Monday, 12 September 2016

Subrahmanya Bharathi’s Essays and Short Stories - Narasiah lecture

Narasiah spoke about காலம் கொன்ற விருந்து “A Feast that Defied Time”, a line in a poem by Subramania Bharati. It was organized by Swarnamalya Ganesh for Ranga Mandira, August 21, as part of their Madras Week activities and a set of programs whose theme was “Annihilation of Caste.”

“The Bharathi who added Beatuty to Prose”, (இயலுக்கு அழகூட்டிய பாரதி) waxed Narasiah talking of the poet’s lesser known short stories and English essays. Even Bharathi’s career as a Tamil journalist, for magainzes like Swadesamitran and a pioneer in the field, is barely known outside literary circles, for such is his towering reputation as a poet.


Annie Besant, who came to Madras attracted by the Theosophical Society in Madras, later joined the Indian National Congress and called upon Indians to rebel against British rule. In this instance, she called J Krishnamurthy a reincarnation of Krishna. This appalled Bharati and prodded him to write the satire about Besant, titled "The Fox with the Golden Tail," wherein he mocked her as a fox from the Land of the Bees and Ants (a pun on Besant) who introduced the Cult of FoxoBeesAntism. It was a huge hit and there was demand all over India and for a second edition. Ironically, this deeply saddened Bharati, because his Tamil epic poem Paanchali Sabatham (பாஞ்சாலி சபதம்) evoked no such popularity or acclaim. “I've been minting my hearts blood in Tamil poetry and no one to read it and here are these numskulls asking for a second edition of Fox essay,” lamented Bharati.

Editorial Courage
Another incident was the Ashe murder case, when an ardent nationalist and admirer of Bharathi, Vanchinathan killed Collector Ashe on June 17, 1911 at the Maniyachi railway station, and then committed shot himself. While others wept for Vanchinathan, Bharati condemned the assassination of Ashe : "An outrage to the Hindu religion. For the murdered had his wife by the side."

The police came to arrest Bharathi on suspicion of sedition, after the Ashe assassination, with a warrant against the Editor of the Swadesamitran magazine. But Bharathi was officially Assistant Editor, though he wrote fierce anti-British editorials, so the editor the police arrested was Mandyam Srinivasachar, also the publisher. 

Bharathi fled to Puduchery, which was held by the French (and so out of British jurisdictin) in 1908 on the advice of his friends. He stayed there until 1918 and this was the most productive period of his literary life, said Narasiah. He wrote letters in English to The Hindu newspaper, published out of Madras, which printed several of them.

Bharathi was not a blind Patriot but a nationalist was Bharati says Narasiah. The difference is that a blind patriot is an ideologue who supports his country, right or wrong, but a nationalist is someone who wants to build a nation, and shape its thoughts and culture, and is not afraid to voice his opinion even if its unpopular.

One of Bharathi’s letters to the Hindu published during the First world war, said: "We criticize England in peacetime but stand by her in trouble. We are lovers of Humanity."

Bharati's Short stories

He wrote 18 short stories in Tamil. He introduced a new form, he was very experimental. He used short crisp sentences. In a story Kaanthaamani (காந்தாமணி), characters uttered English phrases like “Never mind” (நெவர் மைண்ட்) - an avant-garde style. He was a strong critique of astrology and hypocrisy and domestic cruelty, and several of his stories reflected that.

Another short story, Railway Sthaanam (ரயில்வே ஸ்தானம்) spoke of the dilemma of a Muslim man who's in love with three women and would like to figure out whom he loves most. Quite an unusual plot.

His biographer Va Ra. In 1910, Va Ramaswami Iyengar, who later wrote a life of Bharati, met him. He went to meet Aurobindo in Puducherry and incidentally met Bharati. Bharati was shocked when Va Ra spoke in English. The episode as narrated in Va Ra’s book, is hilarious, and should be read in the original Tami. Bharathi then wrote Maravan Paattu மறவன் பாட்டு, lambasting Brahmins for forsaking Tamil and adopting English language and customs.

But Va Ra’s 1944 book is not a proper biography, said Narasiah. There are no dates or years, more a story. Mahadevan's book is a more proper biography of Bharati.

The Mahakavi Controversy

SS Vasan bought Ananda Vikatan from Bhuthi Vaidyanatha Iyer for Rs 200 in 1927. Kalki was introduced to Vasan by Parali Su Nellaiappar, and he joined Vikatan. The magazine which had struggled to sell under its previous owner, sold 15,915 copies in 1930, a testament to the managerial talent of Vasan. Kalki was a commercialy successful writer with outstanding marketing skills.

Other magazines like Manikodi, Gandhi, Sudandira Changu, Dinamani also came out at this period. Va Ra became editor of Manikodi, a landmark Tamil magazine, which developed Tamil literature in that early period. Manikodi was the nursery of several stalwart writers, like Chitti Sundararajan, CS Chellappa, Puthumaipiththan, Na Pichamurthy, Ku Pa Rajagoplan.
Manikkodi Stalwarts

In October 1934 Va Ra became editor of Veerakesari in Colombo. "Tamil grammar is a perfect example of tail wagging the dog," was a memorable epigram coined by Va Ra. Va Ra wrote that others' writings (such as those of Shelley and Shakespeare and Tagore ) were not equal to even one line of Bharati. Nellai Nesan, (a pseudonym of PC Acharya), opposing this, wrote that Bharati was a Kavi but not Mahakavi.

Kalki rebutted this, in an Ananda Vikatan editorial, that Valmiki Kamban Shakespeare Tagore etc who could be called Mahakavis (Great Poets) were writers crossing national boundaries. And that it was not fair to compare Bharati with them. Poets like Bharati and Shelley were National Poets of their time only. Kalki used a phrase “nirakshara kukshi” which means “illiterate” to describe Va Ra, which worsened the controversy.

But Kalki and Va Ra were much in admiration of each other and it was Kalki who collected funds for the Manimandapam for Bharati and a purse to help Va Ra, when the latter was in financial dire straits. There was no personal animosity between them.

Narasiah covered so many topics I couldn't keep up, I rather chose to enjoy the lecture.

In attendance were stalwarts like author Siddharthan, Nagupoliyan Balasubramanian Natarajan, Narasiah’s cousin Venu Sundar (son of Manikodi stalward Chitti Sundarrajan), the silent dynamo Mr Kannan, epigrapher Ramachandran, Gandhi Rajan, Santhanam, and Narasiah's wife and son.

PostScript I’ve had the pleasure of listening to "Nagupoliyan" Balasubramanian reading aloud several of Bharathi’s English essays and also brilliant short stories like Kudirai Kombu and the autobiographical Chinna Sankaran Kathai. His rendition of Paanchaali Sabatham is unparalleled.

Narasiah’s lecture evinced these aspects of Bharathi in a proper historical context.

If you liked this, you may also like these other essays in my blog
  1. Narasiah on Siddharthan’s book “Asoka”
  2. ரா அ பத்மநாபன் அஞ்சலி
  3. Tagore's poem on UVe Swaminatha Iyer
  4. கோயிலும் கல்கியும் 1 - அறிமுகம்
  5. கோயிலும் கல்கியும் 2 - சிவகாமியின் சபதம்
  6. செக்கு இழுத்தவர்

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