Fearlessness. If there is one word most of us would associate with Bharathi, even as kids, that would have been it. The most recognizable picture of him, one that adorned many of our Tamil text books in school, shows him staring straight at us with that fearless air about him. And we knew his ‘story’ of course: the nationalist poet singing against the British Raj awakening mass of his countrymen who, having forgotten their duty towards their motherland, were in deep slumber. Bharathi was a hero even before we had a clear idea about heroism. So we were not surprised when we grew up and read about his socially reformist activities that took on the Hindu orthodoxy of his day. It was, for us, just another facet of his fearlessness. In our opinion, Bharathi could not have been any other way. However, it took several more years to appreciate the fearlessness with which Bharathi approached his two-millennia-old Tamil literary tradition. வேதம் புதுமை செய், he said. ‘Make the Vedas new’. It was that fearless attitude that characterized Bharathi’s literary contribution. One of my Tamil teachers in school, a great admirer of the poet, liked to say that Tamil was dragged kicking and screaming into modernity by Bharathi. That perhaps was an overstatement, but critics acknowledge Bharathi’s role as a pioneer of Tamil modernity.
Today I was reading one of Bharathi’s most famous poems which incidentally begins ‘அச்சமில்லை அச்சமில்லை அச்சமென்பதில்லையே’. After declaring that we have no fear, none whatsoever, when the whole world is against us; when we are mocked as nobody; when we are reduced to the life of begging; when we’d lost everything that we hold dear; Bharathi playfully adds that we have no fear when something else happens either.
கச்சணிந்த கொங்கை மாதர் கண்கள் வீசு போதினும்,
அச்சமில்லை அச்சமில்லை அச்சமென்ப தில்லையே.