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Subramania Bharati: The Mahakavi Modi invoked in his Independence Day speech

On his death anniversary, recalling the poet, social reformer and freedom fighter who altered history despite a short life.

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New Delhi: Not many outside Tamil Nadu get just how significant a figure Subramania Bharati was in literature as well as India’s struggle for independence.

Bharati, known as ‘Mahakavi’ (great poet), was a poet, novelist, journalist, freedom fighter, feminist and social reformer. Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted him in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort.

He remains the only person whose writings were nationalised and put into the public domain, soon after Independence, in 1949.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018, marks his 97th death anniversary, and ThePrint looks back at this extraordinary man’s life.


Also read: Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s lesser-known love affair with Rabindranath Tagore’s work


Radical ideas

Bharati was born as Subramaniam to Chinnaswamy Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal in Ettayapuram in modern-day Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu on 11 December, 1882. At the age of 11, the ruler of Ettayapuram awarded him the title ‘Bharati’ for his prowess in the Tamil language; he later went on to be proficient in Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, English and French too.

He was 15 years old when he was married to seven-year-old Chellamal, just before he left for Kashi (Varanasi) to study.

He returned to Ettayapuram four years later, in 1902, filled to the brim with radical ideas, having written reams against the practice of child marriage.

He soon began writing for and editing various journals in different languages — IndiaVijayaKarmayogiBala BharathaSuryothayam, and the most prominent and regular of them all, Swadesamitran.

For a short time, Bharati also worked as Tamil teacher at the Madurai Sethupathi Higher Secondary School.

Literature and nationalism

Bharati’s poems cut across a wide range of subjects, from nationalism to spirituality, women’s empowerment to untouchability.

He wrote against the Minto-Morley reforms in 1909 and the draconian Indian Press Act in 1910.

The British government imposed a ban on his writings, which made Bharati seek asylum in the French-ruled Pondicherry. It was during this exile that he produced some of his most famous works, such as Kannan PaatuKuyil Paatu and Panchali Sabatham. It was around this time that he became a close acquaintance of philosopher-spiritual reformer Sri Aurobindo, who had also shifted base to Pondicherry.

Bharati also started translating significant works, including the Bhagavad Gita and works of Rabindranath Tagore.

In 1918, he was arrested when he stepped out of Pondicherry and only released after he gave a declaration in writing to the British that he would stay out of politics. He dwelled in poverty throughout his life without compromising his dignity.


Also read: ‘Who Owns that Song?’: How a Tamil poet’s works became the first to be nationalised


Bharati moved to Chennai in 1920 to earn a living. But during one of his regular visits to the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, he was pushed down by the temple elephant. His fragile body just could not take the trauma, and he died of complications on 11 September 1921.

In his brief 39-year life, Bharati produced innumerable poems and prose pieces. He is considered the forerunner of the modern Tamil poetry, while Tamil cinema has also played a significant role in taking his verses to the common mass.

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