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”!

3 responses

  1. The article is very nice. It shows how he got inspiration from Chellamma for writing his world famous love poems. The replacement of Chellamma with Kannamma is a pitiable thing. It has been done against the wish of the great Bharati.

  2. It is not easy to be a great man’s wife. But Smt. Chellammal must have been a strong woman. Thanks for an informative piece on a patriot’s life.

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