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When The State Took A Poet To The People, The Telegraph

In some Western countries, copyright to an author’s work lapses seventy-five years after his or her death. In India, the time period is slightly shorter; sixty years. Thus, until 2001 the copyright in Rabindranath Tagore’s writings vested with Santiniketan; till 2008, it was Navajivan Press which controlled access to Mahatma Gandhi’s oeuvre. The copyright in Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings will be with Sonia Gandhi until May 2024.

The most remarkable exception to this rule occurred in the state of Madras (as it was then known). In 1949 the Madras Government announced that it had acquired the rights to the works of Subramania Bharati. Five years later, the Government released the rights to the public, making it possible for anyone to print Bharati’s works, render them into song, make films based on them, etc, without any legal hindrance whatsoever.

In his recently published book Who Owns That Song, the brilliant Chennai historian A. R. Venkatachalapathy explores this ‘unique moment in modern literary history when the state acquired the copyright of an author’. The book begins with a crisply written chapter on Bharati’s life; his upbringing in southern Tamil Nadu, his first forays into journalism, his rising patriotism, his years of exile in French-ruled Pondicherry, his return to Madras and his death in September 1921, aged thirty-eight. Plagued by financial insecurity all his life, Bharati saw himself as a poet of the people, as this excerpt from an article of 1916 demonstrates: ‘The world over, the custom of practising various arts with the support of kings and lords has long gone. We must now begin relying on the people. From now on support and succour from the arts will come from the common people. It is the duty of artists to instil good taste in them’.

In 1917 one of his publishers wrote: ‘The Tamil people know of Bharati but few know his true greatness. Bharati is a genius. A great scholar. … The Tagore of Tamilnadu. A blessing to the Tamil country’. This was prescient, for while Bharati’s major works were not published in his lifetime, his appeal enormously expanded after his death, when his books and manuscripts were republished in editions brought out by his wife and his half-brother, whose efforts in this regard Venkatachalapathy documents with care and affection.

In the 1930s, Bharati’s songs ‘served as a battle-cry and rallying force in [nationalist] processions, in picketing and on the pulpit to lend colour to the political leaders’. His poems entered school textbooks and became part of popular lore, while his verses became the basis of plays and film songs. His work and name were exploited by film directors and producers, leading to demands for ‘rescuing the poems of Bharati from the clutches of private individuals’.

In October 1947, soon after Independence, the celebrated orator P. Jeevanandam argued that since ‘Bharati’s writings are the common property of the Tamils’, the ‘Tamil people and the government should take necessary steps to free them from private hands’. Other influentual figures took forward the demand, and the leading politicians of the time were sympathetic too, responding to the public outrage at the ‘immortal poet of Tamilnadu’ being ‘locked up in an iron safe and made a matter of business’ by nationalizing his works and placing them in the public domain. The Chief Minister of Madras State at the time, an ‘uncut diamond’ named O. P. Ramaswamy Reddiar, oversaw the process of the Government acquiring the rights in Bharati’s work and making them available to anyone to use or interpret.

Bharati’s career resembles Ambedkar’s in that he is now far better known than when he was alive (a mere dozen people attended his funeral). And it resembles Gandhi in that he has been subject to a wide variety of interpretation and mis-interpretation. Everyone has wanted to claim him for their side. Thus Venkatachalapathy writes:

‘As Bharati became a central figure in the making of modern Tamil culture, various stakeholders across the ideological spectrum sought to appropriate him. Some, like the prolific nationalist writer Kalki, downplayed Bharati’s radicalism by claiming him to be merely a patriotic poet. Bharatidasan, associated with the Dravidian movement, underplayed Bharati’s anti-British orientation and focused instead on his social reform and anti-caste agenda. Conservatives such as C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) wanted to reduce him to a Vedantic poet due to the presence of strong Hindu elements in his poetry. Communists and socialists focused on his anti-colonial and anti-imperialist perspective… In short, Bharati became all things to all people’.

In his lifetime, a publisher compared Bharati to Tagore; and indeed the poet himself had a great fascination for his older and more famous contemporary. He wrote several essays on Tagore, whom he saw not merely as a ‘mahakavi’ but as the very symbol of the Indian Renaissance. Rabindranath, said his Tamil admirer, ‘has established to the world that India is the loka guru. May the flowers at his feet be praised!’

Tragically, Bharati is far less known outside Tamil Nadu than Tagore is outside Bengal. There are several reasons for; the fact that he lived a mere forty years while Tagore lived eighty; the fact that despite his intense patriotism Bharati was never actively celebrated by the leading Congress nationalists outside the Tamil country, whereas Tagore was praised and hence made even more famous by, among others, Gandhi and Nehru. There is a third reason; that Bengali intellectuals are more effortlessly bilingual than intellectuals from other states. Tagore’s poems, essays and polemics, as well as his life story, have been conveyed to audiences across India and the world by scholars as fluent in English as they are in their native Bangla. On the other hand, most scholars of Tamil origin operate either in their mother tongue or in the language of global cosmopolitanism; rarely both.

A. R. Venkatachalapathy is one of the very few exceptions. His first books were written in Tamil; and while he continues to publish prolifically in that language, in recent years he has also begun to write in English. This book allows us non-Tamil speakers some rare glimpses of a man and artist who deserves to be far better known outside his own state. I hope that it encourages other bilingual scholars to bring comparable figures in Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Assamese and Oriya to wider attention.

Bharati’s own early death meant that, unlike Tagore, he remains largely unknown outside his own linguistic community. Yet in one respect history has treated him more kindly. Because Santiniketan so jealously protected his copyright, creative contemporary interpretations of Tagore’s works were limited. On the other hand, as Venkatachalapathy notes, since Bharati’s works came out of copyright early ‘artists have had the creative liberty to musically build upon his songs. Tamil cinema has extensively used Bharati’s songs, making many of them greatly popular’.

This enthralling book makes the case that Bharati should mean much more to those who do not speak, read, or sing in Tamil. Venkatachalapathy gives us cameo portraits of many characters involved in the story; Bharati’s wife and children, the film-makers who profited from his work, the idealistic netas who nationalized it. Reading Who Owns That Song? makes one think that Bharati urgently needs a full-scale biography, and perhaps a biopic too, for which all the ingredients are surely there; creative genius, personal torment, drugs and romance, and against the epic background of colonialism and nationalism to boot.


Ramachandra Guha

(first published in The Telegraph, 23rd June 2018)