Subramania Bharati has been an obsession for A R Venkatachalapathy, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, since his school days. A bilingual social historian, who writes in Tamil and English (The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu and In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History), Venkatachalapathy has done pioneering research on Bharati. Among his publications on Bharati are Bharatiyin ‘Vijaya’ Katturaigal (Bharati’s essays from Vijaya), Bharati Karuvoolam: Hindu Nalithalil Bharatiyin Eluthukal (Uncollected writings of Subramania Bharati in the Hindu) and Bharatiyin India Karuthuppadangal, 1906-10 (Bharati’s India Cartoons, 1906-10), Madras, and V.O.C.yum Bharatiyum (V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Bharati).
Who Owns That Song?: The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright is a story of the events that led to the nationalisation of the great’s poet’s work. Here he explains the enduring magic of Bharati and what it means for the Tamil public:
When did you become interested in Subramania Bharati?
1981–82 was Bharati’s birth centenary year. I was a Class 10 student in Chennai. We were all excited about it. There were a lot of cultural events associated with Bharati across the state. I used to attend talks on Bharati. That was how I got introduced to Bharati. Around this time, I also got interested in V O Chidambaram Pillai. I started looking for material to learn more about him and discovered that there was no authentic biography on VOC. I started looking for original archival material. As Bharati, was a close associate of VOC in the freedom struggle, I went looking for the journals that Bharati edited. Since then, Bharati continues to be a major inspiration.
Bharati, we know, was supremely confident of his abilities as a writing. However, he could not earn a living as a writer. It is almost a decade after his death that Bharati becomes popular, a writer of the masses. What explains the delay?
Firstly, very little of Bharati’s works were published in his lifetime. Even the published works were not available in book form. Two, for over 10 years of a rather short life, he was exiled in Puducherry to escape the British police and he was cut-off from Tamil Nadu. Third, as Bharati himself has mentioned, Tamil publishing was still in its infancy.
From the 1920s, the freedom movement picks steam. There was great turbulence in the political climate in the wake of the boycott of the Simon Commission, Civil Disobedience Movement and so on. Mass movements began in the state and Bharati’s patriotic poems became hugely popular. By this time, the Dravidian Movement, the Tamil movement and the labour movement were also on the rise. Bharati’s writings addressed most of the issues that these movements were highlighting.
Another aspect was the emergence of literary modernism in Tamil literature in the 1930s. Bharati’s unpublished writings were being collected and published during this time. Writers associated with the modernist movement – the Manikkodi group, especially Pudumaippithan – were inspired by Bharati. For instance, the prose poems he had written but did not publish in his lifetime attracted the modernist writers, who had started to find the old poetic forms that insisted on prosody etc. tedious. Even Periyar, who was dismissive of Bharati from the late 1920s, endorsed him in the mid-1920s. For a year, Kudi Arasu, Periyar’s weekly carried Bharati’s verse on its masthead.
The arrival of new media such as gramophone and the talkie gave a new fillip to his songs. In 1934, at the time of the music boom, Jeshinglal K Mehta, a Marwari businessman, acquired the broadcast rights. He, however, was not successful in exploiting the potential of Bharati. But people were already singing Bharati’s songs in the streets and on the stage. It is only after A V Meiyappan entered the scene that the commercial value of Bharati’s verses was discovered. The runaway success of Naam Iruvar, an AVM production, which had Bharati’s songs, confirmed the popularity of the poet among the masses.
We know that Bharati wrote copiously. Has all of his writings been traced and published?
As I said, in his lifetime much of Bharati’s writings were either unpublished or uncollected in book form. It was only after his death they were systematically published by his half-brother, C Visvanathan. Since then many Bharati scholars have traced uncollected writings and published them: P Thooran, R A Padmanabhan and Seeni Viswanathan. Y Manikandan and I have also found new materials. But many issues of the journals he edited are still missing. For instance, issues of about one year of India remain to been traced, which means some of his political writings at the peak of the Swadeshi movement are lost. Similarly, the Tamil daily Vijaya, for about eight or nine months are lost. I traced 20 issues in the National Library of France and published them. Bharati was the pioneer of political cartoons in the Indian vernacular press, and I published those cartoons as a volume in 1994.
After so many years, Bharati continues to be popular. What explains the enduring love of the people for Bharati?
When you are young, Bharati fires your imagination. His language, suffused with idealism, remains inspiring for anyone who is unhappy with the status quo. And that Bharati stays with you for life.
Looking back, how significant was the move to nationalise Bharati’s writings? Does it make a case for similar action with other such icons in other languages?
The nationalisation of Bharati was the result of peculiar circumstances. Firstly, Bharati became a posthumous bestseller at a time when the literary market was extremely narrow. Secondly, his wife and two daughters made a distress sale before its commercial potential was known. But the clinching factor was the exclusive broadcast rights that the movie mogul A V Meiyappan enforced — legally correct but unpopular — that pressurised the government to intervene. If the profits had accrued to Bharati’s family alone there would have been no case for state intervention. That others were profiting out of Bharati when his own family was in the doldrums struck an emotive chord among the common people.
With globalisation we have entered a new and more stringent intellectual property regime. Fair use clauses should be strengthened. As long as copyright holders don’t have a stranglehold — as was the case with Visva-Bharati and Tagore until 2001 — there is no case for state intervention. Ironically, Tamil Nadu which was a pioneer in this regard, has in the last two decades reduced this to a farce by nationalising all and sundry.
Was it fair to leave out his descendants with a one-time settlement since there is commercial value in his writings, which private parties, publishers, broadcasters and the cinema industry, seem to be benefitting from?
In the circumstances, the government did a fair job of compensating Bharati’s wife and daughters though it was not legally bound to do so. Credit should go to T S Avinashilingam, the education minister for this. The loser was Visvanathan, Bharati’s half-brother. Caught in the crossfire between A V Meiyappan’s intransigence and public opinion, he was short-changed. The biggest gainer was A V Meiyappan, who converted an adverse situation into an opportunity by gifting his broadcast rights.