Bharathi was born to Chinnasami Subramanya Iyer and Elakkumi (Lakshmi) Ammaal as “Subbayya” on December 11, 1882 in the Tamil village of Ettayapuram. He was educated at a local high school called “The M.D.T. Hindu College” in Tirunelveli. From a very young age he learnt music and at 11, he was invited to a conference of Ettayapuram court poets and musicians for composing poems and songs. It was here that he was conferred the title of “Bharathi” (“one blessed by Saraswati, the goddess of learning).
Bharathi lost his mother at the age of 5 and his father at the age of 16. He was brought up by his disciplinarian father who wanted him to learn English, excel in arithmetic, become an engineer and lead a comfortable life. However, Bharathi was given to day dreaming and could not concentrate on his studies. In 1897, perhaps to instil a sense of responsibility in him, his father had the 14 year old Bharathi married to his seven year younger cousin, Chellamal.
After this early marriage, Bharathi, curious to see the outside world, left for Benares in 1898. The next four years of his life served as a passage of discovery. During this time he discovered a country in tumult outside his small hamlet. Bharathi worked as a teacher in Madurai Sethupathy High School (now a higher secondary school) and as a journal editor at various times in his life.
During his stay in Benares (also known as Kashi and Varanasi), Bharathi was exposed to Hindu spirituality and nationalism. This broadened his outlook and he learned Sanskrit, Hindi and English. In addition, he changed his outward appearance. It is likely that Bharathi was impressed by the turbans worn by members of Hindu society (being a tradition in Indian society, turbans represented the crowns worn by kings) and started wearing one himself. He also grew a beard and started walking with a straight back.
Soon, Bharathi started looking beyond the social taboos and superstitions of orthodox South Indian society. In December 1905, he attended the All India Congress session held in Benaras. On his journey back home, he met Sister Nivedita, Vivekananda’s spiritual daughter. From her arose another of Bharathi’s iconoclasm, his stand to recognise the privileges of women. The emancipation of women exercised Bharathi’s mind greatly. He visualised the ‘new woman’ as an emanation of Shakti, a willing helpmate of man to build a new earth through co-operative endeavour.
During this period, Bharathi understood the need to be well-informed of the world outside and took interest in the world of journalism and the print media of the West. Bharathi joined as Assistant Editor of the Swadeshamitran, a Tamil daily in 1904. By April 1907, he started editing the Tamil weekly India and the English newspaper Bala Bharatham with M.P.T. Acharya. These newspapers were also a means of expressing Bharathi’s creativity, which began to peak during this period. Bharathi started to publish his poems regularly in these editions. From religious hymns to nationalist anthems, from contemplations on the relationship between God and Man to songs on the Russian and French revolutions, Bharathi’s subjects were diverse.
He was simultaneously up against society for its mistreatment of the downtrodden people and the British for occupying India.
Bharathi participated in the historic Surat Congress in 1907, which deepened the divisions within the Indian National Congress between the militant wing led by Tilak and Aurobindo and the moderate wing. Bharathi supported Tilak and Aurobindo together with V. O. Chidambaram Pillai and Kanchi Varathaachariyar. Tilak openly supported armed resistance against the British.
Bharathi immersed himself in writing and in political activity. In Madras, in 1908, he organised a public meeting to celebrate Swaraj (independence) Day. His nationalistic poems Vanthe Matharam, Enthayum Thayum and Jaya Bharath were printed and distributed free to the audience. He is referred to as the National Poet of India.
In 1908, he gave evidence in the case which had been instituted by the British against V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. In the same year, the proprietor of the journal India was arrested in Madras. Faced with the prospect of arrest, Bharathi escaped to Pondicherry which was under French rule. From there he edited and published the weekly journal India, Vijaya, a Tamil daily, Bala Bharatha, an English monthly, and Suryothayam, a local weekly of Pondicherry. The British tried to suppress Bharathi’s output by stopping remittances and letters to the papers. Both India and Vijaya were banned in British India in 1909.
During his exile, Bharathi had the opportunity to mix with many other leaders of the militant wing of the Independence movement such as Aurobindo, Lajpat Rai and V.V.S. Aiyar, who had also sought asylum under the French. Bharathi assisted Aurobindo in the Arya journal and later Karma Yogi in Pondicherry.
Bharathi entered British India near Cuddalore in November 1918 and was promptly arrested. He was imprisoned in the Central prison in Cuddalore in custody for three weeks from 20 November to 14 December. The following year Bharathi met with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
His poetry expressed a progressive, reformist ideal. His imagery and the vigour of his verse symbolise Tamil culture in many respects. Bharathiyaar famously espoused greater freedom and respect for women:
We will destroy the idiocy
Of denigrating womanhood
Bharathi also fought against the caste system in Hindu society. Although born into an orthodox Brahmin family, he gave up his own caste identity. One of his great sayings meant, ‘There are only two castes in the world: one who is educated and one who is not.’ He considered all living beings as equal and to illustrate this he even performed upanayanam to a young harijan man and made him a Brahmin. He also scorned the divisive tendencies being imparted into the younger generations by their elderly tutors during his time. He openly criticised the preachers for mixing their individual thoughts while teaching the Vedas and the Gita.
Bharathi was devoted towards his mother tongue Tamil language and was proud of its heritage. He was fluent in many languages including Telugu, Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, Kutchi, French and English and frequently translated works from other languages into Tamil. He had a voracious appetite for learning ancient and contemporary Tamil literature especially ancient poems.
Bharathi is considered a nationalistic poet due to his number of poems through which he extolled the people to join the independence struggle. He wrote, ‘The glorious Himalayas are ours and there is none to compare with it on this earth…The good river Ganges is our river and there is no river to rival its goodness…
Instead of merely being proud of his country, he also outlined his vision for a free India. He wrote, ‘When you say Bharat you will lose your fear of your enemies…We will make weapons, produce good paper, we will build big factories and create great schools. We will never rest, nor sleep; we will be truthful and excel…’
He was the first to write a song that can be used for celebrating independence, as he was sure that India would definitely gain freedom at some point. However, he died before India became independent.
Innovation in Tamil poetry
Bharathi was a pioneer in introducing a new style of Tamil poetry. Until then the poems had to follow the strict syntactic rules set down by the ancient Tamil grammatical treatise Tolkāppiyam. Bharathi broke this syntactic bonds and created a prose-poetic style known as the puthukkavithai (modern poems).
Religious and philosophical literature
Bharathi produced pieces such as Kannan Paattu (Song of Krishna), in which Bharathi sought to portray God as the source of all of humanity’s passions in the most accessible of forms including in the roles of a love-lorn lover, of a mischievous child, of an innocent child, and of a wise teacher.
Among Bharathi’s most widely read epics were Panchali Sapatham (Draupadi’s Vow), a poetic semi-political reflection on greed, pride and righteousness derived from the Indian epic Mahabharata and Kuyil Paatu (Song of The Cuckoo), an ode and a tribute to the poet’s favourite Shelley.
Carnatic music compositions
Bharathi composed Carnatic music kritis in Tamil on love, devotion, etc. He set his songs to music and could sing them in a variety of ragas. In Bharata Deviyin Thiru Dasangam he used ten different ragas. His patriotic songs emphasized nationalism, unity of India, equality of man and the greatness of the Tamil language, set to folk tunes. He sang these himself at various political meetings.
With the vast majority of his songs being in Tamil, Bharathi also composed two songs entirely in Sanskrit. In an article Sangeeta Vishayam (Issues in Music), Bharathiyar rebuked musicians for singing songs of the Trinity, Patnam Subramania Iyer and others without knowing the meaning because the songs were in Sanskrit or Telugu. He stated that without knowing the meaning, singers were unable to sing with proper expression.
Bharathi set tunes for a number of his songs, however not all of them have been recovered. Some of the songs of Bharathi that are currently very popular in the Carnatic music concert circuit include: Theeratha Vilaiyattu Pillai, Chinnanchiru Kiliye (tuned by him in Raga Bhairavi, but popularised in Ragamalika), Suttum Vizhi, Thikku Theriyaatha, Senthamizh Nadenum and Paarukkule Nalla Naadu. ooo
As a journalist, Bharathi was the first in India to introduce caricatures and political cartoons to his newspapers. They were satirical and angry hand-drawn illustrations that relied heavily on the works of his inspiration Thomas Nast. He published and edited various journals such as Swadeshamitran, India, Vijaya and Bala Bharatham.
Bharathi’s was a prolific writer and in his short life he produced numerous poems, essays, prose-poetry and fiction. He wrote poems in both the conventional as well as his new style of puthukkavithai. His works may be broadly classified into
- Patriotic songs
- Philosophical songs
- Miscellaneous songs
- Devotional songs
- Commentary on Gita
- Kannan song, Kuyil song
- Panchali’s Vow
- Chandrika’s story (an unfinished novel)
- Pappa Pattu (Song for the Child)
Kuyil Paattu – Translated in Japanese by Shuzo Matsunaga (8 October 1983)
Bharathi’s health was badly affected by the imprisonments and by 1920, when a General Amnesty Order finally removed restrictions on his movements, Bharathi was already struggling. He was struck by an elephant at Parthasarathy temple, Triplicane, Chennai, whom he used to feed regularly. Although he survived the incident, a few months later his health deteriorated and he died on September 11, 1921. Though Bharathi was a people’s poet there were only fourteen people to attend his funeral.
The last years of his life were spent in a house in Triplicane, Chennai . This house was bought and renovated by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1993 and named ‘Bharathiyar Illam’ (Home of Bharathiyar). A Tamil Movie was made a few years ago on the life of the national poet, titled, Bharathy. This classic film was directed by Gnana Rajasekeran.