By the turn of the 1940s, Subramania Bharati’s widespread influence on the emergent public sphere was palpable. His writings were widely used in public discourse. Even though Bharati Prachuralayam claimed that “permission to include a few lines and a few stanzas or even whole poems in text books ha[d] been given on a nominal royalty basis or free according to the nature of the applicant” and that private bodies such as The Servants of India Society had been given free permission to bring out their own selections, it obviously was not enough to meet the growing need for Bharati’s poems.

Consequently, a few disparate voices, with the demand to make Bharati’s works public property, could be heard. In the First Conference of  Tamil Writers held in Coimbatore in November 1944, a resolution was proposed by AVR Krishnaswamy Reddiar, a prominent literary personality, for “rescuing the poems of Bharati from the clutches of private individuals”. It is difficult to imagine how this entirely unprecedented demand to nationalise the works of a writer was conceived, articulated and voiced. This demand was reiterated in the next conference of Tamil writers in December 1946 in Chennai. And as the campaign to nationalise Bharati’s works gained momentum, this cry became even stronger in the third conference held in Nagercoil in May 1948.

The demand for nationalisation acquired considerable force in October 1947 during the inauguration of the Bharati Manimantapam – a decorative hall constructed with public subscriptions raised through a popular campaign – at Ettayapuram. The traditional “ground-breaking ceremony” for this hall, on June 3, 1945, was itself a grand affair organised by Kalki, with Rajaji’s blessings. This was the first time the poet was being feted at his birthplace.

A galaxy of political and literary figures landed in Ettayapuram in October 1947 to celebrate the poet and his work, and of course, to appropriate him. In subsequent years this little town would suffer from celebration fatigue, with its residents unable to attend the plethora of events held periodically.

Though writers and personalities from across the political and ideological spectrum were invited (there were, of course, a few controversial exceptions like Bharatidasan and VaRa), it was a show dominated by Rajaji, who had recently taken over as the first Indian governor of  West Bengal, and his clique. And as it often happens in such events, Bharati’s family – his widow and daughters, and his half-brother – were neither properly invited nor honoured.

The event was not only a Bharati festival but also a deferred celebration of Indian independence. In the general euphoria and mood of festivity, P Jeevanandam’s speech stood out – and to some ears, it struck a jarring note.

A merciless critic of Rajaji and his politics, Jeeva was one of the last speakers to be called to the podium at the inauguration of the Bharati Manimantapam. But his talk elicited quite a response and fuelled the campaign for the nationalisation of Bharati’s works:

The publication rights of Bharati’s books are in [Bharati’s half-brother] Mr Visvanathan’s hands. The rights to use them in films, on radio, and on gramophone have been purchased by Meiyappa Chettiar.

Bharati’s writings are the common property of the Tamils, nay, of the whole world. Like Gandhi’s writings Bharati’s writings too need to be made public property, and the Tamil people and the government should take necessary steps to free them from private hands.

Reciting an appropriate verse from Bharati that called for the Tamil language to be sounded on the streets if the Tamil people were to thrive, he called upon Visvanathan to give up his rights voluntarily. If he did so, Jeeva said, “the people would remain eternally grateful to him”. If, on the other hand, he decided “to stand by his rights with a desire to make money”, Jeeva warned, “blame would befall him”.

While this is the official version of his speech published on the occasion by the CPI’s Janasakthi Press, Jeeva is said to have declared that if Visvanathan was particular about money, the required amount could be collected in quarter annas and half annas from the Tamil people and the coppers thrown on his face. Visvanathan was, understandably, offended by this suggestion. Jeeva made a similar demand to Meiyappan.

Even after such fervent pleas if Visvanathan and Meiyappan refused to heed the public, then Jeeva argued and vehemently demanded that the government take over the copyright. Should the state turn a deaf ear, he warned that “the Tamil people would launch a systematic and belligerent agitation” to achieve their goal.

Jeeva’s was the most forceful demand until then for the state takeover of Bharati’s copyright. Undoubtedly, the mood immediately after independence was one of great expectation from the government – the citizens believed in the unbridled power of the government to intervene in every walk of life for the greater common good.

It is worth remembering that, as a communist, Jeeva was committed to an ideology that negated private property and, at that time, his party was in direct conflict with the Congress government.

MP Sivagnanam, autodidact, eloquent orator, writer and a faction leader within the Congress, and Narana Duraikannan, a middling if widely respected writer and journalist, are also said to have voiced the nationalisation demand at this event, but it was Jeeva who stole the show.

On the day of the inauguration of the Bharati Manimantapam, Parali S Nellaiyappa Pillai’s talk was broadcast on All India Radio (AIR) to mark the event. “It’s been over a quarter of a century since Bharati left us. But despite the passage of so much time the songs of this liberation poet remain shackled by various chains,” he said, and called for “declaring all of Bharati’s poems and writings as public property and publishing them in lakhs of copies for distribution across the country”.

It was in this atmosphere that an apparently simple legal notice triggered off a series of events that ultimately led to the nationalisation of Bharati’s works.

Excerpted with permission from Who Owns That Song? The Battle For Subramania Bharati’s Copyright, AR Venkatachalapathy, Juggernaut.