Subramania Bharati’s ‘Gnanaratham’ shows how he was able to transcend a narrow nationalist vision
Subramania Bharati’s status (1882–1921) as the pre-eminent cultural figure of modern Tamil Nadu rests primarily on his poetry. Unfortunately, the focus on his poetry has translated into the virtual neglect of his prose writings.
As a working journalist, Bharati necessarily employed prose to communicate, and his writings in Swadesamitran and India made an important contribution to Tamil political vocabulary. He wrote stories, commentaries, and was also the pioneer of column writing in Tamil. Active participation in the day-to-day politics of the nationalist movement notwithstanding, Bharati never lost sight of the future, the dream of how a free India should look like. Aspects of this dream form part of his fantasy story, Gnanaratham (The Chariot of Wisdom), written when he was still in his late 20s.
Sometime in mid-1908, Bharati began to serialise Gnanaratham in his political weekly, India. But within months, Gnanaratham was stopped in its tracks as its author went into exile to French-ruled Pondicherry to escape the British police. In February the next year, Gnanaratham was resumed but was suspended after two further instalments, with Bharati promising his readers that it would soon appear in full as a book. But when Gnanaratham did come out in January 1910, it was called ‘part one’. Gnanaratham was never completed and ended up as one of Bharati’s several unfinished writing projects.
Entering different worlds
The first person narrator of Gnanaratham, undoubtedly Bharati himself, is a journalist wracked with material, everyday worries – a running theme that adds humour while also giving a contemporary dimension to an ostensible fantasy. The story begins in a tenement home on Veeraraghava Mudali Street of Chennai’s Triplicane. As the sea breeze wafts in, he desires to take a horse-drawn chariot towards Adyar River. Realising that he cannot afford such a pleasure, he chooses to ride the chariot of knowledge, a vehicle that can take him anywhere.
The narrator first bids the chariot to go to Upashanti Lokam, the land of no worries. A distressing aspect of an enslaved nation is that worries rob the people of all healthy traits, and they walk around with lustreless eyes, creased foreheads, and sallow skin. Therefore, he is rather eager to enter the world of no worries. But at the gates, he is stopped: for only those who leave behind their mind can enter it. The narrator refuses as this would amount to negating the material world. As a result he finds himself thrown back into his modest home.
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Next he proceeds to Gandharva Lokam, the world of happiness. The narrator delves into this world with relish, brushing aside arguments against enjoying worldly pleasures on flimsy moral and philosophical grounds prescribed by false books. A subjugated people have few avenues to enjoy pleasure, and the narrator makes a strong case for hedonism. The narrator then runs into a most beautiful damsel, Parvathakumari, who takes him on a tour of Gandharva Lokam where the carnival of Manmathan, the god of love, is in progress. She demonstrates that anyone can take wings if one so desires. Overwhelmed by sensual pleasures, the narrator rejects puritanical Victorian morals, and instead invokes the Keatsian notion of beauty as truth. Celebrating the unadorned and unclad human form he remarks that hunger, famine, and slavery had reduced the Indian people to ugliness. The paintings and the statuary in Gandharva Lokam remind him of exhibits in the Calcutta museum that Bharati probably visited at the time of the Congress session in December 1906. Such references give Gnanaratham its contemporary appeal. However, he soon tires of the pleasures, and bids farewell to Parvathakumari with a deep kiss. The forever restless human nature cannot but seek pastures other than pleasure.
Gnanaratham then moves to the Satya Lokam, the land of truth. It is not a happy place. In stark contrast to the Gandharva Lokam, it is far too demanding. As the narrator struggles, a disembodied voice reminds him that the quest for truth is no sport but a challenging exercise, and directs him to Dharma Lokam that may better prepare him for the task.
Entering Dharma Lokam
The narrative is now intercut with Bharati’s travails in the real world. His wife harries him with demands to buy provisions and pay the rent. Physical ailments torment members of the family, and the ruckus created by the neighbours impedes even peaceful sleep. After this comic interlude, Gnanaratham then proceeds to Dharma Lokam. Even as he explores this world, he meets Dharmaraja who bears a striking resemblance to Lokmanya Tilak. Dharma Lokam presents an idealised form of Varnashrama Dharma where people are differentiated in terms of their qualities and abilities and not by birth; but it’s a world that privileges the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. However, in a radical interjection, Gnanaratham remarks that, while the social order all over the world is in keeping with a divine mandate, it is in India that it has become corrupt and has collapsed. The tour of Dharma Lokam too doesn’t last. As he seeks the sweet embrace of Parvathakumari, the narrator’s dream ends. The text ends as he wakes up from a fainting spell in his Triplicane house.
Gnanaratham is a rich text meant to be read in various ways. It is informed by the early nationalist view of India’s fallen state, colonised by a rapacious foreign nation. The time of its writing was the peak of the Swadeshi movement even as it was facing the brunt of brutal state repression. Many of Bharati’s friends were in prison, and Bharati himself was in exile. But the text is peppered with humour and brims with hope.
Though the objective is a politically free nation, Bharati is able to transcend a narrow nationalist vision. Despite being steeped in an idea of a glorious ancient Indian civilisation, he demonstrates a self-critical attitude towards his own tradition. Bharati is in awe of the achievements of Western civilisation. He celebrates Jesus Christ as a prophet of love. Commenting on Greek art, he exalts the sculptors for discovering a concept of consummate beauty, going so far as to designate them as seers. Bharati endorses the Western quest for material happiness but is critical only of its turn to war and violence due to what he calls its innate tamo guna. The sharpest barbs are reserved for his own culture and his own people. A redeeming feature of Gnanaratham is that for all its author’s ideological conviction it has a liberating humour that points to his own infirmities and self-doubts. The call for the rejuvenation of a fallen nation is ultimately to stand shoulder to shoulder with other nations and peoples.
A.R. Venkatachalapathy is the author of ‘Who Owns That Song?: The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright’. The death centenary of Subramania Bharati begins this month