Subramania Bharati, also known as Bharathiyar is a Tamil poet, writer, and freedom fighter amongst many things. A national icon, he is revered especially by those who have a love for literature and poetry. Still, his influence spreads far beyond his work, as he is also one of the most prominent nationalists in the South. Unfortunately, today there does not exist a large body of work concerning his life or his work relative to other freedom fighters, with some arguing that those in power are appropriating his image in recent times. This article aims to establish an overview of both his life and his achievements. Further, it looks into the themes present in his writing and the legacy he left behind.
Subramania Bharati: Life and Career
Chinnaswami Subramania Bharati was born in Ettayapuram, Tirunelveli district on December 11, 1822. His father, Chinnaswamy Iyer was an influential figure, a Tamil scholar employed under the Maharajah. When Bharathiyar was five years old his mother, Lakshmi Ammal, passed away – an event that very much shaped his dedication to the welfare of women throughout his life. He was a prodigy who started learning and creating from a young age, started writing poetry at the age of seven and would hold discussions about literature with elderly scholars. At the age of 11, he was conferred the title “Bharati” at the Ettayapuram Maharajah’s court. For a lot of his childhood he was homeschooled, and later attended the Hindu College High School in Tirunelveli.
At the tender age of 14, he was married to Chellamma, who was only seven years old. In his writing, Bharathiyar stated that he was against this child marriage but could not do anything to stop it. A year later, his father died, leaving him an orphan. From 1902 to 1904, Bharathiyar worked for the Maharajah. His tasks included reading newspapers, magazines, poetry and being the Maharajah’s companion. However, after a quarrel, he left his job citing his displeasure with the authoritative environment of the Samastana.
In 1904 he joined Swadesamitran, a Tamil daily in Chennai as its sub-editor and remained associated with the newspaper till his death. In 1906 he also joined Chakravartini, a Tamil monthly that focused on women’s issues. A year later, he quit both positions to join the Tamil weekly India as an unnamed editor, as they feared his writing was too radical and he might be targeted by the British if his name was attached. He continued to hold positions in various newspapers and magazines and in the meantime also attended various Congress meetings.
In 1908, after the imprisonment of the legal editor of India, Bharathiyar fled British India and travelled to Pondicherry to avoid meeting the same fate. He spent ten years there, during which time he still continued writing. In 1918, he re-entered India through Cuddalore and for a short while was imprisoned. After his release, Bharathiyar rejoined Swadesamitran. Right before that, he appealed to his friends to help him publish his huge collection of works, by providing him printing expenses for the same. However, none replied and he was forced to abandon the endeavour.
Bharathiyar: Involvement in Social Reform
Along with his reputation as a poet and freedom fighter, Bharathiyar was also a prominent social reformer. He was vocal against the caste system and consistently spoke about women’s issues. Sister Nivedita, a disciple of Vivekananda, played a big part in this. Their meeting occurred during one of his visits to Calcutta attend a Congress meeting. Their interactions greatly influenced his views regarding the upliftment of women, and he went on to dedicate a few of his works to her. Bharatiyar’s writing portrayed his views about women and his admiration of their strength. He wrote about how men enslave women with the threat of violence which they practised over those who did not obey and described a woman as “the civiliser and, therefore, the spiritual superior of man” (Sundara Rajan, 2017).
In his writings, Bharathiyar also spoke out against social issues such as child marriage despite being forced into one. He was born into a Brahmin family but it is said that he gave up his caste identity. He is known as an anti-caste figure by some in Tamil Nadu, has also explicitly spoken out against casteism and untouchability in his poetry. However, there are others who disagree as Bharatiyar was someone who advocated for reform in Hinduism and still believed in it, rather than dismantling the systems completely. One incident of his which is famously noted is that of when Bharathiyar performed the thread ceremony for a boy named Kanakalingam. This move was regarded as radical as the thread ceremony was reserved for certain castes and someone like Kanakalingam, regarded as an untouchable by caste society, was not allowed to take part. Bharatiyar insisted on this as he intended to showcase that everyone is equal in society.
When the time came for his elder daughter, Thangammal’s marriage, Bharathiyar insisted that rather than arranging a marriage for her, she be allowed to choose her groom herself, a stance unheard of in those times. However, after being pressurised by the rest of the family and others around him, he agreed to set up an arranged marriage.
Bharathiyar: Literary and Political Contributions
Despite Bharathiyar’s poems on nationalism forming only a small part of his work, they are his most well-known ones. He was known as “the people’s poet’, and his poems received praise for its nationalism that was never stifling, one that advocated freedom and liberation for all and did not promote jingoism or toxic nationalism. His vision of nationalism was one that was secular, against casteism and sexism, and pan-Indian. Apart from being a prolific writer and poet, he was a polyglot, fluent in Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, English and French.
Bharathiyar published his poems and writings in the newspapers and magazines he was a part of. However, they were frequently forbidden by the British and not allowed to be distributed, a significant reason for why he spent his life in poverty. His early poems dealt with the anguish of being repressed under foreign rule, themes such as “the glory of the motherland and its current fallen state, colonial exploitation, tributes to nationalist leaders”. However, this does not mean he neglected other topics as his writing also addressed the divides of caste, gender and class. Words such as “pudumai pen” (new woman), and “puratchi” (revolution) are just a small example of his immense contribution to the expansion of the Tamil language.
While in exile, his writing became more reflective, extending beyond current events and pondering upon bigger, more existential queries. He became known as the founding father of New Poetry in Tamil and was heralded as bringing about a renaissance in Tamil literature. Some of Bharathiyar’s most well-known works include Panchali sapatham (1912), Kuyil pāṭṭu (1912) and Kaṇṇan pāṭṭu (1917). Bharathiyar was extremely well-read, and he wrote poems concerning issues from all around the world and experimented very much with both content and form. He wrote autobiographical poems, a poem about the fall of the tsar in Russia, poems about political leaders and describing conversations between them, nationalist poems, poems about social reform, a poem on Allah, etc. His extensive writing addressing various topics and issues relevant to his time earned him the title of ‘ Mahakavi’, which loosely translates to ‘Great Poet’.
Death and Legacy:
For most of his life, Bharathiyar and his family of two daughters and wife lived in poverty as he was unable to publish a lot of his writings, due to curtailment by the British government. In 1921, while attempting to feed a temple elephant, Bharathiyar was struck and injured. While in this weak condition, he also contracted an illness and the combination of both led him to pass away at the tender age of thirty-nine. He was survived by his wife and two daughters, all of whom went on to preserve and spread the reach of his work.
His wife, Chellamma began publishing his work soon after by appealing to the masses for help and then establishing a publishing house alongside her sibling named Bharati Ashramam in Madras. This publishing house, along with another one established by Bharathiyar’s relatives titled Bharati Prachuralayam was able to publish most of his writing. In 1949, the government of Madras purchased the copyright for his works from them and six years later, the government of Tamil Nadu made it public. This decision led to anyone and everyone being able to publish and work with all of Bharathiyar’s writings for free. His works achieved maximum popularity after his death.
While till date Bharathiyar is a household name in Tamil Nadu, he is little known outside the South. His works have been translated into multiple languages, and the government has conferred various honours upon him such as naming streets after his name, etc. There have been huge concerted efforts on the part of his friends and family – daughters, granddaughters, etc to keep his legacy alive by writing extensively about his life and work. However, many agree that on the whole Bharathiyar and his work was neglected on a national level.
Recently, there was furore on social media on the part of Tamilians regarding the announcement that the iconic image of Bharathiyar in his white turban has been modified, with his turban colour changed to saffron on the cover of textbooks. Tamil research scholars and writers spoke out about how Bharathiyar would have never agreed to the appropriation of his image in such a way, and that his ideals sharply contrasted against such a move. In 2017, his great-granddaughter also wrote that “Bharathiyar would not have hesitated to condemn these developments”, referring to the brand of toxic nationalism that has enveloped our country (Sundara Rajan, 2017). It is important for us to keep Bharathiyar’s memory alive by going through his works and spreading his ideals, and we must ensure that his legacy is not tarnished by misrepresentation of what he stood for.
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Venkatachalapathy, A. R. (2018, May 8). Why Subramania bharati, icon of modern Tamil culture, remains little known to the rest of India. Firstpost. https://www.firstpost.com/living/why-subramania-bharati-icon-of-modern-tamil-culture-remains-little-known-to-the-rest-of-india-4460461.html
Venkatachalapathy, A. R. (2019, August 23). Sister Nivedita and her Tamil dedicator, the patriotic poet Subramania bharati. Telegraph India. https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/sister-nivedita-and-her-tamil-dedicator-the-patriotic-poet-subramania-bharati/cid/1699583