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Born in Puducherry, historian Dr J B Prashant More developed an interest in the life of iconic Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, who stayed incognito in Puducherry from 1908 to 1918. More has written books on the life history of the poet in French, English and Tamil.
More speaks to Dr Badri Seshadri for inmathi.com about incidents relating to Bharati’s covert stay in Puducherry. More has earlier spoken to Seshadri for Inmathi on Subhash Chandra Bose’s death/disappearance and about the evolution of Muslims in south India.
Among a host of biographers and commentators on Bharati such as Va Ra (Va Ramasamy), Bharati’s own granddaughter Dr S Vijaya Bharati, R A Padmanabhan, Seeni Viswanathan, A R Venkatachalapathy and so on, More was asked, how does his writing stand apart in the study of the poet. The questions were particularly about the circumstances that led Bharati to stay incognito in Puducherry — at the time a French colony — and to later come back to Tamil Nadu only to be arrested by the British police.
More says there were strong reasons behind these two major incidents in Bharati’s life. The poet whose real name was C Subramaniam Subbiah was given the title of Bharati when he was hardly 12 years old, in the court of the Ettayapuram zamindar in recognition of his amazing poetic skill in Tamil. Bharati was born in Ettayapuram in Thoothukudi district and schooled in Tirunelveli, but he later went to Benares where he studied up to matriculation.
Subramania Bharati, whose real name was C Subramaniam Subbiah, was given the title of Bharati when he was hardly 12 years old, in the court of the Ettayapuram zamindar in recognition of his amazing poetic skill in Tamil
Bharati worked in Madurai Sethupathi School as a Tamil teacher for some time before joining Swadesamitran daily in Madras as a journalist, on the invitation of its owner G Subramaniya Aiyer. But Bharati emerged as a vociferous nationalist inspired by the freedom struggle sweeping the country. As Subramaniya Aiyer did not appreciate Bharati’s fervent and passionate nationalism, the poet quit Swadesamitran and, with the support of Mandayam Srinivasachary, ran a weekly titled India. Bharati’s political articles were published under the pseudonym Srinivasan for fear that the ‘seditious’ articles published in the weekly would land Bharati behind bars.
After the Bengal Partition of 1905, Bharati, then in his early 20s, wrote his first nationalist poem ‘Hail to Bengal!’ (Vangam Vaazhiyavae!). He was bubbling with oodles of young nationalist spirit to the point of daring to take on even the distinguished moderate freedom fighters of the time.
Around that period, Bharati made friends with another freedom fighter, lawyer and scholar V O Chidambaram who is hailed as the first Tamilian to have launched one of the first indigenous steam navigation companies in British India, earning him the moniker Kappalotiya Thamizhan. Both Bharati and VOC were from Thoothukudi.
Before VOC launched his Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company to break the British monopoly over sea trade in October 1906, one Seeva steam navigation company against the British was launched in April 1906, which was, however, aborted by the British rulers. Bharati profusely supported these initiatives in his India weekly. More said he had the clippings in his possession.
The Coral mill strike led by VOC and his Swadeshi steam navigation company rubbed the then Tirunelveli Collector and magistrate Robert Ashe the wrong way and so he was arrested on the charge of sedition along with other freedom fighters Subramania Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar.
In 1908 riots broke out in Tirunelveli district against the arrest of the freedom fighters all over India. Bharati ran a Tirunelveli riot-victim relief campaign in his weekly ‘India’ and went all the way along with his wife to see VOC in the prison at Palayamkottai. It was then that Bharati started being haunted by fear of harassment and imprisonment at the hands of the British rulers. So, at the instance of Mandayam Srinivasachari, Bharati took refuge in Puducherry where Srinivasachari was running the journal Republic India.
The Tirunelveli riots and the arrest of VOC along with a few other freedom fighters had, of course, a major role to play in making Bharati run for cover to Puducherry. But that was not all.
The British regime let loose a reign of terror more vehemently than ever before in the wake of an accidental killing of two white women in Bengal in 1908 when the freedom organisation Anushilan Samiti, an underground insurgency outfit posing as a fitness club, launched a bomb attack against a white magistrate. Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki executed the attack.
In 1908 riots broke out in Tirunelveli district against the arrest of freedom fighters all over India. Bharati ran a Tirunelveli riot-victim relief campaign in his weekly ‘India’ and went all the way along with his wife to see VOC in the prison at Palayamkottai. It was then that Bharati started being haunted by fear of harassment and imprisonment at the hands of the British rulers
Bharati, who personally felt miffed with killing of white women as Gandhi did, started anticipating the British government’s backlash against all freedom-fighters, revolutionaries and patriotic writers. So, he expected the axe to fall on him too. That was one of the fears that led him to seek refuge in Puducherry, where coincidentally Aurobindo, who was also implicated in the bomb attack case, landed, escaping the eyes of the British.
When World War-I that started in 1914 came to an end in 1918, Bharati thought that the British arrest warrant against him had expired and, moreover, his health was declining. So, he came back to Tamil Nadu. In the four years till 1921 he had done nothing much in terms of creative writing or nationalist activities.
In a reference relevant to what’s making news these days, More spoke about how Bharati used the word ‘Tamil Nadu’ in his writings, deliberately avoiding ‘Tamizhagam’ which, in fact, connotes a pan-Tamil country including present-day Kerala. However, Bharati held aloft the concept of India as a whole country in which the state of Tamil Nadu belongs. He had never seen Tamil Nadu as a separate nation; he was a nationalist to the core with the spirit and love of Tamil.
That ‘Tamizhagam’ actually refers to a Tamil-speaking region including Kerala has been espoused by Kerala-based historian and professor MGS Narayanan, from his source-based research of history. ‘Tamil Nadu’ has long been used since the Tamil Sangam era and even by the Congress party, pre-independence, in its unit Tamil Nadu Congress Committee in the late 1910s.
In all, Bharati lived in Madras for about six-and-a-half years, staggered over the periods of 1904 to 1908 and 1918-1921. At last, he died sometime after being thrown about by an elephant at the Triplicane Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai. The decade of his stay in Puducherry was very significant in several respects.
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