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Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s English writings and songs find a voice

Akshaya Chandrasekaran | Updated on September 17, 2021

Home and hearth: Subramania Bharati with his family   -  IMAGES CREDIT: Mira T Sundara Rajan

On his 100th death anniversary on September 11, a new book and a podcast throw light on unknown facets of the literary icon

* Sundara Rajan, a writer, a classical pianist, a scholar and professor who holds a doctorate in law from Oxford University, is also launching a podcast, “Bharati 100”, on September 11

* He returned to Chennai from his exile in Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and resumed his sub-editorship of Swadesamitran, a Tamil language newspaper, founded by G Subramania Iyer, who had previously established The Hindu

* Bharati’s writings were severely proscribed by the British, who considered them provocative

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Tamil writer, poet, journalist and nationalist, C Subramania Bharati, whose 100th death anniversary falls on September 11, also wrote extensively in English, of which little is known. In The Coming Age, published by Penguin Modern Classics, edited and presented by his great-granddaughter Mira T Sundara Rajan, we get access to the Tamil literary icon’s original English writings. It is the second attempt at publishing his work in the past 100 years.

Hear the verse: The poet’s great-granddaughter Mira T Sundara Rajan launches Bharati 100 — a podcast — on September 11

 

“Bharati saw himself as standing on the world’s stage, engaging in a dialogue with writers and thinkers around the world, touching the hearts of people, and finding a common humanity. To him, it was never India versus the world, rather India and the world. His writings are so contemporary, it could have been written yesterday, today, or tomorrow. This book offers Bharati to the world, and hopefully lets him communicate beyond borders, in a way that he wanted to,” says Sundara Rajan in a virtual interview from San Francisco.

 

Unchained spirit

Sundara Rajan, a writer, a classical pianist, a scholar and professor who holds a doctorate in law from Oxford University, is also launching a podcast, “Bharati 100”, on September 11, which will include her mother, S Vijaya Bharati’s recordings in her voice of Bharati’s songs in his original composition and some classical piano pieces from her as well. The podcast will feature a series of weekly episodes with at least one episode dedicated to each piece in the book.

The book provides a layered, multi-dimensional understanding of a man who is “generally accepted as the leading figure in 20th century Tamil literature, and he is also credited with generating a Renaissance in modern Tamil writing”. It captures Bharati’s deep resentment towards British attempts to erase the illustrious Tamil language and juxtaposes this with his love for languages which lay in the heart of a poet who yearned for novel ways of expressions. The book is in the vanguard of decolonising Indian literature and provides an opportunity to discover Bharati anew.

Hidden gems: Bharati also wrote extensively in English, of which little is known

Bharati’s writings were severely proscribed by the British, who considered them provocative. He was jailed, starved and silenced, like many other freedom fighters of that time. But nothing could imprison Bharati’s spirit or his eagerness of expression. Even against extraordinary odds, he wanted to communicate with the world and publish as widely as he could. In 1920, a year before his untimely death, Bharati sent a ‘circular’ in English to his friends, seeking financial support that would allow him to publish all of his writings. But his dreams never came to fruition in his lifetime.

His inner world

Delving into Bharati’s English writings allows one to infer different aspects of Tamil culture’s ‘Mahakavi’ which are otherwise unknown. The different languages represented different ways of thinking to multi-linguist Bharati. He was especially interested in exploring what the English language had to offer, how it interacted with his thoughts, and what kinds of emotions he could express. In fact, the fascination even reveals itself in him adopting the pen name of ‘Shelley dasan’ at one point for his own writings as he admired Shelley’s poetry so much.

Bharati writes in English to three different kinds of audiences: One, to speak truth to power to the British, and to engage in a discourse about social reforms in India with other nationalists from all across the country. If you ever want to recommend as proof to people who wish to understand the cruelty and brutality with which the British wanted to wipe out diversity and culture, whitewash the identity of this nation, and diminish the glory of the extensive classical (and modern) literature of the Tamils — go to Bharati. He was a practising journalist who offered reportage of the events that he saw unfolding around him in stirring honesty and immense detail in the form of short essays and articles that were suitable for newspapers and magazines.

Second, he wrote for himself. His English writings tend towards the serious. There are meditations on some of his intensely personal feelings towards “death and immortality, mental discipline, and the development of the self.” Bharati had a tremendous sense of fun and play and kept his inner child alive, otherwise. It comes through in a lot of his Tamil writings — like the wonderfully humorous biographical novel Chinna Sankaran Kathai. But the English medium allowed him to examine a different genre of thoughts. Third, interestingly enough, he writes for a post-colonial audience free from the clutches of colonial powers, where India is a sovereign, free nation in a globalised world full of cultural exchanges.

Sundara Rajan, as the editor, preserves the integrity of Bharati’s voice without letting the archaic language get in the way of modern readers’ ability to connect with his work. The result is an empathetic, human understanding of Bharati’s life, his inner world, and his magnificent vision for India and the world.

He returned to Chennai from his exile in Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and resumed his sub-editorship of Swadesamitran, a Tamil language newspaper, founded by G Subramania Iyer, who had previously established The Hindu. In 1921, Bharati was struck down by an unwell temple elephant at the Parthasarathy temple, Triplicane. The incident weakened him, and he developed a stomach ailment shortly after. His death followed on September 11.

Memorable melodies

Sundara Rajan also shares snapshots of Bharati’s life which are relatively unknown to many. For instance, Bharati composed his own music for his verses and taught them personally to his wife, Chellamma, and their two daughters — Thangammal and Shakuntala. From her mother S Vijaya Bharati, Sundara Rajan acquired a deep knowledge of Bharati’s life and work; and the ways in which he sung his songs. He integrated folk elements and classical elements to make memorable melodies. The melody and the words match each other and carry the meaning beautifully. The family still keeps the original rendition of Bharati intact and alive in their singing.

“Bharati had a vast musical knowledge. He believed music is the greatest wonder in the world. Not just Carnatic, he composes joint-ragas with Hindustani music. In the song Agni, a fierce face-off between asuras and devas, Bharati built upward melody for devas and downward melody for asuras. My mother was a gifted singer. She would sing Chinnanchiru Kiliye in Bharati’s original composition to me from the time I was a little girl. The rendition always melted my heart,” says Sundara Rajan.

The Coming Age / C Subramania Bharati / Penguin Modern Classics / Non - fiction / ₹399

Check out this book on Amazon

Published on September 10, 2021

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