I have always been fascinated by my grandfather’s poem “Moonru Kaadal” (“The Three Loves”) – from a young age, even before I started reading Bharati for my PhD at Annamalai University in Chidambaram.
My admiration of the poem originated from listening to my mother singing this song beautifully, in her melodious voice, exactly the way that her father had sung it and taught it to her. Bharati himself composed the music for the song: three ragas for the three parts of the poem – the first part, his love for Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge in raga Saraswati Manohari, the second, his love for Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth in Sriragam, and the third, his love for Kaali in Punnagavarali. Clearly, he set the first two ragas bearing the names of the Goddesses with a specific purpose in mind. Punnagavarali, the last one, was quite exceptional, bringing in the depth of his unusual experience with Kaali. When my mother sang, as a young, musically inclined person, I would be melting to hear her singing with great intensity of emotion and wonderment in her voice.
I simply couldn’t explain what it was that attracted me to this poem. I didn’t have enough life experience or experience reading poetry to understand. Even later, after I had read and studied Bharati, I still couldn’t understand the magical hold of the poem on me. I was unable to sort out the emotions I felt or understand what the poem conveyed.
The poem is autobiographical; it elucidates how Bharati’s personality developed at various stages in his life. As a young boy, he fell in love with Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge; as he grew older he developed a passionate love for Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. He was absorbed totally with his first love – thinking and dreaming about her all day and all night – until he was twenty-two, an age that could be full of imagination and dreams of a special kind. At this stage, he again fell in love with another beautiful maiden called Lakshmi; he was fascinated by the beauty and richness of the wealth around him.
The poem starts with the phrase “at a young age” (pillai pirayatile). This reminds me of an anecdote that my mother wrote in her book “Pillai Pirayatile” (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal), about her experiences with her father at a young age. She narrates:
“A friend who came to visit Bharati casually asked him, “What would be your age?”
Bharati replied, “I am five years old.”
The friend was shocked, but somehow collected himself and asked, “Are you forty -five or so?”
Bharati repeated that he was “five years old.”
The friend’s face expressed surprise. At that time, Chellamma was passing by; Bharati pointed to her and said, “I am five years old; and she is two and a half years old.”
The friend decided to change his line of inquiry. He asked, “What do you think my age would be?”
Without hesitation Bharati replied, “You would be seventy-five years old.”
The friend was under thirty years old, and he was annoyed to hear Bharati’s assessment.
But, finally, Bharati explained: “Dear brother, don’t be annoyed. At the age of twenty=two, you are wearing heavy, thick glasses – one for reading, and one for normal seeing; your back refuses to sit without leaning on a support; your legs are unsteady when you walk. With all these debilities, one would think that you are seventy- five.”
The friend was ashamed. After a while, he said, “You are right. I have been noticing that you move around happily like a five year old; your wife is running around to serve you. I am so amazed to see you both. I will also try to be like a child.”
Bharati laughed and said, “You must understand that when I said one should be like a child, I didn’t mean that you should drink mother’s milk or cry like a child. What I meant was that you should develop the heart of a child – a mind that is uncluttered and happy, and rid of all the debris associated with adulthood.”
Thangammal concluded by saying that she understood what her father meant: one would have to have determination and practice in order to maintain a young mind. She could never forget the days that she spent with her father; those were the best days of her life.
As a young boy, Bharati played joyfully in the streets of Ettayapuram, in spite of his father’s “order” that he should pay attention to his school work. Indeed, in his autobiography, “Kanavu” (“Dream”), Bharati laments that he could not enjoy childhood as much as he would have liked to; while the other boys were running around in the streets, swimming in the river and pools, and climbing the trees, he was unable to participate in their activities. His father insisted that he should not “waste” his time with the other boys.
But soon, Bharati realized that something was happening to him: a sudden awakening of the youth blossoming within him, he found himself in love with a beautiful maiden. The experience was totally new, unique, captivating, and wonderful for him!
The maiden was none other than Saraswati herself – she who sits on the white lotus flower with a veena in her hands – the Goddess Herself, whose face emanates wisdom.
“She stood at the corner of the street holding yedu in her hands and reading a verse. When I eagerly approached her, she spoke words of wisdom and made me happy. When I said, “Let us make love,” she disappeared with a smile flashing at the corner of her eyes.
“While I was sitting on the steps of the manadapam by the river enjoying the Southern breeze, she brought me a poem. With my heart overflowing with joy, I accepted it and asked her to marry me; with a smile on her lips, she disappeared yet again.”
An unquenchable desire burning in his soul, the poet became dysfunctional – thinking about her all day, and dreaming about her all night.
At the age of twenty-two, the poet encountered another experience similar to the one that he had had before:
“A beautiful damsel came and stood in front of me in the garden; looking at her luminous face, I lost myself entirely. She said that her name was Chentiru; since then, I have been haunted with the desire to embrace her to my heart’s content.
“She smiled at me, and the whole day became bright and happy.
As she stood before me and looked at me, I felt dizzy with intoxication. And, for some reason, she would find fault with me, ignore and leave me; my heart would be broken into pieces.
“She would reappear in forest ways, in mountains, and in waterfalls; in the countryside, in towns with bright buildings.
She would be seen in hunters, heroes and kings.
And I would be the happiest to see her in all things that are beautiful around me.”
In these two experiences, the poet encountered what was “romantic” in the true sense of the word. They were “new, unique, captivating and wonderful” – the divine descended to earth to participate in the poet’s life, and to fulfill the aspirations of his heart and mind. The deities who would normally be on a pedestal to be worshipped by men became the beloveds of the poet who enriched his life, enabling him to perceive the Truth and Beauty of creation before his very eyes.
Bharati’s unusual experiences with the deities appear to me to be “romantic,” in the true sense of the term. As such, they may be compared with the experiences of the “Romantic” poets of the West. The lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the poems of Shelley and Keats, expressed a new perspective on life and Nature which stood distinct from earlier classics. They portrayed an idealistic view of nature and the workings of the human heart, overflowing with spontaneity, great power, and inspiration. Visionary experiences of love, too, appear in the poems of the Romantics, though in a different cultural context.
Romanticism was an idealistic movement; and one of the fundamental ideals that it represented was the importance of human individuality. The foundation of Romanticism is the true development of the individual nature, which depends on the thinking, culture, country, and forms of artistic expression available to any given individual. The expression of the Romantic spirit varied greatly among individual poets. For example, the Romantic experience of Wordsworth was different from that of Shelley or Keats, while still sharing some essential commonalities of spirit. Wordsworth’s poetry depicted a romantic vision of Nature; the “free spirit” was predominant in Shelley’s poetry, while Keats was exquisitely devoted to Beauty and (for him, the same thing) Truth.
In Bharati’s case, his genius longed passionately for freedom – freedom of the human spirit and everything needed for its glorious fulfilment, of life and of creation. He called himself “Shelley-Dasan” (his pen name) to express his admiration for Shelley; at the same time, like Keats, he also pursued Truth and Beauty as ideals of creation. Bharati was a true Romantic in the sense that he introduced the perfume of Romanticism into the age-long Tamil tradition, and was followed in this path by a new generation of artists and poets inspired by him. His ultimate goal was to build an ideal society, a place where equality and freedom could exist in all aspects of life.
He was a revolutionary, in the true sense of the word. His perception of the world and creation was based on love – an advaitic principle – and freedom of the spirit – whether that meant national freedom, philosophical ideals, or social issues such as womens’ freedom, caste, religious differences, language, arts, and literature.
In nationalism, for example, his vision of India as the Bharata-land virtually amounted to a divinely revealed vision. Bharata-Shakti was the Goddess Parvati Herself, the daughter of Himavan, the wife of Shiva, and the sister of Mahavishnu. Yet, his vision was new – the Shakti that he saw had thirty crores of faces animated with one “life”– she had sixty crores of arms with which she performed dharmas (arangal nadathuval) – she spoke eighteen languages with one common ideal – and she displayed the contrasting characteristics of Parvati and Kali – loving and compassionate on the one hand, and inexorably destructive of evil on the other.
Romantic love, a focus of both individuality and idealism, has a special place in the spirit of Romanticism.
Looking at Bharati from this point of view, Romanticism, as expressed in his poetry, differs greatly from the age-long Tamil tradition.
The Sangam poets (600 BCE to 300 CE) divided life into two basic themes – love and heroism (agam and puram). These two concepts were split into many divisions, according to the varied landscapes and life-styles of the people. They wrote about love and heroism in the minutest detail, representing their attitudes towards these ideals, and how they perceived human experience. All Sangam poetry was “Classic,” in the sense that it was written under specific constraints regarding form, content, imagination, ideas, and even emotions.
The Alwars, the Vaishnava Saint-poets of the 6th to 9th centuries AD, come next in the history of Tamil literature. For the Alwars, the pursuit of God through the most intense emotional commitment was the goal. The Alwars “pursued, embraced, sang with . . . exultant passion of [the] intimate realization” ∗of God, the Lover. “It would seem as if this passionate human symbol were the natural culminating point for the mounting flame of the soul’s devotion.” ∗ The poetry of Nammalwar and Andal, the modern poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali), and the 14th century love songs of Mira Bai express this devotion, “sung out by the rapt heart of a woman to the heart of the universe.”∗
The depth of love and devotion of the human soul longing to become one with the Great Soul, is expressed in the legends of the Gopikas as depicted in Bhagavatam. The expression seems “Romantic.” But in the context of Indian tradition, this “love” may be classified as bhakti, devotion, rather than “romantic.” In perceiving and approaching God, it is never entirely possible to transcend the distance between the human and the divine. The Alwars’ relationship with God – their admiration, devotion and wonderment at God’s qualities (gunas) – experienced by them from the angle of the beloved – is simply not as close as it would be in a romantic experience.
Bharati’s approach is quite different from the Alwars’. His experiences with the Goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi in “Moonru Kaadal” – and, indeed, his approach to Krishna as the Lover and the Beloved in his Kannan-Love Songs – are the most intimate and close imaginable. The Poet’s love affairs with Saraswati and Lakshmi are “aesthetic,” “imaginative,” “emotional,” and “visionary.” The prevailing sense of “wonder” and “mystery” in the heart of the poet was typically Romantic.
But, to return to Bharati’s poem, the third experience that the poet encountered, and described in “Moonru Kaadhal,” was quite different from his previous experiences with Saraswati and Lakshmi.
One night, a “Black Beauty” appeared before the poet. Intoxicated by the very idea that this was another young woman like the other two, the poet approached her with great excitement.
But, ah! The Poet was in for a surprise. This “Black Beauty” was not a maiden as he had imagined; she was someone else altogether. She was the Mother of the universe, Adi Parashakti Devi – who permeates Nature (prakriti) and moves the world around day and night with her finger!
At this juncture, I have to say that words don’t come to me easily to describe the Poet’s experience. This is far from my imagination, my reach, or my intellectual capacity. But … I will try…
It is clear, at least, that this experience of Bharati’s was a “mystical” experience, and far beyond the range of normal human experience. This experience could not have been attained by imagination, intellect or any other inner faculties of the human soul. It was simply given – received as a direct communication from above. It was deeply religious, and so intimate that it could not be sorted out or explained in words.
A mystical experience such as this does not ordinarily happen to any human being. First of all, the person would have to be deserving, and would have to be ready, equipped, and mature, in order to discern the vision. Just as Lord Krishna chose Arjuna to reveal his Visvarupa (the infinitesimal aspects of the Great Soul) – the poet was chosen to have the dharsan of Mahashakti.
This vision of Shakti and Her benevolence would enrich the human soul with wisdom. The Poet’s mind would be clear; he would be able to capture the whole world in his hands; all good things and the treasures of the world would come to him without asking, as a matter of course!
If the first two experiences described in Bharati’s poem could be called “Romantic,” this last one surely deserves to be described as “Mystical.” And here, Bharati resembles the mystic poets and devotees of the West – William Blake, who saw the soul of his dead brother “ascend heavenward clapping its hands for joy” – Henry Vaughan, who speaks of the “deep but dazzling darkness” in God. But Bharati is something very special – a Poet who combines the Romantic and Mystical into a single poetic vision. As such, he is an expansion of the marvelous Indian culture that preceded him – a brilliant synthesis of historical currents into a single mighty channel.