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Bharathidasan (April 29, 1891 to April 21, 1964), an iconic Tamil poet of the Dravidian movement, wore several hats in his lifetime. Of his pursuits as a Tamil teacher (he joined the French government school at Niravi in Pondicherry at age 18), a politician, an orator, a journalist and a film script writer, it was his role as a virulent and vitriolic poet that has sustained to this day. Even tech-savvy digital youth of today can quote his cult lines with aplomb.
Whenever the specter of Hindi imposition looms on the horizon, his lines are recalled. A R Rahman’s recalled one of them in his tweet: “Pleasure-giving Tamil is the root of the refined crop of our rights.”
As an atheist of the Dravidar Kazhagam brand and a keen follower of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, his verses lashed out at religion, God and superstitious rituals, incurring the wrath of the Hindu orthodoxy. The rationalist and ‘revolutionary bard’ rode several horses, teaching in schools (his maverick beliefs led him to be officially transferred frequently across Pondicherry), speaking at political and literary meetings in Tamil Nadu and publishing his literary works. Fearless, rash and prone to tantrums, he rubbed many on the wrong side. Yet he has a large band of creative followers known as ‘Bharathidasan paramparai’ (lineage) among whom were some later-day celebrities such as Pattukottai Kalyanasaundaram, Suradha and others.
His life throws up certain ironies. Though rationalist and atheist, he wrote devotional hymns in his prime. “Engenkum Kaaninum Sakthiyadaa” (it is Goddess Sakthi omnipresent) was the opening line of his own poem he recited on Day One of his deep bonding with Bharathi. He invoked ancient saint-poets when he wrote hymns on the Mylam abode of Lord Murugan.
Another irony is that though the Dravidar Kazhagam hardly partook in the Bharathi adulatory narrative, he never budged an inch, refusing to disown his ‘guru’, friend, philosopher and guide.
Another irony is that though the Dravidar Kazhagam hardly partook in the Bharathi adulatory narrative, he never budged an inch, refusing to disown his ‘guru’, friend, philosopher and guide. He took enormous inspiration from Bharathi for writing revolutionary poetry. He was silent on his guru’s verses soaked in Hinduism though.
Bharathidasan tried his hand at riding one more horse: the glamorous tinsel town. But his film career was short-lived, owing mainly to his unwillingness to compromise and sensitivity. Yet some of his poems took on the colors of film lyrics in a few films including MGR’s.
The first film he wrote lyrics for was Balamani or PakkaaThirudan (1937), followed by Sri Ramanujar (1938). For some films, he wrote dialogue as well. These were ‘Kalamegam’ (1940), Subadra (1946), Sulochana (1947), Aayiram Thalai Vaangiya Apoorva Chinthamani (1947 – MGR’s wife V N Janaki played heroine) and ‘Ponmudi’ (1950) based on his verse tale ‘Ethirpaaradha Muththam’ (Unexpected Kiss). With the film ‘Valaiyapathi’ (1952), he walked out of the film industry in a huff.
He didn’t cringe in front of T. R. Sundaram (TRS), celluloid mogul and owner of the famous Salem Modern Theatres, whom the then fledgling writers such as M Karunanidhi, Kannadasan and even the then budding actor M. G. Ramachandran used to be awed by. Bharathidasan said he was the only man who was addressed by TRS as ‘anna’ (brother), and who used to sit in front of the producer, cross-legged, a burning cigarette sandwiched between fingers. But as it turned out, soon the bard fell out with TRS since director Raghunath had altered certain portions of the script written by Bharathidasan for the film ‘Valaiyapathi.”
Close on the heels of the controversy, he asked TRS to cancel his contract for that film and for four more films in the pipeline as well. The value of the contracts was Rs.40,000, a princely sum in those days. After getting back his scripts and a cheque for Rs.3,000 for the preliminary work already done, Bharathidasan went to a bank in Salem and got the cheque encashed. What happened next truly brought out his character. He took the money and threw the scripts he had written on the floor at the bank and walked out with his held high, according to Paavendhar Oru Palkalaikazhagam (The king of verse is a university), a book written by Murugu Sundaram and published by Bharathidasan University in 1990). This chracter trait probably made him a misfit in films.
As he struggled and failed, his health took a beating. His successful Kuyil (cuckoo) magazine fell into bad times because of neglect.
After parting ways with cinema in 1952, he again fancied his chances in it in 1964. He hopped from Pondicherry to Chennai where he rented a big house on 10, Raman Street in T. Nagar so he could live next door to the dream factory. As he struggled and failed, his health took a beating. His successful Kuyil (cuckoo) magazine fell into bad times because of neglect. Under the banner Paavendhar Pictures, he signed up Sivaji Ganesan, Saroji Devi and M R Radha but ignored Kuyil.
For inspiration, Bharathidasan used to watch foreign films at Rajakumari Theatre in T Nagar. Despite his best efforts, Pandian Parisu did not take off.
Undeterred, he tried to make a movie out his guru Bharathi’s life. That too was a non-starter.
His failure in cinema can be attributed to his stubbornness and unbending nature. He was true to his beliefs and not ready to trade them off for the world. This is where Kannadasan as a lyricist differed. Unlike Bharatidasan who would allow none to tamper with his lines, be it songs or dialogue, Kannadasan was always at the disposal of his producer or director or even the star. He never stood on ideology nor cared for consistency in his ideas or beliefs. He would celebrate brotherly love in a song and denounce it in another; he would hail love in a song and castigate it in another. He would praise Annadurai and later debunk him. He spared none and minced no words. He was in a state of flux always. Lyricist Vaali used the same formula and made it big.
It is a mystery why an influential poet who was even honored with a purse of Rs.25,000 by Annadurai, a bird of the same flock, and hailed by the Dravidian movement, could not get help from fellow Dravidianists in films for making movies.
Tamil Nadu was a silent spectator to its supreme poet dying of a broken heart in the government hospital in Chennai.
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