September 11th is a renowned date world-over for tragedy, and no less in Tamil history. Today marks 91 years since the death of the revolutionary Mahakavi (Great Poet) Subramanya Bharathi, champion of anti-colonialism and rights for women and oppressed castes.
As you can see my hard copy of Mahakavi’s works are a bit worse for wear but I have found a great online resource with the complete works (in Tamil) here!
I was first introduced to Bharathiyar, like many Tamil kids, with ‘Papa paattu’ commonly known for its opening lines ‘Odi vilaiyaadu papa’. At 7 years old, given sixteen verses to memorise for Tamil class, I wasn’t a fan. Reading over it now, I find an awesome verse:
Pathakam seibavarai kandaal – Naam payam kollalaahathu papa, mothi mithithuvidu papa – Avar muhathil umizhnthuvidu papa.
(Structure of this and all following quotes adapted)
– If you see evil-doers – you mustn’t be scared, fight and crush them – spit in their faces.
I would be absolutely delighted if a small child in a Tamil village somewhere was being told off for getting into a fight, and cited Bharathiyar’s advice as his plea!
In 2000, a biopic was released – directed by Gnana Rajasekaran, starring Sayaji Shinde and Devayani and music by none other than the Maestro. The release of the film is a fond memory for me as I was taken to watch it with my best friend and her family. However at 9 years old, the memories are more of continually being told off for being loud and naughty than of the film itself. Nevertheless, Bharathi has now made it onto my list of must-see films.
Here’s a crucial scene and song, both in the film and in the poet’s life as Bharathi was an activist against caste discrimination.
“Kelada maanidava emmil keezhor meloor illai” – Listen, human, there are no superiors and inferiors among us.
However my personal favourite both for the music and the poetry is this adapted rendition of ‘Poiyo? Meiyo?’ by Harish Raghavendra (his Tamil debut I am told).
I discovered this when I was studying English Literature A-Level, the formative years of my love affair with poetry, and I think I can credit this poem as giving me a revelation – that is, of the absolute beauty of the Tamil language.
‘Poiyo, Meiyo?’ (Lie or truth?) questions the reality of life and the universe, asking, as the name would suggest, what is real and what is a lie. The poem comes under the Vedanta collection (poems explaining Vedic concepts) and so is very much based on the Hindu concept of ‘Maya’ or illusion.
Although the following verse isn’t my favourite lyrically, it’s just about the only one I could do a semi-decent translation of:
Vaanakame, ilaveyile, maracherive, neengal ellam kaanalin neero? – verum kaadchi pizhai thaano? Ponathellaam kanavinaipol puthainthezhinthe ponathanaal naanumor kanavo? – intha gnalamum poithaano?
– The sky, the twilight rays, the wooded slopes, are you all mirages? Just optical illusions? All that passed crumbled like dreams, so am I also a dream? And is this universe a lie?
Moving onto Bharathiyar’s more mainstream influence, there is a legendary scene directed by Rajiv Menon, starring Aishwariya Rai (her character is obsessed with Bharathiyar in the movie) and Abbas, music by A R Rahman and vocals by Hariharan, which no self-respecting fan of Tamil music cannot not know and love!
This scene and this song makes me MELT:
Saathiram pesugirai, – kannamma! Saathiram ethukkadi? Aathiram kondavarke, – kannamma, saathiram undodi? Moothavar sammathiyil – vathuvai muraihal pinbu seivom; Kaathiruppenodi – ithu paar, kannathu mutham ondru!
– you talk rules to me – Kannamma! What are rules for? Do rules exist for those in haste? In the presence of elders – we will see to our marriage rituals later; But now must I wait – look here, a kiss on the cheek!
Back to the more classical side of things, a song which has a lot of personal resonance for me as it bears connections to a late relative is ‘Kannamma – En Kuzhanthai’ – more commonly known as ‘Chinnanchiru Kiliye’. In this poem, Bharathiyar takes on the voice of a mother and amazingly depicts in about 20 different ways her devotion for her daughter.
“Un kannil neer vizhunthaal, en nenjil uthiram kottuthadi,” – If tears drop from your eyes, blood pours from my heart.
Also interestingly, Mani Ratnam got the name for his movie ‘Kannathil Muthamittaal’ from a line in this poem.
Here is what I think is by far the most beautiful modern version of this song rendered by Bombay Jayashree (she has a whole album dedicated to Bharathiyar, check it all out on youtube!):
And to conclude, here are some lines from what I believe is Mahakavi’s greatest and most influential piece:
Ichjegathilor ellaam ethirthunindra pothilum, achamillai, achamillai, acham enbathillaiye.
Uchi meethu vaan idinthu veezhukindra pothilum, achamillai, achamillai, acham enbathillaiye.
– When the whole world stands against me, no fear, no fear, there is no such thing as fear.
– When the sky cracks and falls upon my head, no fear, no fear, there is no such thing as fear.