We can be sure he did not use moustache wax, hair gel or curling irons to turn up the two points of his ’staches. But the distinct face-wear of the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) is so striking that drawings of the poet-patriot have to – and invariably do – get those sharp summits right. With, one should add, his simple, three wrap turban. These appurtenances make Bharati’s face. You can see them on images painted over auto-rick backs, random walls, shop board across Tamil Nadu.
And almost nowhere else.
To be sure, New Delhi provides as exception – Subramania Bharti Marg and Bharti Nagar. Bharti? No typo there. That is not how the poet spelt his nom de plume, but it is the way the National Capital spells the road and Nagar named after him in New Delhi. Is there anything to that beyond the absent-mindedness of the name-givers, the cluelessness of the painters of road signs ?
There is. And it makes one feel rather sorry, not for Bharati who had a distinct “don’t care a hoot”-ness to him, but for ourselves and for our collective consciousness. Bharati’s “flashing eyes” and, when not turbaned, his “floating hair”, reflected a Kubla Khanesque passionate intensity. He was passionate about the “stately pleasure dome” of Tamil, of Tamil Nadu and – India. He was passionate about a Tamil Nadu that belonged to India and an India to which Tamil Nadu belonged. And he strove to free both from colonial hang-ups of insecurity and inferiority, with a “I don’t care what the Raj’s cops and collectors say”.
Historian A R Venkatachalapathy’s new book on Bharati, Who Owns That Song? shows how, shortly after India’s independence, the Madras State retrieved Bharati’s works from commodification. It “nationalised” his works, extinguishing privately-held copyrights, making Bharati public property. But, even in the delectable brevity of its 190 pages, the book makes a bigger point: Un-shackling copyright is one thing, un-chaining ignorance is another.
Of Bharati, non-Tamil India has remained largely ignorant.
At the start of this column I referred to Bharati as “the Tamil poet” and readers, I am sure, took that description in without reaction. But if I had described Tagore as “the Bengali poet” the phrase would have jarred. To call Tagore a “Bengali poet” is like calling Vivekananda “a Belur monk”, an absurdity.
Then why is it that Bharati, so much of whose poetic genius was about India and her future, means so little to non-Tamil India? Venkatachalapathy suggests that his poor luck with translations is a major cause. But surely there has to be something more to it.
I believe the answer lies in two “facts” which have nothing to do with Bharati and everything to do with us as a nation today: India’s north dominates her political and cultural imagination. Second, that “Upper” India is, today, using distortion and co-option to iconise, selectively, those Indian heroes (very few heroines among them ) who serve a neo-nationalist agenda. And Bharati, being a south Indian, Tamil to boot, and totally non-sectarian, is not among them
Bharati visited Varanasi in 1898 when he was just sixteen, a defining visit. “Its immediate impact”, Venkatachalapathy says, was on his coiffure and sartorial style. Bharati cut off his traditional tuft, cropped his hair (like a Bengali, it was said), shaved off his beard, and began to sport what became the iconic twirled moustache, scandalising family and community – Tamil Brahmins did not usually sport moustaches.” In 1898, Bharati stepped out of a clean-shaven, coy and conforming Tamil Brahminism into a new passionate devotion to India’s resurgence. Unbeknownst to him, he was augmenting the vision of two other burgeoning sensibilities.
Having just set up the Ramakrishna Order which broke boundaries across the country, Swami Vivekananda, in 1898, was touring India, rousing it and also unifying its cultural consciousness. And in distant South Africa, twenty-nine year old Mohandas Gandhi, battling racism and divisions within the Indians there, was inviting Vivekananda to go there “to electrify the Europeans by his eloquence and possibly hypnotise them into linking the ‘coolies’ in spite of themselves”. The Swami could not go, but that is another story.
Something turned like a turbine in Bharati just then, leading him to start writing verses in Tamil with a charge of lyrical tenacity not known earlier, and also to commence writing tracts and articles in English for The Hindu about a united, prosperous and just India. The word “secular” was not in currency then. Vivekananda, Gandhi, Bharati did not use the term”‘plural” either.
But the India they envisioned, and which the Preamble to our Constitution places before us, hungers for the very Tamil and very Indian genius of Subramania Bharati today.