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Mahakavi Subramanya Bharati

Mahakavi Subramanya Bharati

Author: Sandesh Bharati
Publication: hindu Swayamsewak Sangh Hong Kong
Date: June 2010

Subramanya Bharati (1882 - 1921), poet and mystic, inspired hundreds and thousands of the Tamil people to rise in revolt against the British. Inspired .by the Indian spiritual tradition, he identified Bharat Mata with Parashakti, and glorified HER with his writings, both poetry and prose. He spent his life working for India's glory in all fields and walks of life, be it agriculture, science, industry or arts. Bharati lived during an eventful period of Indian history, his contemporaries including prominent leaders of the Indian independence movement such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Shri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar. Though Bharati's compositions helped galvanize the independence movement chiefly in South India, however Bharati is fondly called as Mahakavi Bharati - the epithet Mahakavi means Great Poet in Sanskrit, and many other Indian languages - in fact, the great poetess, Sarojini Naidu, widely called as the "Nightingale of India", had this to say about Bharati, "Poets like Bharati cannot be counted as the treasure of any province. He is entitled by his work, to rank among those who have transcended all limitations of race, language and continent and have become the universal possession of mankind"

Bharati was born to Chinnasami Subramanya Iyer and Elakkumi Lakshmi Ammaal 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". From a very young age he learnt music and at 11, he was invited to a conference of local court poets and musicians for composing poems and songs. It was here that he was conferred the title of "Bharati", or the "one blessed by the Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Bharati 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, Bharati was given to day dreaming and could not concentrate on his studies. In 1897, perhaps to instil a sense of responsibility in him, his father had him married at the young age of 14. After this early marriage, Bharati, curious to see the outside world, left for Banaras 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. Bharati worked as a teacher in Madurai Sethupathy High School and as a journal editor at various times in his life.

During his stay in Banaras (also known as Kashi and Varanasi), Bharati 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. It is likely that Bharati was impressed by the turbans worn by many members of the Hindu society, and started wearing one himself.

It was his meeting with Sister Nivedita, the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekanand, that transformed Bharati into a spiritual - nationalist. He dedicated the first compilation of his patriotic songs under the title, "Swadesha Geetangal" and also its second edition under the title "Janma Bhoomi" to Sister Nivedita, whom he adopted as his spiritual preceptor. After meeting her, he also became motivated to take a stand to recognize the privileges of women. The equality 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.

Through his poetry, Bharati espoused greater freedom and respect for women:

"We will destroy the idiocy of denigrating womanhood"

He was simultaneously up against society for its mistreatment of the downtrodden people and the British for occupying India. In fact, Bharathi also fought against the caste system in Hindu society. Although born into an orthodox Brahmin family, he gave up his caste identity. One of his great sayings meant, 'There are only two castes in the world: one who is educated and one who is not.' He considered all living beings as equal and to illustrate this he even performed upanayanam to a young Harijan man. He also scorned the divisive tendencies being imparted into the younger generations by their elderly tutors during this time. He openly criticised the preachers for misleading the scriptures, by mixing their individual thoughts when teaching.

During this period, Bharati also 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 Swadeshamitram, 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 Bharati's creativity, which began to peak during this period. Bharati started to publish his poems regularly in these editions. From religious hymns to nationalist anthems, from contemplations on the relationship between God and man to songs on the French revolution, Bharati's subjects were diverse.

Bharati was devoted towards his mother tongue, Tamil, which he considered as the sweetest of all the languages known to him. In one of his poems he wrote, "Of all the languages I know, I have not heard a sweeter language than Tamil". However, he was fluent in many languages including Sanskrit, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi, Kutchi and even foreign languages like French and English. He had a voracious appetite for learning ancient and contemporary Tamil literature, especially ancient poems.

Bharati became a pioneer in introducing a new style of Tamil poetry. Until then the poems had to follow the strict syntactic rules set down by the ancient Tamil grammatical treatise Tolkappiyam. Bharati broke this syntactic bond and created a prose-poetic style known as the pu thukkavi thai (modern poems).

Bharati participated in the historic Surat Congress in 1907, which deepened the divisions within the Indian National Congress between the hardcore wing led by Lokmanya Tilak and Maharishi Aurobindo on the one hand, and the moderate wing. Bharati supported Tilak and Aurobindo together with V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Kanchi Varathaachariyar. Tilak openly supported armed resistance against the British.

Bharati immersed himself in writing, as well as in political activity. In Madras, in 1908, he organised a public meeting to celebrate Swara} (independence) Day. His nationalistic poems, Vande Matharam, Enthayum Thayum and Jaya Bharath were printed and distributed free to the audience.

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 (now Chennai). Faced with the prospect of arrest, Bharati escaped to Pondicherry which was then 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 Bharati's output by stopping remittances and letters to the paper~. Both India and Vijaya were banned in British India in 1909.

During his exile, Bharatihad the opportunity to mix with many other leaders of the militant wing of the Independence movement such as Shree Aurobindo, Lala Lajpat Rai and V.V.S. Aiyar, who had also sought asylum under the French. His close relationship and association with Shri Aurobindo at Pondicherry, helped him to pick up the threads of Vedic studies that he left off at Banaras. Bharati's wife has recorded that not a day would pass in Pondicherry, without Bharati meeting Aurobindo for Vedic studies and discussions. He assisted Aurobindo in the AnJa journal and later Karma Yogi in Pondicherry. Bharati considered the lives of Swami Vivekananda, Shri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi as proof that love of God, included love of Bharat Mata, fellow human beings and a sense of equality among all living beings.

Bharati 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 Bharati met with Mahatma Gandhi. Even though Bharati was in jail for a short period of time, yet his movements were curtailed till 1920.

Bharati's health was badly affected by the imprisonment and the intense political struggles. He was also struck by a temple elephant at Parthasarathy temple in Madras. Although he survived the incident, a few months later his health further deteriorated and he died on September 11, 1921. The last years of his life were spent in a house in Triplicane, Chennai. This house was bought and renovated by the state Government of Tamil Nadu in 1993 and named "Bharathiyar Illam" (Home of Bharathiyar). A Tamil film made on the life of Bharati, named Bharathy, was released a few years ago. This classic film was directed by Gnana Rajasekeran.

Bharati - the National Poet

Bharati is often called as the national poet of Bharat. But, he was more than a poet and patriot. In him, Mother Bharat found the culmination of the development of HER philosophical wisdom right from the ages of Vedic seers, to that of the renaissance philosophers such as Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Shri Aurobindo. In him, the mystic experience of countless sages and saints bedecking the glorious spiritual history of our great land found finest expression. In him, the nation found a great social reformer, who, though rooted in the ancient heritage of Bharat, brought forth a new social philosophy fitted to the needs and changes in the modern times.

Bharati wrote,

"The glorious Himalayas are ours and there is none to compare with it on this earth... The good river Ganges is our river and there is no river to rival its goodness................This is the land of the Vedas. This is the land of great heroes. Worship this Akhand Bharat as God".

Bharati translated the immortal Vande Mataram of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay into exquisite Tamil. He saw Mother Bharat as the land of Ganga with Upanishads as the National Scripture. In this land, the airs of Narad's music and the grace of Buddha flourished.

He always identified Bharat Mata as the Parashakti, adorer of Lord Shiva, worshipper of Lord Vishnu, the spirit incarnate, with Vedas as HER voice.

Bharati strongly believed that patriotism must be a spiritual ideal. "In the service of the motherland, we are all of one creed, one community, one caste, one color, one principle and one ideal".

Bharati also sang the prosperity of Mother Bharat as

"Rich with hurrying streams, springs and cool breeze, great mountains, beasts and useful cattle, this is a prosperous land. Not only in material wealth, but she is rich in spiritual wealth too. This is the land that produced great thoughts in thousands"

Instead of merely being proud of his country, he also outlined his vision for a free India. He wrote, "When you say BHARAT, you will lose your fear of your enemies...We will make weapons, produce good paper, we will build big factories and create great schools. We will never rest, nor sleep; we will be truthful and exceL.. "

Bharati was very much distressed to see such a great and mighty nation suffering under slavery and political subjugation. To his poetic imagination, Bharat Mata appeared as Draupadi in the court of Kauravas where she was humiliated and dishonoured in the presence of her own husbands who were indeed noble by birth and great men of might and wisdom. So, was Mother Bharat suffering under the British imperialism, helpless and forlorn, her own children standing as trees. Bharati however imagined himself as the great Arjun, who had taken a vow to wipe off the tears of Panchali and restore her honour. He aroused the people by reminding them time and again that Bharat is an ancient land, we are HER children and that we should never forget this.

The scholar, Professor P.Mahadevan has pointed out that it was the unique distinction of Bharati to overlay on the conventional outlines of the Mahabharat, both a political and mystical appeal. For not only is Draupadi in Bharati's Panchali Sabatam, the Bharat Mata in travail, but she is also Parashakti, the spirit of retributive nemesis purging everyone of us of our degenerate traits through the relentless operation of karma.

Besides his nationalistic poems, Bharati also produced such pieces as Kannan Paattu (Song of Krishna), in which Bharati sought to portray God as the source of all of humanity's passions in the most accessible of forms, including in the roles of a love-lorn lover, of a mischievous child, of an innocent child, and of a wise teacher. Actually, he was so enamoured of the nectar like words of Lord Krishna that he translated the Divine Poem into sweet Tamil.

Bharati considered it as a misrepresentation of the Advaita philosophy of Shankaracharya, to say that the whole manifested world, the country in which we live in and the people including wife and children around us, are mere illusions of Maya. He considered Maya as that which obstructed the vision of truth, of the unity behind all these manifestations, and not as the creator of illusions.

In his poems Kannan Pattu, Kannama Pattu and songs on Lord Muruga, we find the finest expressions of Bhakti as found in the Vishishtadvaita tradition and in the writings of the Alwars and Nayanmars, while we find the wisdom of Advaitic realisation in his Kuyil Pattu and Gyana Ratham, a prose work

However, undoubtedly Bharati's greatest source of inspiration ws Shakti worship, a uniquely Hindu concept. He accepted Parashakti as the Absolute and considered himself to be the blessed child of the Divine Mother. Just like Bankim Chandra before him, Bharati saw the motherland as Mother Parvati, Mother Lakshmi and Mother Saraswati.

Va. Ra., the reputed Tamil writer, says "Bharati was the only child of the Divine Mother to the last day of his life. A girl child born but yesterday is also a mother unto him. The age of a woman never counted much for him. Draupadi was a mother image. The country is Bharat Mata. Parashakti is the World Mother. Out of this intense feeling surged forth his poems on freedom of women, the tragedy of Draupadi, the rise and fall of the motherland, the glory of Bharat Mata, the power of Kali, her compassion".

Bharati was ever cautious to the designs of the Christian missionaries, who were attempting to convert the Shudras and Harijans. He was able to clearly distinguish between tolerance of all religions, and religious duplicity which was leading people to abandon their glorious Vedic heritage and get converted to Christianity. He wrote,

"The Alwars were drawn from various castes. Yet Ramanujacharya ruled that they be worshipped in the temples. The Christian priest does not know the truth. That is why he spins a yarn that in earlier times, Brahmins humiliated other castes as unfit for receiving spiritual wisdom - Ramanuj revered a Shudra, Tirukkachi Nambi as his Guru, and partook the food left by the latter. Ramanuj invited the humble people of the depressed classes, into the temple, a tradition continued to date. All these, the Christian priest does not know".

Besides his famous and popular poems and writings, not many people are aware that Bharati also composed Carnatic music ritis in Tamil on love, devotion, etc., He set his songs to music and could sing them in a variety of ragas. In Bharata Deviyin Thiru Dasangam, he used ten different ragas. His patriotic songs emphasized nationalism, unity of India, equality of man and the greatness of the Tamil language, set to folk tunes. He sang these himself at various political meetings.

While the vast majority of his songs were in Tamil, Bharati also composed two songs entirely in Sanskrit. Bharati set tunes for a number of his songs, however not all of them have been recovered. Some of the songs of Bharati that are currently very popular in the Carnatic music concert circuit include: Theeratha Vilaiyattu Pillai, Chinnanchiru Kiliye (tuned by him in Raga Bhairavi, but popularised in Ragamalika), Suttum Vizhi, Thikku Theriyaatha, Senthamizh Nadenum and Paarukkule Nalla Naadu.

Thus, Bharati distilled in his poems, the wisdom of the Vedas, the love of Lord Krishna and the maternal power and prosperity of Kali. He found in Mother India, an undying source of wisdom, power, love and prosperity. Divine Mother was his inspiration.

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