Born in Ettayapuram in 1882, Subramanya Bharathi studied in Tinnevely and worked as a journalist with many newspapers, notable among them being the Swadesamitran and India. Bharathi was also an active member of the Indian National Congress. In 1908, an arrest warrant was issued against Bharathi by the government of British India for his revolutionary activities forcing him to flee to Pondicherry where he lived until 1918.
Bharathi is considered to be one of the greatest Tamil poets of the modern era. Most of his works were on religious, political and social themes. Songs penned by Bharathi have been widely used in Tamil films and Carnatic Music concert platforms.
Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathiyar was born to Chinnasami Subramanya Iyer and Lakhsmiammaal as “Subbayya” on December 11, 1882 in the Tamil village of Ettayapuram. He was educated at a local high school called “The M.D.T. Hindu College” in Tirunelveli. From a very young age he learnt music and at 11th, he learnt songs. It was here that he was conferred the title of “Bharathi” (one blessed by Saraswati, the goddess of learning).
Bharathi lost his mother at the age of 5 and his father at the age of 16. He was brought up by his disciplinarian father who wanted him to learn English, excel in arithmetic, become an engineer and lead a comfortable life. However, Bharathi was given to day dreaming and could not concentrate on his studies. In 1897, perhaps to instill a sense of responsibility in him, his father had the 14 year old Bharathi, married to his seven year younger cousin, Chellamal.
After this early marriage, Bharathi, curious to see the outside world, left for Benares in 1898. The next four years of his life served as a passage of discovery. During this time he discovered a country in tumult outside his small hamlet. Bharathi worked as a teacher in Madurai Sethupathy High School (now a higher secondary school) and as a journal editor at various times in his life.He was a freedom fighter of India. .
Middle Life and Glory
During his stay in Benares (also known as Kashi and Varanasi), Bharathi was exposed to Hindu spirituality and nationalism. This broadened his outlook and he learned Sanskrit, Hindi and English. In addition, he changed his outward appearance. He also grew a beard and wore a turban.
Soon, Bharathi saw beyond the social taboos and superstitions of orthodox South Indian society. In December 1905, he attended the All India Congress session held in Benaras. On his journey back home, he met Sister Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual daughter. From her arose another of Bharathi’s iconoclasm, his stand to recognise the privileges of women. The emancipation of women exercised Bharathi’s mind greatly. He visualised the ‘new woman’ as an emanation of Shakti, a willing helpmate of man to build a new earth through co-operative endeavour.
During this period, Bharathi understood the need to be well-informed of the world outside and took interest in the world of journalism and the print media of the West. Bharathi joined as Assistant Editor of the Swadeshamitran, a Tamil daily in 1904. By April 1907, he started editing the Tamil weekly India and the English newspaper Bala Bharatham with M.P.T. Acharya. These newspapers were also a means of expressing Bharathi’s creativity, which began to peak during this period. Bharathi started to publish his poems regularly in these editions. From hymns to nationalistic writings, from contemplations on the relationship between God and Man to songs on the Russian and French revolutions, Bharathi’s subjects were diverse.
He was simultaneously up against society for its mistreatment of the downtrodden people and the British for occupying India.
Bharathi participated in the historic Surat Congress in 1907, which deepened the divisions within the Indian National Congress between the militant wing led by Tilak and Aurobindo and the moderate wing. Bharathi supported Tilak and Aurobindo together with V. O. Chidambaram Pillai and Kanchi Varathaachariyar. Tilak openly supported armed resistance against the British.
In 1908, he gave evidence in the case which had been instituted by the British against V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. In the same year, the proprietor of the journal India was arrested in Madras. Faced with the prospect of arrest, Bharathi escaped to Pondicherry which was under French rule. From there he edited and published the weekly journal India, Vijaya, a Tamil daily, Bala Bharatha, an English monthly, and Suryothayam, a local weekly of Pondicherry. The British tried to suppress Bharathi’s output by stopping remittances and letters to the papers. Both India and Vijaya were banned in British India in 1909.
During his exile, Bharathi had the opportunity to mix with many other leaders of the revolutionary wing of the Independence movement such as Aurobindo, Lajpat Rai and V.V.S. Aiyar, who had also sought asylum under the French. Bharathi assisted Aurobindo in the Arya journal and later Karma Yogi in Pondicherry.
Bharathi entered British India near Cuddalore in November 1918 and was promptly arrested. He was imprisoned in the Central prison in Cuddalore in custody for three weeks from 20 November to 14 December. The following year Bharathi met with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Later Years and Death
he was badly affected by the imprisonments and by 1920, when a General Amnesty Order finally removed restrictions on his movements, Bharathi was already struggling. He was struck by an elephant at Parthasarathy temple, Triplicane, Chennai, whom he used to feed regularly. Although he survived the incident, a few months later his health deteriorated and he died on September 11, 1921 early morning around 1 am. Though Bharathi was a people’s poet and a great nationalist, outstanding freedom fighter and social visionary, it is a recorded sad fact that there were only 14 people to attend his funeral, he delivered his last speech at Karungalpalayam Library in Erode, which was about the topic Man is Immortal.
His poetry expressed a progressive, reformist ideal. His imagery and the vigour of his verse were a forerunner to modern Tamil poetry in many respects. He was the forerunner of a forceful kind of poetry that combined classical and contemporary elements. He had a prodigious output penning thousands of verses on diverse topics like Indian Nationalism, the National Flag, the Mahabharat, love songs, children’s songs, songs of nature, glory of the Tamil language, and odes to prominent freedom fighters of India like Tilak, Gandhi and Lajpat Rai. He even penned an ode to New Russia and Belgium. His poetry includes works on Allah and Jesus. His insightful similies have been read by millions of Tamil readers.
His poetry stands out for many facets of his love for his motherland. He berates his countrymen for many social evils. He chastises them for a fearful and pusillanimous attitude towards the rulers. He sound a clarion call for national unity, removal of casteism and the removal of oppression of women. He calls for the British to leave the motherland in forceful ways at one point saying “Even if Indians are divided, they are childen of One Mother, where is the need for foreigners to interfere?”.
Even in the period 1910–1920, when freedom was far away and with Mahatma Gandhi as just an emerging force, with a tremendous sense of positive expectation, he talks of a new and free India where there are no castes. He eloquently imagines all-round social and economic development. He talks of building up India’s defence, her ships sailing the high seas, success in manufacturing and universal education. He calls for sharing amongst states with wonderful imagery like the diversion of excess water of the Bengal delta to needy regions. He talks of a bridge to Sri Lanka earlier Ceylon. He even desired greater co-operation between India and her neighbours a vision realised more than 60 years after his death through the SAARC agreement. Truly a visionary.
Bharathi on Women
Bharathiyar advocated greater rights for women. His verses called for emanicipation for women and put a premium on their education. He visualised a modern Indian woman at the vanguard of society. He was of the strong opinion that the world will prosper in knowledge and intellect if both men and women are deemed equal.
Poetic extract – (The new age women will learn many intellectual texts. They will set the base for many scientific discoveries that facilitate human life. They will expunge all backward superstitions in the society. They will, all the same, be devoted to God and present all achievements of mankind as a tribute to God. They will earn good name from men.)
Bharathi on Caste System
Bharathi also fought against the caste system in Hindu society. Although born into an orthodox Brahmin family, he gave up his own caste identity. He considered all living beings as equal and to illustrate this he even performed upanayanam to a young harijan man and made him a Brahmin. He also scorned the divisive tendencies being imparted into the younger generations by their elderly tutors during his time. He openly criticised the preachers for mixing their individual thoughts while teaching the Vedas and the Gita.
சாதிகள் இல்லையடி பாப்பா!-குலத் தாழ்ச்சி உயர்ச்சி சொல்லல் பாவம்; நீதி உயர்ந்த மதி,கல்வி-அன்பு நிறை உடையவர்கள் மேலோர்.
(There is no caste system. It is a sin to divide people on caste basis. The ones who are really of a superior class are the ones excelling in being just, intelligent, educated and loving.)
About Bharathiar : Pondicherry Museum Notings
Pondicherry is a city of rich history which hosted many freedom fighters including Bharathiyar. He moved to Pondicherry in the year 1908 to escape his arrest. During his stay at Pondicherry he was involved with the following journals and magazines: India, Vijaya, Chakravarthini etc. The house he lived in has been turned into a Museum now. It was in this home that he composed the poem “Crows and Birds are our clan”.
The front cover of the magazine Chakravarthini (the 1906 edition was displayed) which reads “A Tamil Monthly Devoted mainly to the Elevation of India Ladies”
The topics for that edition were interesting as well: 1. Women in Buddhism 2. Figures regarding female education in the Madras Presidency 3. Tulsi Rai 4. Infant marriage and female education.
The museum houses many of his letters – 1. He starts off a letter with the words “Om Shakthi“ 2. He usually signed off the letter saying “May you gain immortality“ There was a postage stamp released on Bharathiar which is framed in the museum. There are around 20 photographs collected of his family, friends and relatives. The house address is: No. 20, Easwaran Koil Street, Pondicherry – 3. The museum has a collection of his letters, family photographs and lot of books.
Bharathiar was an expert in many languages: Tamil, Sanskrit, English, Telugu and French. He had written a book in English titled “The fox and its golden tail”. There is also a Tamil version of the phrase “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” – “Swathanthiram, Sammathuvam, Sahotharathuvam“.