Remembering Bharathidasan: Prolific poet and Dravidian politics' rhetorical memory

It was Bharathidasan’s genius to actualize in the realm of literature what was advanced in the political domain by Periyar and his associates.
Remembering Bharathidasan: Prolific poet and Dravidian politics' rhetorical memory
Remembering Bharathidasan: Prolific poet and Dravidian politics' rhetorical memory
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By Kalyan Raman N

Last week, J Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, declared April 29, poet Bharathidasan’s birthday, as “Tamil Poets Day” and announced a seminar to mark the 125th birth anniversary of the distinguished poet in April 2016. Although Bharathidasan (1891-1964) is not quite a household name in contemporary Tamilnadu, this recognition by the State indicates that he is not forgotten either. This might therefore be an opportune moment to briefly explore Bharathidasan’s literary achievement and his relevance to contemporary Tamil society.

The poet was born as Subburathinam in a wealthy Mudaliar family in Pondicherry, then a French colony on the east coast of Tamilnadu. Hailing from a traditional land-owning caste of the region, he was heir to a hoary tradition of Tamil scholarship and Shaiva Siddhantam (Shaivite philosophy), a branch of Hindu theology native to Tamilnadu that has been fostered over the centuries by the land-owning Vellalars. Young Subburathinam received formal instruction in Tamil grammar, literary classics and Shaiva Siddhantham and excelled in his studies through school and college. Endowed with an early gift for writing poetry, Subburathinam came into contact with the legendary Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), freedom fighter who was in exile in Pondicherry for a decade (1908-1918). As a mark of his deep admiration for Bharathi and his work, the young poet took the name of Bharathidasan (Bharathi’s servant/devotee).

Subramania Bharathi, revered among Tamils as Mahakavi (Great Poet), is widely considered as the pioneer of Tamil modernity. For the first time in the history of Tamil letters, he brought a whole range of modern themes – liberty, equality and fraternity, nationhood, women’s liberation – as well as modernist exploration of religious devotion and pan-Indian puranas into the realms of Tamil poetry. While his poetry represented an extension of the language of bhakti poetry, Bharathi’s prose diction did not eschew the heavy Sanskritic influence on the language wrought during long periods of foreign rule since the 12th century. Bharathidasan, too, wrote works of devotional poetry – Mayilam Shree Shanmugam Pattu in 1920 and Mayilam Shree Subramaniar Thuthi in 1926 – in the bhakti style.

Two major developments in the literary and political spheres were to lead Bharathidasan’s considerable learning and talents in a new direction. The first was the nascent non-Brahmin movement under Justice Party in the 1910s to fight the social and cultural dominance of Brahmins in Madras Presidency, a movement that was later to be transformed in 1935 by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasami Naicker (1879-1973) into the mass-based Self-Respect Movement. The second was the retrieval and publication of 41 classical works belonging to the Sangam period over nearly forty years, starting from the last decade of the nineteenth century. The publication of Sangam classics, considered a supreme literary achievement in any language, and their wide public access, combined with the prevalent cultural opposition to Brahmin dominance, led to an assertion of Tamil identity based on the glorious Tamil past as revealed in Sangam literature. On the political plane, this Tamil identity as advanced by Periyar and his disciple, CN Annadurai (1909-69) was opposed to the discursive identities of Brahmin, Indian nationalism and Sanskrit. This opposition has endured in the core of the Dravidian movement to various degrees right up to the present.

Bharathidasan, who continued to write conventional poetry in the manner of Subramania Bharathi through the1920s, inevitably came under the influence of this movement, which was led mainly by people of the land-owning Vellalar castes, then the only other socially and intellectually privileged social group apart from the Brahmins. He declared himself an atheist at a conference of atheists convened in 1932 by Singaravelar (1860-1946), the great Communist and trade union leader who later became a votary of Self-Respect movement. By associating closely with Periyar from 1928, Bharathidasan also found common cause with the Self-Respect Movement, endorsing the movement’s rejection of caste and Brahmanical Hinduism, and its advocacy of women’s rights. These ideological commitments and learning were soon to find their way into the practice of Bharathidasan’s literary craft.

It was Bharathidasan’s genius to actualize in the realm of literature what was advanced in the political domain by Periyar and his associates. His works since 1940 celebrated the life and nature of Tamils, in a language and style that had Sangam literature as its model but belonged very much to his own time. In this way, Bharathidasan totally modified the then prevailing trajectory of Tamil literature which had persisted for centuries, put the stamp of his personality on it, and changed the direction of Tamil poetry forever. While Subramania Bharathi’s modernity was an extension and modification of the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition and language, Bharathidasan’s modernity was forged out of an assertive Tamil identity, nurtured by the literary experience of a glorious past. He was undoubtedly the greatest poet of the revolutionary winds sweeping across Tamil country at the time and established a new tradition of poetry to hold and celebrate the new consciousness.

The corpus of Bharathidasan’s works covered a wide range of themes. In addition to passionate advocacy of the causes and ideas central to the Dravidian movement (social equality for the oppressed, opposition to Hindi, self-respect for all, inter-caste marriage, among others), Bharathidasan also wrote poems for children, youth and women. He excelled particularly in writing contemporary narratives set in verse that established a new framework for writing imaginatively about the life of contemporary Tamils. As in Sangam poetry, nature and love had a special place in his work. Unlike the Sanskritic tradition which celebrated Nature as the creation of God, Bharathidasan related nature to the life and emotions of humans, again harking back to the Sangam tradition, and often for its own sake, a decidedly modern approach to nature in the Indian context. His rousing paeans to the glory of Tamil and Tamil society, remarkably effective in their evocation of Tamil pride, have proved enduringly popular. His contributions included screenplays for the then fledgling Tamil talkies as well as plays on historical and social themes.

Bharathidasan’s work was so prolific and influential that he received many awards and honours throughout the second half of his life, beginning with his anointment as Puratchi Kavignar (Poet of the Revolution) by Periyar to the establishment of Bharathidasan University in Tiruchirapalli in 1975. However, the poetic tradition that he founded did not survive more than a generation or two after him.  Since the DMK’s ascent to power in 1967, the Tamil identity, celebrated so passionately in the early decades of the Dravidian movement, became symbolic and devoid of content, something to be deployed only in opposition to something else – the Brahmin, central government or Hindi imposition – but not nurtured for its own sake. The Vellalar tradition of Tamil studies and scholarship is itself marginalized within Tamilnadu due to the exigencies of electoral politics. Therefore, just as Sangam poetry has stagnated as an archaic memory in contemporary Tamil consciousness, Bharathidasan has remained a mere rhetorical memory in the hurly-burly of Dravidian politics.

As the rivalry between the two de-ideologized Dravidian parties becomes more acute, so does the competition for symbols. While DMK’s Karunanidhi relies on Thiruvalluvar and Tholkappiyar from the distant past, Jayalalithaa is constrained to reach for symbols beyond Periyar and Anna, the movement’s conventional icons, to include stalwarts like Bharathidasan, M Singaravelar and Pattukottai Alagiriswamy. Unusually for the leader of a Dravidian party, she has also chosen to honour even heroes of the Indian nationalist movement like Thiru Vi Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar, Tiruppur Kumaran and Vanchinathan. This latest honour conferred on the poet Bharathidasan could mirror the hollowness of the political present more than those ideals and visions that have long faded.

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