Bharati on Tagore


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C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1921), the great Tamil poet, was born some twenty years after Rabindranath Tagore and predeceased him exactly by twenty years. If Tagore was feted and celebrated in his own lifetime, Bharati lived in penury and died unsung, with only eleven persons present at his funeral. Tagore travelled far and wide while Bharati was an exile in the small French-ruled town of Pondicherry for over ten years of his prime writing career.

In an all too brief a life – he was barely 39 at the time of his death – Bharati transformed Tamil with his poetry and other literary endeavours, successfully heralding modernity to an old language. Not surprisingly, therefore, despite the above contrasts, his name is often mentioned along with Tagore in general surveys of literature in modern India. This short essay, however, is not an attempt to make a comparative study of these two iconic figures,1 but to document and delineate Bharati’s engagement with Tagore and his writings – for Bharati not only commented on Tagore at various times but also translated a considerable number of his essays and short stories.


The two poets never met. Bharati visited Calcutta in December 1906 for the annual session of the Congress. Tagore had taken no real interest in this session, and had commented in less than an enthusiastic tone, ‘I ran away from the Calcutta crowd tired and disappointed.’ Bharati met Sister Nivedita (and inspired by her, even dedicated two of his first books to her) but not Tagore. Did Bharati run into him? Did he even know of Tagore and his writings at this point in time? We will never know.

More than a decade later, in early 1919, Tagore travelled to the South – to Madurai, Tiruchy, Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, and Chennai.2 Bharati had been released from prison only a few months earlier on his return from exile; a broken man he was still trying to find his feet in British India. Stationed at Kadayam in Tirunelveli district at his father-in-law’s home, Bharati was travelling to Chennai and other places in the Tamil country in desperate search of patrons. He was probably in Chennai when Tagore gave a talk at Gokhale Hall on 10 March, for Bharati himself was lecturing not too far from there at the Victoria Public Hall about a week later.


Interestingly, Tagore had come on this fundraising tour, for Visva-Bharati, at the instance of J.H. Cousins,3 the Irish poet, who could claim some familiarity with Bharati’s writings and had even translated a couple of Bharati’s poems into English. The Hindu gave Tagore’s visit extensive coverage, and it is impossible that Bharati could have missed it; but we have no record of him having even had a glimpse of Tagore.4 And given Bharati’s peculiar circumstances – he was at that point committed to pre-censorship by the police and was evidently being shadowed – he might be condoned for having given Tagore the miss. The two therefore most certainly never met. If they had it would have been worthy of record by literary historians. Did Tagore, later in his life, come to know of Bharati’s existence? It is for Tagore scholars to pursue this question.

Between these two moments – Bharati’s Calcutta visit in 1906 and Tagore’s to Chennai in 1919 – much water had flown. This interregnum was coeval with Bharati’s writing career. Over ten of those years were spent in exile, in Pondicherry, with a police warrant and reward on his head, and a posse of spies and informers hounding him. This was the period that was marked by Bharati’s extraordinary engagement with the writings and reputation of Tagore.


By 1906, still in his early twenties, Bharati was editing his own journal, the Tamil weekly, India. Essentially a product of the Swadeshi movement, he was its perceptive chronicler and commentator, though not a critic like Tagore. The Swadeshi movement, the earliest phase of mass nationalism in India, had germinated in Bengal and had spread to the South. Even a quick reading of Bharati’s paper would indicate that he was up to his ears with the happenings in Bengal, commenting and excerpting from Bengal journals – published both in English and Bengali. He also translated Bankim’s ‘Bande Mataram’ into Tamil (twice, actually). But, surprisingly and interestingly, there’s no reference to Tagore at all in the Swadeshi phase. It is curious to speculate what Bharati might have thought of Tagore’s ambivalence toward the Swadeshi movement after the Jamalpur incident, considering that Bharati never saw the underbelly of nationalism – riots. (We also have no evidence on Bharati’s views on The Home and the World.)

Bharati’s first reference to Tagore is in English. This was some years after the Nobel Prize, when Bharati was in exile in Pondicherry. Aurobindo and a few other Bengali nationalists had taken political refuge there following Bharati’s example. Bharati and Aurobindo were in close touch, at least in the first few years, and the proficient polyglot that Bharati was – and given his grounding in Sanskrit and Hindi – Bharati did pick up a smattering of Bengali. Writing to The Hindu in response to F.T. Brooke’s criticism of the nationalists when they accepted Annie Besant’s interventions in politics, Bharati wrote that this was fine so long as she did not involve herself in religious affairs, and did not expect to become a leader of Indians in anything. ‘Intellectually and morally we have men in our land and women, too, who cannot in the nature of things be dominated by her personality.’


And what was the evidence on which Bharati made this statement? ‘We produce men like Tagore and Bose nowadays.’5 A correspondent of The Hindu who met Bharati in Pondicherry, two years later, observed that ‘His manner of speaking emphasized as it is by tremendous thumpings, sudden getting-up and sudden collapses, appeared to me a bit artificial though his musical pronunciation of English words charmed my ears. I remember nothing out of all his tirade, except his classification of Tilak as the first Indian statesman of the ages, of Prof. J.C. Bose as the first scientist, and Rabindranath Tagore as the first Indian poet.’6 

Bharati would repeatedly make reference to J.C. Bose whenever he mentioned Tagore. (Bose was one of the few, other than Tagore, whom he would translate into Tamil.) Bharati’s first real reference to Tagore comes in an essay on ‘Regeneration’ written in November 1915.7 Narrating the now-familiar tale of ancient glory and medieval decline, Bharati saw the first rays of Indian resurgence in the present times. ‘We now see the signs of resurgence in everything. The Indian nation has been born anew. The whole world now acknowledges that Ravindranath is one of the mahakavis of our times.’ As we shall see, this global acknowledgement of Tagore was a recurrent theme of Bharati’s comments on Tagore.


At this time, Bharati wrote an innovative column called ‘Tharasu’ (The Balance) in Swadesamitran, the leading Tamil nationalist daily. The column is structured as a conversation between various visitors who congregate regularly and talk of contemporary issues with the balance holding centrestage. One day a local poet arrives and declares that he has made a prose translation of a poem from Gitanjali. No marks for guessing: the chosen poem is of course ‘Where the head is held high…’ On hearing the translation, which is reproduced in full in his column, Tharasu comments: ‘There’s no flaw in the translation. But it could have been in a simpler style.’8 

Following this, a few months later, Bharati himself translated extracts from The Crescent Moon – ‘The Beginning’ and ‘Playthings’ – and made references to ‘The Champak Flower’ and ‘Hero’. Bharati’s joy in translating from The Crescent Moon is apparent.9 While these translations are in prose, a year later, he translated a Tagore poem on the glory of national education in four stanzas.10 It is clear, despite whatever smattering of Bengali he may have possessed, that Bharati’s translations were from English.

Bharati commented at length on Tagore’s talk at the Imperial University of Tokyo in June 1916 and provided in translation extensive passages from this.11 He saw Tagore’s message as the awakening of a sleeping Asia by Japan. He also saw Tagore as continuing Vivekananda’s task. ‘Vivekananda only revealed the exercise of the spirit. Tagore has now been sent by Mother India to show to the world that worldly life, true poetry and spiritual knowledge are rooted in the same dharma.’ Assessing Tagore’s credentials for this task, Bharati continued: ‘Gitanjali and other books that he has translated and published in English are small. Not extended epics. Not big plays. He revealed only a few lyrics. But the world was amazed. Will not lakhs of rupees be collected if only a dozen or so brilliant diamonds are sold! If ten pages of divine poetry are shown will not the world’s poets be enthralled!’ In commenting on Tagore’s global reception and his message Bharati always returned to the literary genius of Tagore.

In thus writing extensively on Tagore, Bharati also expressed his dissatisfaction with the way Indian journals had covered his Japanese visit. Writing in Annie Besant’s New India, he asked: ‘The Indian press does not appear to be doing full justice to the activities of Rabindranath Tagore in Japan. Does it happen every day that an Indian goes to Japan and there receives the highest honour from all classes of people, from Prime Minister Okuma as well as from the simple monk of the Buddhist shrine?’12 


In 1918 Bharati was rather active in relation to translating Tagore. Apart from the poem referred to earlier, he published two books of Tagore translations. In August 1918, he published, through the book publishing division of Swadesamitran, a translation of five essays, all from The Modern Review (MR). Titled Pancha Vyasangal (Five Essays), the book included ‘The Small and the Great’ (MR, December 1917), ‘Thou Shalt Obey’ (MR, September 1917), ‘The Nation’ (n.d.,13 from Creative Unity), ‘The Spirit of Japan’ (MR, June 1917), and ‘The Medium of Education’ (MR, October 1917). Of these, the translation of ‘The Nation’ had been first published in the Swadesamitran daily on 1 February 1918. Probably the other essays too had been published in the daily before being put together as a book.

Shortly afterwards, again in 1918, Bharati’s translations of eight stories from Tagore were published in a two volume edition by Swadesamitran: ‘False Hope’, ‘The Lost Jewels’, ‘Giribala’, ‘In the Middle of the Night’, ‘The Editor’, ‘Subha’, ‘The Homecoming’, and ‘The Conclusion’.14 


Considering that Bharati did not often translate any writer, the fact that he translated so much from Tagore in itself can be seen as a worthy tribute paid by him to Tagore. While it is possible that the initiative to publish Tagore’s stories and essays in Tamil could well have come from Swadesamitran, there is little doubt Bharati put his heart and soul into this task. Though normally faithful in retaining the titles of the stories, he took some liberties in two cases, translating ‘Giribala’ as ‘Maanabangam’ (‘humiliation’) and ‘Homecoming’ as ‘Rajaakaalam’ (‘holidays’). In the narrative, Bharati glosses and adds substantive footnotes in many places.

The first kind of embellishments Bharati adds in his translations is parenthetical glosses. In the first line of ‘False Hope’ he parenthetically describes Darjeeling as being located in the Himalayas; ‘Company Bahadur’ is clarified as being ‘the East India Company’. As the name of the character Subhashini (‘Subha’) has a bearing on the story, he glosses it (‘the one who utters sweets words) on first occurrence.


Occasionally Bharati uses substantive footnotes to clarify cultural matters. In the translation of ‘Homecoming’, there is a reference to the Puja holidays. Bharati clarifies as follows: ‘In Bengal Devi puja is observed from the beginning of Navaratri to the amavasya after Deepavali. This is a long period of holidays for them. The Tamil month of aippasi is analogous to the Bengali karthigai. Hence, in this story, the various festivals that occur in the Tamil country in the aippasi month are said to occur in karthigai.’

Similarly, at the end of ‘Giribala’ when ‘after the wedding ceremony she came out dressed in her red bridal robe and took her veil off’, Bharati explained the veil in a footnote: ‘In North India, more especially in Bengal, most women of the upper castes observe gosha like our Mohammedan ladies. Even at the wedding, rituals are conducted while the bride is in gosha. Only after the wedding ceremony is over does even the groom get to see his bride. This is called darshana.’

While, in translating Tagore’s stories, Bharati remained content with explaining cultural nuances and specifics, in translating the essays he occasionally took issue with Tagore.

In ‘Thou Shalt Obey’ Tagore makes references to the Brahmin oppression of Shudras:

I know that we are open to the rude retort that British principles do not take into account the likes of us. Just as the Brahmin of old had decreed in his day that the highest knowledge and the larger life were not for the Sudra.* But the Brahmin had taken the precaution to consolidate his position. Of those whom he sought to cripple externally he also cripples the mind.* The roots of knowledge having been cut off from the Sudra all chance of his blossoming out into independent action withered away.*

To the translation of this passage Bharati appended three footnotes, for the lines marked with an asterisk, under the rubric ‘mozhipeyarthavarudaiya aakshepam’ (‘the translator’s objection’) – surely an extraordinary intervention in the general climate of the day. ‘Brahmins did not impose such an injunction. It appears that Rabindranath has repeated, in the flow of his thought, the words of the unlettered who know not Satyakama’s story from the Upanishads, Dharmavyata’s story from the puranas, and the fact that though many of the Nayanmars and Alwars are shudras, Brahmins worship them in temples as liberated souls.’ And again ‘There is no historical evidence for these words.’ And finally, ‘This is only a fable.’


Similarly, when translating ‘The Nation’, Bharati translates ‘people’ as ‘janam’, and ‘nations’ as ‘jati’, and glosses in a long footnote: ‘In this essay, the author classifies human society into "janam" and "jati". The natural category that emerges from land and language he calls "janam". Examples: the Aryans; the Negroes. The category that emerges from political differences he designates as "jati". Examples: the Russian nation; the German nation; the Japanese nation. Readers should keep this specific definition in mind when reading this essay.’

Overall, however, Bharati’s characteristic fluid style is not seen in his translations of Tagore. An attempt to be faithful to the structure of the original English from which he translates is quite apparent.

Some time after April 1919, Bharati wrote a celebrated poem, ‘Bharata Mata Navaratna Mala’, which is essentially a panegyric to Gandhi. Here he makes reference to ‘Hark unto Ravindranath, world-renowned composer of songs, the Kavindranath, who said, "The first among the men of this world, the embodiment of Dharma, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi".’ This is but a poetic translation of Tagore calling Gandhi ‘a great leader of men [who] have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India.’15 


It is evident that Bharati keenly followed both Tagore’s writings and activities. He commented on the staging of Tagore’s King of the Dark Chamber at Frankfurt in November 1920.16 He invoked Tagore’s name whenever he discussed the rise of the East, the resurgence of India, and national education. And he always referred to him respectfully as ‘Ravindrar’.

It is therefore a fitting poetic coincidence that Bharati’s last published piece was on Tagore’s successful European tour of 1921, and appropriately titled ‘Sri Ravindra Digvijayam’.17 This essay, written barely three weeks prior to his premature death in September 1921, opens with a quote from an old Tamil poem about how kings are feted only in their realm while the learned are celebrated wherever they venture. Even though Bharati makes reference to the need for the confluence between East and West and the mutual lessons to be learnt, the burden of the essay is how Tagore was received in Europe – in Germany, in Austria, and in France.

If one attains fame it should be like that of Mahaan Ravindrar. Is it only in Bengal? It is just in India? Is it in Asia alone? His fame has spread across this earth from Germany, to Austria, to France. This despite the fact that his songs are available only in Bengali. What the world has seen are only translations. And yet this fame!


However, in Bharati’s view, the praise heaped on Tagore did not belong to him alone. It went to the lotus feet of Mother India. ‘Can the fame that is accumulated for one’s own sake be called fame? Fame is that which comes from gathering glory for an entire nation. Ravindrar has established to the world that India is the loka guru. May the flowers at his feet be praised!’

More fulsome and unconditional praise is yet to be heaped on one poet by another. Thus, for Bharati, Tagore’s greatest achievement was fame, especially a fame that redounded to a fallen nation. A fame that he never experienced in his own lifetime. And would not know that he would gain posthumously.

Ironically, on his 1919 visit when Bharati narrowly missed meeting him, Tagore, replying to a civic address given to him in Madurai, had said that ‘to honour a poet was a waste of time and energy, and good material for poetry best thrived under silent neglect. …poets should be left alone to do their own work in their seclusion and obscurity which were the best places for them. Poets should not be spoiled with too much adulation…’!18 


* I am grateful to Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri for comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and to Professor Uma Das Gupta, and Nilanjan Banerjee of the Rabrindra Bhavana Library, Santiniketan. for help in getting an essay from the Modern Review.


1. Two comparative studies are available in Tamil, both by Marxist critics, written in the wake of the Tagore centenary in 1961. K. Kailasapathy published a series of essays in the Colombo-based daily Dinakaran which were later compiled and published as Iru Mahakavigal (Two Great Poets; New Century Book House, Chennai, 1962). T.M.C. Ragunathan, Gangaiyum Kaviriyum (Ganga and Kaveri; 1966, rpnt. Meenakshi Puthuka Nialayam, Madurai, 1966) contrasts an ivory tower Tagore versus a rooted Bharati and ends up doing justice to neither. Written half a century ago, both books suffer from incomplete documentation but still provide for a rewarding introductory reading.

2. This tour was a memorable one for many of those who attended Tagore’s lectures. A.N. Sattanathan, then a college-going student, recollects vividly in his autobiography buying admission tickets to hear him lecture. He also recollects seeing Tagore’s daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi ‘dressed in a simple Bengali saree and her hair hanging loose.’ One of his professors later remarked that ‘he was more impressed by the elegance and grooming of Tagore’s beard than even by the lady’s sartorial get-up’! A.N. Sattanathan, Plain Speaking: A Sudra’s Story, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007, pp. 102-103.

3. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: Myriad-Minded Man, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2000, p. 221. I have relied on this biography for details of Tagore’s life.

4. There is an apocryphal story that Bharati wanted to challenge Tagore to a poetic contest, with the Noble prize as stake! The source is more than dubious. Given the record of Bharati’s engagement with Tagore and his unqualified adulation of him, as we shall see, no credence can be given to this.

5. The Hindu, 11 July 1914.

6. The Hindu, 22 September 1916.

7. Swadesamitran, 29 November 1915.

8. Swadesamitran, 22 January 1916.

9. Swadesamitran, 11 January 1917.

10. Swadesamitran, 8 April 1918.

11. Swadesamitran, 9 August 1916.

12. New India, 14 September 1916.

13. I have not been able to date its original publication.

14. These two volumes contained two more stories: ‘Kabuliwallah’ translated by V.V.S. Aiyar, and another story translated by one R. Vasudeva Sarma, whose original I have been unable to identify.

15. Tagore to Gandhi, 12 April 1919, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (ed.), The Mahatma and the Poet, National Book Trust of India, New Delhi, 1997, p. 49.

16. Swadesamitran, 10 December 1920.

17. Swadesamitran, 25 August 1921.

18. Rangaswami Parthasarathy, A Hundred Years of the Hindu: The Epic Story of Indian Nationalism, Madras, 1978, p. 241.