Last week, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin declared that September 11 would be commemorated as Mahakavi Day, in honour of the firebrand poet and freedom fighter Subramania Bharathi.
Bharathiyar holds a stronger sway in the academic and cultural spheres of TN, where his endlessly quotable poetry and creative genius has become the subject of films, books, music, and popular culture. One of the most vocal advocates of Bharathiyar’s principles is actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, who unsuccessfully contested in this year’s assembly elections through his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam. During his campaign trail in December last year, Haasan had visited Bharathiyar’s ancestral house in Ettayapuram too. And in 2017, he had tweeted a stylised caricature in which he had modelled himself after Bharathiyar.
The image caused quite a ripple in cyberspace considering that just days before Haasan’s social media portrait went viral, a short film named Lakshmi ran into controversy on account of misappropriating one of Bharathiyar’s lines. The story which revolved around the protagonist’s extramarital affair was seen by a few rabble-rousers as an excuse to legitimise infidelity, a supposed fallout of women empowerment, a cause that was close to Bharathiyar’s heart. It must be noted that this was not the first time that creative liberties were being taken concerning the great poet. The renowned AVM Productions is remembered for being the first production house to use Bharathiyar’s poems as songs in their films - a case in point is Aaduvome Pallu from the film Naam Iruvar (1947). More recently, films with titles such as Nerkonda Paarvai and Soorarai Potru tipped their hats to Bharathiyar’s poems.
Reinterpreting and disseminating his works, as well as his ideas for a new generation, young entrepreneurs are attempting to find novel ways to keep Bharathiyar alive in this age. E-tailers are rife with merchandise of the great poet, with everything from life-size wall stickers to T-shirts and tabletop busts and figurines themed around Bharathiyar. His ideas of eradicating caste-based inequality and finding a balance with nature have found a subliminal resonance in the recent super-hit hybrid pop and folk song Enjoy Enjaami. Pitched as a war cry of sorts against feudalism and indiscriminate corporatisation, the song hits a very raw nerve in the post-pandemic era.
Encouragingly, the leadership in Tamil Nadu has now found a renewed opportunity to highlight Bharathiyar’s legacy, which was evidenced by the 14 announcements made on account of the centenary last week. Apart from offering cash awards to scholars specialising in Bharathiyar’s works, there will be an amplified focus on the Mahakavi’s oeuvre in the academic space in schools and colleges. The government will also support filmmakers involved in projects inspired by his works and help revitalise his literature through new compilations, as well as onboarding World Tamil Associations for Mahakavi-themed events. On the Central level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also announced the setting up of a Chair of Tamil Studies as part of the faculty of arts at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) at Varanasi.
According to scholars, Bharathiyar’s body of work and the causes that he espoused are timeless. That’s why, it is imperative that discourses pertaining to Mahakavi’s works are not limited to the academic or scholarly domain. It remains to be seen now how successfully the stakeholders concerned can mainstream Bharathiyar for the masses.