Reputation of Bharati

When the great Russian writer, Fyodor Dosteoevsky died, in 1881 – the year before  Bharati’s birth –  his funeral became a national and “historical event – thirty thousand people accompanied his coffin, seventy-two delegations carried wreaths, fifteen choirs took part in the procession.” (Pevear & Volokhonsky, translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), xii). Could the contrast with Bharati, the National Poet, the People’s Poet, the “Supreme Poet” (Mahakavi) of the Tamils, be greater?

“When Bharati’s body was taken to the Cremation ground, there were only 13 people in the procession” − laments the film, Bharati, a biopic of the poet’s life.

“A wonderful genius who is born once in several centuries ended up like this.  The Tamil world did not recognize that a Mahapurusha lived among them.  Only a few friends and intellectuals understood Bharati’s greatness” – A biographer expresses his feelings of despair when describing the end of Bharati’s life.

When Bharati died, Parali Su. Nellaiyappar, Lakshmana Iyer, Kuvalai Krishnamachari, and V. Harihara Sharma – two friends and two relatives – carried Bharati’s body to the Cremation ground.  The names of the others who followed the procession are not known, but they were probably Duraisamy Iyer, V. Chakkarai Chettiyar, Surendranath Arya, Mandayam Srinivasachari, S. Tirumalachari, and Nilakanta Brahmachari, about 10 people in all.

I am bothered by this outcry of the biographers and the people of Tamil Nadu that Bharati was not honored at his funeral by a large number of people, including those who were celebrated and well-known in society.  I want to deal with this important issue.

I can understand the feelings of Bharati-lovers, that there should have been hundreds of people at the funeral procession. Why not? Was he not the Mahakavi, a nationalist, and a great man?

The reason provided by Bharati’s younger daughter Shakuntala, in her book En Thanthai Bharati (Bharati, My Father), is that there was not enough time for friends or relatives to travel to Madras from other parts of South India. The people who could come to the funeral were those who lived locally, in Madras. A further consideration lies in the fact that, in those days, it was not customary to keep a dead body in Brahmin houses for an extended period.  In Triplicane, in a street where the Brahmin community lived, it was not possible to keep the body until all the friends and relatives could arrive from different places.  There was simply no time!

The practical considerations given by my aunt make sense.  But they leave some unanswered questions.  After all, Madras was the epicenter of British South India. Would there not have been many, many people – politicians, journalists, and the intellectual elite – living in Madras who knew about Bharati and his work?

This is a more troublesome issue. I believe that Bharati’s funeral procession reflected the prejudices of his society. In particular, why was Bharati neglected by the elite of his times?

As far as Bharati is concerned, everybody talks about the great “poverty” in which he lived (rather like James Joyce!). My grandmother, Chellamma, says in her book, Bharatiyar Charithiram:

“Sometimes, there was no rice to cook in the house.  Bharatiyar would be upstairs, immersed in discussions with his disciples. …. If we had four annas in our hands, we would buy some bananas and satisfy our hunger.  We would receive milk from the milk woman in advance, without payment. …We spent two or three months like this.”

Apparently Bharati did not even want to hear the word illai (“there is not”). There was a strict rule in the house that his family should not even mention the words, “There is no rice in the house.”  Instead, he said jokingly, “say Aharam Iharam,” to signify arisi illai.

Bharati talks about the miseries of poverty in his poem, Lakshmidevi Saranpuguthal.  What concerned him was the demoralizing nature of poverty: “the mind that hates even the Vedas, the demeaning behavior of the lowly, association with the unworthy, all the efforts that go to waste (like a lamp that is submerged in a well), gaining nothing even if you cross the ocean,” and so on.


But it is essential to remember why Bharati was “poor.” He was a man at odds with the government. He was a “Swadesi,” sought after by the British police and the government wherever he went; the publication of all his magazines and newspapers was stopped; all his writings were proscribed; all of his contributions were looked upon with suspicion. He was a writer, but the British said that it was illegal for him to publish anything. How could he earn a living?Whatever the reason, society’s attitude towards poverty is the same now as it was in Bharati’s times, or even before. It has never changed.  More than sympathy, poverty generates dislike, contempt, carelessness, and neglect.

This attitude was in evidence when Bharati met Mahatma Gandhi in Chennai.  Va.Ra. describes this memorable incident as follows:

“At the invitation of Kasturiranga Iyengar, the Mahatma came to Chennai to discuss the  Rowlett Committee’s Report. He stayed in Rajaji’s house. Gandhiji thought that the Report was not acceptable to any self-respecting human being; he wanted to take action against it.

The Mahatma was surrounded by a group of people. He was in the midst of a discussion about organizing a nation-wide satyagraha (passive resistance) demonstration as he thought that it was necessary to do so in order to accomplish his goal.

This group of people included the Madras elite personalities, such as Adi Narayana Chettiyar, Rangasamy Iyengar, Satyamurti, Rajaji, and Va. Ramasamy Iyengar.

Bharati came to see Gandhiji. He went straight to the Mahatma, and asked him if he would be able to preside over a meeting at the Marina beach, where Bharati would be giving a lecture that evening.  Gandhiji turned around and consulted with his secretary, Mahadev Desai, as to his program for that evening. As he was not free that evening, he asked Bharati whether he could postpone the meeting for another day. Bharati said “No, he couldn’t,” “blessed Gandhiji’s ‘new Movement,’” and left the group.

Note the treatment of Bharati by the elite group of people who were attending the meeting at Rajaji’s home in Chennai:

Not inviting Bharati for the meeting, whereas the rich and “important” were invited.

When Bharati entered, nobody introduced him to the Mahatma.  He had to thrust himself forward to the Mahatma to talk to him, interrupting the meeting.


Because Bharati was poor?

Did they think that Bharati would behave inappropriately in the meeting, as members of the group thought he was a “crazy” man?

…Or, did they fear that Bharati’s intelligence and imagination would offer solutions for the problems that concerned the Mahatma? For this reason, would the Mahatma choose to include Bharati in his own circle and elevate him to a higher position?

If that were to happen, would their own power and position in society be affected?…

In her book, my aunt, Shakuntala, says that Bharati’s close friend Surendranath Arya gave a speech at the poet’s funeral, and that this speech resembled the famed speech given by Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I have always wondered why she compared Arya’s speech with Marc Antony’s.  Nobody has a record of Arya’s speech.  But, I wonder if the speech was cleverly presented, in the sense that he had to repeat certain facts, in order to clarify certain points, and yet avoid an open condemnation of certain facts, people, or experiences that happened in Bharati’s life!

Society never changes.  Time and again we make the same mistakes; we think in the same way; we act the same. We are greedy for money, position, and fame, without asking ourselves about our own talents and qualifications, our real entitlements.  Because of this, little opportunity is given to talented people to do good work.  They have to struggle and suffer in life, and attempt to rise up in the midst of ordinary talents.

It appears that it takes a long time for a genius to be recognized, understood, and appreciated.  The current situation in India is that the Government and other Organizations have a number of programs, awards of titles, grants, and other help to recognize and support talented persons. Unfortunately, by the time the work of a person is recognized, he or she might be dead and gone! Isn’t this the trend?

The current situation in Tamil Nadu is as follows: Titles and Awards are presented in the name of Bharati, on the stages that celebrate Bharati’s birthday, for example. Yet these awards often seem not to reflect real achievements or talent in research, writing, music, public speeches, or service in the dissemination of Bharati’s works.  It seems both parties, the “giver” and the “receiver,” gain popularity and other benefits from these arrangements. Bharati is simply forgotten here. Bharati would have called this kind of “recognition” “poi mathippu,” false praise.

With this background, I would like to present an article written by my late husband, Professor P. K. Sundararajan, entitled, “The Reputation of C. Subramania Bharati – 1921 to the Present.”

Professor Sundararajan was an English scholar who was trained in Canada as well as India.  He was both expert in the English language and literature, and knowledgeable about modern Tamil literature.  His reading was comprehensive, and he had read everything of significance that was written in Tamil over the past few decades.  He had close associations with distinguished writers, including Mouni, La. Sa. Ramamirtham,  Na. Parthasarathy, Ku. Azhagirisamy, T.N. Viswanatha Iyer (Shyama), A.S. Raghavan, Thriloka Sitaram, and so on.

In his Article, Sundararajan explores Bharati’s “reputation” − how Bharati was viewed and approached by his friends, acquaintances, and biographers. He discusses how Bharati’s “reputation” has been built from the time of the poet’s death, in 1921, to the present. He reviews the Bharati “phenomenon” that has developed in the past 25 years, and expresses his deep concern about the current situation in Tamil Nadu.

Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Bharati’s Life

In her Preface to the Biography of Bharati, his daughter, Thangammal, writes:

“Bharatiar’s Biography needs no introduction.  He is known as the Mahakavi throughout our country.  But, just as he was not understood when he was alive, people continue to be uninformed about his life, even after his death.  Imaginary stories and mistaken notions about Bharati are often published in the newspapers and books.  People believe that these stories or notions are actually true.  .  .  . Whenever my mother (Chellamma Bharati) read such anecdotes, she was distressed and asked, ‘How am I going to communicate the truth about the Mahakavi’s life to the Tamils?’ ”

(The first Biography of Bharati, Bharatiar Charithiram , was dictated by Chellamma Bharati, the poet’s wife, to her daughter, Thangammal.) 

No wonder my grandmother was distressed. Her experiences with the poet were extraordinary, unique.  When such experiences were distorted and brought to a mundane level by others, she became naturally upset, and was concerned about the untrue image that was inadvertantly perpetuated by the people.

Leave alone some of the extraordinary experiences that Chellamma had with the poet; even the apparently “ordinary” incidents that occurred in the poet’s “everyday” life were far from ordinary. In fact, the “every day” incidents of Bharati’s life  were precious and deeply significant experiences that both reflected and shaped the history of the nation and the culture.

Fortunately, the somewhat inaccurate picture drawn by the people of their Mahakavi is balanced by his powerful poetry, which overcomes any false image of the poet.  But, as time goes by, I am afraid that the imaginary stories may grow so large that we become unable to  see the poet’s true self!

In my own life, I have come across untrue stories which are actually harmful to the poet’s memory and image.  A friend of mine, a colleague, described to me Bharati’s visit to her house to see her grandfather and have dinner with him.  Her grandfather was a friend of Bharati and an eminent scholar.

She recounted, “Bharati ate dinner in our house, and he enjoyed the meat served there.” I was simply shocked! Bharati was, of course, a vegetarian. Yet my friend told this tale with no hesitation, even to me, the granddaughter of the poet, who would be thoroughly familiar with the poet’s food habits and his belief in vegetarianism.

When Bharati scholarship was in its infancy, biographers of Bharati  carried out extensive research: they visited the places where Bharati lived,  took photographs of Bharati’s friends and acquaintances, conducted interviews with them, and wrote down the stories that they narrated. Such research was essential, as there was simply no better way to collect information about Bharati.

However, the trouble with this kind of research is that its reliability is not beyond question. Human memory fails, or, for any one of a myriad reasons, a story may be embellished in the re-telling. A researcher must carefully sort through material that is gathered in this way, and consider its significance. One cannot simply report  everything that is said without some attempt at verification or corroboration.  There is no doubt that the stories of eyewitnesses – their experiences with the poet, what they saw and heard – are valuable.  But not all of them are actually true. A few of the stories are told from memories which may have faded in due course; a few are purely imaginary.One has to undertake further research, to examine the integrity of the information that is collected in this pursuit.  And, indeed, as Bharati is greatly respected and loved by people, there is a tendency to build imaginary stories about the poet.  People would like to associate themselves with him, and talk about him in familiar terms, out of affection.

When biographers write an account of Bharati based on interview research, they should be aware of these facts and take them into consideration.  One simply cannot report such material verbatim.  The biographer should use his or her scholarly judgement and discretion..

In order to clarify the main events of Bharati’s life, remove misconceptions, and shed light on curious incidents such as the manner of the poet’s death, I  have prepared an Annotated Biography of Bharati: please click here for the PDF file.  This type of analysis has never before been applied to Bharati’s life.  The existing biographies generally offer a casual listing of the main events of Bharati’s life, in chronological order.  This Annotated Biography is based on extensive research on Bharati’s life that I have conducted over the past decade, in particular. The sources are Bharati’s autobiographical articles and poems, and other reliable resources.  The biography situates Bharati’s life in the context of each historical event that occurred in Bharati’s times, each incident in the national Freedom Movement, and his meeting and association with political leaders and great personalities.