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VOL. XXII No. 1, APRIL 16-30, 2012
The great debate of the 1930s
by K.R.A. Narasiah

Va Raa's letter dated 3.12.1935 to Ku Pa Rajagopalan.

The innocuous question raised in the Ananda Vikatan of 3.11.1935.

Manikkodi first appeared on September 17, 1933. It folded in 1939. Though it existed less than six years, it made quite an impact. When K. Srinivasan appointed Va Raa its editor, T.S. Chokkalingam, who had been managing the publication, had problems with Va Raa within a year. Va Raa left Madras and went to Thirupazhanam, his native town. It was at this time that Virakesari, a popular Tamil newspaper published from Colombo, was looking for an editor. Its publisher had asked V.O. Chidambaram Pillai to recommend a suitable person. VOC wrote to Va Raa in May 1935 asking him to help the publisher in Colombo, 'a generous person and a nice man', by taking over the journal. When Va Raa reached Colombo, his brother-in-law found him a place to stay, which was a room that he himself was sharing with Sivapadasundaram.

In an August 1934, issue of Swadesamitran, there was an essay by one R. Ramarathnam, Three days with Va Raa, which was to stir up a hornet's nest. In the article, the author said that in Coimbatore, at a meeting organised by freedom fighters, "Va Raa had roared that Shelley, Tagore and Shakespeare put together will not equal a line of Bharati." The story was repeated by Virakesari in its issue of September 11, 1935.

Dinamani brought out a special issue to commemorate Bharati Day in September 1935. In it, writing under the pseudonym, 'Nellainesan', P. Sri Acharya, a writer of repute, questioned this statement of Va Raa by saying that, while Bharati was a good poet, he could not be described as a great poet. This evoked furious retorts from both N. Pichumurthi and K.P. Rajagopalan, known then as the literary twins of Madras, who asked what was the yardstick for a great poet.

The real mischief was started by Kalki (R. Krishnamurthi, the then editor of Vasan's Ananda Vikatan, later editor of Kalki) who in the Vikatan issue dated November 3, 1935 published a seemingly innocuous question from a reader, quoting the statement of Va Raa and asking if what he said was right. It was signed as being from 'A Literary Student'. To this question, the editor replied that the statement was wrong and if such a statement had been made by someone he should be termed a nirathcharakutchi – an illiterate.

The Manikkodi writers were furious with this statement by Kalki, who had himself asked the question and answered it. Va Raa sent a long write-up which was published in Swadesamitran on November 30, 1935, under the title Bharati and Literary Review. He followed this essay with a four-page letter dated December 3, 1935 to Ku Pa Rajagopalan in Madras, which is fortunately available to us now in the original. In this letter, Va Raa asks Ku Pa Raa and his friends to do something about this, as otherwise Bharati's name as a great poet would be decried by the likes of Kalki.

But Kalki did not stop there. He answered Va Raa with another long essay in the very next issue of Swadesamitran, in which he used rather harsh words against Va Raa. He titled the essay Bharati and Literary Criticism.

This debate by now had split the Tamil literary world into two. Some of the younger writers were rather harsh on Kalki. The reason was a particular statement made by Kalki in his article that while Bharati could be termed as a good Tamil national poet, he could not be equated with the likes of Tagore, Shelley and others. He went so far as to say that if Tolstoy had seen the poem of Bharati about Valli (considered erotic by some, like Kalki), Tolstoy would have set aflame all works of Bharati. Kalki wondered how Va Raa could say that Bharati was greater than Shelley when he had earlier praised Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Kalki's statement made younger Tamil writers wild; they indulged in angry essays. It was left to Chitti Sundararajan and Ku Pa Raa to steer the debate in a more meaningful manner with their essays published in Swadesamitran. These were later collected and published as Kannan en Kavi by another Bharati devotee, Sangu Ganesan.

It was unfortunate that Kalki questioned Va Raa's capability to write on poetry, fully knowing the background of Va Raa. In fact, when Va Raa was in prison after the Salt Satyagraha, he wrote in English a long essay of 20 pages titled What is Poetry? and dedicated it to the jailor David Abernathy Greenwood, who helped Va Raa with reference books. Its title page stated WHAT IS POETRY? Written by V. Ramaswami Ayyangar, Convict No. 1557 – written between 1930 October 6 and 11.

In it he stated, "The Tamil life was dull. It looked as if it had lost the usual symbol of life, the power of response. Even Bose's plant showed greater response to stimulus than the soulless life of the Tamilians. It cared less for Phyrric Phalanx and more for Phyrric Dance. Tamil grammar is a typical example of the tail wagging the dog!"

In fact, when Kalki had started writing long before he joined Vikatan, he used to go to K. Srinivasan's house in T'Nagar, where Va Raa was then staying, to show Va Raa the articles he had written. Kalki then considered it a great honour to be appreciated by Va Raa. What made the young Manikkodi writers furious was the fact that the same Kalki was later referring to Va Raa as an illiterate! N. Chidambarasubramanian in Dinamani on February 8, 1936, and V. Ananthakrishnan in Dinamani on February 17th, wrote more balanced articles while B.S. Ramayya on December 13, 1935, and Ilangovan (the famous dialogue writer of Tamil cinema) on December 21, 1935 condemned Kalki in strong words.

Va Raa replied in the Swadesamitran issue dated December 14, 1935, "If Bharati's works have to be burnt, let it not happen due to me; at least let the divine fire brought by Prometheus be used."

The debate was known for its content. Chitti argued forcefully as to how Bharati was not known to the world outside as none of his writings had been analysed by any till then. Ku Pa Raa brought out the best in Bharati. In fact, both these writers were known for their knowledge. Kalki later built the memorial for Bharati in Ettayapuram; rather a late penance!

(It was mere serendipity that when Chitti's daughter was clearing her house while moving to another address, she found a box full of old letters collected by her father and wanted me to have a look at them. Chitti's son Visveswaran brought the cardboard box and I found all the original letters of Va Raa. And many other documents – real collector's booty – some of which I have been happy to share with readers here.)

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In this issue

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George Town needs a master plan
Why don't the women answer?
Tambrahms - A portrait of the median
Perambur Railway Hospital - With a focus on cardiac care
The great debate of the 1930s
The Baroda connection

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Short 'N' Snappy
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