The towering inferno

By Jawahar T R Published on Sep 11, 2018 05:20 PM IST

To Tamil lovers, 9/11 (Sept 11) is a reminder of a different tragedy, though there is something ‘explosive’ about this too: it marks the death anniversary of Bharathi, the firebrand poet who ignited the flames of freedom in a bonded generation and continues to stoke indignation, besides kindling imagination, in those who read him, even decades after his demise.

The Queen’s English may not be an apt vehicle to parade the glory of Bharathi; for one, any writer would be handicapped by the inability to dip into the treasure trove of Bharathi’s works to quote verbatim. And any translation would most likely douse the aforementioned flames that B lit at great pains ... and pleasure. Yet it needs to be recorded here that Bharathi himself was quite adept at English and has several writings to his credit, though I could not lay my hands on them yet. Indeed, he was a great multi-linguist and had, er, translated the works of other language savants, with the Bharathi-touch raising the bar many notches.

Bharathi would easily and for good reason, rank as the most written about and oft-invoked name in the Tamil poetic pantheon. The years he spent on earth is a paltry forty and so the landmarks of his life-journey from Ettaiyapuram to Pondicherry to Triplicane and his metamorphosis from a journalist into a poet non pareil can easily be capsuled in a nutshell. In any case those are part of common lore now. But his literary legacy is eternal: His output, packed in that short span, was prolific, profuse, profound, prodigious and path-breaking, inexhaustible, unfathomable and evergreen. The man himself was a character, to put it mildly, a maverick master who swayed between extremes, poverty and poetry being the sole constants. The trademark turban, the telltale tilak, a ubiquitous neckscarf, the worn out overcoat and handlebar moustache, all along with those burning eyes and bristling nose are forever etched in our psyche as an enduring image of a man who merged with his message. Yes, while Bharathi transcended the physical, in him the meta-physical acquired a form.

Though all emotions found ample expression from his passionate pen, the pure lava that it spewed when it came to social and political issues of his time truly sets him apart. ‘Rowththiram pazhagu’. Practise anger, declared Bharathi. And he practised what he preached. The sheer feel of his red hot renderings coursing through the veins is at once an exhilarating, elevating and energising experience. To this day ‘Nenju porukkudhillaye’ remains the ultimate expression of angst, anger and anguish in one phrase. But the poet’s anger was no idle sabre rattling; that’s the kind we witness on prime time TV whence after every terror strike or a scandalous expose, people vent their fury on the ephemeral screen, light candles and then go back to their chores. Bharathi’s was an anger that resonated from the soul and never abated at the sight of authority nor could it be addressed by cosmetic consolations. And his anger was as much for social emancipation as for freedom from foreign yoke. Though the British were obvious targets, his countrymen were often at the receiving end of his ire for their indifference and impotence. Nor did he spare his most revered Parasakthi either. Indeed, Bharathi was the quintessential, original angry young man.

But all that anger did not arise from any private pique. For all his penury, Bharathi always revelled in the riches of his spirit which was the dwelling place of much joy, love and sweetness. The nation’s enslavement and his concern for the country and countrymen brought out the best in Bharathi but those did not define him. His poetry rather went way beyond society and polity. Behind the tenacity lay a tenderness that often brought out the romantic in the revolutionary: His odes of Kannamma ooze both platonic and physical yearning for a consort. He was a humanist to the core with boundless love for all the organisms on the globe. His spiritual quest is a separate saga by itself. His philosophical outpourings, which critics attribute to some extraneous ‘influence’, are profound nevertheless. He was a great karmayogi who, having understood the futility of life still filled it with purpose. He was obsessed with the idea of illusion, yet was always all eyes and ears for the earthly realities. He was a musician par excellence with intricate knowledge of the ragas; reason why even a novice can easily set a Bharathi song to tune. While Bharathi’s nationalism stemmed from his extensive knowledge of Bharat’s culture, history and topography, his outlook was global: He has written about Belgium, Fiji, Russia and France with much insight at a time when information was scarce and slow. His biographical accounts of contemporaries like Gandhi, Tilak, VOC, Naoroji, Lajpat Rai overflow with fellowship feeling for his freedom-fraternity. Take any facet of life, Bharathi has been there and that for a 40-year old is quite a feat.

TN’s Dravidian politics has always delivered poetic injustice to Bharathi for obvious reasons. In reality, it is Bharathi who is the harbinger of all that the Periyar parivar, from the Justice Party to the present Kazhagams, proclaim as their own. He was what these men claim to be but are not! Bharathi was the epitome of self-respect, a man who never cringed or crawled, for power or pelf. By fusing his love for mother-land with love of mother-tongue, he rose above parochial limits and enriched both. Bharathi’s rationalism meant transparent inquiry, not camouflaged chicanery. For Bharathi social justice was also a natural right and not a negotiable political card or a matter of charity. He was a reformist who riled against all kinds of discrimination. He was high on devotion but was not hidebound, and not the least hypocritic. Really, he is the modern icon who personifies Tamil and Tamil pride as against the self-styled ones who have appropriated that mantle.

Indeed, if righteous rage, the missing element in a corrupt and consumerist milieu of today, needs to stage a comeback, I would prescribe just a few doses of Bharathi. He can make even the numbest stir and the dumbest speak. If still ‘rowthiram’ refuses to surface, residing instead in the recesses of our tranquilised psyche, reading Bharathi would at the least be a refreshing break ... into the past!

(From News Today archives)

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