Remembering Chellammal Bharati

S. Vijaya Bharati (The writer is a granddaughter of Bharati and Chellammal.)

Sunday, Sep 21, 2003 - The Hindu

What kind of life fell to the lot of Chellamma as the wife of Mahakavi C. Subramania Bharati. She married him at the age of seven when he was 15 and still in school. Chellamma came from a south Indian middleclass Brahmin family, their financial status bordering on the affluent, and the social status certainly in the upper rungs of society in Kadayam. As a young girl, she enjoyed life as a passing spectacle of religious and social festivals, entertainment of musical and theatrical events, and the numerous celebrations in a large joint family, of birthdays of children, `upanayanams', weddings and more weddings, and even the passing of the old, a cause for sadness, nevertheless full of ritual-bound celebration. Chellamma's life with the poet-husband seems to have started innocuously enough — Bharati was young and handsome, in good health, well-educated and employable with a decent reputation as a poet and writer and as a person who had opted for an intellectual life. Wives of course did not participate in the intellectual lives of their husbands in the Tamil Nadu of the early 1900s, although this was not to be Chellamma's destiny as she grew up as the poet's spouse. Bharati went through a succession of jobs as the Ettayapuram Zamindar's companion, as Tamil teacher in the Madurai Setupati High School and as writer and sub-editor on the staff of the Swadesamithran, until he settled to his life's work as poet, editor and political activist. Bharati had steady employment, and Chellamma and her household were well-provided for.

Chellamma's financial comfort and security were destroyed when Bharati left British India for the French territory of Pondicherry in order to continue his struggle for an Independent India. Thus began a life of privation and severe financial hardship. How Bharati related to this situation has been widely written about, and a lot of it is speculation! It is reasonable to agree — because we really do not understand what makes a poet poet — that Bharati's mind was continuously in a stream of ecstasy, and took little notice of the demands of a household of a wife and two daughters. It became Chellamma's sole responsibility to manage the household, to feed and clothe the family, the start of a struggle that did not end till her death in Kadayam in 1955.

Joyce biographers talk about the "great poverty" in which James Joyce lived towards the end of his life.

What is "great poverty" for the author of Ulysses in 20th century Britain is hard to estimate from this distance in time. Although I lived with my grandmother till I turned 16, I have very little comprehension of what it was to be a "have-not". How does one reconcile the life of great poverty and material deprivation with the privilege of living the life of the mind and the spirit?

The latter, I think, provided Chellamma, by now "Chellammal Bharati"; of the 1950s India, her immortality.At her death, the Tamil population felt as though it had lost a family member. And commiserating at the death of this woman were celebrated names in the annals of Tamil Nadu and India. No less a person than C. Rajagopalachari ("Rajaji"), wrote to my mother: "At a time when the whole nation is celebrating Bharati's birthday, your letter conveying the sad news arrived. She fed me on day in Puducheri - me and R.V. Krishnayyar. When the meal was done, Bharati danced and danced and dancing, sang a song too for us. Look: what a very fortunate woman she was! How many women in this country have such a celebrated husband? There is no grief in reaching the feet of Narayana."

I think that the "great poverty" in which Chellammal Bharati lived and died becomes irrelevant; the hardship is a small price to pay for immortality!


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