Published: 24th June 2019
Why we're so turned off by Bharathiyar's saffron turban: Did the orange fall too far from the tree
Writers and academics debate on Bharathiyar's understanding of Hindusim and if his saffronised turban wasn't very far from the truth
There was a bit of controversy some time ago when a Class 12 Tamil textbook cover had a picture of Bharathiyar wearing a saffron turban. Bharathiyar's trademark white turban is an image that is etched in one's memory, if you've lived or studied in Tamil Nadu — by dint of the fact that it is everywhere. So it's no surprise that this make-over ruffled a few feathers. The interesting thing though was that some people, unsurprisingly, pointed out that this could be an attempt to saffronise him and education in Tamil Nadu. But some others said the portrayal wasn't too big a deal because it seemed to reflect Bharathiyar's ideology anyway.
To be Hindutva or not to be Hindutva, that is the question
"This debate about whether or not Bharathiyar believed in Hindutva or not comes up every single time it's his anniversary or if anything is observed in his honour," says Manushi, a writer who is currently working on a PhD thesis making a comparative study on Tagore and Bharathiyar. Manushi says that just because Bharathiyar was a Brahmin, the RSS takes every chance of appropriating him, "Of course he was against Hindutva and the caste system. If he wasn't, then why did he come away from his community on his own? He spoke against Brahmanism and spoke up for women's empowerment too," she said.
"If people actually read what he has written, they would know that he was anti-Hindutva," she states. Manushi says that Bharathiyar is too big a personality to be put into a box, "There is no label that you can put on him. He believed in humanity and he made the Upanishads and Vedas easy to understand for the common people," she explained. Manushi says people also accuse Bharathiyar of being a propagator of Hindutva because he used Sanskrit words in his writing, "But that is how they wrote in those days. That was the style, now so many years later if people read it they interpret it as a reflection of his Hindutva. But come on, this is the same man who taught the Quran to Muslims," she said.
What impact on society did Bharathiyar have?
Ma Mathivanan, another writer says that Bharathiyar was never really an anti-establishment kind of man and he certainly cannot be compared to people like Ambedkar and Periyar. "The establishment in place was caste, so I don't think we can hail him as someone who was anti-caste. The impact he had on society was very small, nothing that can be compared to someone like Periyar, who went from place to place talking against caste. It's all just 'build-up'." he says.
"It was because he didn't really bring about any drastic changes in the society that people decided to bestow the feminist tag on him," Mathivannan thinks. With regard to the textbook controversy, the writer thinks that there's no way that the saffron was an unintentional move, "They couldn't have printed a cover without the minister knowing anything about it, right? The AIADMK is full Hindutva these days, maybe it's a slightly different version that that of the BJP's but they're very much Hindutva, so I'm not surprised," the writer said.
He also invoked Marx's theory that the influence of the Church should be separated from every area of life and thought, including the state. And since children were seen as the property of the state, he believed that the state and the church cannot influence or teach them. "As Marx said, the school should be kept separated from all influences from the Church. The same way we also have to separate the two. It is criminal to let religion influence our students," Mathivanan said. Though he cheekily adds that Communists in India these days practise soft Hindutva themselves, "It is why they were able to make headway in Bengal."
Anti-establishment to the core
But coming back to Bharathiyar, Mathivanan again said their's no way that the poet could be compared to other anti-caste leaders, "He tried to make some minor changes but he was never a mass leader. Periyar and Ambedkar used every chance they got to be anti-establishment."
He questions why the state is so obsessed with someone like him and not Bharatidasan. A man who was deeply inspired by Bharathiyar and even changed his name in order for it to sound more like his. "I feel he contributed much more literature-wise but he's not given the same priority or the importance that he deserves," he said. However, he still condemns the fact that Bharathiyar's turban was painted saffron., "People should not just sit quietly. The minister who is behind this should be criticised, we cannot let children be brainwashed like this," he points out.
Who's using Bharathi?
AR Venkatachalapathy, a historian, author and translator and a professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies says that there has been a sustained effort to appropriate Bharathiyar. "They paint him as a narrow nationalist. They quote him out of context and the Centre also uses him as a glue to connect Tamil Nadu to the North," he said.
The historian says it's very easy to distort history today, "People keep calling and asking me if Bharathiyar said this or said that because someone would have put up a status claiming some quote to be his. Now I can clarify if something he said, how can I prove that something he hasn't?" he questions. Venkatachalapthy said that over the last five years there has been constant misinformation. He doesn't want to decide whether the textbook cover was intentional, "I don't want to get into that but we have to see the larger context and I believe it has become very easy today to malign Bharathiyar's ideology," he added.
But like we mentioned at the beginning of the article, not everyone was offended by the saffron turban. "He was a follower of Tilak and the Arya Samaj and he, like Gandhi, did not have a problem with the varna system and this was apparent in his works. He felt caste was wrong but the varna system was okay, He said we should go back to the Vedic times," Deepak*, a social media influencer said. On the other hand, Ambedkar was completely against the varna system, Deepak points out, which was what so distinct about the two historical figures.
"Ambedkar said the caste system was an inevitable evolution of the varna system, a perversion of the varna system. Bharathiyar was a Hindu revivalist who thought being a good Hindu was important but that the caste system was bad was good. He had no problem with the labels that the Varna system imposed on people," Deepak explained. He says that Bharathiyar was against bad Brahmins, who were essentially those who became slaves to the British but he had no problem with the practicing Brahmin.
He like Mathivanan also questions why Bharathiyar became the face of Tamil literature when there were so many others, who they believe were far better. "It's Brahmanical propaganda," he says. While he says he has no problem with Bharathiyar's turban being saffron, he questions why those colours even have to be on a Tamil textbook. "It seems so out of place and so odd. It seems completely unnecessary," he adds.
Asking us to keep all this aside, Arunkumar, a PhD scholar from the Tamil department in JNU asks, "But what I don't understand is whatever be his views on Hinduism, his turban should be painted just as he wore it." And, well that settles the case. For now.