The long-suffering wife is an integral part of the history of poets but regrettably what people get to know about her is so negligible. These forgotten people have endured the idiosyncrasies of the celebrity and perhaps even inspired them to greatness. Chellamma Bharathi went one step further and ensured the immortality of her luckless husband while gently fading into anonymity herself.
Bharathi wrote what he believed in and women rights were his pet fixation. It must have been a pleasure being the wife of such a husband but Chellamma must have surely differed. As she confesses in a radio talk a few decades later, “it was tough being the wife of a poet”.
Chellamma was a child bride who lived with a Mahakavi for a quarter of a century, enduring his outlandish ideas and behaviour. Chellamma was seven when she married 14-year-old Subramaniam. The groom already had principles against child marriage but was distracted by the gala entertainment that accompanied the function. There were four functions under one roof. A king had sent his nagaswaram maestro to make the event auspicious. There were presents from the king of Ramnad and two Zamins. Chellamma naturally looked for a financially stable life. The groom teased Chellamma with romantic poetry he had penned, making her squirm amidst her teasing friends (that must have been ominous enough).
But soon Chellamma learnt of her husband’s disdain for anything commercial. When Bharathi accompanied the Ettayapuram prince on a journey to Madras with Rs 500 of treasury stipend, he promised Chellamma that he would get a lot of goodies for her. When he returned, two horse-drawn jatka vehicles dropped several sacks of purchases at their doorstep. When an expectant Chellamma opened them she found only books.
There was a degree of financial stability when Bharathi was employed as a sub-editor of Swadesamitran magazine in Madras. But when Bharathi moved to Puducherry, fearing his imminent arrest for his provocatively political articles, financial insecurities plagued the family.
Back in British India after a decade and residing in Triplicane, Bharathi’s health spiralled down. Hit by a mad elephant, he went into a further spell of fragility and breathed his last leaving the family orphaned.
Chellamma, as a young widow of 32 with two young daughters, faced great financial pressure. A very concerned fan of Bharathi offered Rs 10,000 for the entire rights of Bharathi’s poetry (less than a fifth of it had been published). But he would put it into a trust and a monthly sum of Rs 100 would be paid. However, Chellamma’s brothers wanted the money to be handed over to them and the plan fell through.
Though she had no formal education and very little life or journalistic experience, Chellamma decided to get her husband’s works published under the name of Bharati Ashramam. The first volume appeared in 1922, mainly containing 90 patriotic songs, and surprisingly the initial print of 3,000 copies sold fast. Money flowed in and enhanced the lifestyle of the suffering family. It also brought in guests and social gatherings like never before. Those who hadn’t even bothered to offer solace to the family when they were orphaned rushed to partake in its largesse.
Soon, along with mismanagement, the business was doomed.
Chellamma wanted the publishing to continue and transferred the rights of the songs to Bharathi’s brother for Rs 4,000 and recording rights to jeweller Surajmal for Rs 500. The momentum saw Bharathi’s poems reaching every nook and corner of the Tamil diaspora.
In an honest historical assessment from hindsight, Bharathi was truly insignificant during his lifetime. His efforts to publish his poetic works did not work out. But this futile and loss-making publishing exercise by his widow who had no prior publishing experience was what pushed Bharathi’s songs into the public domain and the poet himself to immortality. But for Chellamma’s effort, unmindful of her indigence, his handwritten pages would have been arguably lost to termites and his poems pushed to the fringes of human forgetfulness.
But then there was another issue. The greatest fictional character in modern Tamil literature is undoubtedly Bharathi’s Kannamma. Most daughters (and sometimes lovers too) are still called Kannamma in Tamil Nadu as a pet name. But doubts arise if Bharathi even created such a character though he had written songs on Kannan. Was Chellamma’s name used in the original and changed in print for reasons of decorum? A poet writing verse on his wife would have been challenging in societal norms those days. Bharathi’s daughters seem to think so. Unlucky Chellamma perhaps was deprived of immortality through the Mahakavi’s poetry.
After Bharathi’s death, Chellamma could witness a soaring of her husband’s eminence. Not one to mince words, Chellamma in a radio talk 20 years after her husband’s death would say: “Two decades back, I was considered the wife of a madman. Now they say I am the wife of the Desiya Kavi (national poet).”
— The writer is a historian and author