Thaayin Manikkodi – Subramania Bharathi

This is the first of a series of articles on Indian freedom fighters. They will provide an account of their lives and their contributions, for coming generations to remember the sacrifices they made for the Indian freedom struggle

by Mr. Gopalan Krishnan 

Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathiyar (11 December 1882 – 11 September 1921) was an Indian journalist, poet, writer, Indian independence activist and social reformer from Tamil Nadu. Popularly known as “Mahakavi Bharathiyar”, he was a pioneer of modern Tamil poetry and is considered one of the greatest Tamil literary figures of all time. His numerous works include fiery songs exhorting patriotism and nationalism. Bharathi was a polyglot; in his short life, he mastered 32 languages, 29 of them Indian and 3 foreign! He used a metre called “Nondi Chindu” in most of his works.

Early life

Bharathi was born to Chinnasami Subramanya Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal as Subbayya on 11th December 1882 in Ettayapuram village, Tirunelveli district. Typical of those times, he was married at the young age of 14 to Chellama. Bharathi had his early education in Tirunelveli and Varanasi, where he learnt Sanskrit, Hindi and English. He returned to Ettayapuram in 1901, taking up the position of poet in the court of the Raja of Ettayapuram. Later, in 1904 he taught Tamil at the Sethupathy High School in Madurai. During this period, Bharathi recognized the need to be well-informed about the world outside and developed a keen interest in journalism and the Western print media.

Literary works, political and social activism

His journalistic sojourn began as Assistant Editor of Swadeshamitran, a Tamil daily in 1904.

In December 1905, he met Sister Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual heir who inspired Bharathi to acknowledge the rights of women and strive towards their emancipation. He visualised the new woman as an emanation of Shakti. He considered Sister Nivedita as his Guru and penned a poem in honour of her.

In April 1907, he started editing the Tamil weekly India and the English newspaper Bala Bharatham with M.P.T. Acharya. These newspapers also served to channelize Bharathi’s creativity, which began to peak during this period. Bharathi’s compositions began to feature regularly in these publications. From hymns to nationalistic writings, from contemplations on the relationship between God and Man to songs on the Russian and French revolutions, Bharathi’s subjects were diverse.

Bharathi participated in the historic Surat Congress in 1907 along with V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Mandayam Srinivachariar, The extremist wing led by Tilak was supported by Bharathi, Pillai and Kanchi Varathaachariyar, who propagated the idea of armed resistance to British rule. In 1908, the proprietor of the journal India was arrested in Madras. Faced with the prospect of being arrested too, Bharathi escaped to Pondicherry, which was under French rule. From there he continued to edit the Tamil weekly India, a Tamil daily Vijaya, an English monthly Bala Bharatham, and a local weekly in Pondicherry Suryothayam. Both India and Vijaya were banned by the British in 1909.

During his exile, Bharathi met many other leaders of the revolutionary wing of the Independence movement like Sri Aurobindo, Lajpat Rai and V.V.S. Aiyar. This was also the period when he started learning Vedic literature. Three of his greatest works namely, Kuyil Pattu, Panchali Sabatham and Kannan Pattu were composed in 1912. He also translated Vedic hymns, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and Bhagavat Gita to Tamil.

In November 1918, Bharathi entered Cuddalore (then part of British India) and was promptly arrested by the British. He was, however, released at the intervention of Annie Besant and Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar. During this period Bharathi lived in impecunious conditions, which had adverse consequences on his health. The following year, 1919, Bharathi met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was soon to attain demigod status in Indian freedom movement. He resumed editing Swadesamitran from 1920 in Madras (Chennai).

Bharathi is considered to be among the first in India to advocate and campaign for women’s participation in politics. He was a proponent of greater rights for women and their education. Bharathi also fought against the caste system in Hindu society. Although born into an orthodox Brahmin family, he gave up his own caste identity. He considered all human beings as equal even going to the extent, in those orthodox times, to perform the upanayanam (a Hindu rite of passage) of a young dalit man.

While in Madras (now Chennai), he used to regularly visit the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, where he used to feed an elephant named Lavanya. During one of these visits, the same elephant struck him and he was seriously injured. Although he survived the incident, his health deteriorated a few months later and he died on 11 September 1921.

Legacy and memorials

The house where Bharathi lived was bought and renovated by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1993 and named Bharathiyar Illam. Bharathiar University, a state university, was established in 1982 at Coimbatore. There is also a statue of Bharathiar at Marina Beach and in the Indian Parliament. A Tamil Movie titled Bharathi won National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil. The movie Kappalottiya Thamizhan (The Tamilan who sailed the high seas) chronicles the struggles of V.O.Chidambaranar, Subramanya Siva and Bharathi.

The charitable organisation Sevalaya runs the Mahakavi Bharathiyar Higher Secondary School in Kasuva village, Thiruninravur in Tamil Nadu which provides free education.

Compiled by Gopalan Krishnan from various sources including “Good Citizen”- December 2014 issue. The author is a retired scientist of ISRO. He has a keen interest in lesser known Indian, especially Tamil patriots and scientists

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