Portrait of a poet in exile: Review of ‘The Bharathi I Knew’ by M.K. Yadhugiri Ammal

Published : Sep 21, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Subramania Bharathi with his wife Chellammal.

Subramania Bharathi with his wife Chellammal. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

A biographical account of the visionary Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi during his exile in Puducherry.

The icon of a white-turbaned and moustachioed C. Subramania Bharathi (popularly known as “Bharathiyar” or “Mahakavi,” the supreme poet) stands for the beginning of modern Tamil poetry. Although there is a long tradition of Tamil scholarship on the writings of Bharathiyar (1882-1921), book-length works in English on this immensely popular poet-reformer have been scarce. Among the few, perhaps the best-known book is the historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s Who Owns That Song? (2018), a dramatic account of the copyright battles over the visionary poet’s legacy.

The Bharathi I Knew
By M.K. Yadhugiri Ammal; translated by Premila Paul and Subash Jeyan
Pages: 176
Price: Rs. 450

In fact, Bharathiyar’s own journalistic writings in English were published as a collection titled The Coming Age by Penguin India only as recently as 2021, just ahead of his death centenary. It is in this context that the publication of The Bharathi I Knew, a brief biographical account by M.K. Yadhugiri Ammal, assumes significance. The Tamil original appeared in 1954, shortly after its author’s death and the English translation by Premila Paul and Subash Jeyan has now been published by Vitasta as part of an ambitious project of the Tamil Nadu Textbook Corporation to make a large corpus of important Tamil literary and historical texts available in other languages.

Rare insights

As the daughter of Bharathiyar’s close associate Mandayam Srinivasachariyar, Yadhugiri Ammal had the opportunity to observe the somewhat eccentric genius at close quarters both as a child and as a grown woman. These twin perspectives reveal how she idolises Bharathiyar as an intelligent young girl attracted to both his poetry and his lofty ideals; at the same time, as a woman of her time living in a conservative society, she keenly notes the distress he causes his family by his indifference to pragmatic concerns, his unorthodox beliefs, and, of course, his all-too-human frailties.

Between 1912 and 1918, the families of Bharathiyar and Srinivasachariyar practically lived together during their self-imposed exile in the French colony of Puducherry. With such unrestricted access to Bharathiyar’s domestic life, Yadhugiri writes familiarly about the celebrated poet, but the closeness never takes away for her the sheen of his extraordinary personality. In her account, we see how intimately intertwined their lives were—she treasures Bharathiyar’s presence at important moments of her life, as he offers her words of advice or consolation, just as she extends her support and understanding to his family during the turbulent phases of his life.

The long sermon Bharathiyar gives Yadhugiri just before her marriage, to uphold her honour and yet resist the pressure of tradition that imposes servitude on Indian women, is sure to leave a lasting impression on the reader; his advice to her on the need for hard work, freedom, frankness, non-interference, and a healthy enjoyment of all that life offers stands out for its practical wisdom. Such words must also be seen in the context of the obscurantism of his time: the women of Yadhugiri’s own extended family band together against her when her speech on women’s role in society is published.

MK Yadhugiri Ammal, circa 1954.

MK Yadhugiri Ammal, circa 1954. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Yadhugiri provides rare insights into the curious mix of irreverence, wisdom, humility, restlessness, and an outgoing love for all God’s creatures that characterised Bharathiyar. His large-heartedness is seen in his gifting away his garment to a snake-charmer or feeding sparrows with the rice his wife had asked him to watch over, while his impatience with the hidebound Brahminical traditions is recorded in his decision to forgo his sacred thread and his suggestion that electric street lights render it unnecessary to light oil lamps to ritually welcome Goddess Lakshmi. He chides Yadhugiri when she blindly follows any ritual but explains the spiritual import of scriptural verses when she wants to know more; he is open to learning from children, mendicants, and members of the traditionally lower castes like fishermen and servant women pounding rice.

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She documents the revolutionary side of the poet in his championing the dignity of labour, his vehement opposition to child marriage, and his arguments against the practice of untouchability. Bharathiyar’s commiseration with indentured labourers and trafficked women in Fiji and the efforts he takes along with other swadeshi friends to help in rescue and rehabilitation work after a devastating flood in Puducherry demonstrate his deep humanitarian concern. Here again, an old woman whose home had been washed away teaches him the eternal truth about the evanescence of all worldly possessions: “When maya vanishes, nothing remains.”

“Yadhugiri looks up to Bharathiyar as her mentor and yet she remains undaunted by his redoubtable image as a rebel and radical. She openly challenges him on the disparity between his professed beliefs in women’s liberation and his rather callous treatment of his wife Chellammal. ”

Having grown up around him, Yadhugiri looks up to Bharathiyar as her mentor and yet she remains undaunted by his redoubtable image as a rebel and radical. For instance, she openly challenges him on the disparity between his professed beliefs in women’s liberation and his rather callous treatment of his wife Chellammal. With a sensitive ear, she captures poignant moments like Chellammal’s complaint that she can only vent her heart to the inanimate doorway, and her anguish when Bharathiyar briefly disappears from home and roams about the British territory in disguise.

Tasked with making handwritten copies of Bharathiyar’s poems and songs, Yadhugiri is able to offer fascinating background details about the composition of some of his most famous works during a major phase of creative efflorescence in the poet’s life. For instance, we learn Bharathiyar wrote his celebrated song “Chinnanchiru Kiliye” when he saw Yadhugiri’s child playing at his house; his “Kaani Nilam Vendum” (“Give Me a Patch of Land”) was apparently inspired by his research on local land division based on a new Japanese law.

Although Bharathiyar himself was utterly secure in his belief that his poems would be appreciated some day, Yadhugiri makes no secret of her disappointment that the poet extraordinaire did not receive due recognition while he lived, plagued as he was by poverty and obscurity. She recalls with a note of bitter irony how the much-loved “Senthamizh Naadenum Podhinile” (“When You Sing of Tamil Nadu”) was originally written for a competition, in which it won only the third place! She presents a moving glimpse of the lengths Bharathiyar went to in his quest for immortality through his verse—be it his hermit-like withdrawal into a long vow of silence just to find new words or his experimentation with intoxicants, much to his wife’s chagrin.

The task the translators set for themselves—“to preserve in another language one woman’s love and admiration for Bharathi the poet and the person”—is certainly laudable. They succeed to an extent in their effort to reproduce the homely grace of the original Tamil and the conversational ease with which Yadhugiri Ammal writes, except when they are occasionally tripped up by the mid-20th century Tamil Brahmin dialect and cultural references—as when vaathiyar (priest) is translated as “teacher,” and the mel veshti garment is described as the “outer layer” of veshti. The generally serviceable prose makes for easy reading but the sparkle in the conversation of an enthralling orator like Bharathiyar does not fully come through in this rather wan English version. 

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Most chapter titles in the book are taken directly from Bharathiyar’s popular songs, but when “Sakthi Vilakkam” is rendered as “Sakthi Explained” or “Paarukkulle Nalla Naadu” as “India, One of the Best Countries in the World”, his charged phrases are unfortunately stripped of all poetry. As the eminent Tamil writer and critic Ka.Na. Subramaniam notes in his review (included as an appendix in the book), this “small book will go a long way in enabling us to know and understand the essential humanity of Bharathi, the poet”; in reading the translation, however, it remains hard to shake off the feeling that both Bharathiyar and Yadhugiri Ammal deserved better.

Iswarya V is a translator and critic. She teaches English at the Department of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

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