Waves of poetry – Bharatiyar’s years in Pondicherry

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On April 4 1910, an arrest warrant was issued against Sri Aurobindo but the warrant could not be executed because on that date he had reached Pondicherry. But two years before he reached the French Colony, yet another revolutionary freedom fighter had reached the city and found it a safe spot to carry on with his work. In 1908, the proprietor of the journal India was arrested in Madras and before anybody could guess, its sub-editor Subramania Bharati had escaped from Madras.

There is an interesting story about this escape. “It’s said that he was coming down the stairs of the publication India, in Broadway and a police constable went up and Bharathi asked him what he wanted. The constable said he had a warrant against the paper’s sub-editor Subramaniam. Knowing an arrest was round the corner, Bharathi is supposed to have told him, ‘The sub editor is upstairs,’ and escaped,” says historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.
There are theories about how he managed to reach Pondicherry from Madras without being caught. “I believe nobody had a clue that Bharatiyar would become such a cult figure over the years and hence his movements weren’t recorded properly. There is one theory that he hid in Dr Nanjunda Rao’s house in Mylapore, opposite to the Kapaleshwarar temple in Madras. It was a very famous residence as Sarojini Naidu got married there. He is supposed to have taken the Buckingham Canal and left Madras by boat. Another theory says that he took a train to Villupuram and took a bullock cart and reached Pondicherry,” says Venkatesh.

What few people mention is that Bharati was the first revolutionary to find his way here. “He was the first Indian nationalist from Tamil Nadu to go there. Bharatiyar received Aurobindo when he arrived in Pondicherry and gave the idea to other revolutionaries that Pondicherry could be a safe haven,” says SBS Raman, who directed Bharathi Yaar, a play on the life of Bharatiyar.

Creatively, the decade spent in Pondicherry was also a very productive one. He is said to have written his Kuyil Paatu in the nature park in west Puducherry. In 1912, another of Bharati’s great works, Panchali Sabatham was published. “His publisher Mandayam Srinivasachar moved the press from Tamil Nadu to Pondicherry. The time he spent in Pondicherry was creatively satisfying one of his glorious years where he wrote Kannan Paatu, Kuyil Paatu, Puthiya Aaththiccudi, translations into Tamil of Patanjali’s Yogasutram and Upanishads. All this was voluminous output,” says Raman.

It is not that the time he spent here was relaxed in any way. He was continuously under harassment. “The newspapers he published were taken out of Pondicherry via Villupuram. Money going to him from India and his works coming out of Pondicherry were both intercepted at Villupuram. So he was always in a tight corner. It was a very stressful time for him. He also fell under the spell of one Kullasamy, who introduced him into a drug, which he would often swallow. He went into a dreamy state post that. For a long time he was hooked onto that and was perhaps weaned away by his well-wishers. At the end of over 10 years, he decided to return nevertheless and he was arrested,” says Raman.

If Bharati’s writings from that period survived thanks to the efforts of Mandayam Srinivasachar’s daughter Yedugiri, who wrote about this period and grew up in his house. “Whenever Bharati wrote something, he would first run it through her. His works would be kept in trunks but in his absence, his house was often ransacked and a lot of his works were destroyed. She had copied a lot of his works and hence many of his works survive,” says Raman.

The house where he lived on Eswaran Dharmaraja Kovil street is today being maintained as Mahakavi Bharathiyar Memorial Centre, a museum dedicated to the glorious years he spent here. “Many nationalists lived in Pondicherry then as the British could not arrest them while they were here. The museum is very well-maintained by the government and it has several well-maintained pictures, some of his personal belongings and writings,” says Ashok Panda, co-convenor, INTACH, Puducherry.

This story was published in The Economic Times on Aug 15, 2019

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