Subramania Bharati, who died ninety-six years ago on September 11, 1921, but whose fame is still growing, wrote about the importance of commemoration. Let us celebrate the anniversaries of great people and great events, he urged, to remind us of who we are and what is possible – to inspire us. The year 2017 marks another great and troubling anniversary: one hundred years since the 1917 Revolutions in Russia, which brought about the assassination of a tsar and the end of a centuries-old monarchy, inaugurated the passion and madness of Bolshevik rule in a Russia destined for almost unparalleled sufferings in the century to come, and introduced Communism to the world as the grandest, and ultimately most catastrophic, political experiment of the century.
Bharati was a contemporary observer of those events. They were watched closely by Bharati in his capacity as a journalist, but they received some of their most passionate commentary at the hands of Bharati the poet. Bharati’s iconic role as an Indian nationalist is, of course, well-known throughout the country. He was one of the pioneers of the national movement in South India; yet the role of nationalists from the South in the construction of modern India increasingly seems to be relegated to the sidelines by modern historians. In fact, the region offered the Indian national movement some of its most dedicated and cogent supporters – lawyer and writer V.V.S Iyer, spiritualist and revolutionary Sri Aurobindo Ghose, and the famed V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, who dared to compete with the British shipping monopoly operating in India and was subject to imprisonment and hard labour for his activities, to name only a few.
Bharati’s role among these illustrious pioneers was a unique one: a poet by vocation from the age of seven, his strong sense of social justice drove him to fight for self-determination, and he became a member of the Indian National Congress. The poet’s philosophy of life was to “love thine enemy” – immortalised in the unforgettable words, “Celebrate, with love, the tiger that comes to consume you! It is Parashakti made manifest.” Nevertheless, he belonged to the Extremist wing of the Congress party, embracing its passion to assert Indians’ natural claims to Independence, while, as a poet and proponent of Advaitic philosophy, remaining in favour of non-violent means towards that end.
As a member of the Congress party, Bharati travelled to North India to participate in Congress meetings. He also dreamed of traveling to other countries, reporting with tremendous and characteristic excitement on Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Japan in 1916. Sadly, his own dream of travel outside India would never become a reality, as he spent most of his life as an outlaw under the British regime – a writer who could not publish his own writings to earn a living. However, his poet’s imagination allowed him to travel at will, not only to the other countries and lands of the Earth, but also, to the divine worlds described in his novella, Gnanaratham (Chariot of Wisdom), and to the worlds of fantasy explored in his long narrative poem, Kuyil Pattu (Song of the Kuyil).
Internationalism was one of the keys to Bharati’s nationalism. Insularity of any kind was absolutely foreign to the poet’s temperament. On the contrary, his curiosity about the world was boundless, and he looked upon the varieties of culture and human experience as chief among the abundance of riches provided by the Divine Mother for humanity’s delight. For Bharati, nationalism could never mean a turning inward, a focus on national interest in the narrow sense, to the exclusion of the world at large. On the contrary, the world’s problems were India’s, and India’s were the world’s; so, too, were the shared ideals of culture, nature, and humanism that inspired his vision of Krutha Yuga, the epoch of enlightenment, which he unceasingly anticipated in all of his writings.
When Bharati’s vision as a poet went to work upon the sober knowledge of national and world affairs derived from his journalistic labors, the result was compelling political poetry of a kind that is rarely found in twentieth-century literature – with, fittingly enough, Russian literature being a notable exception. Among these poems, Bharati’s reaction to the Russian Revolutions of 1917, in a poem entitled “Pudiya Russia” (“The New Russia”), offers a fascinating example of the poet’s political philosophy. The poem is also a tragic testament to the failed promise of the Russian Revolution, which, as Bharati’s powerful words suggest, epitomised hope for humanity to many contemporary observers throughout the world.
For Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century was a country in chaos, labouring under traditions of absolutist rule and a feudalistic social structure that condemned a large proportion of the population to poverty and indentured servitude. Dissent had long been a dangerous game to play, as Bharati notes in his poem, and the flowering of Russian literature and social commentary in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved major personal and political risks for writers. While the practice of serfdom was officially abolished in Russia in 1861, the terms on which serfs secured their “emancipation” were far from advantageous, and the long experience of serfdom left festering wounds in Russian society that refused to heal. It was in this environment that the ideals of communism took hold – revolution by the working classes to establish a more just society, with common ownership of property and the overriding goal of egalitarianism – and inspired vast swathes of the population, not only in Russia, but throughout the Western world. Given Bharati’s uncompromising commitment to principles of equality – gender,
caste, religion, nationality, race, and even age – it comes as no surprise to discover that these ideals resonated profoundly with him.
The tsar remained a final bastion of absolutism, a symbol of all that was wrong with the old order in a world stirred by the ideals of modernity. His abdication, following the first Russian revolution of February 1917, was a tremendous blow to that dying world order. Bharati saw it as a sign of the times, and a beacon of hope for the entire world. It was also a particular call to action for Indians – the defeat of the tsar proved that no government, however deeply entrenched, however brutally enforced, could stand firm against the rising forces of mass revolution, particularly when that revolution was inspired by the great ideals of equality and human rights. “The Goddess Kali,” Bharati wrote, “glanced at Russia from the corner of her eyes and sudden revolution awoke!”
It is easy to forget how daunting the prospect of fighting the British empire must have been for Bharati and his compatriots: the British then controlled nearly a quarter of the earth’s land mass, and challenging the British empire, to the average man in Europe or India, must have seemed as realistic as changing the orbit of the earth around the sun. And yet, “The Tsar,” Bharati wrote, “fell like Hiranyan; like the fall of the Himalayas was the fall of the Tsar.” How vast, how unprecedented, how earth-shattering was this event – as if the mightiest mountain range in the world had collapsed! It is notable that these happenings in a far-off land are described by the poet in the most Indian imagery imaginable, showing how close to his heart those happenings were, and how intimately relatable to the Indian situation.
With the chilling benefit of hindsight, it is easy to forget how compelling some of the ideological elements of communism actually were for contemporary observers. Shortly after the Bolsheviks established a new government, they proceeded to nationalise, not only material property, but also, intellectual property. The works of Russian writers, including Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others, were nationalized in the years 1918-1925, with the goal of making literature and, thereby, education widely accessible to the Russian public. This precedent is interesting from an Indian point of view, because Subramania Bharati’s own copyright was given to the people of India as a “gift” in 1954, with very similar intent. Yet the placing of Subramania Bharati’s copyright into the public domain was not the first instance in world literature of a poet’s work being “nationalised,” if we can call it such, and as some commentators have erroneously suggested in recent times; Communist Russia was actually responsible for the first such experiment in the modern world.
In many ways, the twentieth century was the most ironic of epochs. The era that gave birth to the ideals of human rights, and recognised the concept of egalitarianism at every level – from individuals to nation-states, ethnic minorities, and Aboriginal peoples – also witnessed the brutalities of two world wars, and the cynicism of political deal-brokering on the international stage. It was the century of ruined
promises – of the failures of Communism, decolonisation, and, ultimately, democratisation, as these revolutionary ideals, in the best sense of the term, fell prey to corruption. The twenty-first century has now brought us the vicious spectacle of national pride turned against minorities and women.
Bharati would not have hesitated to condemn these developments; his own nationalism, unshakably rooted in internationalism and individualism, and inspired by his deep reading of ancient Indian literature, was as clear-sighted as it was passionate. A firm believer in reason and science, he was always the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of the past and the moral failings of tradition, whether in India or elsewhere. His appeal was to our common humanity, and neither tradition nor history could ever be a valid reason for denying it. His rallying cry was,“Nalla kalam varuguthu!” – “the best of times lies ahead!” Krutha yugam, the epoch of goodness, always lay ahead; there was never any excuse to cease moving forward. In this sense, his message is one of eternal revolution. It remains nothing less than profoundly relevant today.
(The author is a great-granddaughter of Mahakavi Bharati. She holds a DPhil from Oxford University, where her research involved the study of Russian law and history. A wealth of information about the poet may be found on his granddaughter’s blog, subramaniabharati.com.)