Mahakavi Bharati and Me

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!

Divine Munificence

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! 


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#SubramaniaBharati #attagalatta #SahityaAkademi

Published by Usha Rajagopalan ("Lakeika")

I am a writer, translator and lake conservationist based in Bengaluru, India.

36 thoughts on “Mahakavi Bharati and Me

  1. I am a great fan of yours. Love the way to write and put your heart into whatever you do. You’re an inspiration.
    Looking forward to many more opportunities to admire you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was good you flunked the IAS exams Usha! I think that gave you the time and freedom to continue to pursue Tamil and Bharati. Bharati is someone one can read whatever time of the day and whatever one’s mood.There will always be something in his poems for one. So happy you have kept Bharati in your life. Ambai

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved reading this autobiographically “uncategorized” writing by Usha Rajagopalan about her tête-à-tête with Mahakavi Bharati.
    A close friend dating back aeons to college days in Trivandrum, Kerala, Usha and I share a rare friendship of long silences interspersed with a once- in -a blue moon out -of -the- blue phone call and even rarer meetings. But it is certainly not this warmth that makes me warm up to her writings. With her genuine love and feel for the English language, Usha is one writer whose felicity of expression, nascent imagery, tongue in cheek impish remarks and cryptic comments based on her observation of people and events are enough to make an impact on my inward eye and outer face by making it break into joyous smiles. Her homage to the great poet Bharati is a case in point. I have noticed that humour is her forte, despite the seriousness of the topics that she chances upon or deliberately chooses.
    So I take this public opportunity to acknowledge her friendship as well as my undiluted admiration for her verve with words. Wish her well. Craving for more….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Truly , you have brought Mahakavi Bharathi to many like me, who are able to comprehend and enjoy thanks to your skilled pen and mind . Thank you ! You are so down to earth while still being so accomplished and tall in your life . Glad to have encountered your book and you !

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is not often that one’s obsession as a child is fulfilled when one is grown up. You are an exception because you pursued your obsession with perseverance and gave it a form by way of your books and with your lectures in various forums on the Mahakavi. You are blessed and so are we who have had the privilege of knowing you and listening to your lectures.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Usha,
    You truly are an inspiration. Be it lake conservation, fiction writing or translations of Bharati Mahakavi, you give your 100 percent. Wish more were like you. It was great to see pics of your mom and Hridaya Kumari teacher. Wish you many more such occassions dear.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I read this amazing story of how a little girl’s innate yearning initiated her into the path of learning and drew her closer to the sanctum sanctorum of poetry. We all know that when a poem is translated much is lost in translation. However when a great poem is truly translated what remains in translation shines by itself without any embellishment. I realised this in your works. Always my best wishes to you Usha.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Really enjoyed reading through this beautifully comprehended post Usha glad to be mentioned too.. Knowing you quite well, I am not surprised to know that you pursued one of your passion about translating Bharathi since childhood and accomplished too. May this spirit and perseverence of yours drive you thru in your other visions too .. Keep inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you Usha for the link through your blog, even though I don’t know Tamil I could enjoy the beautiful poem and also the beautiful recital. Please continue writing blogs and also translation of other poems also.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Despite having worked with Usha at the Puttenahalli Lake, I was unaware of her deep desire to translate Maha Kavi Bharati’s wonderful works. But now I wonder how did Usha manage all this, meaning a family that included a grand child and of course the never ending challenges of reviving the lake. It was not just being at the lake physically, but the innumerable and frustrating follow-up with the officialdom…. that would have gotten anyone else to throw up their hands in despair.

    It is wonderful to read Usha’s account of her part of life and the sheer perseverance that was always part of it. Family, Lake and Writing… well well! it is hard to even imagine, let alone bring ourselves to attempt the optional.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I enjoyed reading the personalized narrative of a passionate journey, that began in childhood, to understand and tell the many truths that the ‘Mahakavi’ in his beautiful and inspirational verses wrote about. This entailed find its true essence, by learning Tamil, and then translating them into English for the benifit of a wider audience. And on this journey Usha paused to do a conscionable act of retrieving a lost lake. The journey has not been easy, but it’s fruits are glorious. This journey of salvation requires commitment, purpose and love for what one is doing. Wonderful!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Marvellous to read of how the many strands of your life have flowed together, now one, now the other taking precedence.
    Your energy, your passion and positivity are indeed an inspiration to us all, Lakeika! 😊


  13. What an achievement and pursuit of excellence. Very few of us have the tenacity with which you went after achieving your goal, ambition and contribution to the society. I really admire you. I only know about untiring effort against all odds to revive the lake. Now I can see the other talent and where your strength comes from.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lake and poems! Such a lovely combination. I have seen you work tirelessly for the lake. And now so nice to read your narrative about your fascination for Bharati’s poems. Inspiring to see you pursue your passion and accomplish it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. “Writer by choice, lake conservationist by chance” is witty and thoughtful. Good to know about your hidden gems about being an IAS aspirant. I think you are very determined when it comes to writing and lakes. Lucky to have such front-runners to younger generation to get shaped. I use to thank you for the lake contributions but now…..double strike.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Reading your ramblings made me travel back in time and relive those days of Asramom.

    The way you brought out your strong character is a lesson in leadership to the youth of your present neighborhood. Even though you may not have gotten into civil services, you were just as worthy as any others that I knew.

    Good to have you as a friend and fellow British Library book worm.

    Thanks 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Along with ‘friend’ and ‘book worm,’ you should have added ‘neighbour’ as well! Your family is very much included in The Zoo in My Backyard. Read the chapter about we sneaking in to see your newborn brother, Mini, the mousedeer, close on your heels and your mom fainting at the sight! 😀


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