According to the English dictionary, the word dissent means strong disagreement or dissatisfaction with established ideas or values. And Bharatidasan is a poet who expresses in his writings a strong disagreement with the established ideas and values of his days. It is this voice of disagreement or dissent that we are going to examine.
Bharatidasan is called Puratchi Pavalar in Tamil which means are revolutionary or a rebellious poet. The Tamil word Puratchi literally means to turn upside down. Bharatidasan is a Tamil poet who turned many things upside down, things such as God, religion, social practices, literary tradition and literary themes.
First, let us see how the voice of dissent is raised in matters of God and religion.
A student of Tamil literature knows that Tamil poetry is rich in religious thought and feelings. Prior to Bharatidasan no Tamil poet has never said anything against God. Though the Siddas and St. Ramalingam of Vadalur criticized certain religious practices and condemned religious bigotry, they were mastics and said to have had occult experience of God.
There was no outspoken agnosticism or rationalism in their writings. And Bharatidasan was well reversed in this tradition. Even Subramania Bharathi who was the mentor of Bharatidasan and how the latter greatly admired and respected was very much steeped in God and religion. It was Bharatidasan who broke this tradition and became the first rationalist poet in Tamil.
It is true that Bharatidasan started his career as a poet accepting the religious tradition of the past. He has written many hymns or devotional songs in praise of the Gods. “Subramaniar Thuthi Amudhu” one of his early works is written in praise of Lord Muruga or Subramania. However, the voice of dissent is heard later when Bharatidasan was drawn into the movement of self-respect and rationalism started by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the great iconoclast of Tamil Nadu.
Thus comes the upside down turning, and Bharatidasan’s divorce with God and religion. All his writings thereafter are those of a rationalist. The moment you open any work of Bharatidasan, you will find that he is indeed a dissenter. Prior to Bharatidasan no Tamil poet ever started writing his book without invocation to any God or Goddess. Bharatidasan completely dispensed with that tradition.
However, the dissenting voice of Bharatidasan is not the voice of a hardened atheist. Of course he calls himself agnostic and in a few places seems to question the very existence of God.
“Our Tamil Culture
Will not accept something as God
And suffer on that score”
But, on the whole, it seems what he is against is not God, but false ideas of God. He does not have any reverence of God, of course, but, at least for the sake of argument, he concedes that there is one God, but vehemently condemns the popular Hindu practice of Polytheism and idol worship. He clearly
makes the destination saying.
“Worshiping a stone is one thing
And worshiping God is quite
- Thenaruvi poem 101
In those days there were controversies between the religious people and the rationalists and yogi Suddhananda Bharati wrote a song which begins like this:
“Who says there is no God;
Let him visit Thillai
And come free to face with him”
In answer to this Bharatidasan wrote another song. A few lines of which are quoted here:
“I say there is no God
And I say this, of course,
After visiting Thillai”
The Gods of stone and copper
- They extract money from the many
And give it to the idle.
Are they genuine Gods?
If the idol is God,
Will he permit the priests
To collect money
From the devotees?
- Thenaruvi poem 97
The popular Hindu idea of god and goddess is based on the Puranic stories, but the rationalistic mind of Bharatidasan does not accept these Puranic ideas. So he says:
“Gods must be detached Beings
But they (the priests) say that
Our Gods have mistresses!
They drink and glutton
Like human beings.
And they demand offerings!
Is it good
To have Gods like this?
- Thenaruvi poem 16
In one of his lullabies, he ridicules popular worship and speaks through a mother who tells her like one:
“They put a holy mark on a piece of cow-dung
And call it God!
Be ashamed of them my child,
And laugh them to scorn.”
- Poem. Vol. 1.42
Bharatidasan strongly condemns the priests or the religious establishment for keeping the common people in ignorance and superstition so that they may thrive and prosper at the people’s expense. In a story poem he exposes the sensual and luxurious life of the religious heads of the Mutts and shows that the actual interest of the Mutt – heads are purely worldly and that religion is only a cover to hide their sensual living.
He tries to wake up the poor, ignorant people making sacrificial offerings at the temples saying:
“you drudge and toil,
Have no food,
No house to live in
You live like cattle
Still you fall at the feet of priests.
When you complain of hunger
“it is the wages of your sin”
It would seem that Bharatidasan vents his anger only against Hinduism and leaves the other religions alone. It is not so. To give one example, he condemns the Christian Church for going against the teachings of Christ by admitting caste differences into Christianity. He adds, “According to Jesus Christ, a loving heart is temple of god, but the clergy build churches to darken the minds of people and rule over them”.
- Poem: volume 1. Poem 61
And in general he protests:
“if there is only one God,
Why should there be
So many religions?
They speak of religious teachings
But don’t practise them
So I am certain
But boundless love and truth.”
-Thenaruvi. Poem 96
In another place he says,
“The world’s innumerable religions
Are like fire-brands thrown
On a house of sulphur”
Thus it is clear that the dissenting voice of Bharatidasan over God and religion is not a voice of negativism but a voice raised against superstitions and social evils that lead the people way from the path of truth and love.
Closely connected with the Hindu religion are the evils of caste and untouchability. Bharatidasan strongly disagrees with the caste system and voices his anger against the established views of the society. Poet Bharati also was aware of the evils of the castes and he condemned caste differences. However, he did not launch any vehement attack on the system itself. Bharatidasan went to the root of the problem and fought a life-long battle against Varnashrma Dharma, which according to him was responsible for the caste system.
“Beyond the clutter of castes
Lies the path
Towards justice and equity”
- Isai amudhu.1.36
“Let us be totally free
From castes and creeds
And serve one and all
With equal love”
“Thoroughly rid of castes
The New age will begin”
The Tamils do not accept
- Poem Vol 1. Page 160
And dissenting from the perpetrators of the caste system, he takes up the cause of the untouchables and fights for their right to enter the temples. Usually rationalists do not encourage temple worship and we know how vehement Bharatidasan is against idol worship.
However, he full well knows the rationalism is one thing and social justice is quite a different thing. Denial of the right to worship to the lower castes at the Hindu temples where Brahmins are priests is a great injustice done to those communities. It is segregation, social ostracism which goes against humanism and the democratic principle of equality of all human beings. So he asks:
“Are only a few qualified
To worship at the temples
Are other born
With a stigmaz”
“could God have made
Some people low born?”
“while a dog and a carrion crow
Can enter a temple
And cause no defilement,
Why segregate your human brothren?
Are they lowlier then dogs and crows?
Bharatidasan’s attack on Varnashrma Dharma is also an attack on Brahminism. For according to him, Brahminism and Varnashrma Dharma go hand in hand. Moreover in addition to Varnashrama Dharma there are a few other things over which he finds himself very strongly disagreeing with the Brahmins.
Every reader of Barathidasan knows how deeply Bharatidasan love his native Tamil land and his native Tamil language. According to Barathidasan, and according to many other unbiased students of Tamil history, Tamil is the language that flourished all over the subcontinent before the coming of the Aryans.
Thus, Tamil is wholly independent of Sanskrit and Tamil culture that existed in the Tamil native land, prior to the advent of Sanskrit had an identity of its own. This is a very strong conviction held by Bharatidasan and he is also very strong, in his conviction that the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu are wholly responsible for Sanskritization of Tamil and Tamil culture.
In an enthusiasm for a composite Indian culture and national integration, this later-day Sanskritization of Tamil and Tamil culture may seem harmless or even welcome to those who look at the problem from the outside. But to the native Tamil, Sanskritization has always been anathema, adulterate all things which he held precious. Bharatidasan being a representative of the native Tamil spirit, takes up cudgels against the subtle attempt on the part of the Brahmins words into Tamil identity.
Introduction of Sanskrit words into Tamil not only pushed a lot of native words to the background, but it went against the grain of Tamil grammar as well. It paved the way for indiscriminate use of unnecessary and un – Tamil words which defaced the native character and beauty of Tamil. That is why Bharatidasan says:
“ Sanskrit is a hangman’s rope for us
It is the snake that has bitten our
Rights to death”
The Brahmins of Tamil Nadu, according to Bharatidasan, were the responsible for Sanskritizing and de-Tamiling Tamil arts and culture. For example, what are now known as Karnatic music and Bharata Natya were once native Tamil arts and had different names. Even today, in the name of classical music in music concerts, radio and television programmes right in the middle of the Tamil speaking land, mostly Telugu and Sanskrit songs are sung and encouraged while even very good Tamil songs are brushed aside. So Bharatidasan cries in anger:
“why sing in Telugu which is
Unintelligible in Tamil Nadu ?
Why should a Tamilian give up
Singing in Tamil”
“why should there be chantings
In Sanskrit in the temples of Tamil Nadu?
Don’t we have beautiful
Tamil hymns from Thevaram,
And thiruvai Mozhi”
- Thamilyakkam 13
Next comes the question of National integration which is akin to the question of Sanskritization. Ideally speaking real national integration of India is a good and welcome idea and no person in his right mind will oppose genuine and sincere attempts at national integration. And Bharatidasan who speaks of universal love and integrated humanity is not opposed to genuine national integration. In fact the dreams of days of genuine Indian unity when relationships will be cordial that if a person from the Himalayan region has a fit of cough, another person from kanyakumari will rush medicine to him.
Being so sincere in dreaming of oneness and equality of all human beings, Bharatidasan cannot be expected to tolerate any group of people to exploit another group. So he raised his voice of protest against sublte attempts of exploitation of the Tamil people by the protagonists of national integration. In a democratic country all citizens should have perfectly equal rights and equal status, and no group of people should have any advantage over the others.
Here comes the non-wisdom of having Hindi as the official, and sometimes called the national language of India. It gives the Hindi people very great and undue advantage over the non-Hindi people. Moreover, the term national integration is used whenever people with vested interests attempt to exploit the Tamil people and deprive as already stated, in radio and television programmmes of classical music and dance broadcast and telecast for the Tamil speaking people in Tamil Nadu non -Tamil songs and non -Tamil themes take pride of place.
Tamil songs and distinctively Tamil themes, are wantonly ignored. If you protest you are called narrow minded and chauvinistic. You are branded as opposed to national integration! In the same manner, native and distinctive features of Tamil culture are ignored and only adulterated features are highlighted. Bharatidasan gets very much irritated over such things and he opposes any attempt on the part of the powers that be to belittle the importance of Tamil in its own territory and to throttle the spirit of self-respect and resurgence which the Tamil language and the Tamil people need badly and urgently.
“The Brahmans says
That Tamil is inferior to Sanskrit
Should we tolerate this?
- Tamiliyakkam 15
It saddens me to find
That Tamil is being insulted
And trampled underfoot
In all the fields
Lastly, let us come to the literary traditions and the treatment of literary themes. Here also Barathidasan shows his disagreement with the established ideas. There is a tradition in Tamil literature which demands poets to have heroes and heroines only people of noble and royal descent or of superior character. Earlier epics in Tamil do have for their heroes great kings, princes, men of noble origin or persons with super human qualities. Bharatidasan breaks that tradition. He pays for his heroes and common and ordinary people.
He has introduced in his story poems ordinary or rustic people such as Kuppan, vanji, Thimman, Subbamma, Velan, Thangavel and Manikam as main characters. In musical pieces also, he broke the custom of depicting only the love and adventures of the so called high class people, and sang of love among the peasants, labourers, nomads and other people of humble origin. Most of the songs in the two volumes of Isaiymuthu bear ample testimony to this.
Again the rationalist in Bharatidasan is so strong, that he cannot approve of super natural elements even in the ancient Tamil classics. Though he liked Silapathikaram and Manimegalai as Tamil works of art, it seems he has taken exception to the supernatural events that took place in the stories. That is why he rewrites both the stories in his own manner, removing all the supernatural scenes from the stories. It is again the urge in him to dissent that makes him admire as heroes Ravana and Hiranya both portrayed as villains in the traditional stories. He reportrayed both as champions of the Dravidian people who opposed Aryanization of their land.
Another interesting factor in the spirit of dissent in Bharatidasan is the treatment of women in his writings. He is the first Tamil poet who advocated contraception for women.
“Let us have the doors open for love
And close the doors to (unwanted)
As a great champion of liberation for women, Bharatidasan strongly condemns child marriage and upholds widow remarriage. Fifty or sixty years back it was no small matter to oppose the orthodox practices of the society, but Bharatidasan was bold enough to do so. He creates courageous women characters who, though widowed, have still the spark of love burning in them and are not afraid to fall in love and marry again.
Thus the voice of dissent in Bharatidasan finds expression in different ways. Not only the spirit of rebellion in him, but his determination to fight the evils of his days makes him disregard approval and fearless to express freely what he considers good for the Tamil Society in which he lived.
Thanks to Bharatidasan, many of the evils he had fought have come to an end while a few others are still here the eradication of which requires concerted efforts on the part of the Tamil people who have self-respect and who would not give up their identity at any cost.