May 27, 1996.
The Indian Parliament is hotly discussing a no-confidence motion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister as well as a poet, rises in defense of the government and waxes poetic about his vision for Mother India:
Thirty crore faces hath She, yet
She hath only one body and soul.
Eighteen spoken languages hath She, yet
She hath only one thought.
A glorious poem, to be sure. But it isn’t his poem, (as he himself acknowledges); it is that of a Tamil poet who lived about a hundred years earlier. The poem doesn’t help Vajpayee stay in power – he resigns after just 13 days in office. And the numbers in the poem are wrong for modern India — we have added a few more faces to the thirty crore since the poet’s days and a few more languages to the list of recognized languages, but these details do not detract from the grandeur and relevance of Subramania Bharati’s vision for a united India. Like all visionaries, he dreamed big, unfettered by reality and by our frailties. His dream, elusive then, is elusive now too.
For a mere mortal to try to do justice to a giant’s glory is naïve at best, but this mere mortal (aka the author) happened to study in the same school that this giant did — M. D. T. Hindu College School, as it was called then, in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and walked on the hallowed ground this great one had blessed by his presence. So, he has an irrepressible urge to celebrate his revered idol’s glory which blinds him to his limitations, hence this vain essay to sing his praise. Certainly, the easiest way to destroy fine poetry is to translate it, but he will do it anyway, for the poet’s immortal words are seared deep in his brain.
Bharati was born as Subramanian in a humble Brahmin family in Ettayapuram near Tirunelveli on December 11, 1881. When he was just 11, the Ettayapuram king at that time recognized Goddess Saraswati dancing on Subramanian’s silver tongue and bestowed on him the title “Bharati,” a title that was destined to become his name itself. Bharati studied in Tirunelveli, and, after his parents’ death, he continued studies in Varanasi where he gained a broader outlook. Back in Madras Presidency as an adult, he wielded his mighty pen, both as a poet and as an editor of various magazines, arousing patriotism and resistance to the British rule. When he was about to be arrested by the British, he fled to the French-ruled city of Pondicherry and continued his mission from there. He associated with freedom fighters like Gokhale and Lajpat Rai. After establishing himself as an undisputed poetic genius, he departed this world while he was back in Madras at the young age of 39. following an unfortunate attack by a temple elephant.
A roaring flame was thus extinguished prematurely. Sad indeed.
As a poet, Bharati was as diverse as he was prolific, treading multiple landscapes with ease: nationalism, bhakti, nature, women’s amelioration, and his vision for a casteless society. Stylistically, he was a Hemingway among poets; he revolutionized poetry by employing simple Tamil, thus making it accessible to the masses. We’ll try to sample his glory along three dimensions: patriotism, his revolutionary spirit, and bhakti.
Bharati’s patriotism is set in the context of colonial India. Of Winston Churchill’s rousing, patriotic speeches to his nation during WWII, Edward R. Murrow famously said that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Bharati did much the same, employing Tamil against the British. In his poem “vandE mAtaram,” he asks:
A thousand may be the castes we have, still
A foreigner to rule us, is that just?
Those born from the same mother’s womb,
Even if they quarrel, siblings are they not?
Bharati’s artillery of rhetorical questions (especially when read in Tamil) never fails to arouse an intense feeling.
But, if Bharati’s criticism of the British rule was scathing, his disapproval of his own brethren for their disunity and petty squabbles was scorching. In his famous poem “nenju porukkudilaiyE,” (My heart can’t take it), he laments:
“It’s a five-headed snake,” the father would say, but
“It’s six-headed,” should the son say,
Their hearts will part ways, and then
For long they’ll remain foes.
Behind the façade of an amusing analogy lurks a searing pain in the poet’s heart, intense and unmistakable.
Bharati never allowed himself to be circumscribed by regional boundaries. In his poem “Bharata Desam,” in the verse “sindu nadiyin misai,” which is set to a delightful movie melody, he says:
On the Indus river, under a (lovely) moon,
Surrounded by (pretty) young women from Kerala,
Singing songs (heartily) in beautiful Telugu,
We will row the boats and play (in joyous merriment).
The river chosen is from the far northwest of pre-partition India, the women are from Kerala, the language of the songs is Telugu, and the poet is Tamil. Is there an iota of parochialism in this divine poet?
In his revolutionary spirit, Bharati was way ahead of his times. He denounced casteism with full throated fervor. In “vandE mAtaram,” he says of the so-called low castes:
“Lowly” pariahs they may be, but
Do they not live amongst us?
Does it make them Chinese? Or,
Harm us, do they, like those foreign?
Another volley of uncomfortable rhetorical questions leaves us squirming with shame! (The “Chinese” here is just a proxy for someone from an alien culture.)
Bharati championed women’s upliftment tirelessly. His “pudumai peN,” or modern woman, retains the best of our culture while discarding her shackles. In his “peNgaL viDudalai kummi,” or, a dandiya raas dance celebrating women’s liberation, the women sing:
To talk about chastity they’ve come, but
It’s common to both parties, we’ll insist.
In a land where the monogamous hero of the Ramayana is venerated, requiring chastity exclusively of one gender is a clear abomination but society had legitimized it, and Bharati’s pudumai peN would not take it lying down. In “pAnchAli sabadam,” or “Draupadi’s Vow,” Bharati’s rendition of a portion of Mahabharata, this pudumai peN dons the mantle of Draupadi. When she is dragged to the royal court after she had been gambled away as property and lost, she demands to know what right Yudhishthira had, to gamble her away after he had lost himself. When the illustrious pitamaha, Bhishma, dolefully responds that the shastras do allow it, Bharati’s Draupadi drips with sarcasm and says (in section 27):
Speak well did thou, Sir, of dharma.
Back when Ravana, with deceit, abducted,
And imprisoned Lady Sita in Ashoka Garden,
And called his counsel and connoisseurs of shastras,
And apprised them of the tidings of Sri Devi’s capture,
“Thou did well, Sire; with dharma, this act
Fully conforms,” did rejoice these connoisseurs!
When ghouls rule, shastras will recommend a diet of cadavers, (won’t they?)!
If words could kill, this last line of Bharati’s Draupadi would have incinerated that entire court, including the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira.
Finally, Bharati’s bhakti is tender, uplifting, and imaginative. His “kaNNan pATTu,” a collection of songs about Krishna, is legendary and extends the imagination of the Azhvar saints of South India, who had already viewed Kannan (Krishna) as their own child (Periyazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in Yashodha-bhAvam) or as their beau while imagining themselves to be a woman (Nammazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in nAyika-bhAvam). This latter view is often seen as the longing of the individual soul for the Supreme Soul. To these traditional views, Bharati adds several more: Kannan is his belle (how dare he?) with a name of Kannamma, his servant (o, what chutzpah!), his friend, his mother, his father, his king, his sishya, and his guru. It is indeed Bharati’s imagination and revolutionary spirit to view Kannan in these non-traditional ways, but regardless of the particular view, he always expresses quintessential bhakti. In “Asai mugam marandu pochchE” (Alas, His face is gone from my memory), the pining damsel conveys a haunting anguish about being unable to recall her separated lover Kannan’s face vividly. A musical rendition of this poem conveys that heart-rending heartache through its sublime melody (though one must be willing to overlook the singer’s annoying mispronunciation of the first word of the poem). In “kaNNan en sEvagan” (Kannan, My Servant), the poet voices his frustration about the previous servants he’s had:
“Why a no-show yesterday, pray tell?” – Should I ask,
“That scorpion in the pot bit me with its very teeth, Sire,” – they’d say
“The wife was possessed by a demon, Sire” – they’d say
“’Twas the 12th day of my grandmother’s passing, Sire” – they’d say
Always a lie they’d tell; If I tell them one thing, they’ll do another.
While we’re still picturing with amusement that Guinness-eligible scorpion that is blessed with shark-like teeth, the poet is already describing the bliss that Kannan brings him as his servant:
A friend, a counsel, a good teacher – He’s all.
In character, a God; in looks, a servant;
He came from God-knows-where; “a cowherd, Sire,” announced He,
To be blessed with Him here, O, what penance have I done!
As the poet holds forth on the glory of his divine servant, our heart brims with unspeakable gratitude at His love and caring, and we get ready to prostrate at this servant’s feet.
Finally, in “KaNNammA en kAdali – 6” (Kannamma, my sweetheart), the poet describes how complementary he and Kannamma are to each other (Sudha Raghunathan’s rendering here):
A star, You are to me; the cool moon, I am to You;
Bravery, You are to me; triumph, I am to You;
All the bliss in this world and heaven,
Blend so well into your form, O, my sweet nectar!
Isn’t that how all relationships with the significant other ought to be?
We conclude with Bharati’s prayer to Siva Shakti, or Goddess Shakti. Bharati saw the human being, including himself, as the ultimate in divine creation. In “nalladOr veeNai seidE” (Priya Sisters soulful rendering here), he uses the metaphor of a finely crafted veena to refer to himself. For the Mother Goddess to let him waste his life is tantamount to Her throwing that exquisite veena in trash. So, he says:
Will you not bless me with the ability
To live so this land gains from me?
Tell me, O, Shiva Shakti,
Will you rather let me live as a burden on this land?
What a noble aspiration! So, here’s hoping that we, those metaphorical veenas, forever fill the air with the sublime melody of usefulness to others, the melody that She intended for us to create! The poet’s immortal spirit will brook nothing less from us.
Hamsanandi (real name: Vijay Pitchumani) is an engineer living in Fremont, California, with his wife, Sheela. Together they run an effort called Heritage-of-India classes, which currently teaches the Divya Prabandham online. They can be reached at the gmail id of hoiclasses.