Subramania Bharati: One Hundred Years of Revolution

The legendary poet was a writer who embodied a vision for India, and for the world, that is totally unique and unbelievably contemporary.

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C. Subramania Bharati, known as Mahakavi Bharati to Tamil-speakers for his outstanding contributions to Tamil literature, died exactly 100 years ago, on September 11, 1921. A passionate freedom fighter, social revolutionary, mystic, and visionary who was active during the late period of British rule, he spent much of his all too brief life exiled from British India, in neighbouring Pondicherry. When he died suddenly, in 1921, he was just 38 years old. He had had little opportunity to provide for his legacy, literary or otherwise.

What happened in the following decades was remarkable. Bharati’s wife, Chellamma, took it into her own hands to publish Bharati’s works, intending to “bequeath them to the public as a gift” upon her death. As a woman and a widow in early 20th century South India, she struggled to move this project forward. It is a testament to her perseverance that she managed to publish some initial volumes in spite of the formidable obstacles arrayed against her, and that she also managed to write Bharati’s first biography – Bharatiyar Charithiram, dictated to her elder daughter Thangammal, who acted as her scribe.

However, under financial pressure, Chellamma finally had to abandon further publication. The endeavour of Bharati publication was taken over from her by the male relatives in Bharati’s family, but the works were eventually sold by them to the government of Madras, for a modest sum, before the project could be completed. The government subsequently made its own attempts at publishing his works, but it, too, had to abandon these efforts partway. Instead, an unprecedented step was taken. The works were given to the public – as Chellamma herself had ultimately intended to do.

A rush of publication followed, some of it quite haphazard, which helped to spread word of the poet’s genius and promoted his fame. In the early decades of independence, Bharati’s work quickly and correctly came to be seen as essential to Indian nation-building. Broad dissemination of his writing was achieved, at least in South India, though at a price. The publication of Bharati’s works proved to be unexpectedly problematic in many respects, with issues such as false attribution and the preservation of the integrity of his words arising and persisting. No definitive edition of his complete works was brought into circulation.

At the same time, the poet’s life story also underwent a process of myth-making. “Life becomes a lie, a legend, a dream – and softly passes away.” Celebrated lines of Tamil poetry, written by Pattinathu Pillai and quoted by Bharati at the head of his own (incomplete) autobiography, which he entitled Dream. Perhaps naturally and inevitably, the growing legend of Bharati’s life and work sometimes diverged from the truth. In the aftermath of colonialism, resources and training were in scarce supply in the newly independent country; moreover, the British had made a concerted and deliberate effort to suppress the words, works, and stories of nationalists like Bharati. The truth could be maddeningly inaccessible. Indeed, Chellamma Bharati specifically wrote in her biography of her husband that she wanted the public to know “the truth” about him, and that this was her own, powerful motivation to write.

Subramania Bharati and his wife Chellamma. Photo: By Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

As time passed, his fame experienced some ebbs and flows with the political currents of the times. Yet the overall trajectory was clear. Bharati’s work remained in circulation. His readership continued to grow. The Tamil public knew him as their beloved local poet; but his fame had ignited and spread much further afield, propagating like wildfire across India in the light of Bharati’s passionate commitment to the national movement and his charismatic personality. His image became iconic in other parts of the country, as well. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted from his poetry on Independence Day, galvanising public interest in the poet. But this was far from the first attempt to invoke Bharati on the national political stage in India. In recent years, Sonia Gandhi’s face has appeared in Bharati’s characteristic garb, plastered on Chennai walls; and countless groups, organisations, companies, parties, constituencies, and individuals have claimed Bharati as one of their own.

All of these considerations lead to the fascinating and important question of what it means when a writer’s work survives for 100 years.

First and foremost, it is worth noting that it is actually quite rare for a writer’s work to survive for this length of time. Few works continue to be in demand even 30 years after their publication. Yet, in Bharati’s case, interest in his work has never been higher than it is now, at the hundred-year mark – and there is every reason to expect that it will continue to grow in the decades and, indeed, centuries ahead.

At the same time, the relationship between his writing and the ubiquity of Bharati’s image throughout India – the extraordinary and apparently unabating growth of his fame – is complex. Bharati’s primary language of communication was Tamil; and the focus of publication efforts has always been firmly on his Tamil works, rather than work that he wrote in other languages including English. Given the seminal importance of his Tamil contributions, this is entirely understandable. But the national languages of India present undeniable challenges even to an eager public. The limited resources available for language learning and education, particularly in view of India’s unique linguistic diversity, have always meant that access to Bharati’s own words in the Tamil language is not a given. Rather, many of those across India who are interested in Bharati are compelled to rely upon secondary sources to learn about the poet, his life and his ideas. Quality translation of his work, a secondary but potentially important source of authenticity, remains an elusive goal – poor translations abound! – and we can only hope that the coming decades will bring long-overdue progress in this area.

Bharathi’s home also known as Bharathi Museum, on No. 20, Eswaran Dharamaraja Koil Street. Photo: Aravindaraja/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

For, 100 years after the poet’s time, nothing could be more important than reading the poet’s own, original writings. Here is a writer who embodies a vision for India, and for the world, that is totally unique and unbelievably contemporary. Reading him leads to the growing conviction that his writings are a national treasure of India, and something even greater: gems of world literature, and an indelible part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage worldwide.

The writings destroy all ambiguity. Every artist reveals himself or herself more perfectly in his or her work than in any photograph. In no artist’s case is this statement more accurate than in Bharati’s. His motto was “Arivelu thellivu” – clarity of mind – and all of his writing reveals a marvellous clarity of thought which served to illuminate his omnivorous intellectual life. Was there no subject that failed to interest him – no complex social, political, or philosophical issue with which he would not engage, applying his formidable intellect to decipher its logic, to understand its morality, to determine its justice or beauty?

Bharati was a genius. In our time, this word is used in so many trite contexts. Yet Bharati’s image remains a reminder of the amazing possibilities of human genius, present in every country, culture, and civilization in the world. He offers a startling glimpse into what human genius can achieve, as bracing as a fresh breath of sea air, and affirms resoundingly that he belongs to us: the enjoyment of genius is part of humanity’s birthright. This awareness is surely what spurs Bharati and others like him to such heights of achievement, what drives their sacrifices.

Bharati’s personality, as revealed in his writings, is an astonishing one. Here is a man whose literary output over such a short life, much of it spent as a political “fugitive,” was impossibly substantial. He worked as a journalist and wrote countless articles, in multiple languages, on Indian and world events. He wrote poems – again, in multiple tongues – on major events and major personalities across India and around the world, and on important philosophical and literary ideas drawn from Indian traditions. He managed to conceptualise and write epic poetry, retelling an ancient story from the Mahabharata from a feminist perspective in his Panchali Sabadham – adding to the lustre of Tamil as a fabled “language of epics,” with key texts dating back more than two thousand years. He created innovations like his free verse, akin to a modern “Veda” in the Tamil language.

His writings reveal a visionary poet deeply preoccupied with the realisation of a just and joyful human society. He rejected British colonialism as an affront to human dignity; but he was equally critical of the oppressive conventions of his own society. No writer has written more strongly against caste inequality than Bharati – and few writers have been as courageous as him in offering a remedy. His uncanny ability to think through to the logical end of the propositions that he confronted was at the heart of his proposals: inter-dining and inter-marrying are the only true solutions to caste inequality, he wrote, with any lesser approaches being purely “anaesthetic.” Similarly, Bharati’s commitment to women’s freedom was without equal; more than equality, he wrote, women, over countless generations, had proven their integral role in their preservation and the propagation, not only of human population, but also, of culture.

Accordingly, women should “write the laws”; they should be the leaders of society. Above all, women should be free of men’s control over any aspect of their lives, including the emphasis on feminine “chastity.” “Now every intelligent human being will admit,” he writes, “that chastity is one of the highest social virtues; but it is not everything in life. Indeed,” he continues, in one of his most remarkable observations, “no single virtue can be made to do duty for the infinite realisations of a liberated human existence.” He concludes, “But it is sheer ignorance to suppose that freedom will lead women to disregard the virtue of chastity.”

“A liberated human existence”: this was what Bharati was fighting for, what he wanted for himself and for every Indian at the time of British dominion over the Indian subcontinent – and for every human being ever after. Because of his clarity of thought and poetic vision, he came to the understanding that freedom and equality go hand in hand. He was absolutely against oppression of any kind, whether at the individual, community, national, or international level, and championed a world where individuals of all backgrounds would enjoy equality with all others. Neither gender, caste, religion, language, race, nor any other human characteristic, should be cause for discrimination. Bharati simply wouldn’t stand for it.

An image of Subramania Bharati. Photo: By Balogic/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Bharati, it wasn’t just a matter of tolerance: he loved human diversity. He looked upon India as uniquely blessed because of her extraordinary cultural diversity, which, he believed, was the very essence of Indian nationhood in all its beauty and originality. His perspective was a result of his reading in multiple languages, both Indian and European, his travels across the country to participate in key events of the national movement, his mental “travels” as a journalist, and his spiritual journeys as an Indian visionary in the renowned, eclectic, and multi-religious tradition of Indian mysticism. His writing makes it clear, repeatedly and emphatically, that diversity of outlook, and the ethos of cultural harmony that took root in India’s soil over millennia, is India’s unique achievement, and her gift to the world. “Ellaram ennattu makkal,” he wrote: “Everyone all the people of India – are my countryfolk!”

In 100 years, has India lived up to his vision? Has the world? It is clear that Bharati’s writing today is more relevant than it has ever been. For, now, it is even more than a struggle for independence: it is a matter of survival.

On the 100th anniversary of his joining the immortals, let us read Bharati! No person, no nation, ever had a truer guide.

Mira T. Sundara Rajan is the editor of The Coming Age, a collection of Bharati’s original writings in the English language, published by Penguin Modern Classics. A Canadian citizen by birth, she is the poet’s great-granddaughter.