Chellamma, The Heroine of Bharati’s Poetry – Part I

Bharati & Chellamma

Poets through the ages have written about love, and Bharati, a Romantic poet and a true Renaissance man, was no exception. Love occupies a central place in all of his poetry. Romantic love was especially celebrated by him in wonderful poems that he wrote for his own beloved. In the West, Petrarch had his Laura, Dante his Beatrice, Shakespeare had the “Dark Lady” of his sonnets; and Indian literature and mythology (puranangal) is full of romantic tales, including the amorous adventures of heroes and gods. Like these other poets, Bharati, too, found



poetic inspiration in the person of his own wife, Chellamma. But, tragically, through the alteration – dare I say mutilation – of Bharati’s poems, the record of their relationship has been, at least partially, erased from history. In particular, his three poems, entitled Chellamma Pattu, were re-titled Kannamma Pattu for publication after Bharati’s death. Chellamma was thus deprived of the only of thing of value that she had from her husband, and the only thing that she apparently ever desired of him as a legacy: immortality through his poetry. How was Chellamma so cruelly dispossessed of her treasure, and why? And how can we now restore her to the place of honour that Bharati freely chose to accord to her through his magical words?

Bharati’s elder daughter Thangammal writes: “When people heard the news that the poems written by Bharati about my mother were included under  Kannan Pattu, they wanted to know ‘which poems they were.’  They are “Ninnaiye rati enru,” “Peetathil erikkondal,” and “Engal Kannamma nagai pudurojappu.” Our father wrote Chellamma on these poems, and not Kannamma.  We do know that when the poems were published, my uncle Appathurai Iyer, Chellamma’s elder brother, changed the name from Chellamma to Kannamma; perhaps, he thought that his sister’s name was not ‘sophisticated’ enough to be worthy of publication.”

Bharati’s younger daughter Shakuntala writes: “My father wrote a few love songs.  In these songs, the name Chellamma was written, and not Kannamma.  My father never even thought about any other woman, except his wife Chellamma.  He said that he wrote his love poems just for his wife.  When these poems were published, the name was changed to Kannamma; the name was taken from Bharati’s Kannan songs, Kannamma as the ‘beloved.'”

After Bharati’s premature demise, Chellamma was left on her own with Shakuntala, who was yet to be married.  Chellamma, as a young woman of 32 in that far from progressive era,  faced great pressure from her community, and from society at large. She had no formal education, little life experience, and no experience with journalism or publishing.  Nevertheless, she had a great ambition after Bharati’s death: to publish her husband’s works. Chellamma’s elder brother, Appathurai, took it upon himself to help her in this project and, more generally, to help her to continue with life and plan her future after her husband’s demise.

People should be aware of the intensity of Chellamma’s struggle to get Bharati’s works published, in spite of her disadvantages in life, and in defiance of the immense obstacles that she faced after her husband’s death.  She had no support of any kind, not from the Government or any other source, at that time. Only the love of the general public for Bharati’s poems sustained her. In response, she announced that it was her intention to bequeath the copyright in Bharati’s works to the public, after her death.

Chellamma created a publishing house called Bharati Ashramam and started publishing Bharati’s poetry.  In this endeavour, she was assisted by Appathurai.

Appathurai, too, was a nationalist who abandoned his employment to enter into political life.  He supported Bharati in his national activities. He, himself, was a great speaker, and had some journalistic experience.  When Bharati first entered into the freedom struggle, he apparently told Appathurai that, “[I]t is customary that the deep-sea diver who plunges deep into the ocean in the pursuit of pearls (muthukkuli) entrusts his brother-in-law to take care of his wife in his absence; so am I entrusting you to take care of Chellamma.” Appathurai was deeply involved in Chellamma’s publishing endeavour, and he was totally responsible for  administering the financial, printing, and practical side of publishing Bharati’s works.

The process surrounding the editing and publishing of Bharati’s works in these early years remains somewhat obscure to me. I don’t fully understand who was involved in selecting the poems, organizing and editing them, undertaking responsibility for any changes that were made, and publishing them.  Chellamma brought out 2 volumes of Bharati’s poetry. The first volume consisted of 90 poems,  which included the poems that Bharati himself had published during his lifetime (in the books Swadesa Githangal, Janma Boomi, Nattu Pattu and Mada Manivachagam), most of them national poems, and a few new poems from manuscript versions.  The second volume comprised 80 poems which included poems from the first volume, while some new poems also appeared.  The three poems about Chellamma were NOT included in either of these volumes.

At this point, C. Viswanatha Iyer, Bharati’s half-brother (the son of Bharati’s father, Chinnasamy, and his second wife, Valliammal) bought the copyright of Bharati’s works from Chellamma for a small sum. He created a new publishing house, called Bharati Prachuralayam, and began to publish Bharati’s poetry. He was initially joined in his efforts by Harihara Sharma, a distant relative of Bharati, and K. Natarajan, Shakuntala’s husband (she had married by then), but they eventually dropped out of the business. C. Viswanatha Iyer became the sole owner of Bharati Prachuralayam.

The three Chellamma poems appear for the first time in the Prachuralayam edition, and here, Chellamma’s name has already been removed and replaced by “Kannamma.”  As Bharati’s daughters observed, in the excerpts from their works noted above, the name change was  probably made by Chellamma’s brother Appathurai Iyer, and must have been approved and published by C. Viswanatha Iyer.

What were the reasons behind this radical change? As noted above, Thangammal thought that Chellamma’s name was removed because it was  “unsophisticated” (“nagariga kuraivu”).  But I am not sure that this is true. Most likely, there were other forces at work. Appathurai may not have wanted to include “personal” and “intimate” matters in Bharati’s poetry. Perhaps he did not want his sister’s personal life to be openly known to the public. But, why not? Is it shameful that a poet describes his wife’s beauty in detail and shows his appreciation of her? Were there other reasons that he wanted to draw a veil of secrecy over his sister’s relationship with Bharati using the name Kannamma as, in Dante’s words, “a screen for the truth”? Why did he decide to print the poems at all?

Whatever the reason, the pity of it is, that people still do not know that Bharati wrote about his wife. The public has been led to believe that these three poems, in particular, belong to the idealized “Kannamma,”  as in his other “Kannan” songs.  Chellamma was deprived of the signal and hard-won honour of appearing in her rightful place, as the heroine of his poems.

Bharati elevates Chellamma on the pedestal of his heart and worships her.  He is fascinated by his wife’s physical beauty, and writes:

“her laugh is like the full blown rose,

her eyes are blue like indra neelam,

her face is a lotus flower,

her forehead the early-morning sun (bala suryan).

“Her beauty is a lightning-bolt.

Her eye-brows are the bow of the god of love [Manmadan],

Thick and dark is her hair, like a snake that covers the moon,

Her nose is the sesame flower.

“A fountain of ever-lasting happiness is in her words.

Nectar is her mouth and lips,

Her musical voice sounds like Saraswati’s veena,

Her divine bearing and movement invoke the beautiful arambai and ayirani.

“You are Rati, the goddess of love .  .  .  I surrender myself to you.

As the sage Suka saw Lord Shiva in all things surrounding him,

I see you in everything.”

“Gold is her colour, lightning her bearing – the immortal maiden is Nappinnai, Kannan’s beloved.”

“The mere thought of her golden body is sweet as nectar

She is queen among women

Her beauty is magnificent

She is the pupil of my eye

She is the rati of my love

Her words are sweet as music

Her lips are a fount of nectar.

He talks about Chellamma’s love as something that purifies his mind, which is muddled, confused, and bewildered, and makes it the abode of immortality, a peaceful and happy place to live on earth.

“She is the enchanting woman who enters into my heart which is crowded with bushes, thorns, and shrubs – a forest of thoughts, and unruly imagination – and transforms it to an abode of happiness – which the devas eagerly seek and where they long to live!”

“She is the Goddess Lakshmi who became one with Kannan, enthroned within his heart,

She is Parvati, the feminine half of Shiva’s own body, (Ardhanareswarer) who is worshipped by the devas.”

“In the twilight of the evening, when the crimson sunset faded and the moon’s honeyed light was spreading throughout the sky, my beloved came upstairs; with a smile on her lips, she captured the moon out of the corner of her eyes! She sang in her veena-like voice:

“The universe entire is a form of Para Shakti!

We will light the lamp of wisdom

In the temple of love,

And worship her for ever!”

These poems fundamentally affirm Bharati’s nature as a Romantic poet, in the sense that he longed for an idealistic life and society, based on love, a new era which he called kruta yugam. He aspired for immortality, not only spiritually but also physically, and he describes that state in his Chellamma poems as a condition of perpetual happiness and peace, made possible by her.

For Bharati, once again, love is the all-pervading force that unites all lives – the animate and inanimate – and the poet is blessed with the capacity to experience this fundamental principle of life. And his poetry is the expression of his vision of this great truth, love.  Bharati called this power Shakti.

Bharati writes in an English article, “Rasa – The Key-Word of Indian Culture,” that  “Rasa is the form of Shakti, the feminine aspect of the Supreme Being.  For God is two-fold – Being and Energy, Masculine and Feminine, Absolute and Relative, Purusha and Shakti. In the unity of these two aspects, Existence becomes.  And in the manifestations of Shakti, Existence moves and acts.”

He explains this further in another article: “Indian devotion has especially seized upon the most intimate human relations and made them stepping stones to realize the superhuman.  God the guru, God the master, God the friend, God the mother, God the child, God the self, each of these experiences – for to us these are more than mere ideas – it has carried to its extreme possibilities.”

For Bharati, human relations are the forms of Shakti, and they are stepping stones to the realization of God.

Bharati writes:

“The loving wife is Shakti herself, and the state of godliness is attained through her…

“She is the daughter of Kali, she is the abode of Power (Shakti Nilayam), and she is the heroine of the poet’s home! She transforms the meaningless events of everyday life – the empty grind of incidents which destroy the human spirit like thorns that grow in the barren desert – into my life’s fruitful experiences.  She gives life to what is  lifeless, shines light  on what is dark,  and beautifies each occurrence in my life – making it meaningful.”

Manai thalaivikku vazhtthu”!

“Bharati’s” Works Not by Bharati

Co-author: Mira T. Sundara Rajan.

Nearly a century after his death, Bharati’s fame has grown beyond all bounds. As Bharati becomes increasingly well-known, Bharati research is growing, with a large number of books and articles on Bharati being published every year. The growing interest in Bharati makes it more important than ever that the basic texts with which the public is familiar should be the pure, unadulterated literature written by Bharati, and nothing else.

One of the peculiar difficulties surrounding Bharati’s works is the challenge of trying to find the writings published by Bharati during his lifetime. Because Bharati was a journalist, his published writings were scattered throughout various magazines published in the pre-Independence era in India. These include Swadesamitran, where he worked as a sub-editor, and various other publications. Scholars have therefore been intent on retrieving Bharati’s writings from these publications, like searching for diamonds in a mine, and have gone ahead to publish whatever they found.

Over the past several decades, Bharati scholars and researchers have attempted to locate Bharati’s works. They have sought to trace Bharati’s works by traveling to the places where he lived, spoken to Bharati’s relatives, friends, and acquaintances, and noted their recollections. They have taken photographs of the people in Bharati’s life, and of the houses where he lived.

Personal conversations and interviews, in particular, lead to a number of problems. For various reasons, the recollections of those Bharati knew are not always factually correct – sometimes even as a result of over-enthusiasm! I wrote about some of these issues in more detail in an earlier essay in this blog.  On some occasions, poems were also given to researchers by Bharati’s relatives and acquaintances.

I fully support the efforts of scholars attempting to locate Bharati’s works, wherever they may be available; these efforts are commendable. But, these findings must be substantiated by thorough examination, credible proof, or approval of a group of Bharati-scholars. Otherwise, the validity of these findings is highly questionable.

The “found” works attributed to Bharati have generally been published with prompt eagerness – with little attempt at corroboration. To me, as a Bharati scholar with many decades of experience, and as a member of Bharati’s family, there are a number of works which have become accepted as part of Bharati’s canon, but simply do not belong there. This problem has distressed me for a number of years, as I feel that it is damaging to Bharati, and to Bharati’s future – as scholarship grows around his works, and as researchers make judgements of the quality of his writings based on questionable works. And the dissemination of these works continues apace. The well-known film on Bharati, made in Tamil Nadu in the year 2000, even features a popular “Bharati” song that was actually not written by Bharati!

I have gradually come to understand that a very clear way of describing this problem is offered by the legal concept of authors’ “moral rights.” According to this concept, what has happened to Bharati would be called the mis-attribution of Bharati’s work. This problem has various dimensions, affecting Bharati’s right to be named as the author of his own, and only his own, work, and his right to choose which of his own works should appear before the public, and in what publication circumstances. Moral rights allow us to describe and understand this problem in a clear, precise, and systematic way. The moral rights involved are “disclosure,” “attribution,” and “integrity.”

Mira T. Sundara Rajan has written an article about Bharati’s copyright, in which she defines the legal concept of moral rights and explains how it relates to Bharati’s works:

“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. .  .  .  .  .

“Many of the problems involving Bharati’s works may effectively amount to violations of the author’s moral rights. The false attribution of the works of other authors to Bharati contravenes his right of attribution.”

To summarize these principles:

I. The moral rights of Bharati: his rights are of a “personal or spiritual” nature.

II. The right of attribution is the basis for asserting Bharati’s authorship: it prevents another person from claiming authorship for his work; it also prevents other work from being attributed to Bharati, which he did not create.

III. The right of integrity allows Bharati to protest any “distortion, mutilation, modification, or other” treatment of his work which is, “prejudicial to his honour or  reputation.” 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.

IV. 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.

V. 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.

VI. The right to prevent inappropriate criticism, such as criticism that is ill-informed,  is also a recognized moral right.

I have attached a file to this post, “Bharati’s Moral Rights” (please click here), in which I have made a detailed analysis of the poems that are currently in circulation and included in Bharati’s Poetical works.  I have categorized the poems into 2 groups: one violating Bharati’s Authorship (False Attribution), and the other, violating Bharati’s right of Disclosure or Withdrawal.

A. Bharati’s Authorship (False Attribution)

  1. Under this category, I have listed the poems that were taken from books on Bharati, written by biographers and various others.
  2. The poems that were collected by researchers from: friends and relatives of Bharati – individuals who had recorded them in their (journal) notes – individuals who had  reported from their memories – and Bharati’s  (supposedly) original hand-written manuscripts.
  3. Poems published in magazines as Bharati’s after his time by various persons.

B.  Bharati’s  Right of Disclosure 

  1. Poems taken from Swadesamitran and India magazines from 1904 to 1909 and published.

These were the poems written from the year 1904 to 1906, during Bharati’s lifetime.

Bharati himself did not include these in his first publication, Swadesa Githangal (1908) in which he publishes a collection of his poems, most of them national.  There may be reasons why Bharati did not publish these poems that were written between 1904 and 1906; but, the fact that he did not disclose these poems to the public when he published his poems in book form indicates that he had decided not to include these poems in his body of work.

However, P. Thooran, in his beginning college years (intermediate), took an interest in copying these poems from Swadesamitran periodicals and published them in his book Bharati Tamizh.  There is no record or back-up for these poems, except for Thooran’s copies.  At this point in time, it may or may not be possible to verify these poems, as the original papers would have deteriorated or been destroyed by now.

2. (Supposedly) completed version of Bharati’s poems – published in books and magazines.  Additional material (stanzas) found in previous publications or originally published by Bharati in magazines which he himself changed, removed or modified to publish in his first book of poetry Swadesa Githangal.  Researchers have brought them back for inclusion among his poems.

Thanjavur Research Edition

Many of these cases are illustrated by the Thanjavur “research” edition of Bharati’s works.

When Bharati’s birth centenary was celebrated in 1982, the Chief Minister of Madras called for the preparation of a “special edition” of Bharati’s works. 3 lakhs of rupees (Rs 300,000) were allotted for this work, and the project was given to Tanjavur University. The Editorial group chosen  for this work included Chu. Chellappan, Pa. Chidambaram, Chini Vishwanathan, T.N. Ramachandran, and T.V.S. Mani. The Editor of the book was Ma. Ra. Po. Gurusamy. The first edition of this book was published in 1987; the second in 1989; and the “corrected,” third edition appeared in 2001. As far as I am aware, no further editions have appeared since then.

I am deeply troubled by this book, which raises various, serious concerns. The sources for the Thanjavur edition include all of the questionable items that I have listed above. They were not the original publications, from Bharati’s own lifetime, Bharati Ashramam, Bharati Prachuralayam, or the first Government editions. As a result, poems of questionable authorship are included in this book, and appear alongside those which are certainly Bharati’s (the book is organized chronologically). Overall, there are about 50 such poems in the book.

The establishment of the text of Bharati’s poems, as it appears in this edition, also presents certain grave problems. The authoritative sources of Bharati’s poems are not given priority in the establishment of the text. Rather, these sources are indicated only in the footnotes to specific poems. For example, a given poem might be reprinted in the Tanjavur edition as it appeared in a journal (eg. Swadesamitran): the text would not be taken from Bharati’s own book publication, or from any of the authoritative publications brought out after his death. As the editor  of the Thanjavur edition says: “The first  version in which the work is published is the one that has been used. Even if Bharati himself has corrected it, those corrections are only indicated in the footnotes” (“Specialty of the Edition,” in the Front Matter of the Thanjavur Edition, 3rd edition 2001).

The editor also says that he has done this in order to give researchers the opportunity to read various versions of the poem, and “choose” whichever ones they think are “best.” He notes: “In order to accomplish this goal, it is sure that the edition will be helpful.”

…From the point of view of the rightful attribution of Bharati’s authorship, this is a nightmare! This attitude will only promote the proliferation of works wrongfully attributed to Bharati, and doubtful judgements about Bharati’s works. If we give researchers the opportunity to “select” versions of Bharati’s works, the original versions are likely to be lost. Each researcher will favor his or her own “findings.” In my opinion, this should absolutely not be allowed. It interferes fundamentally with the establishment of authenticity in Bharati’s texts. What is needed, is just the opposite: a “standard” version of Bharati’s works, based on accurate principles of establishing their authorship and authenticity. Otherwise, the publications are based on, and promote, the false attribution of works not by Bharati to him, and the persistence of words and phrases not approved by him – an inaccurate and shameful situation.  I find some of the poems “atrocious;” and I am absolutely sure that they harm Bharati’s  reputation.  Adding insult to injury, the text of the Thanjavur book is full of mistakes, so that Bharati’s poems are presented to the public flaunting wrong words and other lamentable errors.

The Standard Edition that I am currently publishing is very carefully based on publishing Bharati’s poems – only those poems that are written by him, and in the authoritative versions established by him or featured in the early editions of Bharati’s works that were published after his death. The guiding principles of my Standard Edition are those of moral rights – disclosure, attribution, and integrity. This approach is unprecedented in relation to Bharati-literature. And I believe that this may be the first time that an author or editor has ever adopted moral rights explicitly as the basis for an edition.

The reason that I have undertaken this elaborate work is to prevent any further mis-attribution of works to Bharati, or the publication of inauthentic versions of his works that may happen in the future. I am afraid that if we do not address this problem now, it is going to grow larger and larger as Bharati research grows; and will ultimately present Bharati to the world in a wrongful light.

The efforts of researchers who have sought out and published such questionable material – whether through over-enthusiasm, negligence, or without realizing the consequences – do not do any service to Bharati. Instead, they cause harm to his fame.