I was born to Brahmin parents in the year 1882 in the zamindari estate of Ettayapuram in the then Madras Presidency under British Rule. I was named Subrahmanyan and was popularly known as Subbiah. I lost my mother at the age of five. My father brought me up and wanted me to be proficient in English and Mathematics so that I can become an engineer. I had a natural inclination for mastering languages. I was so proficient in Tamil by the time I was eleven that the King of Ettayapuram conferred the title of “Bharathi” on me, meaning the one blessed by Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. 

My fluency in Tamil poetry won me a lot of admirers and an equal number of antagonists too. One such was an aspiring poet, Kantimatinathan Pillai. He wanted to trap me into disparaging myself and challenged me to compose a couplet ending in “Bharathi Chinnap Payal” which means “Bharathi is a small-timer.” I twisted it around and played it back on him to mean, “Look at Kantimatinathan, he is a real small timer.” His face fell and I won myself some more admirers!

When I was fifteen, I was married to Chellammal who was only seven. I lost my father soon after. I was under the tutelage of the local ruler. I went to M.D.T. Hindu College in nearby Tirunelveli. Thereafter I went to Varanasi to learn about Hinduism. 

During my stay in Varanasi, I was exposed to Hindu spirituality and nationalism. I became an ardent devotee of Shakti. I understood the domination of colonialism and was disgusted with the slave mentality of my compatriots. I became well versed in Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, English, French, and a smattering of Arabic. But Tamil was my life breath. I could compose songs and poems effortlessly on demand.

I returned home and taught at Sethupati High School, Madurai for a couple of years. But my passion was writing. I worked in national and regional papers like the Hindu and Swadesamitran in 1904. 

In 1905, I attended the Indian National Congress session held in Calcutta. On my train journey back, I met Sister Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual heir. She instilled in me the idea of emancipation of Indian women. I visualized the new woman as an emanation of Shakti. I virtually adopted Sister Nivedita as my Guru.

I did not believe in the passive struggle of Mahatma. I was impressed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lajpat Rai, and the likes who openly supported the armed struggle against the British. My uncontrollable patriotism burst forth in the form of inspirational poems and songs. My mission was to generate militant fervor in the subservient Indians. I fell afoul of the English government. 

By April 1907, I started editing Tamil weekly India and the English newspaper, Bala Bharatham with M.P.T.Acharya. I came to know that I would be charged with treason and shipped off to the cellular prison of Andaman. With the active help of sympathizers, in the year 1908, I escaped to Pondicherry under French rule where the English were powerless to arrest me.

Even in Pondicherry, I pursued my journalistic and literary interests. The seed that Sister Nivedita sowed in my mind took deep roots.  I felt strongly about the emancipation of women. Being a father of two girls in a patriarchal society and seeing firsthand the treatment meted out to women, their emancipation was one of my favorite passions. I wrote songs of aggression to women. I wrote, “Walk straight, Look into others’ eyes, Sport arrogance of knowledge.”1 

Once my young daughters cringed in fear when a fierce thunderstorm ranged. I wrote the song “Fear not, Fear not, Never ever fear”2. I also wrote an acrostic poem using all the Tamil alphabets starting with this concept.3

My wife did not have much of formal education, but she had a lot of wisdom. With my multiple passions and non-worldliness, we led a life of penury, nay, abject poverty. She was a tower of strength in my bad days. One day, she borrowed some rice from a neighbor as we had run out of all provisions. She asked me to pick out the stones. Soon a flock of sparrows and crows surrounded me. I put out a song, “Crows and sparrows belong to our caste4” and fed them the hard-won grains. My wife came to pick up the cleaned rice and was aghast at the sight of my parceling out the grains to the birds. We went without food that day. Chellammal, in spite of my quirks, managed to keep our bodies and souls together. 

Once, an admirer of mine knowing the dire financial straits I was in, attempted to place in my hands fifty rupees which was a princely sum those days. I stopped him and exclaimed,” Hold it there! Let me take it from your hands. A poet’s hands should never lower before others.”. Instead of being offended, he chuckled and quipped,” Subbiah, in others, that will sound around arrogant. Somehow, that fits well with your personality.” Such were my generous friends and admirers!

Yet another passion of mine was to fight the ills of our religion. I wished to reform Brahminism so that it can be more inclusive. Untouchability was the curse of modern-day Hinduism. I was so impressed by Sikhism while in Varanasi that I started growing a beard and wearing a turban. This continued till the day of my last breath. Sikhism was the most equitable and inclusive religion at that time. It was revolutionary that caste-indicating surnames were dispensed with. All men were Singhs and all women, Kaurs. What a revolutionary idea!5

During my exile, I had the opportunity of meeting several prominent members of the revolutionary wing of the independence movement like Aurobindo, Lajpat Rai, and VVS Ayer. They added fuel to the already raging fire in my belly. I produced some of my best patriotic poetry, termed inflammatory by the British and the moderates.  I assisted Aurobindo in the Arya journal and later Karma Yogi in Pondicherry. 

This period of exile was also my most productive in terms of literary works. I wrote what my contemporaries termed as “The Great Triad” (Mupperum Padalgal), Panchali Sapatham, Kuyil Pattu, and Kannan Pattu, all in 1912.

I realized things were not much different in our golden days of yore. Draupadi’s ill-treatment at the hands of Duryodhana and the silence of the elders and wise men burnt me up. The impotency of Yudhishthira enraged me. I wrote a short epic, “Panchali Sapatham” (Draupadi’s vow). I used that as a metaphor for Mother India reeling under the chains of the British and the slow ways of the moderates. I was with Bhima, who wanted to set fire to Yudhishthira’s hands that threw the dice and torch the entire palace of the Kauravas. 

“Kannan Pattu (Krishna’songs)” dealt with songs written in the Nayaki Bhava6. I also picturized Krishna as a female, called her “Kannamma” and this series of songs was written in the Nayaka Bhava.6    

“Kuyil pattu (song of the cuckoo)” completed the trilogy.  This follows the love of a young woman spanning her two births. In the second incarnation, she was born as a cuckoo. Due to my association with Aurobindo and two Siddhas (Tamil ascetics) named Kullachami and Govindasamy, I acquired deep spiritual knowledge. This is reflected in the 745 stanzas of Kuyil Pattu. 

A famous literary personality told me, “Between themselves, these three masterpieces match the quality of Tagore’s Gitanjali and were deserving of Nobel Prize. The British blocked your nomination because of your “subversive” activities. Give up this useless pursuit, get into the good books of the British. Surely you will bag the Nobel Prize.” I knew no prize can divert me from my chosen path. 

In 1918, I crossed over to the British territory through Cuddalore and was immediately arrested. The jailers tried to break my spirits by unspeakable torture. My body started to fail but my spirit was undaunted. I was released after three weeks of immeasurable suffering after the intervention of Annie Besant and C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer. I was stricken by great poverty during this period, which resulted in ill health. 

I resumed editing Swadesamitran in 1920 in then Madras. I was badly affected by my imprisonment. I was already struggling when a General Amnesty Order removed all restrictions.

One of my most satisfying moments was my visits to the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane every evening. My favorite occupation was to feed coconuts to the temple elephant, Lavanya every day and spend time in one-way conversations with her. I am sure she understood every word I spoke. One day, without realizing that she was angry for some reason, I approached her as usual with my customary coconut. She attacked me, but I knew she did not mean it.

I survived this incident. However, my health deteriorated steadily from then on. I knew my end was near. I often indulged in philosophical self-reflection. My one great regret was that I was born a slave and will die a slave.

One day I felt faint. Just as my eyesight seem to be failing I saw Bharat Mata in her pristine glory holding the Tricolor proudly. I heard a deafening sound in my ears, three hundred million Indians fervently chanting “Vande Mataram”

A bright light flashed in front of my eyes. That was my last conscious thought.
Author’s Notes:

  1. நிமிர்ந்த நன்னடையும் நேர் கொண்ட பார்வையும் திமிர்ந்த ஞானச் செருக்கும்
  2. அச்சமில்லை, அச்சமில்லை, அச்சமென்பதில்லையே
  3. புதிய ஆத்திசச்சூடி
  4. காக்கை குருவி எங்கள் ஜாதி
  5. It is unfortunate nowadays that the Sikhs have started suffixing their caste names
  6. Nayaki Bhavam: The devotee assumes himself to be the heroine and sings entreating her lover. Nayaka Bhavam is the opposite; the lord is worshipped in female form.

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Gopalakrishnan Prakash
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One thought on “Mahakavi

  1. A beautiful life sketch of mahakavi in the Ist Person. Kudos to you for such a marvellous well researched story.

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