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Early views of nationalist-poet Subramania Bharati

T.S. Subramanian

Newly discovered writings in The Hindu by a young Bharati are a revelation

— Photo: Shaju John

Dr. A. R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor, MIDS, Chennai, with the very first piece of writing in English by poet Subramania Bharati, which was a letter to the Editor that was published by The Hindu on December 27, 1904.

CHENNAI: Sixteen letters, two ‘open letters’ and two articles, all written in English by Tamil nationalist poet C. Subramania Bharati and published in The Hindu between 1904 and 1916, have been discovered by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. The letters were published in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section and the ‘open letters’ in the news pages.

The first letter, possibly Bharati’s first piece of writing in English to appear in print, was published in the December 27, 1904 edition. It was titled ‘Mr. Sankaran Nair’s Pronouncement.’ Bharati was 22 years old then.

The letters cover a range of topics, including his defence of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo; his attack on Annie’s Besant’s Theosophical Society; a balanced assessment of G. Subramania Iyer, one of the founders of The Hindu; and the difficulties he faced during his exile in French-ruled Pondicherry (now Puducherry). One open letter was addressed to Labour Party leader Ramsay Macdonald on his travails in Pondicherry. An article, ‘The Heroic Ballads of Servia’ (Serbia), published on September 2, 1914, was about Serbian patriotism.

Professor Venkatachalapathy said: “The Hindu can be proud that it provided a forum for Bharati when he was being muzzled by the repressive colonial police. This is undoubtedly an exciting find that enriches the studies on Bharati.”

The MIDS Professor also located an article written by the Mysore correspondent of The Hindu about his meeting with Bharati in Pondicherry.

The authoritative volume A Hundred Years of The Hindu: The Epic Story of Indian Nationalism by Rangaswami Parthasarathi, published during the centenary year (1978) of the newspaper, makes a few references to Bharati’s writings in The Hindu. It also contains excerpts from his December 27, 1904 letter.

Professor Venkatachalapathy, who is a recognised Bharati scholar, made the discovery from microfilmed archives of the newspaper at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, where he was Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow in 2006.

Professor Venkatachalapathy said: “My long-term dream is to recover the uncollected writings of Subramania Bharati. Although Bharati scholars were aware that he wrote occasionally to The Hindu, nobody attempted to go through its back volumes systematically. I am delighted that so much has been published in The Hindu. They greatly enrich and widen our understanding of Bharati’s life and work.”

When contacted, K.N. Panikkar, former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said: “It is a very interesting piece of information and it will have significance in understanding the attitude of Bharati and the way he responded to nationalism at an early age.”

Professor Venkatachalapathy has put together these writings as a book titled Bharati Karuvoolam: Hindu Nalithalil Bharatiyin Eluthukkal (The Bharati Treasury: Bharati’s Writings in The Hindu). It is to be published by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu.

In his first letter defending C. Sankaran Nair’s views on social reform and political freedom, the poet, signing as “C. Subramania Bharati” of the Madras Social Reform Association, asserted, “Without social reform, our political reform is a dream, a myth, for social slaves can never understand political liberty.”

He wrote another letter, published on May 25, 1908, about the sufferings of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa. Referring to an editorial in The Hindu, which reminded the British rulers of Civis Brittannus Sum (“I am a British Citizen”), Bharati called it a “precious shibboleth.”

In his letter on Annie Besant published on July 11, 1914, Bharati, while taking the stand that Indians could not “tolerate the idea of the Hindus being led in spiritual affairs, by a woman born in Europe and of non-Hindu parentage,” was against the position that because of “her supernatural bamboozling and esoteric intrigues,” she should be politically boycotted.

On July 22 and October 8, 1912, and April 9 and July 2, 1914, The Hindu published his letters about the difficult situation he was facing during his exile in Pondicherry, with spies and informers keeping tabs on him.

‘The Heroic Ballads of Servia’ was based on his translation of the French writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, and in it Bharati heaped praise on Serbian patriotism, said Prof. Venkatachalapathy.

The Hindu’s correspondent from Mysore wrote an interesting story on September 22, 1916, on his meeting Bharati in Pondicherry. Hounded by the police, the reporter managed to meet the poet and had the following to say: “His manner of speaking, emphasised as it is by tremendous thumping, sudden getting-up and sudden collapses, appeared to me a bit artificial though his musical pronunciation of English words charmed my ears. I remember nothing out of all his tirade, except his classification of Tilak as the first Indian statesman of the ages, of Professor J.C. Bose as the first Indian scientist and Rabindranath Tagore as the first Indian poet.”

According to Professor Venkatachalapathy, from October 20, 1916 until his death in September 1921, Bharati did not write anything in The Hindu, and it was not known why. Bharati’s death was reported in a brief editorial in The Hindu on September 12, 1921.

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