Copyright couldn’t stop this Tamil poet’s work from coming in public domain

Can a popular agitation lead a state to nationalise a writer’s work? Read an excerpt from AR Venkatachalapathy’s gripping book, ‘Who Owns That Song: The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright’

League for the Liberation of Bharati
To go back a little in time, in October 1947, a forum called Bharati Viduthalai Kazhagam (League for the Liberation of Bharati) had been formed following the demands raised at the inauguration of the Bharati Manimantapam. Though this league is credited with achieving the nationalization of Bharati’s works, its genesis and functioning is unclear due to lack of documentation.

Ediroli Viswanathan, who wrote a short book on the story of Bharati’s copyright and had access to the relevant file from [actor TK] Shanmugam, states that this was Narana Duraikannan’s initiative and that he enrolled members and drafted pamphlets for the purpose.

The first meeting of the league was held on 11 March 1948. Prominent literary figures were present at the meeting. Va.Ra. was elected president; Narana Duraikannan and A. Srinivasa Raghavan, professor of English and a poet of some worth, were elected vice presidents. S.D.S. Yogi, a poet; Tiruloka Sitaram, Bharati enthusiast and passionate reciter of Bharati’s poems; and Vallikannan, then an emerging writer and journalist and later a respected literary historian, were made secretaries.

The election, or rather nomination, of the office bearers was plagued by difficulties. Va.Ra. was turning sixty that year and, not unsurprisingly, for someone who had been a full-time Tamil writer and journalist, was in financial doldrums. committee had been formed around this time to commemorate his birthday and the occasion was intended as a pretext to raise a purse. [Movie mogul AV] Meiyappan was a prospective patron, who, not to forget, was also the imminent target for the campaign to free Bharati from copyright. Hence Kalki is said to have struck down the decision to make Va.Ra. the president of the league. Eventually, the self-effacing Narana Duraikannan donned the mantle. This league is said to have toured all over Tamilnadu, mobilizing support to bring Bharati’s works into the public domain.

The sequence is at variance with newly unearthed facts. It is now clear that the league’s first meeting was held some six weeks after Meiyappan sent the legal notice to T.K.S. Bros. The league, despite its probable genesis before the legal fight over Bharati’s copyright ensued, began its actual functioning after the legal furore.

Narana Duraikannan and Ediroli Viswanathan mention in their accounts of the battle for copyright that after Shanmugam’s letters and Bharati Viduthalai Kazhagam’s memorandum had reached the Madras premier Omandur Ramaswamy Reddiar’s table, he had instructed T.S. Chockalingam, a respected journalist, to take some steps. There is, however, no reference to this in the government files. It was following this that Shanmugam, Narana Duraikannan and Raghavan left for Tirunelveli to meet Chellamma Bharati.

Bharati with family - wife Chellama; older daughter, Thangammal; and younger daughter, Shakuntala - and friends. Courtesy: Juggernaut

Given his standing in the public sphere, Shanmugam did not take Meiyappan’s legal challenge lying down. He did not stop with sending letters to the government and printing leaflets. In mid-April 1948 he first went to Chennai and later to other parts of Tamilnadu, launching a public campaign for the government takeover of the copyright of Bharati’s works.

Shanmugam met Narana Duraikannan in Chennai. Later he conferred with Va.Ra., Nellaiyappa Pillai and T.P. Meenakshisundaram. Va.Ra. had been a close confidant of Bharati from his Pondicherry days, and had penned the influential biography and character sketch of Bharati at the height of the ‘mahakavi’ controversy. Narana Duraikannan, despite not being a great writer, was widely respected for his humane qualities. A staunch believer in the power of writing to mould good human beings, he avoided confrontation and had the ability to handle people with strong viewpoints. As editor of Prasanda Vikatan, he had encouraged scores of writers, and was looked upon as an éminence grise. Nellaiyappa Pillai, a great admirer of Bharati and referred to by the poet himself as ‘thambi’ (younger brother), had been his publisher in his own lifetime. T.P. Meenakshisundaram, renowned literary man and linguist, had a formidable reputation as a scholar. Shanmugam evolved a consensus among such widely respected cultural figures and sought their blessings and good wishes for the campaign to nationalize Bharati’s writings.

Following this confabulation, Shanmugam’s discussions with Narana Duraikannan and Vallikannan continued late into the night on the sands of Marina Beach. The next night, accompanied by the above two friends, he set out towards Tirunelveli on what came to be known as the Bharati Liberation Yatra. The group disembarked midway at Tiruchirappalli, and a few more cultural personalities joined the yatra. On 21 April 1948, unmindful of the rush, the group travelled by the Shencottah passenger train and reached Tirunelveli at noon the following day.

The league met Chellamma Bharati and her daughter Thangammal at their Kailasapuram residence near the railway junction. Chellamma said she had no objection to her husband’s works being nationalized. The league had carried T.S. Chockalingam’s letter asking if she was agreeable to the idea of nationalizing Bharati’s works;* as we shall soon see, the respected journalist Chockalingam was Education Minister Avinashilingam’s pointsman for non-official handling of the issue. Shanmugam states that on 23 April 1948 Chellamma gave a letter in the affirmative.

The following, according to Ediroli Viswanathan, is the text of Chellamma’s letter.

May Shakti bestow all blessings on the honourable
Premier Ramaswamy Reddiar. I note that there is
a public agitation going on in Tamilnadu to make
Mahakavi Bharati’s writings and poems public
property. In this regard Narana Duraikannan, editor of
Prasanda Vikatan, and A. Srinivasa Raghavan, editor
of Chintanai, came to meet me. They state that the
Madras Government is contemplating acquiring the
rights to Bharati’s writings from whosoever may have
such rights and make them public property, and that
you are showing sincere interest in this task. I greatly
appreciate your magnanimity. I give full consent to the
Government’s efforts to acquire by fair means existing
rights and future rights and make it over to the public.
May your efforts succeed through the grace of Shakti.
However, I hesitate to say this but cannot resist saying
so. As you well know, the popularity of my husband’s
writings has yielded no special comforts to either myself
or his family. I have the fullest confidence that you’ll
accomplish the present task in full conformity with the
dictates of justice and fairness.

Even though Chellamma had given away all her rights, and as such had no locus standi legally speaking, her consent gave much legitimacy to the demand for nationalization. Given his stature and contribution to both the arts and nationalism, Shanmugam had considerable credibility. He worked in tandem with Bharati Viduthalai Kazhagam to conduct meetings across Tamilnadu in support of the demand. In government files we find resolutions passed by various organizations such as the Dindigul Town Congress Committee and the Salem Municipal Council calling for the nationalization of Bharati’s works, indicating the widespread support the campaign was gathering.

* This moving letter of consent is not to be found in government documents. However, a shorter letter written some ten months later, dated 14 February 1949, can be found along with one signed by her elder daughter, Thangammal. It is possible that the above letter was intended for Premier Reddiar’s eyes while the latter was written at the instance of the Tirunelveli tahsildar in preparation for the government takeover of the copyright, and consequently found its way into the files.

(Published from AR Venkatachalapathy's Who Owns That Song: The Battle for Subamania Bharati's Copyright with permission from Juggernaut)

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