AR Venkatachalapathy on Subramania Bharati vs Rabindranath Tagore
The author of a new book on Subramania Bharati examines why the great Tamil poet hasn’t achieved the national prominence of his Bengali contemporaryUpdated: May 12, 2018 09:46 IST
Why is Subramania Bharati not as well-known as Rabindranath Tagore?
The Nobel Prize? Part of the answer but not the whole.
The interested English reader is spoiled for choice if she were to go look for books on and by Tagore. There is but one road and a nagar named after the Tamil poet in New Delhi, and it is usually misspelt, without an ‘a’, as Bharti. The only books an English reader will find on Bharati would be some sarkari publications; and these too now mostly out of print.
When faced with the question of how to introduce Bharati, I have often swallowed Tamil pride and described him as the Tamil Tagore. Analogous but inadequate. Bharati and Tagore are not apples and oranges. They are more like mangoes. But Indian mangoes come in all shapes, sizes and levels of sweetness. Comparison remains difficult and fraught.
Tagore was a myriad-minded man with truly renaissance talents. Over the eight decades of his life Tagore wrote a colossal amount of poetry, novels, short stories, plays, essays. He wrote for children. He painted. Sang. Composed music. He was also a journalist. An educationist. An institution builder. Born into a celebrated family, he never knew poverty. Though riches didn’t mean he was always a happy man.
In contrast, Bharati’s life was short. Of his thirty-nine years, over ten were spent in exile in Pondicherry to escape the British Indian police. At a time when Tagore was being feted, Bharati was pleading with the governor of Madras for justice. If the crowds at the time of Tagore’s death caused near-riots, Bharati’s funeral procession drew eleven persons and there was a confusion over who would light the pyre.
A poet who relied on inspiration to write, Bharati’s complete poems total some 600 pages. He wrote about sixty stories of varying length which do not conform to accepted forms of the novel or short story. He wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and translated some Vedic hymns. As a journalist he wrote editorials and political commentary. He was the pioneer of column writing in Tamil, and the author of arguably the first published autobiography in Tamil. He introduced the haiku to Tamil and was the father of Tamil free verse.
In volume and variety, Bharati comes nowhere close to Tagore’s staggering oeuvre. Bharati faced yet another constraint. Bengali literary history is short, not longer than four centuries in Tagore’s days. Tamils can claim an unbroken poetic tradition of two millennia which extracts its price. Its richness can be a daunting burden, and to make a mark in such a field is challenging. Bharati’s greatest achievement was to be the harbinger of modernity in a strongly rooted literary tradition.
Contemporary Tamil works are filled with allusions to his writings. Bharati is not history. Numerous writers have taken their pen names with ‘Bharati’ as suffix. If one wanted to name a new journal or find an inspiring motto to adorn the banner, you could no better than resort to his lines. Bharati remains universally acclaimed in Tamilnadu except by certain fringe elements in the Dravidian and Maoist movements.
Why then is Bharati so little known outside Tamilnadu?
Translation into English – its quality or its lack thereof – is the prime culprit. Little was done in his own lifetime to translate his poems. When his fame grew, stray translations made their appearance. After independence it became a cottage industry. Many translators tried their hand but Bharati’s poetry simply refuses to work in English. Lyrical, reliant on sonic effect, and suffused with a romantic idealism, the poems fall flat in translation. Frost’s quip about poetry being what is lost in translation was never more true than in Bharati’s case.
The Tagore translation industry is now a century old. Seen as doing little justice to the originals, Tagore’s own translations have faced much criticism. But at least it won him a Nobel Prize. Over the many decades some of the finest translators have turned their attention to Tagore. And while the bhadralok has produced generations of bilingual scholars who are at ease in English and Bengali, the English-speaking Tamil middle class forsook Tamil and failed Bharati as well.
The Nobel-winning physicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar’s mother translated Chekhov into Tamil, and his younger brother wrote both in English and Tamil. But did Chandra ever read Bharati or Thirukural? Bankim and Tagore are the staple of modern Bengali intellectual culture. A series of Bengali social scientists have written on Tagore. The list would be headed by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and include other distinguished names such as Sukanta Chaudhuri, Partha Chatterjee, Ashish Nandy and Sudipta Kaviraj. These brilliant minds have interpreted Tagore for our times and made him relevant. On the other hand, Tamil-origin scholars of comparable accomplishment such as Ramachandra Guha, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Shiv Visvanathan, Sumathi Ramaswamy, TN Srinivasan, MSS Pandian, Sunil Amrith and Srinath Raghavan have not between them produced a single substantial essay on Bharati.
Subramania Bharati is too important to be the monopoly of Tamils. One hopes the next generation of Tamil scholars will creatively interpret Bharati and communicate his work and words to a wider world.
AR Venkatachalapathy is the author Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright, Juggernaut Books