), reported what Va. Raa seems to have stated during one of his speeches: “I have read the great poets of English, Shelly and Shakespeare, and India’s Nobel Laureate Tagore, but I can say that all the writings of them put together will not equal a line of what Bharati had written.” Quoting Va. Raa’s views P. Sri. Acharya, a respected writer, writing under the name of Nellai Nesan, disputed them in Dinamani Bharati Malar 1935, and declared that Bharati was a good but not great poet. N. Pichamurthi and Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan contesting this statement wrote in Dinamani asking as to what was the yardstick to say someone was a great poet.

On November 3, 1935, in its Letters to the Editor column, Ananda Vikatan edited by Kalki Krishnamurthy, carried a letter supposedly written by “Student of Literature” (later it was revealed that it was Kalki himself!) in which a question was raised as to whether what was said by someone in Karaikudi (the name of Va. Raa was omitted) was correct, as the correspondent felt it was not. The editor (again Kalki himself) responded to the letter in the same issue and column thus: “The name of the person was also given. I have omitted the name purposely, as I think he could not have said so.” Continuing, he wrote “If someone had said so, it should be understood that this person does not have any idea about either literature or poetry. It is possible to conclude that he is an illiterate (Nirakshara kukshi). It is doubtful if he has read Shelly, Tagore and Shakespeare and if he has, probably he has not understood them. It is also doubtful, if he has understood even Bharati properly.”

Va. Raa was known for his depth of knowledge in poetry both in English and Tamil (he had picked up Bengali also while in Pondicherry). When in 1930 he served a prison term, he wrote a 20-page article between October 6 and 11, titled What is Poetry? mentioning his name with a suffix – V. Ramaswami Ayyangar – convict number 1557, and dedicated it to the friendly and helpful Jail Superintendent David Abernathy Greenwood, who helped Va. Raa with all the books that he needed. This was a fact that was known to all and especially to Kalki. So, it was rather painful for Va Raa to see Kalki calling him an illiterate and questioning if he had read at all any poetry of English authors.

As a reply to Kalki’s note, Va. Raa followed up with a detailed essay titled Bharati and literary review in the Swadesamithran on 30-11-1935 explaining why he had said so, mentioning in the passing Leo Tolstoy in a different context. Kalki replied in the same journal in an article titled Bharati and literary criticism on 7-12-1935, not only opposing Va. Raa’s views but also adding that if Tolstoy had been shown the poem Vallippaattu of Bharati, he would have suggested that all works of Bharati should be burnt. Kalki thought Bharati’s Vallippattu was highly erotic. He added that Va. Raa himself had appreciated Prometheus Unbound by P.B. Shelly. Va. Raa in his rejoinder said, if at all Bharati’s books had to be burnt let the fire from heaven do it (suggesting from the contents of Shelly’s poem in which fire is brought from heaven) and not because of him!
In the meanwhile Va. Raa wrote from Colombo to Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan (original available in 4 pages) lamenting that no one seems to have objected to Kalki’s statement that Bharati was a good but not great poet. It was then that Chitti and Ku. Pa Ra, wrote long articles questioning Kalki’s statement and the contents were later published under the title Kannan en kavi by Sangu Ganesan in 1937. In spite of differences of opinion, Kalki, Va. Raa and Chitti respected each other well and when Va. Ra passed away on August 23,

1951, Kalki was present at the cremation and paid rich tributes to Va. Raa.

Kalki in the 1940s became a great admirer of Bharati and took the initiative of building the Manimandapam at Ettayapuram in October 1947 and asked Rajaji, then Governor of West Bengal, to declare it open. Again, it was Chitti, as a member of the AIR team, as desired by G.T. Sastri then the AIR Trichy Station Director, who covered the function from Ettayapuram. Chitti did not want to attend as there was no love lost between him and Kalki. Besides Chitti was also hurt as not only Va. Raa but also the living family members of Bharati were not even invited for the function. But as an official he had to go along with Sastri. Knowing that Chitti would not like to be a guest of Kalki group, Sastri arranged for Chitti’s accommodation in Kovilpatti.

Chitti travelled to the spot of the function where the AIR engineers were recording M.S. Subbulakshmi followed by Dandapanai Desigar in a sound proof room.

It was a little late at night and the Mandapam opening function was the next morning. Since a sizable crowd was present and as it started raining Kalki was worried. He asked a police officer who was already tired and worried if he could ask the public to disperse. This question irritated the officer who shot back, “What do you want me to do? You only wrote in all papers for the people to attend and now you are asking me to do a difficult job. Later you are the people who would write saying that the police acted mercilessly…” At his wits end, Kalki came into the adjacent recording room with the senior police officer in tow and asked Chitti if he could reason with the man. Chitti saw the uncomfortable position Kalki was in and took command of the situation and calmed the official down. Chitti later said “I was feeling sorry for Kalki as it happened in front of someone who was not on great terms with him.”

People of those days were definitely made of better material and had their own beliefs and stood by them come what may!

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