As C. Subramania Bharati’s legacy enters its second century, the poet’s fame has grown to extraordinary dimensions. In recent years, there has been a flood of writing about him. As Bharati’s great granddaughter, and the compiler of The Coming Age (Penguin India, 2021), a new edition of the poet’s original English-language writings, I find the public interest in the poet to be an exciting development. At the same time, as a scholar, I am deeply troubled by certain trends, including the stubborn circulation of false information about the poet’s life and work. The problem is so serious, I believe, that if the public does not demand greater accountability, the truth about Bharati as a writer, historical figure, and man is at risk of being submerged altogether, to the detriment of future generations.
For example, in a recent book, a Tamil historian makes several extraordinary yet unsupported claims about Bharati. He writes that the poet, an author by profession, neither knew nor cared about copyright protections. He dismisses Bharati’s wife and widow, Chellamma, whom Bharati called the “chief” of his poetry, with a single, devastating word—“unlettered”. And he asserts that “[Bharati] would undoubtedly have been pleased to know that the Tamil public at large appreciated his work, at least posthumously”.
Copyright and the state
Despite the subject of the book, which is ostensibly copyright law, the author has no background in copyright law, a field to whose complexity I can attest after spending 20 years studying and teaching it, and advising on it at the highest levels in India and worldwide. With no formal background in copyright policy or history, he still does not hesitate to rejoice that, when Bharati’s copyright was first given to the public:
“This was the first time ever, anywhere in the world, that the state acquired the copyright of a writer and put his writings into the public domain. Since then no public figure—not Tagore, not Gandhi, not Nehru, not even Ambedkar—has had the honour of their words freed from the claws of copyright before the lapse of the stipulated time period.”
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These statements are both incorrect and misguided. The first instances of a state acquiring a writer’s copyright in the modern world most likely occurred in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, when the works of classic Russian writers were nationalised—a subject that I discuss in detail in my book, Copyright and Creative Freedom, based on my DPhil research completed at Oxford .
As for the copyrights of Indian writers, there are many interesting stories to tell, but Tagore’s stands out. Not only was his copyright not nationalised, but, in 1992, the Indian government actually extended the term of copyright for an additional 10 years so that Visva-Bharati, which was the copyright holder in Tagore’s works, could continue to benefit from these revenues.
- The popular image of C. Subramania Bharati is as a poet who was naive of business affairs and ignorant of publishing matters
- In reality, his writings reveal an extraordinarily well-informed man whose goals were as simple as they were ambitious.
- Bharati’s wife Chellamma Bharati must be given her due as the “heroine of Bharati’s poetry” , his first biographer and the caretaker of his legacy.
As a result, copyright term in India is unusual by international standards: life of the author plus 60 years after the author’s death, rather than the 50 required by international agreements on copyright. While the change was controversial in relation to the particular case of Visva-Bharati, the government did raise an important policy issue, noting that “There had been numerous demands for according extended protection to his [Tagore’s] works in view of their national importance.” The contrast with Bharati is striking.
Most importantly, the so-called “claws of copyright” are the only means by which a writer can make a living during his or her lifetime. Payment for the publication of literary works is only made possible by copyright law. Because it is inheritable, copyright also provides for the families of authors after their death—people like Chellamma, who may have no other means of livelihood. For example, the Russian government previously extended copyright term for the specific purpose of supporting Pushkin’s widow after the poet’s death.
Bharati himself took his rights very seriously. He writes, in 1914, commenting on a letter published in New India magazine: “For the legitimate rights of man have nothing to do with egoism ( ahankara) , power insolence, lust, and wrath, which the Gita condemns…. Mr Krishnadasa is a faithful lover of the Lord, and he should not ‘unsettle the minds’ of those who justly value their rights and know that their rights are not toys, nor shall be.”
In this regard, it is worth quoting from Chellamma Bharati. This “unlettered” woman nevertheless wrote a book, Bharatiyar Charithram, the first biography of the poet—thereby founding the field of study of Bharati biography. In 1944, her elder daughter, Thangammal Bharati, who was herself a writer as well as being her mother’s amanuensis, wrote in the Preface to this book: “Bharatiyar’s biography needs no introduction. Throughout the Tamil country, he is acknowledged as ‘Mahakavi’, the greatest of poets. But, just as he was not understood when he was alive, people continue to be uninformed about his life. Imaginary stories and mistaken notions about Bharati are often published in the newspapers and in books. People come to believe that these stories or notions are actually true. …Whenever my mother, Chellamma, read such anecdotes, she was distressed and asked, ‘How am I going to communicate the truth about the Mahakavi’s life to the Tamils?’”
In 1941, Bharati had been gone for a mere 20 years; yet, during that time, misinformation about the poet, his life, thoughts, ideas, and works, was already rife. Why was this the case?
Two key factors played a role. First, we must consider the practical circumstances in which the poet lived and died. Much of Bharati’s writing was proscribed by the British government during his lifetime, and the poet finally fled British India in 1910 to live in exile in the French Indian territory of Pondicherry. The poet’s sudden, premature death in 1921, at the age of 38, left his affairs in relative disorder. The country still had 26 years to go before Independence was achieved. Bharati’s nationalist family remained part of a persecuted faction. Moreover, Bharati’s death resulted in the immediate loss of whatever resources he had been able to command in spite of government repression.
This leads to a second consideration. When Bharati died, the task of preserving his legacy in these adverse circumstances fell to women: Chellamma, and his two daughters (particularly the elder, Thangammal, due to Shakuntala’s youth). I do not believe it is mere speculation to suggest that Bharati himself could have considered this situation a boon of goddess Parashakti.
He empowered his women
Bharati was not merely a public advocate for women’s rights; he lived this reality by empowering the women in his home. In particular, Bharati, ever at odds with society, considered Chellamma his active and equal participant in his work as both poet and nationalist. When she expressed fear for him before a protest that he was supposed to lead, he reassured her, saying, “If I am killed, do not worry; take the banner from my hand and lead these people in my place!”
But after Bharati’s death, Bharati’s womenfolk faced a harshly misogynistic environment. The indomitable Chellamma’s head was shorn, her sari blouse taken away. My mother, Bharati’s granddaughter, was brought up by Chellamma until she was 16, but she hardly ever spoke of those days. The knowledge of her grandmother’s sufferings must have been deeply traumatic. Once or twice, though, a sigh would escape her lips, and she would say: “Well, we should not have allowed that.”
But even these indignities could not dampen Chellamma’s spirit; nor could they dispossess her of her inheritance. For, not only did she inherit Bharati’s copyright—his works—but she also inherited something else from the poet, which was of immeasurable personal value to her: her education.
And here is where the lie of Chellamma’s “unlettered” status must, once and for all, be forcefully and permanently rebutted. It must be addressed, not by speculation of any kind, but by pure facts, the cumulative effect of which is to lead us to that great goal which Bharati always had before his eyes: Truth.
For Chellamma, as was the norm in those days, was married at 7. Like other women of her time, she did not have access to much formal schooling—a situation to be viewed with collective shame today. But, in his way, Bharati, who was later deeply opposed to child marriage, fought this system.
The poet’s practice, as soon as he wrote a poem, was to teach it immediately to his wife and daughters. In fact, he also sang his poetry in his own original melodies, and Chellamma and her daughters accordingly learned his original compositions and later preserved them by teaching them to the grandchildren—an oral tradition of Bharati’s original musical compositions that survives to this day.
Chellamma learned Bharati’s poetry by heart, and through it, a profound symbol of the poet’s love and compassion towards herself, she acquired language and culture. Through immortal poetry, she gained a peerless education. This is reflected in her elegant Tamil in Bharatiyar Charithiram, which has recently been published in a new edition by her granddaughter Vijaya.
“Chellamma learned Bharati’s poetry by heart, and through it, a profound symbol of the poet’s love and compassion towards herself, she acquired language and culture.”
Moreover, after Bharati’s death, it became Chellamma’s primary goal to publish his complete works. She was inspired to do so by the poet himself, who had planned to publish his complete works before he died.
Bharati the entrepreneur
Bharati had an entrepreneurial plan for publishing them—and, in this regard, it is worth remembering that Bharati’s father, Chinnaswamy Iyer, was himself an entrepreneur who challenged British domination of the South Indian economy by venturing into the cotton industry. He was driven out of business by the British and lost all his wealth. The shock led to his death. Bharati was then 16 years old.
In 1920, Bharati circulated a letter, in English, to various friends to finance his own “Standard Edition” of his works. He wrote: “All my manuscripts—the accumulated labour of my 12 years’ exile—have arrived here from Pondicherry. They are to be divided into 40 separate books; of each book I print 10,000 copies for the first edition. This work will cost me an initial outlay of Rs.20,000. And, within one year, or, at the most, two years from the date of publication, I shall certainly be able to get a net profit of a lakh and a half rupees.”
Among the reasons behind his conviction that the publishing project will succeed, Bharati notes “my high reputation and unrivalled popularity in the Tamil-reading world due to my past Publications—… these are bound, most evidently, to make my sales a prodigious success.”
He goes on: “I expect from you at least Rs.100. Kindly induce at least twenty more of your friends to lend me similar and much larger sums, if possible.”
And he concludes, in capital letters: “THE DEBTS WILL BE FULLY CLEARED WITHIN 2 YEARS .”
This letter should put to rest the image of Bharati as a man who was naive of business affairs and ignorant of publishing matters, assuredly including copyright. On the contrary, as revealed in his writings, Bharati was a man who was extraordinarily well informed, and who approached the “hypocrisies” of the world with sarcasm, logic, and even cynicism, determined to eviscerate them if he could. His laughter is heard throughout his work, joyful and, where needed, both loving and mocking. He had learned well the lessons of his experience as a journalist reporting on national and world affairs, as a member of the Congress party participating in the national movement, and as an omnivorous intellectual eager to share his knowledge and insights.
When we read his “circular” letter in full, we can see that his publication plans for his own works were ambitious. His goals were as simple as they were grandiose: to restore Indian glory, to claim his own, rightful place on the world stage as a modern embodiment of Indian culture, and to do so for the benefit of humanity at large.
Copyright of Bharati’s works
In spite of the obstacles that she faced, Chellamma succeeded in publishing five volumes of Bharati’s poetry under the imprint of her own press, Bharati Ashramam, founded with her brother’s help. Publication was subsequently taken over by another company, Bharati Prachuralayam, founded by Bharati’s half-brother.
In 1931, needing to pay for the marriage of their second daughter, Shakuntala, Chellamma sold the copyright to the new company for Rs.4,000. Two of the partners in Bharati Prachuralayam eventually withdrew from the company, and the copyright in Bharati’s works became the property of Bharati’s half-brother.
“Bharati’s goals were as simple as they were grandiose: to restore Indian glory, to claim his own, rightful place on the world stage as a modern embodiment of Indian culture, and to do so for the benefit of humanity at large.”
In 1949, the copyright was purchased from him by the government of Madras. In an interesting moment of recognition, the government also paid Chellamma and Bharati’s two daughters five thousand rupees each at this time, though they no longer had formal ownership of the works.
In contrast to what has been claimed, this did not amount to giving the copyright to the public. Rather, the government wanted to undertake publication of the works. A publishing committee was established to oversee this process, which included the members of Bharati Prachuralayam and two leading poets. This committee attempted to establish definitive texts based on Bharati’s manuscripts and earlier publications of his works. Any doubts were resolved by incorporating suitable additions at the discretion of the literary members of the committee. However, this committee also fell short of complete publication of Bharati’s works. The copyright was ultimately made public by the government of Madras State in 1954.
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But this was not against the family’s wishes. In doing so, the government was actually giving effect to Chellamma Bharati’s explicit desire. As she wrote in her 1922 publication of Bharati’s Desiya Githangal (“National Songs”):
People of the Tamil country!
...I will undertake the responsibility of publishing all of Bharati’s works in my lifetime, and afterwards, I have decided to bequeath them to the people of Tamil Nadu.”
From this time onwards, anyone in India was free to undertake publication of Bharati’s works. Chellamma Bharati’s generosity should be noted: she did not wish to keep the copyright as part of any legacy for her family, no matter what its financial worth might be.
In today’s society, it is almost impossible to comprehend the mentality of people like this. Their actions were overwhelmingly motivated by personal integrity and concern for the public good. Yet it is imperative that we should try to understand. For, as people of Indian heritage, this is the culture that we come from, and it is the foundation of values upon which modern India was built.
Depending on how we define “family”, it therefore may or may not be correct to write of the “sad irony that the works of such a man [Bharati] should trigger copyright tussles (involving Bharati’s family, the eventual copyright holders, and the state) within a decade of his death.” The ordinary understanding of “family” would be Bharati’s wife and daughters, rather than his half-brother (about whom I will not comment here). As such, this statement is misleading. Any “tussles” were not engaged in by Chellamma or by Bharati’s daughters. There can be no justification for imparting such motives to people whose words and actions bear overwhelming witness to the specious nature of these claims.
Chellamma’s absorption in Bharati’s poetry was so great that, when she fell into a coma as her death approached, and was otherwise completely unconscious, she was singing lines of his poetry. It is an awe-inspiring testament to the power of poetry—and, of course, love.
Those who write carelessly of Bharati and his legacy today should be called to account. The problem is not so much the errors—after all, “to err is human” —as the mentality behind them. Why have these problems persisted? Years of studying this situation have led me to conclude that it has always had something to do with the value of Bharati’s legacy, financially and otherwise—combined with the perception that “only” women are protecting it, leaving it vulnerable to appropriation.
As Bharati’s second century begins, there should be a concerted effort, spurred by demands from the enthusiastic public which is interested in learning about the poet, to preserve and disseminate the truth about Bharati and his legacy. Chellamma Bharati must also be given her due as the “heroine of Bharati’s poetry” who overcame oppression to become his first biographer and the devoted caretaker of his legacy. All those interested in Bharati today owe her a debt.
The contributions of Bharati’s daughters should also be recognised appropriately, as should those of his granddaughter Vijaya Bharati. For, with due respect to the Thanjavur edition of 1987, it was ultimately Vijaya who finally published the first definitive “Standard Edition” of Bharati’s poetry. In doing so, she drew upon the family oral tradition begun by the poet himself, enriched her knowledge through the study of Bharati’s works for her doctorate at Annamalai University in 1966, which pioneered criticism of the poet’s works in the academic context—and immersed herself in a lifelong process of reading, interpreting, and singing his poetry. Her Standard Edition of Bharati’s poems was published in 2015. It was an entrepreneurial project much like the one that her grandfather had tried to realise nearly a hundred years before.
The legacy continues.
Mira T. Sundara Rajan, visiting professor at UC Davis Law School, has a DPhil in Law from Oxford University and is an expert on copyright law. She is currently a Mentor Professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Bharathiar University in Coimbatore.
- Chellamma Bharati, Bharatiyar Charithiram (originally published in 1941; second edition, with preface by Thangammal Bharati published in 1944; third edition. Published in 1977; Fourth edition, edited and with Introduction by S. Vijaya Bharati, Chennai: Amudha Surabi, 2003).