Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi was a meteor, a gift to Indian literature. Born in 1882, the poet passed away on September 11, 1921 but imprinted his legacy on the collective psyche of a nation.
As a child, he was exposed to Tamil, Sanskrit and even English. He was also able to commit a number of Shlokas, poetry and verses to memory and because of his unusual flair for languages, was coaxed to display his talents in the presence of the Maharaja of Ettayyapuram. The royal patron of arts and literature was overwhelmed by the boy’s knowledge and talent and bestowed upon him the title of Bharathi synonymous with Saraswathi, the Goddess of learning.
The young boy lived up to his title and by the time he was 18, had become a prolific writer. The spectrum of his literary creations is mind boggling. Be it freedom or the bounty of nature, the power of devotion, joys of fraternity, women’s rights, philosophy, children, mythology, folk tradition, national or international leaders, he wrote poems on virtually everything under the sun.
He has the distinction of re-writing the Mahabharata in Tamil verse, the Aathi Chuvadi –epigrams on the lines of the Vedantas, besides penning his own autobiography. His works were read, analysed, criticised, praised, and anaysed not just during his lifetime but long after his death. Research scholars and professors are still trying to get to the different dimensions of his works.
The great poet and visionary has used many folk forms of dance and music in some of his poetry. His range of writing spans from the lofty to the commonplace, from simple homilies to elevated philosophy. The familiar folk tunes that his works incorporated made
them more accessible.
Some of the folk forms he used are Gummi, Kavadi Sindhu, Pandaara Paattu and Koothu. Gummi was a folk dance form and one of his very famous Gummi songs goes, “Senthamizh naadenum podhinile, inba then vandhu paayudhu kaadhinile”-which is not only rhythmic but fills the listeners with pride of nationalism.
Koothu, another dance form depicts energy and vigour which makes the audience think that the performer is in a trance. This dance is performed at Shakthi (mother Goddess) temples and lasts throughout the night. Elaborate costumes, breast shields and painted face masks create a rich, visual experience.
Subramanya Bharathi used this form of dance in order to infuse nationalism in people and to speak of women’s rights even though his lyrics set to popular Koothu tunes appeared to be just appeasing rural goddesses Mutthumariamma.
People with an altruistic bent of mind were called Pandaaras, and they usually accepted food from households and sang songs with messages and paid society back in their unique way. These songs have a series of refrains and when recited vigorously can sound like a multiplication table delivered in a singsong manner. The poet used this format to create many rousing songs .
The poet hoped to erase the fear psychosis and inhibitions among the people and fill them with a sense of confidence. He has also used this lyrical form to reiterate several aspects of positive thinking, re-interpretation of Vedic ideas and the importance of well-bonded fraternity.
The Tamil people once practised the tradition of carrying a Kavadi, (a light wooden semi circular arch fixed on a rectangular base decorated with peacock feathers and flowers which appeared like a little bower) on their shoulders to Murugan temples on certain days of the year. Usually the devotees were joined by fellow devotees and all of them sang and danced towards their destination.
Various names of the lord are taken besides adjectives that describe his qualities. A loud booming voice leads and the rest of the crowd repeats a refrain after him. Bharathi used this form of composition to convey topical messages. He found this method so successful that he chose to experiment a slightly alternate form of this song called Nondi Sindhu which was mainly used in the folk tradition to help supporting characters in plays to deliver their lines effectively.
Then comes the Murasu, a huge drum that was used to convey messages to the public. The messages were short musical phrases repeated several times with the intermission of rhythmic drum beats. Several of the poet’s compositions can be found on these lines. It was indeed the mark of a genius to create something profound and colour it with folk flavours so that even the unlettered could enjoy and imbibe the message.
In the days when people often used horse or bullock carts, the cart drivers normally sang songs to keep boredom and fear at bay. Their songs usually were composed on the spot and were a mixture of prayer and a conversation.
Bharathi has written songs in the pattern of the cart driver’s song and has also sprinkled in a generous amount of social messages. It is impossible to overlook the fact that the poet who wrote so many genres of poetry with a social conscience used several aspects of indigenous folk culture to reach out to the people effectively. His works have stood the test of time because of their universality, relevance even in contemporary times and also their ability to be appealing to the learned and layman alike