Author : Dr S.S. Sundaram
Subramaniya Bharathiyar was a poet, freedom fighter and social reformer from Tamil Nadu. He was known as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and the laudatory epithet Mahakavi means a great poet. He is considered as one of India’s greatest poets. His songs on nationalism and freedom of India helped to rally the masses to support the Indian Independence Movement in Tamil Nadu.
Subramaniya Bharathiyar was born on 11th December 1882, in a village called Ettayapuram in Tirunelveli District in Tamil Nadu and his childhood name was Subbiah. His father was Chinnaswamy Iyer and his mother was Lakshmi Ammal.
At the age of seven, Subbiah started writing poems in Tamil. When he was eleven, he wrote in such a way that even learned men praised him for his great knowledge and skill. In the eleventh year, Subbiah felt that he had to establish his credentials. He threw a challenge to the eminent men in the assembly of scholars that they should have a contest with him in a debate on any subject without any previous notice or preparation. The contest was held at a special sitting of the Ettayapuram Durbar at which the Rajah (the ruler) himself was present. The subject chosen was “Education”. Subbiah efficiently won the debate. This was a memorable moment in Subbiah’s life. The boy who was till then referred to as “Ettayapuram Subbiah” came henceforth to be known as “Bharathi”, and later he was respectfully referred to as“Bharathiar” by nationalists and by millions of Tamil lovers all over the globe.
In June 1897, Bharathi was hardly fifteen when his marriage took place, and his child-bride was Chellammal. Bharathi left for Benaras which was also known as Kashi and Varanasi. He spent there the next two years with his aunt Kuppammal and her husband Krishna Sivan. Speedily gaining a fair knowledge of Sanskrit, Hindi and English, he duly passed with credit the Entrance Examination of the Allahabad University. The Banaras stay brought about a tremendous change in Bharathi’s personality. Outwardly, he sported a moustache and a Sikh turban and acquired a bold swing in his walk.
Bharathi: A poet and a Nationalist
Significantly, a new age in Tamil literature began with Subramaniya Bharathi. Most part of his compositions are classifiable as short lyrical outpourings on patriotic, devotional and mystic themes. Bharathi was essentially a lyrical poet. “Kannan Pattu” “Nilavum Vanminum Katrum” “Panchali Sabatam” “Kuyil Pattu” are examples of Bharathi’s great poetic output.
Bharathi is considered as a national poet due to his number of poems of the patriotic flavour through which he exhorted the people to join the independence struggle and work vigorously for the liberation of the country. Instead of merely being proud of his country he also outlined his vision for a free India. He published the sensational “Sudesa Geethangal” in 1908.
Bharathi as a Journalist
Many years of Bharathi’s life were spent in the field of journalism, Bharathi, as a young man began his career as a journalist and as a sub-editor in “Swadesamitran” in November 1904.
“India” saw the light of the day in May, 1906. It declared as its motto the three slogans of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. It blazed a new trail in Tamil Journalism. In order to proclaim its revolutionary ardour, Bharathi had the weekly printed in red paper. “India” was the first paper in Tamil Nadu to publish political cartoons. He also published and edited a few other journals like “Vijaya”.
It is not surprising therefore that soon a warrant was waiting at the door of the “India”office for the arrest of the editor of the magazine. It was because of this worsening situation in 1908 that Bharathi decided to go away to Pondicherry, a French territory at that time, and continue to publish the “India” magazine. Bharathi resided in Pondicherry for sometime to escape the wrath of the British imperialists.
During his exile, Bharathi had the opportunity to mingle with many leaders of the militant wing of the independence movement such as Aurobindo, Lajpat Rai and V.V.S. Aiyar, who had also sought asylum in the French, Pondicherry. The most profitable years of Bharathi’s life were the ten years he spent in Pondicherry.
From Pondicherry, he guided the Tamil youth of Madras to tread in the path of nationalism. This increased the anger of the British towards Bharathi’s writings as they felt that it was his writings that induce and influence the patriotic spirit of the Tamil youth.
Bharathi met Mahatma Gandhi in 1919 in Rajaji’s home at Madras. Bharathi entered British India near Cuddalore in November 1918 and was promptly arrested. Even in prison, he spent his time in writing poems on freedom, nationalism and country’s welfare.
In his early days of youth he had good relations with Nationalist Tamil Leaders like V.O.Chidambaram, Subramanya Siva, Mandayam Thirumalachariar and Srinivasachari. Along with these leaders he used to discuss the problems facing the country due to British rule. Bharathi used to attend the Annual sessions of Indian National Congress and discuss national issues with extremist Indian National Leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, B.G. Tilak and V.V.S. Iyer. His participation and activities in Benaras Session (1905) and Surat Session (1907) of the Indian National Congress impressed many national leaders about his patriotic fervour. Bharathi had maintained good relations with some of the national leaders and shared his thoughts and views on the nation and offered his suggestions to strengthen the nationalist movement. Undoubtedly, his wise suggestions and steadfast support to the cause of nationalism rejuvenated many national leaders. Thus Bharathi played a pivotal role in the freedom of India.
Bharthi as a social reformer
Bharathi was also against caste system. He declared that there were only two castes-men and women and nothing more than that. Above all, he himself had removed his sacred thread. He had also adorned many Dalits with sacred thread. He used to take tea sold in shops run by Muslims. He along with his family members attended church on all festival occasions. He advocated temple entry of Dalits. For all his reforms, he had to face opposition from his neighbours. But Bharathi was very clear that unless Indians unite as children of Mother India, they could not achieve freedom. He believed in women’s rights, gender equality and women emancipation. He opposed child marriage, dowry and supported widow remarriage.
Bharathi died on 11th September 1921. Bharathi as a poet, journalist, freedom fighter and social reformer had made a great impact not only on the Tamil society but also on the entire human society. He followed what all he preached and it is here that his greatness is manifested. His prophecy during the colonial period about the independence of India came true after two and half decades after his demise. His vision about a glorious India has been taking a shape in the post-Independence era. Bharathi did not live for himself but for the people and nation. That is why he is respectfully called as Bharathiyar.
* Dr S.S. Sundaram is Professor & Head at Department of Indian History, University of Madras, Chennai (TN). He is also Chairperson- School of Historical Studies, Chennai.