Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathi was born on 11 December 1882. He died on 11 September 1921. In a relatively short life span of 39 years, Bharathi left an indelible mark as the poet of Tamil nationalism and Indian freedom.
Bharathi’s mother died in 1887 and two years later, his father also died. At the age of 11, in 1893 his prowess as a poet was recognized and he was accorded the title of ‘Bharathi’ at Ettiyapuram. He was a student at Nellai Hindu School and in 1897 he married Sellamal. Thereafter, from 1898 to 1902, he lived in Kasi.
Bharathi worked as a schoolteacher and as a journal editor at various times in his life. As a Tamil poet he ranked with Ilanko, Thiruvalluvar and Kamban. His writings gave new life to the Tamil language – and to Tamil national consciousness. He involved himself actively in the Indian freedom struggle. It is sometimes said of Bharathi that he was first an Indian and then a Tamil. Perhaps, it would be more correct to say that he was a Tamil and because he was a Tamil he was also an Indian. For him it was not either or but both – it was not possible for him to be one without also being the other.
Bharathi often referred to Tamil as his ‘mother’. At the same time, he was fluent in many languages including Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, Kuuch, and English and frequently translated works from other languages into Tamil. His said “among all the languages I have known, I do not see any of them”, any as sweet as Tamil, was his moving tribute to his mother tongue. That many a Tamil web site carries the words of that song on its home page in cyber space today is a reflection of the hold that those words continue to have on Tamil minds and Tamil hearts.
Bharathi was a Hindu. But his spirituality was not limited. He sang to the Hindu deities, and at the same time he wrote songs of devotion to Jesus Christ and Allah. Bharathi was a vigorous campaigner against casteism. He wrote in ‘Vande Matharam’ :
We shall not look at caste or religion; all human beings in this land
– whether they be those who preach the vedas or who belong to other castes – are one
Bharathi lived during an eventful period of Indian history. Gandhi, Tilak, Aurbindo and V.V.S.Aiyar were his contemporaries. He involved himself with passion in the Indian freedom struggle. His ‘Viduthalai, Viduthalai’ was a clarion call for freedom from alien rule. He saw a great India. He saw an India of skilled workers and an educated people. He saw an India where women would be free. He expressed the depth of his love and the breadth of his vision for India.
He participated in the 1906 All India Congress meeting in Calcutta (chaired by Dadabhai Naoroji) where the demand for ‘Swaraj’ was raised for the first time. Bharathi supported the demand wholeheartedly and found himself in the militant wing of the Indian National Congress together with Tilak and Aurobindo. Aurobindo writing on the historic 1906 Congress had this to say:
“We were prepared to give the old weakness of the congress plenty of time to die out if we could get realities recognized. Only in one particular have we been disappointed and that is the President’s address. But even here the closing address, with which Mr.Naoroji dissolved the Congress, has made amends for the deficiencies of his opening speech.
He once more declared Self-Government, Swaraj, as in an inspired moment he termed it, to be our one ideal and called upon the young men to achieve it. The work of the older men had been done in preparing a generation which were determined to have this great ideal and nothing else; the work of making the ideal a reality lies lies with us. We accept Mr.Naoroji’s call and to carry out his last injunctions will devote our lives and, if necessary, sacrifice them.” (Bande Mataram, 31 December 1906)
Bharathi served as Assistant Editor of the Swadeshamitran in 1904. In April 1907, he became the editor of the Tamil weekly ‘India’. At the sametime he also edited the English newspaper ‘Bala Bharatham’. He participated in the historic Surat Congress in 1907, which saw a sharpening of the divisions within the Indian National Congress between the militant wing led by Tilak and Aurobindo and the ‘moderates’. Subramanya Bharathi supported Tilak and Aurobindo together with ‘Kapal Otiya Thamilan’ V.O.Chidambarampillai and Kanchi Varathaachariyar. Tilak openly supported armed resistance and the Swadeshi movement.
These were the years when Bharathi immersed himself in writing and in political activity. In Madras, in 1908, he organised a mammoth public meeting to celebrate ‘Swaraj Day’. His poems ‘Vanthe Matharam’, ‘Enthayum Thayum’, ‘Jaya Bharath’ were printed and distributed free to the Tamil people.
In 1908, he gave evidence in the case which had been instituted by the British against ‘Kappal Otiya Thamizhan’, V.O.Chidambarampillai. In the same year, the proprietor of the ‘India’ was arrested in Madras. Faced with the prospect of arrest, Bharathi escaped to Pondicherry which was under French rule.
From there Bharathi edited and published the ‘India’ weekly. He also edited and published ‘Vijaya’, a Tamil daily, Bala Bharatha, an English monthly, and ‘Suryothayam’ a local weekly of Pondicherry. Under his leadership the Bala Bharatha Sangam was also started. The British waylaid and stopped remittances and letters to the papers. Both ‘India’ and ‘Vijaya’ were banned in British India in 1909.
The British suppression of the militancy was systematic and thorough. Tilak was exiled to Burma. Aurobindo escaped to Pondicherry in 1910. Bharathi met with Aurobindo in Pondicherry and the discussions often turned to religion and philosophy. He assisted Aurobindo in the ‘Arya’ journal and later ‘Karma Yogi’ in Pondicherry. In November 1910, Bharathi released an ‘Anthology of Poems’ which included ‘Kanavu’.
V.V.S. Aiyar also arrived in Pondicherry in 1910 and the British Indian patriots, who were called ‘Swadeshis’ would meet often. They included Bharathi, Aurobindo and V.V.S.Aiyar. R.S.Padmanabhan in his Biography of V.V.S.Aiyar writes:
“All of them, whether there was any warrant against them or not, were constantly being watched by British agents in Pondicherry. Bharathi was a convinced believer in constitutional agitation. Aurobindo had given up politics altogether… and Aiyar had arrived in their midst with all the halo of a dedicated revolutionary who believed in the cult of the bomb and in individual terrorism.”
In 1912, Bharathy published the Bhavad Gita in Tamil as well as Kannan Paatu, Kuyil and Panjali Sabatham.
After the end of World War I, Bharathi entered British India near Cuddalore in November 1918. He was arrested. He was released after three weeks in custody. These were years of hardship and poverty. (Eventually, the General Amnesty Order of 1920 removed all restrictions on his movement). Bharathy met with Mahatma Gandhi in 1919 and in 1920, Bharathy resumed editorship of the Swadeshamitran in Madras.
This was one year before his death in 1921. Today, more than seventy five years later, Subaramanya Bharathy stands as an undying symbol not only of a vibrant Tamil nationalism but also of the unity that is India.