Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh
Title: I Sing the Glory of this Land
Author: Bharathiyar, Translated by M. Rajaram
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)
Subramania Bharati first came to me in the arguably less-than-inspiring pages of my history- and-civics textbook in middle and high school. Though not exactly a footnote, without the presence of his poetry or the context of his scholarship and vision, his was merely another name to remember as part of the annals of India’s freedom movement. Such is the unfortunate, even exanimate nature of our education system. When his name reappeared in a series of interviews I did with former students of Tamil schools in Delhi in relation to a current non-fiction project, Bharati came across as a towering figure who continues to serve as the spiritual and linguistic compass for Tamil children similar to what Tagore does for their Bengali counterparts. Reading through I Sing the Glory of this Land, M. Rajaram’s recent book of translations of Bharati’s verses, I could see why.
While I’m disadvantaged by my lack of Tamil to appreciate the cadence and music of the original, the clear-eyed directness of Bharati’s (popularly known as Bharathiyar) verses didn’t fail to strike me. As did the expanse of his poetic canvas. The eleven sections of the book – including God, Freedom, Bharath, Women and Children and Nature – bear out this multiplicity of themes even as they trace their intersections. Kneading them together is Bharati’s unwavering accent on liberty, equality and fraternity — the three pillars of the French Revolution — as he envisioned them in British-ruled India.
Human dignity is one of Bharati’s preoccupations and manifests itself in poems like “Labour” with exuberance. In the scope of that single poem, he places workers, farmers and creative artists on the same plane — each group celebrated for its contributions to mankind.
As a writer and a journalist, Bharati played a vital role in India’s freedom movement. The poems in the “Freedom” section, while throbbing with a genuine love for one’s country, don’t shy away from raising difficult questions. In “Thirst for Freedom”, he asks,
‘Are famine and disease alone our wealth?
Then for whom the laurels are?’
— a rhetorical question that sadly remains relevant even today as the starvation and deaths of peasants is contrasted by erecting the world’s tallest statue and launching bullet trains. In today’s stifling atmosphere of hyper nationalism, Bharati’s poem “Pseudo Patriot” seems oddly prescient in its critique of shrill jingoism masquerading for love of one’s country. Consider these lines:
‘“Women’s honour, devotion to God”
Thus blabber their tongues
O parrot! Indeed they are
All utterly faithless’
Several of Bharati’s poems are on gender equality, underscoring the role of women in creating a progressive, harmonized social base.
Similar to his emphasis on treating women with dignity and on an equal footing with respect to men was Bharati’s forceful criticism of the caste system. Imbued with a sensibility that brings to mind the pioneering educationists and caste reformers Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, his is a voice that’s passionate in decrying the curse of casteism. In “Liberty” and “Drum”, Bharati expresses his consciousness for both these causes with lines like, ‘None is low-born here,’ and ‘Let us burn the folly/that disgraces women.’
A polyglot, Bharati knew Hindi, Sanskrit, English and French. This linguistic plurality didn’t diminish his love of Tamil, his mother tongue. I Sing the Glory of this Land has an entire section called “Tamil and Tamil Nadu”. In “Tamil Language”, a poem distinctly reminiscent of Atul Prasad Sen’s song “Moder Gorob Moder Asha” in praise of the Bengali tongue, Bharati evokes celebrated poets of his land and makes a clarion call for preserving and propagating the Tamil language by translating its classics and taking them to the wider world.
The collection translated by M. Rajaram also contains Bharati’s poems on spirituality. The last section is on episodes from the Mahabharata, particularly focusing on Draupadi’s disrobing. In “Oath of Draupathi” (Panjali), Bharati’s Draupadi minces no words in her desire for the retribution of her abusers, Dushshasana and Duryodhana.
‘The red blood of the sinner Duchadhana
Must flow to meet the blood gushing from
The blasted wretched Duryodhana’s body
I’ll soak my tresses at their confluence
Then bathe myself clean
And scent my hair with fragrant oil
And gather it all into a bun, and not before,’ she says.
Rajaram’s translations of this great Tamil poet are fluent and are evidently true to the spirit in which Bharati penned them. Even after a hundred years since many of these were written, the poems read relevant and even timely because of Subramania Bharati’s worldview — eclectic and inclusive at once, rejecting all boundaries that cause division between humans.
As they were in those heady days of India’s freedom movement, Bharathiyar’s songs of liberty, equality and fraternity are a much needed call-to-action today.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.