The Poet Devotee
Poetry, I have suggested, is the paradigmatic mode of practicing intimate Tamil devotion. The poet, correspondingly, is a particularly heroic figure within the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, however marginalized he may be within the economies of modernity. While in the early years of Tamil devotion Bharati was the poet devotee par excellence, his putative Brahmanness set aside in favor of the passionate poetry he produced, in the later years it is his self proclaimed disciple, Bharatidasan, who is the model poet devotee. Reverenced by his fellow devotees as pāvēntaṉ, “king of verse,” and as puraṭcikkaviņar, “revolutionary poet,” Bharatidasan has been the guiding muse for a whole generation of poets in the later half of this century whose verses promote agonistic and fierce tamiḻppaṟṟu, and whose ideal devotee is the warrior willing to give up his body for Tamil (Rajendran 1985: 159-283). For did he not ask, “When harm befalls the glorious Tamil, what use is this body to us?” (Bharatidasan 1948: 9)?
In his autobiographical poem entitled “I Am King of Poetry,” published late in his life in 1960, Bharatidasan takes pride in the breadth and depth of his scholarship in Tamil, in his role as a teacher of Tamil, in his various poetic creations, and in his unwavering service to his mother tongue (tāymoḻit toṇṭu) (Krishnamurthy 1991: viii-xii). This is not, however, the self-portrait of a militant warrior. That his militancy was largely confined to his subversive writings is also apparent from the numerous biographies of the poet, some critical but most hagiographic, that are available today. Named Subburathinam at the time of his birth in 1891, Bharatidasan was a native of Pondicherry. His father was an affluent merchant who fell upon hard times; but we are told that he nevertheless encouraged his son to pursue his love for Tamil, unprofitable though it might be. In 1909, instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman, Subburathinam decided to become a Tamil teacher, taking up his first job in a small village school near Karaikal. From then on up until 1946, he worked in various schools in the French colony. His son proudly mentions that his father frequently talked to him about the difficulties and the indignities of being a low paid Tamil teacher. At the risk of jeopardizing his job, on several occasions Subburathinam protested to local French authorities over the low salaries paid to Tamil teachers and over their right to organize; over the quality of Tamil textbooks used in schools, which promoted casteism and hierarchy among young children; and so on (Mannar Mannan 1985: 31-69).
There were two important turning points in the poet’s life. Around 1909, he met Subramania Bharati, who had recently arrived in Pondicherry. Over the next two decades or so, Bharatidasan’s poems were dominated by the two themes that saturate Bharati’s own poetry—Hinduism and Indian nationalism (Ilango 1982; Ilavarasu 1990). He wrote many passionate songs on Hindu deities and on Bhārata Mātā, wore khadi (homespun), and kept company with the various nationalists who were part of Bharati’s coterie. This is also when he published what was perhaps his earliest prose essay on Tamil, which appeared in the nationalist daily Cutēcamittiraṉ in May 1914 and expounded, in a style highly reminiscent of Bharati’s Indianism, on the need for a Tamil thesaurus. Soon after Bharati’s death in 1921, Subburathinam assumed the pseudonym Bharatidasan, “the follower of Bharati,” a name that demonstrated his devotion to his mentor even as it allowed him to publish anticolonial tracts while holding a government job. Although he was chastised over the years for having adopted a name that both was Sanskritic and tied his poetic persona to that of the complex figure of Bharati, Bharatidasan steadfastly maintained that his mentor had been foremost in opposing caste oppression and hierarchy and that he was the first to write in a style of Tamil easily comprehensible to even the commoner. Throughout his life, he remained publicly loyal to Bharati’s memory, refusing to be daunted by those who ridiculed him for having declared himself a slave (tācaṉ) to a Brahman (Ilango 1982).
The second important transformation in his life came in the late 1920s when he was converted to Dravidianism, through exposure to Ramasami’s fiery anti-God and anticaste writings and to his polemical weekly, Kuṭi Aracu. Their passionate espousal of the “self respect” of Tamilians and fierce opposition to Brahmanism resonated with Bharatidasan’s own nascent ideas on such matters (Krishnamurthy 1991: 91-92). Although he continued to publish nationalist poems in the Bharati tradition into the mid-1930s, he progressively became the poetic voice of the Dravidian movement, translating into verse many of Ramasami’s rationalist, atheist, anti-Brahman, and anti-India ideas. It was during the first wave of anti-Hindi protests of the late 1930s that his writings began to reach a wider audience in the Presidency; over the next few decades, his poems were recited by protesters in anti-Hindi street marches, and his iconoclastic plays were performed at public meetings and conferences of Dravidianist parties. In contrast to many of his more militant followers, Bharatidasan himself rarely participated in such activities. He showed his devotion to Tamil primarily by writing fiery poems, plays, and movie scripts; helping local poets organize; and editing and publishing in polemical journals, such as Putuvai Muracu and Kuyil, and poetry magazines, such as CuppiramaṇiyaPārati Kavitā Māṇṭalam. Fellow devotees often write with admiration that he conducted his numerous literary activities despite financial straits and political hostility. Nevertheless, when he died in 1964, his reputation as the most important Tamil poet of the post Bharati generation was well-secured, not least because of the deployment of his poetry and his plays in the political activities of the Dravidian movement in the 1940s and 1950s (Krishnamurthy 1991: 89-220).
The experiences of the poet Mudiyarasan resonate with those of Bharatidasan, his mentor and fellow Dravidianist. In his as yet unpublished reminiscences, Mudiyarasan writes that when he was a young man attending college, he heard a talk by Bharatidasan and was convinced that he too, like the famous poet, should write poems on the Tamil land, language, and community (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 151). And indeed, although not as prolific a poet or playwright as his famous mentor, beginning in the late 1940s, Mudiyarasan produced his share of verses on the beauties and glories of Tamil, which earned him the title of kaviyaracu, “king of poets,” in 1966. Many of his poems, like Bharatidasan’s, promote the image of the ideal devotee as militant warrior; his most brilliant effort, the epic Pūnḳoṭi, even enlists the Tamil woman in such a role. Yet, like Bharatidasan, he too rarely took an active, public part in language protests; constrained by his job as a government employee, he could spread Tamil consciousness among young Tamilians only through subversive teaching and writing.
Born in 1920 into a poor family in a small village called Periyakulam in Madurai district, he tells us that his love for Tamil was fostered by his mother, who sang sweet lullabies to him, and by a maternal uncle who, although a shopkeeper by profession, had great interest in Tamil literature. He also recalls with affection that his interest in Tamil was paradoxically further stimulated by his first Tamil teacher in primary school, who was a Brahman (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 4-5). It is clear from his reminiscences that he was struck by the urgency of the Tamil cause, growing up in an environment in which he witnessed Tamil and its speakers being demeaned everywhere, often by fellow Tamilians who were Brahman. As a student in a local college in Mayilam, he was troubled when he heard his teacher offering his prayers in Sanskrit, and he was clearly offended when he saw that Brahman students were given privileged treatment (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 21). So in 1947, when he took up his first job as Tamil teacher in Muthialpet High School in Madras, he began his classes with the invocation, “Long live Tamil.” His students wrote “Long live Tamil” on the blackboard in their Sanskrit classroom, an act that, he notes, offended his Brahman colleagues (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 26-27). During the centenary celebrations of the high school, he was incensed when the invocation prayer was sung in Sanskrit; his anger only abated when his students spontaneously filled the hall with cries of “Long live Tamil” (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 31). In 1949, he moved to Karaikkudi to teach Tamil in another high school, a job that he held until his retirement in 1978; there he continued to keep vigil over Tamil. If any of his (Brahman) colleagues made fun of Tamil or Tamilians, he writes, he would pounce upon them fiercely, like a tiger (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 48).
It is apparent from his reminiscences that Mudiyarasan cherished his role as a Tamil teacher and as a molder of young minds. Although as a government employee he could not openly and publicly speak out against the state’s language policies without risking his job, he practiced his devotion to Tamil subversively by encouraging his students to take pride in their language and their heritage. He was not deterred by the hostility with which such efforts were greeted by some of his senior colleagues and headmasters, who were often Brahmans. In 1966, soon after his passionate poem Pūnḳoṭi was proscribed, the then-Congress government tried to force him out of his job, and it was only the coming of the DMK to power in 1967 that prevented this from happening (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 57). Mudiyarasan’s frustration at not being able to participate more publicly and militantly in Tamil devotional activities is apparent throughout his reminiscences. The fear of losing his job and concern over how he could take care of his large family under those circumstances clearly restrained his desire to openly espouse his Tamil devotion. Nevertheless, he proudly recalls that in 1949, his wife joined the anti-Hindi picketing launched by the women’s wing of the DK. During the anti-Hindi demonstrations of the previous year, he himself, along with some of his colleagues, had picketed the high school in which they taught, just for one day. “We are Tamil teachers. Tamil is being harmed. We intend nothing more than showing our grief,” Mudiyarasan told the authorities who questioned them (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 42-45). In the mid-1960s, when the protests against Hindi increased in intensity and scale, he recalls being accused of antinationalist and antigovernment activities in the classroom, and he was subjected to interrogation by state officials. He laments that Tamilians are their own enemies, and he writes that only when Tamil speakers appreciate the worth of their language would Tamilnadu improve (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 76-78).