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The People's Poet

Bharathiar's 125th anniversary tribute

Contributed by N. Nandhivarman to TamilSydney, January 7, 2008

It is not easy to take up the role of a people’s poet. Bharati rose equal to this stupendous task. It is easy to become the poet of the classes. Some sweet sonnets about the silvery moon swimming in a sea of blue. some poems about  the twinkle of the stars, fine poems about the fragrance of the flower, the rhythm in rivers, lyrics about the love and verses about valour, these are enough to secure a place of honour in the poet’s gallery. But to discharge the duties of a people’s poet, one has to cross hurdles of hatred, take many a dive into dangers and should not think about patronage and popularity.

Dr. Arignar C.N. Annadurai, M.A. Delivered his first English Speech in
All India Radio on the "PEOPLE'S POET" in Year 1948

Bharathiar Charming and significant as the term is, it is a warm tribute not only to the poet but also to the people for the people had had their monarchs and ministers, their warriors and saviours, their seers and saints, miracle - mongers and priests, but had no poets and from ages past there were poets in abundance, poets who supplemented the scriptures or who polished the palaces by their poetry, but poets who sang for and about the people in the people’s tongue were very rare.

The poets’ voice did the function of the temple bell or the palace drum but rarely did that voice represent the innermost thoughts of the people and when at times poets spoke about the people, it was to point out to them how greedy and worldly they have become, how impermanent and illusory this world is, how sinful is silver and how ungodly is gold, and such like sermons that supplemented the royal rod and the whip of the aristocrat. Poets became in due course one more important item in the Royal paraphernalia, one more policeman who filed the case here and asked the high heavens to deliver the judgment later on.

These poets spoke in a different tongue altogether and were far from the people. They despised the crowd from where they rose and used their poetic genius to gain admission to the royal palace, and when once there, they went on weaving wordy wreathes for monarchs of all sorts, provided his gold was pure. The poets of the Sangam period are noble exceptions to this sorry rule and they are the poets least known to the people of our days.

Painting by K. Bhashyam source: www.chennaimuseum.org

Poets either became vendors of virtue in verses or became pleasure merchants, and they found it hard and unprofitable to become the People’s Poets. That is the reason why we find no outstanding people’s poet after the Sangam Age in Tamil Nadu.

Virtue itself came to be considered an investment for a happy life in another world. Hence, poets who came after the advent of this false and pernicious theory began to extol the particular bank of dispensation for which they were the self appointed agents. Like the clever banker, or the active insurance agent, these poets began to pour forth rhymes in abundance, about the soundness of their Bank, about the delightful dividends and the bright prospects. If one poet gave the people a sweet song about the powers of Garuda of Maha Vishnu, up rose another to supply us with a sacred sonnet about the stately bull of Siva, or the beautiful peacock of Muruga or even the ugly buffalo of the all powerful god of death, Yama.

All these poems were of the highest order, looked at from the artist’s point of view. There was rhythm, diction, similes, metaphors, parables all in abundance except reason. These poets thought that the temple bell did not work well and thought it their duty to lend their poetic strength to supplement the sound duty or no duty, it was such a paying job that there was a rush in that direction. Poets assumed an attitude of superiority they enjoyed the common men’s confusion, they tried to compromise contradictions and beautify absurdities, they were loud in their denunciation of things worldly; the worthlessness of human life, the littleness of mankind and they presented a poetic picture of the unknown world heaven up above the clouds, and the hell underneath the earth.

annaa0.jpgThe telescope was in the womb of science. Hence, heaven existed, and the poets entertained the people with imaginary descriptions about the theological worlds! The ignorant stood amazed and the intelligent adored the art and not the thought.

Role of a People’s Poet

It is not easy to take up the role of a people’s poet. Bharati rose equal to this stupendous task. It is easy to become the poet of the classes. Some sweet sonnets about the silvery moon swimming in a sea of blue. some poems about  the twinkle of the stars, fine poems about the fragrance of the flower, the rhythm in rivers, lyrics about the love and verses about valour, these are enough to secure a place of honour in the poet’s gallery. But to discharge the duties of a people’s poet, one has to cross hurdles of hatred, take many a dive into dangers and should not think about patronage and popularity. Though a select circle of friends knew and spoke about the poetic genius of Subramania Bharati, the people as a whole were almost unaware of their poet till at a later stage, and then too it was the poems of a political colour that was presented to the people, and not the poems which a people’s poet alone can conceive and deliver.

We had poets in abundance. The shepherd sleeping inside a temple forgetful of his home and vocation, the goddess returning after her midnight supervision, the smile on her lips on seeing the simpleton, her curious idea to make him a poet, the gentle pat and the touch of the divine rod, the wonderful results these were known to the people. One becomes a poet, because of the divine touch, and it is his duty to sing devotional songs to a particular deity or to all. This theory held the ground so strongly that the people were not prepared to meet the people’s poet, even when one came forward. The people will cast a look of contempt and suspicion on one who says boldly. “I am the people’s poet. I sing for them and about them because I am one of them”. There would be no recognition and the more radical his poems are, the more vehement will be the opposition. And in this dangerous ground, we find Subramania Bharati, taking steady steps victoriously.

The State of Affairs when the Poet was born

Bharati was born on the frontier of two eras; the feudal order was in full force in his homeland. Ettayapuram had a palace surrounded by huts. Age old castes were still in power. He himself was a Brahmin by birth but side by side with feudalism and Sanathanic order of Society, modernism was peeping in. Industrial revolution was dawning, the old order met the new with sorrowful eyes, and there was a challenge in the look of the new era. Bharati was born during that period and none could have imagined that he will become the warrior in the duel between the old order and the new; for in the old order of things his was a comfortable place.

He was born, moreover, in this land of paradoxes, a land where arrogance and humility, cruelty and kindness march together, where there is energy in abundance and absurd contemplation strong enough to dissipate the energy, a land of some dazzling ideas and millions of mute people, a land where there is apoplexy at the center and anemia at the extremes, the land of courage as well as fear, the land of faith as well as despair. Byron and Burke landed here just then, only to meet Bharatam and Bagavatham. The booming of the gun became familiar to the ears of the people and the age long temple drum was not silent in such a land of paradoxes and perplexities.

Bharati was born, and in such a land history moves but slowly and it needs a strong push if it should move at all. Bharati’s claim to greatness rests chiefly on this: he gave the push as the people’s poet.

Morning Star of Reformation

Bharati was not merely the bard of Nationalism. He was certainly the morning star of reformation only because he was the people’s poet. He was angry with the foreigner, and wanted his country to become free but that was not his goal that was not to be his end. It was but the beginning. He wanted to free his country men from all shackles, wanted them to rise up in the estimation of the world, wanted to see a new land peopled by men and women of a new type altogether. He found the people enveloped in fear. Fear was written on their very faces. They were afraid of anything and everything. Not only did they fear the foreigner and his gun but their own brethren chanting some slogans. They were afraid of ghosts and phantoms.

Eradication of Superstition

Such a people cannot become the standard bearers of freedom and a land peopled by such nature cannot lift its head high, and look straight at the world, even if the foreign power is driven out. Hence Bharati wanted his countrymen, to drive out fear from their mind to shed off inferiority complex. He instilled into their minds hope and courage, he placed before them their own hidden powers and pointed out to them, how that innate power is being wasted, the slumber of the masses, their gross ignorance, and superstition, their inferiority complex and their caste prejudices. Bharathi saw clearly and he determined to root out these evils and none but a people’s poet could have been so deeply interested in these problems.

World Freedom Movements and India

But Bharati knew fully well, that it was the age of the common man, the era of democracy and he wanted the people to fight for freedom. He did not deliver mere devotional hymns to the divinities nor did he send poetic appeals to the princes of the land. He addressed the man with the plough, the woman at the cradle and even the children at the play grounds. He did not, like the poets of a bygone age, point out ancient scripts in support of freedom, but placed before the masses, the world events of importance, and the freedom movements of distant lands. He announced to the people, the dawn of freedom in Italy through the marvelous resurrection of the masses, thanks to Mazzini the patriot.

He painted in glowing colours, the picture of France after the revolution, and placed a brand new picture about Russia, free from the shackles of Czardom, free Belgium, free France, Red Russia these were the pictures that he placed not the theological land of Indra or Brahma and having placed these pictures, he also presented them with a pen picture of country men at Fiji islands, and like Shakespeare he asked, “Look at this picture and at that!” That is the people’s poet. One who is not afraid of pointing out the follies and foibles of his own people, one who is not afraid of showing to his own people, how slow they are in thought and action whereas peoples of other lands were moving fast and faster to a nobler sphere of activity and life. He was not afraid of the privileged class, and did not falter to place the full facts before the people.

Projecting a new vision altogether

As the People’s poet it was his duty to unmask cant and hypocrisy wherever it was to be found, and he did that with remarkable courage and enthusiasm.

There is an attempt by interested parties to enlarge the portrait of Bharati, the national bard, not entirely because they love that portrait but because they think that portrait’s immensity will conceal from the public eye, the other portrait, the portrait of Bharati, the people’s poet.

Bharati’s poems are no mere hornets. The people’s poet was not afraid to lay bare the absurdities of ancient systems and thoughts, and in almost infuriated tone, he asks those who champion the cause of conservatism in very strong words, “Fools! Do you argue, that things ancient ought, on that account, to be true and noble! Fallacies and Falsehoods there were from time immemorial, and dare you argue that because these are ancient these should prevail?”

“In ancient times, do you think that there was not the ignorant, and the shallow minded? And why after all should you embrace so fondly a carcass of dead thoughts. Live in the present and shape the future, do not be casting lingering looks to the distant past for the past has passed away, never again to return, “so says Bharati and therein we meet.

He gave a moral code for the masses, not unrelated to life, as some of the ancient codes, were. He boldly differed from the ancient codes and placed before the people, a new vision altogether. He refused to allow the thought of Maya philosophy to have a hold on the people. He ridiculed that theory strongly and infuriated the Ashramites, but he was not afraid of the consequences. “A people immersed in such a thought,” Bharati said, “will become inactive, unprogressive and such a people will become worthless”.

Service to Humanity

Hunger and poverty and ignorance, he will not tolerate, and he raises his powerful voice against the tyranny of the rich, and threatens the whole world with dire consequences even if a single individual is made to starve. He wants the people to lead a full life, develop their faculties, improve their commerce, industrialize their land and enjoy all the benefits of the new era. His religion is not to be priest craft and slogan shouting: his religion is service to humanity and brotherhood in the broadest sense.

The Task of the people’s Poet

The task that lies before the people’s poet is a mighty one. It is his task to make the people realize new truth, take a new path, and get a new process of valuation altogether. It is his task to release the people from the clutches of the Astrologer, and place before them the Astronomer. His is the task to drive out the Alchemist from the people’s mind so that the chemist can come in. His is the task to push aside the priest so that the teacher can get a place. The people’s poet has the mighty task of driving out the influence of the Miracle monger so that the Medical man can find a place in the order of things. Superstition is to be fought out so that science can flourish. In short, the people’s poet has the task of a revolutionary and more difficult than that of the revolutionary for the people are apt to mistake the tyrant for the saviour and the saviour for the tyrant. He fought with courage and though the battle is not over yet, and though he is no more alive he has given an armoury of thought enough for the successful termination of the fight and the best and lasting tributes that one can pay to this people’s poet, is to continue the fight, the fight for freedom of the people, in its fullest and noblest sense. And there are men for the job and it will be finished.