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Friday, December 06, 2019

A Song Called Bharati: Why the Tamil icon is even more relevant now

Nearly 100 years after his death, as a new book explores the nationalisation of his work, a look at the centrality of Tamil poet-public intellectual Subramania Bharati in the making of modern Tamil political culture and why he is relevant now more than ever.

Written by Amrith Lal | Updated: May 13, 2018 12:58:21 pm
Subramania Bharati, Subramania Bharati, chased down by the colonial administration and chastened by poverty, knew his worth, (illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Kaani nilam vendum — Parashakti/ Kaani nilam vendum…
Paattu thirathale— Ivvaiyathai/ Palithidavendum
(A patch of land I want — Parashakti/ A patch of land I need…/ With the power of my songs —
Parashakti/ Help me protect this Earth) — Subramania Bharati

In 1920, the iconic Tamil poet-public intellectual, Subramania Bharati, thought of crowd-funding the publication of his large corpus of writings in 40 volumes with a print run of 10,000 copies. He issued public appeals in English and Tamil to this aim. Bharati, then popular as a poet but living in penury, said his works were “very easy, lucid, clear, luminous, and all but too popular in style and diction and, at the same time, chaste, pure, correct, epic, and time-defying”. “This fact” and “the historic necessity of my works for the uplift of the Tamil land, which, again, is a sheer necessity of the inevitable, imminent, and heaven-ordained Revival of the East”, besides “my high reputation and unrivalled popularity in the Tamil-reading world due to my past publications”, he claimed, “are bound most evidently to make my sales a prodigious success”. His books, the poet was sure, would be “sold as freely and quickly as kerosene or matchboxes”.

Very few writers would be so confident of the worth of one’s creations, their public purpose. Bharati, chased down by the 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, Bharati passed away at his home in Triplicane, Chennai, at the age of 39. Barring a few published poems, manuscripts and a reputation that would only grow in the years to come, he left behind little for his dear family that included wife, Chellamma, and two daughters, Thangammal, 16, and Shakuntala, 12. His radical and visionary tenure as editor in various journals and newspapers forced him into exile and poverty.

Five months after the poet’s death, Chellamma, with the help of her brother, Appadurai Iyer, started Bharati Ashramam and published two volumes of Swadesa Geethangal. By 1931, Chellamma, struggling to keep the family afloat, was forced to sell the copyright of her husband’s writings to his half-brother, C Visvanathan, after her publishing venture accumulated debt. Visvanathan, who had started Bharati Prachuralayam in 1924 to print Bharati’s unpublished manuscripts and scattered writings in journals and newspapers, brought the copyright for Bharati’s works from Chellamma for a sum of Rs 4,000. In 1928, the colonial administration proscribed Bharati’s works, a decision that, ironically, renewed public interest in the poet’s work.

The turning point, however, was the arrival of gramophone records and cinema in the 1930s. Mahatma Gandhi had energised the country with the Non-Cooperation Movement and the Madras Presidency was caught in the swirl of numerous mass movements that mobilised people, not just for freedom from the British but from caste oppression, for better wages, equal opportunities for all sections of the population and so on. Bharati, soaked in the nationalist fervour of Tilak and the Congress extremists and enthused by the spiritual awakening triggered by Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita and Aurobindo, had written extensively on the issues that became central to public debates in the 1930s. A meeting with Nivedita in Calcutta during the Congress session had transformed him into an ardent champion of women’s rights — he called her his gurumani.

Not surprisingly, Bharati’s songs were in with the spirit of the street. Tamil theatre, too, had started to include Bharati’s songs. A businessman, Jeshinglal Mehta, sensed the coming opportunity and purchased the broadcast rights for Bharati from Visvanathan in 1934. However, he didn’t have a medium to exploit the rights he held. That was left to a local business talent, AV Meiyappan. In the 1930s, he had got into the movie business — in 1931, the first Tamil talkie, Kalidas, was released. His first three films flopped badly, but he struck gold with Sabapathy, a comedy he directed in 1941. Five years later, with Independence in the air, Meiyappan decided to make Nam Iruvar and include Bharati’s songs in it. In September 1946, Meiyappan purchased the rights for Bharati’s songs from Mehta for Rs 9,500 — the latter had paid a mere Rs 450 to Visvanathan. Nam Iruvar rode to success on Bharati songs — the legendary Carnatic musician, DK Pattammal, rendered the iconic Aaduvome pallu paduvome, ananda suthandiram adainthuvittom endru — and Meiyappan’s AVM Studios recognised the commercial value of Bharati.

That started another battle for the ownership of Bharati, a story that is told in detail by well-known social historian and Bharati scholar, AR Venkatachalapathy in his just-published monograph, Who Owns That Song?: The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright (Juggernaut).

Subramania Bharti and Chellamma Perfect match: Bharati with his wife Chellamma.

Venkatachalapathy sets this war for copyright involving businessmen, film industry persons, politicians and Bharati admirers against the background of the poet’s own struggle with his life and career, the failure of a public sphere to support a poet who was radical in every aspect and the centrality of Bharati to the making of the modern Tamil political culture.

When AVM invoked the copyright issue to disallow other filmmakers, notably, TK Shanmugam, a playwright associated with the freedom struggle, Periyar’s social justice initiatives and the communist party, from reproducing Bharati, a public debate began over who owns the poet, so far deemed to be of all Tamils. Venkatachalapathy recounts how Shanmugam, who responded to AVM’s legal challenge by turning “Who owns Bharati” into a political issue, posed it in emotional terms in a pamphlet, “Bharatikku viduthalai vendum” (Bharati needs to be liberated). “The nation has become free. But is there no freedom for Mahakavi Bharati?” he asked, while arguing that the Madras government should issue a proclamation that “Bharati’s poems and writings are the property of Tamil Nadu. No individual has any rights over it”.

Shanmugam enlisted a spectrum of influential people and even the late poet’s family to launch a public campaign for the socialisation of Bharati’s writings. A sympathetic state government obliged and left AVM with no choice but to agree to the government’s terms and conditions. In 1949, the deed was accomplished and six year later, the government released the entire right to the public with the only condition that while using the poems, the “public should stick to the authorised version and should not make a variation”. The authorised versions were published in various volumes, beginning with the poems in 1954 and concluding with the essays in 1963. As the poet had predicted, they sold like “kerosene and matchboxes”. Venkatachalapathy says that a definitive edition by Sakthi Karyalayam in 1957 sold 15,000 copies in a month.

Years have passed since the government “freed” Bharati. He is read in newer ways and every reader discovers her own Bharati in course. In fact, Bharati satisfies every seeker — the modernist sees in Bharati a writer who broke with old structures of language, ideas and poetic idioms; the progressives, from the followers of the Dravidian Movement; the ultra-Left see in him a writer who spoke for the oppressed and underprivileged; the religious-bended find solace in a literal reading of his spiritual poems, the nationalist celebrates the poet who spoke out for India’s emancipation and unity. His concepts of a composite nationalism, which weaves pride in mother tongue harmoniously with the idea of a pan-Indian nation, a secularism that is deeply rooted in spirituality while shorn of institutionalised religiosity and welcoming of all faiths, wait to be explored further.

However, the enduring magic of Bharati among Tamil speakers may have a lot to do with the musicality of his verses and his seemingly masculine but inherently romantic personality. Meiyappan, perhaps, was early to spot this when he grabbed the broadcast rights. The popular songs written during the freedom struggle had an anthemic quality. He could easily move from the country’s freedom to social and individual rights and leap to discuss the freedom of the soul. Popular poems like Viduthalai, where he exhorts people to build a casteless society, or Achchamillai, achchammillai, which is a call for man to think and act independently in the face of adversity (uchchi meedhu vaanidindhu veezhugindra podhinum/ achcham illai achcham illai achcham enbadhillaiyae — even when the skies are about set on the head, there shall be no fear), or the lilting melody, Odi vilayadu, pappa (Play around, child), these are easy to memorise and sing. As singer and scholar, TM Krishna, says: “Bharati’s poetry is naturally musical, it is of music and in music.”

This inherent musicality had endowed a rare quality to Bharati’s poetry, and his greatness is that he succeeded in not letting it subdue or overwhelm his intellectual self. Well-known writer Vaasanthi says his concerns were born out of great spiritual thought. “His language is simple, straight and touching. He didn’t sing to impress people. There is a sincerity in his poems that appeals to everyone,” she adds, calling him a gnana yogi.

Venkatachalapathy believes that considering Bharati’s social milieu, he would have been trained in music. Though little is known of whether he learned music, there is evidence to show that he was deeply knowledgeable of music. In fact, on many occasions Bharati himself ascribed the raga appropriate for a poem. Krishna, who like many contemporary Carnatic singers sings Bharati in his concerts, would not, however, consider him a vaggeyakara. “He definitely had an active engagement with Carnatic music — his essay Sangita Vishayam is brilliant — but I wouldn’t call him a composer. In the case of the ragas he suggested for his poems, I would say he was attributing a raga that he felt would suit that poem”.

Subramania Bharti In this together: Subramania Bharti with his wife, Chellamma, daughters Thangammal and Shakuntala, and, friends.

What is interesting is also that Bharati’s verses, which are a part of the Carnatic concert repertoire for decades now, are rarely chosen for raga exposition. Musicians, especially DK Pattammal, made it a habit to sing his popular nationalist songs at the heyday of the freedom movement and musicians like GN Balasubramaniam and his disciple, ML Vasanthakumari, included even songs with a romantic hue. But why is it that all these musicians prefer to sing him as short piece between major raga explorations? Krishna argues that the structure of Bharati’s poetry doesn’t allow itself for abstraction — doesn’t allow itself to be separated into syllabic patterns and sounds, which is necessary for a musician to explore a raga. So, while Bharati is melodic, his poems don’t allow musical abstraction. Yet, Krishna has composed Ethanaikodi inbam, a much-loved Bharati poem, in Dhanyasi ragam and sings it as a central piece.

While the MS-DKP generation, through songs in films, gramophone records and concerts, began the popularisation of Bharati, composers like L Vaidyanathan, MS Viswanathan and Ilayaraja adapted him to the western system preferred in film music. In fact, films like Ezhavathu Manithan and Varumayin Niram Sivappu are woven around the ideas and poems of Bharati. The trope of the idealistic young man, rooted in his language, unwilling to lose his soul for wealth and power, in many Tamil films is drawn from the character of Bharati.

An equally interesting musical interpretation of Bharati was started by music director MB Sreenivasan. MBS, as he is known, composed some of Bharati’s poems in what he calls the Indian choral music tradition (where he weaved Carnatic ragas and other elements with western categories like harmony) to stunning effect. Madras Youth Choir, which MBS set up in 1971, performs and propagates Bharati to this day. D Ramachandran, artistic director for Madras Youth Choir, says MBS was a Bharati bhakt. It started with MBS forming Bharati Isai Kuzhu (Bharati Music Group) and teaching students Bharati songs for a youth programme on AIR. Later, MBS set about 20 Bharati poems, including two prose poems, to music in this format. Ramachandran remembers how MBS set Mazhai (Rain) to music. Bharati had written this prose poem after witnessing a storm in Pondicherry, where he was living in exile. “When you hear that song, you realise every word standing out as a piece of music. Last year, we performed Mazhai in Washington before an invited audience and received a standing ovation,” says Ramachandran. MBS died in 1988, but the Madras Youth Choir, and its sister organisation MBS Youth Choir in Thiruvananthapuram, continues the work.

The musicality apart, Bharati’s deeply spiritual poetry allows a different version of secularism and nationalism and attracts attention. Poet Rudramurthy Cheran says Bharati articulated a non-Hindu centric inclusive nationalism, which had a multi-religious, muliti-lingual vision. “It may sound an oxymoron but his vision for Tamils was a free, equal and just society within the larger context of India. At times, his commitment to broader Indian nationalism seemed to dominate but, on other times, his commitment to an inclusive Tamil nationalism took over. So, we need to know the historical and political context of those moments. However, undoubtedly, he was a committed inclusive nationalist and wrote passionate songs about Allah, Jesus and the Buddha too.”

The deeply spiritual persona of Bharati has attracted many — short poems like Nirpathuve, nadapathuve (composed by Ilayaraja for the biopic, Bharati) and longer poems like Panchali Sapatham are cited as examples of the Vedantin in the poet. Krishna calls him “amazingly secular because he never rejected the spiritual”. That is why when he invokes the goddess and calls for social change, there is absolutely no conflict, he says. Perhaps, tomorrow’s Bharati will be this spiritual, secular Bharati who could see and sing of the Shakti, the soul-spirit, in every being and see Nanda lala (Krishna) in the crow’s wings and sense it in the fire.

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