September 11th 2021 was the death centenary of Tamil poet laureate, C. Subramania Bharati. His poems have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember though not as verse but as songs. I melted in the magic even when I was too young to understand the lyrics. Age was not the only problem. I spoke Tamil at home but couldn’t read the script. One could argue that the magic lay with the singer and not the song. I knew it didn’t. Bharati’s poems were, and are, so popular that everybody, it seemed, sang in different levels of competence with me right at the bottom. I was lucky, however, to have a neighbour who sang very well indeed and obliged me by singing my favourite songs whenever I wanted and more than just once. I never thought of asking her what the lyrics meant even though I had decided at the age of 9 or 10 to translate his poems into English one day. I didn’t want to wait for so long so I once asked my sister who studied in Tamil medium to explain a line. She retorted, “If you want to know, learn Tamil yourself.”
I did just that after completing my MA in English Language and Literature. The more ambitious of my classmates appeared for the Indian Administrative Services exam. I did too and opted to take Tamil as the language paper. My uncle got a doctoral student to teach me the script. I appeared for the IAS exam thrice and flunked each time but my Tamil improved. I continued to learn on my own and began to read Bharati’s poetry myself. Along with this, I also started to read books on him. Some 30 years later, I wanted to include a specific poem in a novel but couldn’t get a suitable translation so I attempted translating it myself. I needed only four lines anyway. My friend, Jaba Gupta, a poet, loved it so much that I completed the poem and began the next and the next. Another friend, Sri Krishnan, helped me understand the nuances of the poems. Just when I thought I was well on my way to achieve my dream, I was confronted with the dying Puttenahalli Lake visible from my new apartment in Bengaluru.
Torn between my writing and the lake, I finally conceded to my conscience and mooted a Save Puttenahalli Lake campaign in late 2008. Giving up the translation wasn’t a choice either. The only way to do both was a short term writing residency. The catch here was that after my first Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in 1999, I had applied for very many others with no success. Now, 10 long years later, the tide turned. A three week long stay at the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland helped me finalize Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati. Hachette India accepted the manuscript. Instead of bringing closure to this translation phase, it pushed me into another, Panchali Sabadham. Based on the pivotal Game of Dice incident in the Indian epic Mahabharata, this rich and textured poem in five cantos with nearly 3000 lines was first published in 1912. I had three years to translate and publish the minor epic in its 100th year – while still trying to save the lake.
Thanks to a neighbour, Ashwin Mahesh, the civic administration, BBMP was reviving the Puttenahalli Lake and I was spending long hours at the site every day watching the desilting, raising the revetment, installing inlet pipes and so on. Mentally though, I was with Bharati’s Panchali, struggling to find the most appropriate English equivalent for one word, one line, in the Tamil original. I had co-founded a trust to nurture the lake but before I plunged into this, I needed to get away once again. As luck would have it, I managed to get back to back residencies, first for one month at Sangam House and then for two as Charles Wallace Fellow at the British Centre for Literary Translation, Univ. of East Anglia. I slogged through the day and ended with a walk around the UEA Lake wondering how my little Puttakere was doing back in Bengaluru.
In 2012, Hachette India published both the volumes, Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati and Panchali’s Pledge. With barely a month left for the annual Bharati Festival in Chennai, I wrote to the organizer, Vanavil Cultural Centre, who readily agreed to launch the book on the poet’s birth date, December 11th. Sitting on the dais, in front of a very large gathering of the Mahakavi’s aficionados and fans, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake of daring to get my translation released before them. The Chief Guest allayed my fears with such high praise that I had to stop from pinching myself. I did breathe more easily and read a few poems in English.
I had always dreamt of reciting the translation with someone singing the original in Tamil. I persuaded my neighbour, Geetha Sri Krishnan, to do so at the first launch of Selected Poems which was held at the British Library, Bengaluru. One of the guests, Rekha Raju, a professional dancer whom I was meeting for the first time, offered to dance to a couple of the songs. What a magical evening it turned out to be!
A couple of months later, thanks to my friend, Beena Raju, Selected Poems was released at the Govt. College for Women, Trivandrum, my alma mater. Renowned writer and educationist, and my teacher, Prof. B. Hridayakumari, handed the first copy to my mother, Manni, as we call her. While listening to the Chief Guest’s talk, Manni told me in an undertone, that she would like to say a few words as well. In her first ever speech, Manni (now 90) spoke of how proud and happy she was about my achievement and wished me well. Her words were a mix of Tamil, Malayalam and English but they came from the heart and made me, and the gathering, emotional. Our smiles say it all!
In July 2021, I received an unexpected invitation to participate in Prastuti 75 – a series of knowledge sessions done under the aegis of IGNCA, Delhi to celebrate 75 years of independence. The inaugural session was on Mahakavi Subramania Bharati. I was invited to read the English translation of some of his poems.
This was a great opportunity but I had to cut short our fusion presentation for want of time. I made up for this when Atta Galatta, the popular book store in Bengaluru readily agreed to organize an hour long online programme titled, “Mahakavi Bharati: The Man, His Poetry, Those Times” on 11th Sept. , the poet’s death anniversary. That morning, Geetha received a forwarded audio message that she sent me. We were dumbstruck to hear the renowned composer and music director, Dr. Rajkumar Bharati appreciating our homage to his great grandfather, Subramania Bharati, and sending his best wishes! It is included here.
Lightning struck the third time when the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, India’s premier literary organization, invited me to a two day seminar on Subramania Bharati on 24th and 25th Sept. 2021. My presentation on his vision for national integration starts about 50 minutes into this recording.
Bharati had been grateful to the Almighty for everything. I am ever so grateful as much to the Mahakavi himself!
Countless are the pleasures You have created For us, For us, dear God! Dear God! Dear God! You merged the living with the lifeless - created With the primal five elements, an amazing world. Transformed the universe with vibrant colours - and With things of beauty in such abundance. You created the serenity of Nirvana - gave The enlightened the clarity to know Truth. You forged a path called Piety - We Bow to You, dear God! Our Supreme Lord!
#SubramaniaBharati #attagalatta #SahityaAkademi