The Integrity of Bharati’s Songs: Words and Music

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to attend and enjoy the December Music Season in Chennai on an annual basis. There are some truly great talents on today’s Carnatic stage, but many new challenges also face our musicians. In particular, there are a few issues that I would like to discuss, regarding Bharati’s poetry and music and how they are handled by musicians at this juncture.

I am a trained musician myself.  I started learning Carnatic music from the age of 8; beginning with a music teacher, I later continued to learn with giants like T. K. Rangachari and M. Dandapani Desikar.  I have sung Bharati songs on All India Radio Tiruchy and Chennai stations, and in countless gatherings of small and large audiences throughout the world.

In our family, my grandmother Chellamma, and my mother Thangammal, although not trained formally, were excellent singers.  I, my two elder sisters, and two brothers, were taught how to sing Bharati’s songs as Bharati composed and sang them himself.  Bharati’s songs were passed on through the generations, in a format that exemplifies  the oral tradition of learning from the guru that is traditional in our culture.  Bharati’s musical compositions were passed on by the poet-musician Bharati, himself, to our grandmother, to their children, and to the grandchildren, even up to the present generation.

My grandmother, who was a great critic, appreciated certain musicians highly. Not only were their renderings musically great, but the musicians also took care to maintain the integrity of Bharati’s poetry.  Bharati’s poetry was respected and there were no changes made to his words, no mishandling or mutilation of the original poetry.

Bharati’s musical compositions were guided by the same aesthetics that shaped his poetry. They show simplicity, great novelty, and innovation. He uses Carnatic and Hindustani ragas, but they are sometimes so cleverly disguised that they are impossible to identify!

Today, ideas have changed. There exists a notion that Bharati’s songs should be made more “Carnatic” in style,  for concert performance, as the kucheri audiences do not appreciate “simple” music such as the original melodies composed by Bharati.  For these and other reasons, some musicians believe that it is appropriate to change Bharati’s music to suit a Carnatic audience.

When Bharati, himself, sang his poems to his friends, or in public meetings, people appreciated his music, as well as his poetry, enormously.  His music was captivating, inspiring, fascinating, magnificent, and awe-inspiring.  Friends, such as V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, were fascinated by Bharati’s singing and would ask him to sing more and more. After hearing Bharati singing three of his national songs, V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, a staunch nationalist and leader of the moderate party in the Madras State, published those poems and distributed them to all the schools. V.V.S. Iyer, a great scholar and critic of Tamil literature, in his introduction to Bharati’s Kannan Pattu, writes:

VVS Iyer

As a member of the Bharati family, I have always found that, when we sing his songs in the original melodies, the public shows immense appreciation!


Kuyil Excerpt

I can see the logic in the thinking of the musicians.  A few of these “forms” and “metres” are repetitive in nature.  Bharati’s focus was on the words, and for this reason, he sometimes sang the same melody for several stanzas which could be monotonous for the audience. But Bharati’s originals are truly captivating, charming, and attractive. They are not only appealing to the “common man”; they are also aesthetically pleasing.

But, I have an overwhelming concern, which is so important that it dwarfs everything else: the integrity of Bharati’s poetry.  Generally, the musicians pay more attention to the music than to the poetry – perhaps a professional hazard.  The words are glossed over quickly, while detailing and elaborating the music.  In the process, however, Bharati’s words are often “distorted, mutilated, or modified,” whether by mistake, by negligence, or, dare I say it, on purpose.

Why would anyone do these unimaginable things with a purpose? Let me explain:


These changes are, as I noted, deliberate. I can only suppose that they were made with the purpose of “improving” the rhythm for singing purposes. But they change the meaning of the words completely!

I am distressed to see that, more and more, these kinds of errors are creeping into the performance of Bharati’s poetry.

Apart from attitudes, I see another, underlying problem: there are actually no error free publications available, and musicians therefore have to depend on whatever editions of Bharati’s works that they find. It is possible, even likely, that the musicians are using editions that are NOT authentic, nor edited with care, taking words from them verbatim.

In this case, they cannot be expected to know or to be aware of the problems that exist in the current available editions. The musicians do not have the expertise to identify and correct textual mistakes.

But, I have to say, people are not generally willing to change their fixed ideas easily.  This might be true of almost anything– whether it is music, poetry, food, habits, thinking or lifestyle!

The purpose of my Standard Edition of Bharati’s works – of which, Volume 1, Desiya Githangal, has already appeared – is to offer a permanent solution to this problem.

As far as Bharati’s poetry is concerned, I do not quite understand the attitude of certain Bharati scholars towards the preservation of national treasures such as Bharati’s poetry.  I had an unexpected encounter with a Bharati scholar.  In the course of conversation, I pointed out that many editions of Bharati’s works contain errors in typing or printing, sometimes due to negligence or carelessness.  I gave an example. In the publication of Bharati’s spiritual writing “Vedarishikalin Kavithai,” (Poems of the Veda-Rishis) a careless mistake occurred: the title was printed as “Vedarishikalin Kathai” (Stories of the Veda-Rishis). The scholar’s response was, “That could actually be correct.”  I was amazed to hear this remark, doubted whether he had read the spiritual piece at all, and wondered at his comprehension of Bharati.  If you had read “Vedarishikalin Kavithai” you would clearly see that Bharati was fascinated by the poetry of the vedic sages.


My edition work is perhaps the only literary work to be directly inspired by a legal principle. My daughter, a scholar, introduced me to the concept of an author’s “moral rights.”  I quote here an excerpt from Mira’s article which explains these essential principles:

“The expression, “moral rights,” is itself a somewhat awkward translation into English of the original term in French law, “droit moral.” The connotations of this French expression are quite different from its English equivalent, evoking rights of a “personal or spiritual” nature, above all.

The two main types of moral rights are the rights of attribution and integrity.  The right of attribution allows an author to assert authorship of his work, and to prevent another person from claiming authorship of his work. In addition, an author may prevent the attribution of works to him which he did not create.

The right of integrity allows the author to protest any distortion, mutilation, modification, or other treatment of his work which is, in the language of the Berne Convention, “prejudicial to his honour or reputation.”  In contrast to the highly specific right of attribution, the right of integrity is a broad right which allows authors to object to a wide range of practices – including editing, publishing, performance, and possibly exhibition – which may not be compatible with the intentions of the author.

In addition to these two types of moral rights, three other moral rights are recognized in some Continental jurisdictions, notably France. The right of disclosure or publication allows the author to decide whether his work is to be published or otherwise brought before the public, and how this should be done. The right of withdrawal allows an author to recall a published work from circulation on the grounds that it has ceased to represent his views.  Lastly, the right to prevent excessive or vexatious criticism is also a recognized moral right.”

These principles are recognized in countries the world over, including India. They are a legal expression of what matters most to literary scholars like myself – the preservation of literature, which is simply a form of truth.

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