Memoirs of a Mahakavi

Tamil professor and Bharathiyar’s true-blue Pudhumai Pen Chitra marks the poet’s death anniversary with the story of how much he and his works have shaped the path of her life, and countless others

Published: 10th September 2020 05:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th September 2020 05:20 AM   |  A+A-

his house in Ettayapuram

Express News Service

CHENNAI: I was seven years old when the song Odi vilayadu pappa, penned by Mahakavi Subramania Bharathiyar, was taught to me. Though I didn’t understand its different layers back then, the simplicity and the values of the song stirred me. As I grew, every word stuck with me and taught me lessons,” shares S Chitra, professor and head, department of Tamil at Bharathiar University, Coimbatore.

But it was these lines from the song that shaped her into Bharathi kanda pudhumai pen, she tells. Paathakanj seipavaraik kandal - Naam Payanthukolla llagathu papa! Mothi Mithitthuvidu pappa! Avar Mugatthil umilnthuvidu pappa! “These words roughly translate into standing up in the face of adversity, for causes, and against those who cause ill to the society.

It taught me to be brave and bold. When I was in class 5, I went on to recite the entire song in front of a packed audience and won applause and accolades. From then to now, Bharathi has been part of my life, guiding me in every step. If not for him and Periyar, there hardly would have been conversations around women empowerment. In many ways, his words paved the way for modern feminism,” she asserts and goes on to recite a few lines from his poem Pudhumai Pen (The Modern Woman).

Reaching fellow women
Having always ensured that she raises her voice for the oppressed and those wronged by society, Chitra says that she uses her position and the knowledge she has acquired to enable others to become confident versions of themselves, especially women. “I often read out excerpts from Bharathi’s poems and songs to women, tell them to be bold, assertive, aware of their strengths and to stay courageous. We are women!” she exclaims, her palpable energy almost washing over us through the phone.

“Bharathi pathi pesardhe energy booster dhane? (Talking about Bharathi is an energy booster, isn’t it?),” she asks. It’s this imposing impact of the Mundasu Kavi, his words, works and ideologies, which have — over the decades — seeped through Chitra’s heart, pushing her to take up several pet projects to further promote his philosophies. “His writings have never been specific to one group of people, a race or sect; they are global and wholesome.

So, I wanted to take his works to more people; share the knowledge,” says the educationist, who worked at National College, Tiruchy, for a decade before assuming the role as Tamil professor at the Tamil department of Bharathiar University in 2005. For the past 15 years, Chitra has been bringing about reforms and taking Bharathi’s legacy to the students, one step at a time. In 2008, she introduced an exclusive paper in the MA Tamil course at the university, dedicated to Bharathiyar and his ideologies. “The idea is to take the virtues to the new generation in ways they will understand. I share a symbiotic relationship with my students — we learn from each other,” she explains.

For the world to know
This year, Chitra, along with the university, embarked on a special mission to mark the renaissance poet’s centenary death anniversary that falls on September 11, 2021. The university will be setting up a oneof- a-kind, state-of-the-art research centre and museum at its premises. “Though there are memorials and libraries for the poet, we wanted to establish a world-class research centre, which will house documents, photographs, different archival material, secondary literature, pop culture references and possessions of Bharathi, which will cater to all kinds of people. This will be a one-stop destination to know about him and his life.

Several years of work and documentation have now culminated in this,” elucidates Chitra, the coordinator of the initiative. The research centre, named Kaani Nilam, will not only act as an archive but will also recreate Bharathi’s life by featuring miniature models of the houses he resided in at various points of his life and will include larger-than-life visualisations of his masterpieces, including that of Panchali Sabatham and Kannan Paatu. “I am most excited about the idea of creating a model of the kuyil thoppu, which features in Kuyil Paatu,” she gushes.

Bharathi museum

Retracing a life
As part of the mammoth project, Chitra has also been busy, tracing and turning the pages of the lesser-known chapters of the nationalist Tamil poetcum- journalist’s life. “The Lourve Museum in Paris houses documents handwritten by Bharathiyar. Some of his works, which he penned during his time in Puducherry, are now in the London museum. Since they exuded nationalism, it was taken away by the British. We are now in talks with Cambridge University to retrieve them and bring them back. We are also trying to trace the five to six years of his life — between 13 and 18 years of age — that are unaccounted for. Not much documentation of it is available,” she notes.

Stories from Kasi
As a first step to discover the almost lost period of his life, Chitra made her way to Varanasi earlier in March. Soon after his marriage to Chellammal and his father’s death, Chitra tells us that a young Bharathi was taken to Kasi (Varanasi) by his aunt Kuppammal. “He spent those years at his aunt’s house, gaining knowledge of Sanskrit, Hindi and English.

His time here brought about a change in his personality. There are anecdotal pieces of evidence of him meeting Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita during a gathering in Kasi too! What’s more exciting? The house where Bharathi lived in still stands on the banks of the Hanuman ghat in all its oldworldly glory!” she exclaims. Built in the 1800s, the sprawling house named Siva Madam has seen very few changes, she says, recalling her recent visit to the house.

“I was there for 10 days and spent time with its current caretaker — a 96-year-old Krishnan, Bharathi’s nephew. The erstwhile house, with 21-rooms, has a courtyard with a Sivan temple. I was taken around the house, shown the different pockets and corners, where he spent his days writing and playing the harmonium. The song Vellai Thamarai Poovil Iruppal was penned during his time there. It felt surreal to be there and experience it,” she details.

The harmonium and pen used by the poet still remain protected at the house and will soon make its way to the Bharathiar University. A nine-member team, including P Kaliraj, vice-chancellor of the University, Andal Priyadarshini, poet, Sirpi Balasubramanian, Sahitya Akademi Award recipient, and filmmaker Bharathi Krishnakumar, has been set up to spearhead the initiative. Tamil Nadu government (Department of Higher Education) has announced a fund of Rs 2.5 crore for the establishment of the centre. “This has the potential to become a place of education. If any of his followers or family members have any material they would like to contribute, they can reach out to the university. Bharathi lived in this world for a span of 14,155 days and achieved a lot. This is a fitting tribute to him — the eternal revolutionary,” she finishes.


Nearly a century after his death, Subramania Bharathi still remains relevant to the social landscape of this era. His way of life and poetry have takers across the globe. His themes continue to influence many a generation and how!

Mahadevan G, retired from advertising, Chess Coach
As a middle-class man born in the 60s, I have been deeply influenced by Bharathi but I believe that
his image as a poet overtakes his other intellectual pursuits such as political cartoons and current affairs. To me, he was a man of pure passion backed with a strong sense of awareness and sensitivity to his surroundings (In 1910, in Sudesamithran, he talked about a passenger ship called Titanic!). Back in the 1800s, he began writing about women’s emancipation and eliminating the caste system — giving us the famous lines, “Aanuku pen sarisamum” and “Jaadhigal illaiyadi papa” among many others, proving to be a visionary. Growing up, these two phrases stayed with me, motivating me to stay aware of my surroundings and do my part every day as a son, brother, husband, boss, coach, uncle, granduncle,
father and a citizen of this country to eliminate the differences, and continue to dream for a better India.

Gayathri Jagadeesan, architect
Whether it’s independence or feminism, I see Bharathi’s works as not poems but seeds for revolution. No one explained how we belong to nature as Bharathi did. “Kakkai kuruvi engal jaathi, neerum kadalum engal kootam” is a phrase that my father reiterates every day. We as humans, distance and divide ourselves by setting boundaries where we ought to live together. If we think beyond how the poet included us as part of the universe, it only helps me to see the godliness. No, he didn’t instill religionism into us. The godliness that comes from constellation to electrons. Often, we express ego, chauvinism and bias to make others feel small. We don’t realise mankind is too small a part of this total. Bharati is not just a poet, he is a Brainiac gone too soon.

S Vijayakumar, student
Bharathi’s words give me much-needed assurance and encouragement whenever I make important decisions in life. I’ve always had a passion for Tamil language and writing. Despite having an MA in Physics, I decided to pursue an MA in Journalism without second thoughts for this reason. People criticised my move. I began to self-doubt my choice. That’s when “seivathu thunithu sei” came as a lifeline for me. Another line “perithinum perithu kel ” keeps me going in life.

Raghav Balu, entrepreneur
I have always been a fan of rebels. There is something about people who are outlandish that has always got my attention maybe because I have secretly aspired to be one. When I hit the age of reason — incidentally, that was when I started Angi Clothing — I got to reading Bharathiyar’s poems. He was an archetypal ‘rebel’ in all its glory. Starting from the way he dressed, the turban, the coat and the
draped veshti (I went to NIFT, and I have never seen a clothing ensemble like that), his thoughts were way ahead of his time; he was ‘woke’ when it wasn’t even a thing!

Arunkumar Sekhar, writer
It is very hard for me to pinpoint when Bharathi changed from just another poet I loved to a way of life. I was introduced to him at a very young age when I had modelled him in a school fancy dress competition. At an impressionable age, I was introduced to his poetry through not just school texts but also through pattimandrams on TV. Be it the vociferous Achamillai Achamillai (AR Rahman helped quite a bit, not gonna lie) or the mind-eye opening Vellai Nirathu Poonai , the love just grew with each poem. But the one that I have always stood by and something that became so ingrained in me is Agni Kunjondru Kanden. I believe that every person has a fire burning inside them, an issue they are passionate about, an art form that is no less than any other. I have tapped into this inner spark every single time in the past decade and I try to make sure every person I interact with also gets to understand their own manifestation of the same. I want to be a better version of my self and enable others to go through this journey. Burn down the forest of ignorance and rain down on the injustices of this world. Bharathi is not just anger. He is the deepest form of empathy.

Krithiga, deputy manager- Security, CBRE South Asia
Bharathi, who lived in an era where women were asked to bow their head down and walk, describes how a modern woman shall be deemed with an upright gait, higher vision, fearless norms for anyone, and a mind filled with knowledge. Women should gain more wisdom by reading books and shine to the world. These visions of Bharathi inspired me to live as the novelty woman he dreamed of, because of which I took up the security profession as my career. He saw women as Shakthi which means is my dream too to bring out the Shakthi in all the women.


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