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Bharati(ya) Bhasha Diwas & poet-patriot’s pitch for linguistic harmony

The government aptly observes his birthday as ‘Bharatiya Bhasha Diwas’ every year to create “language harmony”.

Bharati(ya) Bhasha Diwas & poet-patriot’s pitch for linguistic harmony
Bharati believed languages should be bridges and never barriers.

CHENNAI: In 18 languages she may converse, but only an unified thought that’s hers. Thus spoke Bharati who was a polyglot himself. Mahakavi Subramania Bharati was more than a linguist. He loved languages, wrote poetry in Tamil, prose in English and knew and spoke Hindi and Sanskrit actively while picking up a smattering of French during his exile in Puducherry.

Bharati believed languages should be bridges and never barriers. He would call Telugu ‘Sundara (beautiful) Telugu’ and talk about rewarding Marathi poetry with ivory.

In addition, during his last years, he translated Tagore’s Bengali stories into Tamil, which were published by Swadesamitran.

The government aptly observes his birthday as ‘Bharatiya Bhasha Diwas’ every year to create “language harmony”.

On the occasion of Bharati’s birth anniversary, we examine some impact the city has had on these languages.


What was a forlorn beach 350 years ago has become a megapolis today because of the work and sweat of migrants. They came from all over the state, country and the world.

The Black Town, which is the seed from which this city grew, must have been a tower of babel. A hundred years back rickshaw men in the Port area used to know a smattering of even Greek, as plenty of sailors used to speak it. Even the first talkie shot in Madras, Kalidas, had characters speaking in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and others as well. The impact the other languages have left on Tamil, which is today’s predominant tongue, is seen by the many loan words that have crept into colloquial speaking.

money — dabbu (Telugu)

bravery — dil (Urdu)

currency — dhuddu (Kannada)

empty — gaali (Urdu)

lawyer — vakil (Persian)

lavatory — kakoos (Dutch)

curse word kasmalam (Sanskrit word used in Bhagavad Gita)


Though Gandhi could read Tamil and even sign his name in it, he was very keen that the Tamils learn Hindi. “Can’t you spare an hour a day to be heard and understood by millions of your countrymen,” he would ask.

In his last visit to Madras in 1946, he forbade interpreters and said, “I will reserve my English for Englishmen.” The importance Gandhi gave to this language learning issue can be gauged when he sent his son Devdas Gandhi to Madras to become its first Hindi Pracharak.

The Hindi Prachar Sabha was established in 1918 by Mahatma Gandhi with the sole aim of propagating Hindi in southern states and the Parliament later conferred on it the status of “institution of national importance”.


Armenia is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Its language is now spoken by 7 million speakers. But curiously Madras, which is 2,500 miles away, has a big role to play in its development.

Armenia, overrun by greater empires, had its best and brilliant migrating to safer zones. A thriving Armenian diaspora survived in Madras.

The Armenian Church, in Black Town, was not only for religious gatherings but also as a storehouse and library for a large collection of books brought from the motherland.

The first Armenian printing press was set up in Madras in 1772 where the first Armenian newspaper was published. In addition, its editor Shahamir Shahamirian also printed the first republican-motivated constitution of the forthcoming state of Armenia.


Vavilla Ramaswamy Sastrulu in 1854 started a press (later the famous Vavilla press) and published important books in Telugu and Sanskrit. It brought professionalism into regional language publishing and was associated with proficient proofreading.

Vavilla Press published 900 classics in Telugu which included the 17th-century erotic poem Radhika Santavanam, which was the first book to be banned for obscenity in the Presidency.

Vavilla books looked classy being bound with calico covers and titles in embossed, glittering letters. The newly literate in Telugu-speaking regions flocked to the publisher to stock their libraries. The very survival of these classics till today is because Ramaswamy put them in print a century ago.


India is the largest English-speaking country in the world. But when one ponders how this started, the search ends in Madras. English was spoken the first day Madras was formed by two natives Beri Thimmappa and Nagabattan who coordinated the lease of the fort.

The translator/ middlemen/ neo nobility of Madras, the Dubashes of Madras (do-bash is one who knows 2 languages) were arguably the earliest to speak English out of the British Isles.

Dubashes helped the East India Company grow in leaps and bounds bridging the language gap with the locals. Dubashes spoke Dutch and Portuguese earlier but their predominance rises only when they started speaking English.


It was 1940. Dravidian politics was at its peak, the first language imposition agitation had just raged across the Presidency.

Pro-Tamil and self-respect movements were the talk of the day. But one obstinate academy in Madras would not let Tamil Carnatic songs be sung within its walls and insisted on Telugu repertoire.

The Music Academy would go to the extent of passing resolutions calling Tamil a disease and banning musicians who were pro-Tamil from its stages including MS Subbulakshmi.

Luckily the pro-Tamil Carnatic lobby would stand up to the challenge and form the Tamil Isai movement which not only established the right of Tamil songs to be sung on stage but also built up a huge repertoire of its songs.


Surprisingly, when religion was being decried and even idols were broken, a metaphorical and anthropomorphic personification of the Tamil language as a mother was gaining popularity. Surprisingly it was accepted by the same lobbies that denounced Hindu gods.

Tamil Thai concept became popular after the publication of a song invoking and praising Tamil mother in a play titled Manonmaniyam, written by Sundaram Pillai in 1891.

The Tamil Thai Valthu has since been adopted as the state song of the Government of Tamil Nadu.

The song which is sung daily in schools all over Tamil Nadu during the assembly in the morning was heard in the hallowed halls of the Vatican as well recently when six Indian nuns sang it during the canonisation ceremony of Devasahayam Pillai.


Sarva desa vilasa (Madras described as an abode of gods), an 18th-century text in Sanskrit describes many places in Madras during the colonial past. The verses mostly praise the dubashes and the rich merchants in the town.

However, in spite of the sycophancy involved, we get to know a great deal about Black Town life. The Black Town wall and the unpaid tax on it are given a mention. The British are mentioned as ‘swetha mukhis’ or pale faces. The British overlords are conveniently forgotten while praising the dubashes.

Most places in Madras are mentioned in Sanskrit names. Nungambakkam is mentioned as Nungapuri and Pudupet as Navasthala.


In 1830, a vital dispatch sent to Madras by the Court of Directors of the East India Company stressed the inevitability of promoting higher education in the English language among the natives.

The English Education Act soon thereafter enforced a need to produce by English-language higher education — “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect”.

Prominent colonial educationalist, Murdoch’s ideas on the usage of home-grown languages in teaching English in the colonial schools of Madras would in a way revolutionise the teaching of an alien language while allowing the regional languages also to thrive.


When the Mughals weakened, Persian prominence in India declined. But Persian literary culture reconstituted itself in small pockets. A notable Persian outpost was the court of the last Nawab of Arcot in Madras.

Short-lived Nawab Muhammad Ghaws Khan‘s engagement with Persian poetry started at age of 12 and would even compose two Persian tazkiras (memoirs). Though he had lost his kingdom and was on a pension from the company, the Nawab ensured that Persian literary culture persisted as an essential part of the cultural milieu.

Mushairas, which were poetic symposiums for poets to exhibit their talent in verse, were often presided over by the Nawab himself. He provided patronage and bestowed titles on poets.

The Nawab’s poetic club while having its membership closely controlled was not an informal gathering of poets but an exclusive Persian poetry society which had poetic rivalries and personal clashes.


The first college in Madras, East India College, was started in Nungambakkam by collector Ellis (who was fluent in eight languages himself) and taught Indian languages mainly.

The purpose of the college was to acclimatise English officers to local culture and dialects.

The company offered promotions and increments to those who became proficient in local languages. But Ellis got what he hadn’t bargained for as well. When Tamil pundits, Telugu experts, Urdu munshis and Sanskrit gurus sat in the same staff room, it was easy for Ellis to see what could be grouped together and what could not.

Thus the Dravidian cluster of languages was discovered. This was reinforced by Caldwell later.


Often considered the last bastion resisting Hindi, Madras has been the centre of many agitations based on languages.

The imposition of Hindi was a very sensitive issue even from the British days, starting against the Rajaji government of 1937. Ever since that, it boils up quite often.

The changeover to Dravidian rule in the state can clearly be attributed to the steadfast anti-Hindi agitation run by the DMK.

It was during that time that a substantial portion of the tar reserved for road laying must have gone in erasing Hindi from name boards. Tamil Nadu still honours its language martyrs with statues and buildings named after them.


The Madras Sanskrit College was founded in Mylapore in 1906 and remains today the oldest Sanskrit-based educational institution in the nation.

It was founded by eminent lawyer V Krishnaswami Iyer, who noticed the fading of the gurukulam concept under the onslaught of western education, the diminishing number of teachers and the fast deteriorating standards of Sanskrit education.

The college has justified the dreams of its founder by restoring and rejuvenating Sanskrit in this part of the country.

The college has an excellent collection of palm-leaf manuscripts of ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts. The Gaja Sastra, a Sanskrit veterinary manual for elephant maintenance, is one of them.

Gandhi and Tagore visited this college, impressed by its performance in reviving a fast-declining ethos.

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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