A Circle of Friends, Part II – V.V.S. Iyer

Thangammal, Bharati’s elder daughter, introduces V. V. S. Iyer in an article on Bharati’s family and friends:

“In those days, the name Bharati meant Subramania Bharati, and Iyer meant V.V.S. Iyer.  Although he was born in a Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu, a Rajaputra’s blood was running in his veins.  With a strong physique and unwavering mind, he opposed British rule in India.  He followed in the lineage of the ancient rishis.  He was a hero throughout his life and even in death.”

In many respects, Bharati and Iyer resembled each other. First and foremost, they were both Nationalists; they loved India and were determined to fight for the Freedom of their country from British rule.

In fact, the Indian Congress, fighting against British rule in India, was split into two parties, the “Extremists” and the “Moderates.”  There were great leaders like Dadabai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Firosshaw Mehta on the “Moderate” side, and  Lajpat Roy, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bibin Chandra Pal, Shri Aurobindo on the “Extremist” side. In the South, there was V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, a “Moderate” who printed Bharati’s three first national songs, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, Subramania Siva, G. Subramania Iyer, and Surendranath Arya, as well as Bharati himself, as “Extremist” members of the Congress party.

The goal of both parties was “Freedom.”

Even within each of these two groups, there were many differences of opinion. For example, both Bharati and Iyer belonged to the Extremist faction of the Indian Congress; but their approaches to securing India’s freedom from the hands of the British were rather different.  Bharati’s personality was fiery. As an “Extremist,” he was impatient to obtain freedom.  He was passionate, not only about achieving national freedom, but also, in the pursuit of his personal goals in life – establishing Kruta Yuga, an era of happiness, free from hunger and inequality.  His approach was that this goal had to be achieved “immediately” and “right now!”

As far as the Nation was concerned,  Iyer’s desire, too, was for immediate freedom; but the method that he espoused was different from Bharati’s, and aggressive. He was prepared to pursue this goal by any means, any means at all, even adopting violence.

Bharati, on the other hand, did not advocate or promote violence.  Ahimsa (non-violence) was his dharma, and “love thine enemy” (“pagaivanuk karulvai”) was his message to the world.

“Think lovingly of the tiger that comes to eat you, O my good heart,

It is the form of Parasakti. Salute Her there!”

As an advaitic philosopher, all beings, living and inanimate, were forms of Parasakti in Bharati’s eyes.  He writes that “the crow and the sparrow” belonged to his “class”; the vast ocean and the mountains were part of his community.

Bharati’s approach to the national struggle was to “educate” the Indian public about the importance of freedom and self-government, and to talk to the British about India, her people and culture, explaining India’s stature and position, and analyzing the current situation under British rule.  Writing was his instrument, which, in his hands, was more powerful and effective than violence.

Iyer studied in London to become a Barrister-at-Law.  While there, he became involved in India’s Freedom Movement.   He was greatly influenced by Savarkar, an Indian Revolutionist.  His association with him  at the “India House” in London, may have contributed to his “militant” attitude towards India’s Freedom.

When Iyer returned to India, he worked with a “terrorist” group, guiding them in an  aggressive fight against British rule.  He was a hero in that sense, and he believed that by adopting this method, India could achieve Freedom in the immediate future.

While Iyer was studying in London, he was a reporter for India magazine, published from Pondicherry and edited by Bharati.  At times, the reports written by Iyer were not agreeable to Bharati, and he would write a comment objecting to the “aggressive” views of the reporter.   For example, Iyer covered a terrible fire accident at a cotton mill in Glasgow, commenting: “This incident occurred to avenge a British act – the hanging of the Revolutionist Madan Lal Dhingra, and the refusal to allow his body to be burnt by Hindu methods (achara). It is the anger of the Fire God, Agni, which has destroyed the cotton mill.”

Although Bharati printed this information in India, he wrote in his own editorial that he “did not agree with the views of the London reporter.”

The British Government issued a warrant for Iyer’s arrest, alleging his involvement in Madan Lal Dhingra’s activities.  Iyer, disguised as a “wanderer” (pakkiri) escaped to Pondicherry, where he met fellow-patriots Bharati and Shri Aurobindo,  and continued his revolutionary activities.

Bharati and Iyer became close friends.  Both were intellectuals, interested in Indian culture, religion, literature, and arts.

Iyer was fascinated by Bharati’s writings.  He wrote an Introduction to the Second Edition of Bharati’s Kannan Pattu,  in which he appreciates Bharati’s poetry as gems, “each word worth a lakh” (akshara laksham).

Bharati visited Iyer quite often. Thangammal writes in her book, “Whenever Bharati wrote something new, he would first read it to his wife, Chellamma (and the children), and then he would read it to his friends, particulalry Iyer; he wouldn’t be satisfied otherwise.” (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal (Articles), ed. S. Vijaya Bharati.)

Iyer was a writer himself, a literary critic and a pioneer of the short story form in Tamil. He translated the Tirukkural into English and wrote a book on the Kamba Ramayanam.

The families of Bharati and Iyer became friends, as well. Thangammal says, “When my father visited Iyer, he would take the children with him; I had an opportunity to listen to the short stories that Iyer read to Bharati and would become immersed in them.”  Thangammal had a close association with Iyer’s family, and later, Thangammal and Iyer’s son, Dr. V.V.S. Krishanamurti, became good friends. And Thangammal, herself, became a remarkable short story writer. (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal)

My mother wrote a funny anecdote about Krishnamurti:

“On one occasion, when Bharati visited Iyer, Bharati sang a song he wrote on Shakti (“Shakti Shakti Shakti enru sollu”).  The young boy was listening attentively and was emotionally affected by the words and music of the song. He asked Bharati whether he might be allowed to sing it.  When permitted, he sang, “Katthi Katthi Katthi enru sollu.”

Both Iyer and Bharati laughed, and Bharati said, “The boy is born in a heroic family, and he therefore sings Katthi (sword) instead of Shakti.”

In fact, at that young age, the boy could not pronounce “sha” but instead, pronounced the syllable “ka”!

I attach a beautiful narration of Iyer’s adventurous and tragic journey to the top of the podigai mountain, written by my mother, Thangammal; please click here. Iyer went in search of the source of the river Tamravaruni (Papanasam) with his friends and his young daughter Subatra…

A Circle of Friends, Part I – Bharati dasan

Bharati had a number of friends in Pondicherry.  They admired him and helped him. There were some whose company simply delighted the poet. A few helped him at difficult times, providing support, and a few others made important contributions to the growth of his personality.  There can be no doubt that the realisation of the self came to Bharati through his many relationships with friends, disciples, and relatives. At the same time, Bharati’s influence on those around him was profound, and the force of his writing and personality helped to unleash a Renaissance in Tamil literature. Bharati belongs to the category of Renaissance thinkers and poets, a special group of great individuals who are products of unique historical forces that appear rarely in civilizations. In Bharati’s case, the tremendous call of the National Movement and the fight for Indian independence catalyzed his growth, and transformed him into one of these leaders of human thought.

Some of his friends became characters in Bharati’s writings.  He gave them nick-names, which were partly truthful and partly humorous.

Vilakkennai Chettiar (Sabapati Chettiar), the owner of the house where Bharati lived was a loving, compassionate man; smooth as castor oil (“vilakkennai”), he would never ask Bharati for payment of the rent. He would drop by with the intention of collecting it, but he was satisfied to listen to Bharati singing a song and invariably left without asking for money.  There were “Vellachu” (jaggery piece) Krishnasamy Chettiar, “Elikkunju” (mouse) Arumugam Chettiar, “Valluru” (kite) Naicker, “Brahmaraya Iyer (Professor Subramania Iyer) to mention a few.

Among his close friends, Bharati was fortunate to count Sri Aurobindo, with whom he conducted research on the Vedas. Bharati enjoyed the company of V.V.S. Iyer, a great critic and writer; of the siddhas who lived in Pondicherry, such as Kullachami and Govindasamy, the Swamy from Jaffna; of his own disciples, such as Kanaga Subburathinam (Bharati dasan), Va. Ra. (Va. Ramasamy Iyengar,) Kuvalai Kannan; and a great many other, loyal friends.

In her book Bharatiyar Charithiram, Chellamma writes, “There were about 35 disciples (sishya kodikal) in the house.  . . . Each one was different in his own particular way.”

Among these remarkable friends, a special place was held by the fellow-poet whose love for Bharati and devotion to him were so immense that he adopted “Bharati dasan” as his own pen name.  This follows the poetic tradition of Kalidasa, and of Bharati himself, who once assumed the pen name “Shelley dasan.”

With Bharati DasanIn the picture above, I am seated across from Bharati dasan.  Also present were my aunt, Shakuntala Bharati, Bharati’s younger daughter,  R.A. Padmanabhan, and Bharati’s disciple, Kanakalingam.

The meeting of Bharati dasan with Bharati was an interesting one.  Bharati dasan gives an elaborate account of the incident in his own book:

Venu Naicker (kottadi vathiar), a disciple and friend of Bharati, was getting married, and Bharati was invited to the wedding.  A musical performance had been arranged for 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the wedding reception.  About 30 people, friends and relatives of Venu Naicker, were gathered under the canopy (pandal) at the reception.  Subburthinam, who later came to be known as Bharati dasan, had agreed to sing.

Subburathinam was sitting in the front row, and he turned around to look at the people at the gathering.  There were a few familiar faces, and among them he recognized a man that he had seen before, somewhere in Pondicherry.   The person he saw was very attractive,  with a fair complexion, beautiful and majestic features, and  eyes of great depth that seemed to be filled with love – an appearance that was so divine, he looked like a painting! Indeed, Subburathinam thought to himself that the person was the very picture of Paramasivam (Lord Shiva) as painted by the celebrated artist, Ravivarma.

The performance started and Subburathinam began to sing: Vira Suthandiram, and the audience was listening with great enjoyment.  When he finished the song, Venu Naicker asked him to sing a few more songs.  When Subburathinam started again with Thonru nigazhnda danaithum, many members of the audience began to turn their heads to look at the Ravivarma Paramasivam, who was present there.

When the concert was over, Venu came to Subburathinam and took him to the person. Venu asked Subburathinam, “Do you know this man?”

Before Subburathinam answered, Bharati turned directly to Subburathinam, and asked, “Have you studied Tamil?”

“A little,” he responded.

To which, Bharati remarked, “You sing with emotion.”

At this point, Venu turned to Subburathinam and said, “This is the person who wrote all of the poems you just sang.  His name is Subramania Bharati.”

Subburathinam’s face turned pale, and, as the Tamil expression goes, became exactly like the face of “a monkey who has eaten ginger.”  He was overwhelmed by shame, fear, and happiness.  Everything became a blur.

As Bharati turned to leave, he asked Venu, “Why have you not brought this man to our house?”

Subburathinam was excited by this invitation and filled with overpowering joy.

The relationship that began thus developed into the most important relationship of Subburathinam’s life. Subburathinam was fascinated by Bharati and became an ardent follower. His decision to change his name to “Bharati dasan” signified his affection for Bharati as a person and poet.  Subburathinam became immersed in Bharati’s poetry, and involved in his life. The members of Bharati’s family came to see him as one of their own.

Thangammal, Bharati’s elder daughter, remembers a poem that Bharati dasan wrote early  in his career, which she published among her own writings. This poem , which remained unpublished in Bharati dasan’s collections of poetry shows that, in his early years, Bharati dasan was totally absorbed in Bharati’s poetry. He believed in Bharati’s way of life, his revolutionary ideals, and his principles.  Bharati dasan considered Bharati his guru, and respected him enormously, not only for his poetry, but also, as an exceptional person.

You can read this poem by clicking here. It  shows how passionate was Bharati dasan’s love of his country, as well as his belief in appealing to Parashakti.  The influence of Bharati is apparent in the style of writing, in the words that Bharati dasan used, and in the nationalistic fervour and emotional heights that the poem reaches – undoubtedly inspired by Bharati.

In fact, the foundation for Bharati dasan’s entire development was laid by his association with Bharati. Bharati was a passionate believer in equality, and constantly argued for justice on behalf of the disempowered groups in Indian society – notably, women and the disadvantaged castes, as well as for the equality of Indians with other citizens of the world. Bharati dasan was originally involved in the Indian Independence Movement, opposing the British and French governments in India, and consigned to time in prison by the French government, for his pro-Freedom views. He later became involved in post-Independence revolutionary movements, joining the Dravidar Kazhagam, founded by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, whose original goal was to eradicate the evils of the caste system. The ideas behind the movement were equality and self-respect, ideals that Bharati stood for throughout all his life and writings.

Bharati was a Universal poet, in the sense that his poetry encompassed everything in nature. He wrote about the animate and inanimate objects of the universe – the sun, the moon and the stars – the sky, the wind, the fire, the earth and the waters – the mountains, the rivers, are all part of his life. He had a deep relationship with all the objects of creation.  Because of this, his poetry belonged to all three times, the past, the present, and the future. His poetry was preoccupied with truth, in a cosmic sense, which is the essence of life.

As illustrated by Bharati, the characteristics of a Universal mind, I think, are faith in God ,who created the universe, and Love, by which the Universe functions.

Bharati was a Renaissance poet who revived our culture,  and shaped and styled the Tamil language and literature.  Like Shakespeare, there was no subject matter that he left untouched, or failed to deal with in his writings.

Bharati was a Revolutionary whose goal was to completely remodel society, and give it new lustre.  Through the power of his creative imagination and insight, he was able to uproot the age-long ideas and thinking of society and completely change the direction of its future.  Over time, society at large was influenced by this great personality.

Bharati dasan was totally absorbed in Bharati, in his poetry first of all, and in his revolutionary ideas and principles at large.  In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Dasan’s personality had been developed in the foot-steps of Bharati, of course, had been shaped by Bharati’s poetry, 

Bharati dasan’s literary works have earned a place in the canon of Tamil literature alongside Bharati.  He wrote on various themes – from political and social, to purely literary, and on the Tamil language.  He wrote plays, short stories, essays, and film scripts.

My personal recollections of Bharati dasan remain among my most treasured memories.

In fact, I was first introduced to Bharati dasan as a teenager, by my aunt, Shakuntala. She  took me with her to Pondicherry to attend a Bharati vizha (celebration), organized by Bharati dasan.  I can’t exactly remember the year now.  On the day preceding the celebration, I met the poet.  At that time, I had already read and enjoyed Bharati dasan’s poetry before and used to sing a few of his poems at home.

When we met, I sat down respectfully in front of the poet, and suddenly he asked me to sing a song.  I started singing Bharati dasan’s song Thunbam nergaiyil, which had been beautifully sung in a movie.  Bharati dasan was deeply affected.  He then asked me to sing a Bharati song, which I did – the poem starting vendumadi eppodhum viduthalai.

The following day, at the grand vizha, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were gathered. The poet  asked me to sing Thunbam nergaiyil as the first order of business, to inaugurate the event. I was deeply touched by the love he showed towards myself, and towards my aunt Shakuntala, as the members of Bharati’s family.

Talking about Love, I have a firm belief that Love is, in fact, the underlying quality of a poetic personality and without love, poetry cannot be created.

This, I arrived at, after studying Bharati a lot, and reading some major poetry in English literature under the guidance of my late husband (a professor of English).

In the light of these reflections, how startling and wondrous it is to note that Bharati dasan was an Atheist. Apparently, during an Atheists’ Conference in Chennai, he signed a document bearing the words, “I am an undying atheist.”

An Atheist does not believe in the existence of God. On the other hand, Bharati was an impassioned devotee of Parashakthi. From what I have read in Bharati, I understand that a person who has faith in God believes in his Creation, and Love is the essence and theme that unites all of God’s Creation. Any expression of hatred towards other human beings cannot be part of the flow of Creation, or meaningful to life.

I expressed my theory earlier about Love as the underlying quality of a poetic personality, and without love, poetry cannot be created.  I have no question in my mind about the validity of my conviction.

Bharati dasan was a believer in goodness as opposed to evil, a supporter of justice as opposed to injustice, and  undoubtedly a worshipper of Love a divine quality that permeated his heart and soul.  Perhaps, he denied “God” as expressed in religion, an imagined figure and form. Regardless of whatever “label’ he applied to himself, the fact that he believed in goodness, justice, and love makes him easily recognizable,  just like his guru, as a devotee of truth.