A.R. Venkatachalapthy’s Who Owns That Song : The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright

“A.R. Venkatachalapthy’s book starkly reminds the readers, how we have failed Bharati by not popularising his works,” writes John Corlos Ebenezer.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “copyright” as the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material. Subramania Bharati, the colossal progressive poet of Tamilnadu whose nationalist writings and poems inspired and is still inspiring legions of people wouldn’t have pondered upon the thought that the copyright of his works would lead to a legal tuf of war, with the government eventually acquiring his works releasing it in the public domain.

Subramania Bharati is touted to be the first writer in the world whose copyrights of his works were acquired by the State Government and put his writings in the public domain in 1949. This honour has eluded Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and even Rabindranath Tagore. To remind the readers, a trust held the copyright of Gandhi’s writings until it lapsed and passed into public domain in 2009. Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi holds the copyright to Nehru’s work until 2024 and publishers had free access to Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s works only after 1992. The nationalisation of Bharati’s work by the Government of Tamilnadu made sure people devour the poet’s work without any hiccups or fears as it is in the public domain freed from the clutches of copyrights.

Even though he was not recognised while he was alive, he became a sensation with his writings becoming a posthumous bestseller. Bharati who spent more than 10 years in exile in Puducherry in his short span of 39 years, fiddled with free verses and haiku, was later came to be known as the “Founding Father of New Tamil Poetry“. The gaze, his turban and moustache like his writings, is still etched in the minds of people reminding us the popularity of the poet in contemporary times.

A.R. Venkatachalapthy’s new book “Who Owns That Song: The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright” chronicles the journey of Bharati’s life as a writer and the subsequent legal quandary that eventually lead to the nationalisation of his works. The cover with its exquisite turquoise blue background welcomes us with Bharati in his high collared black coat and dhoti holding a staff.

At the inception of the book, a section titled Dramatic Personae divulges details and introduces the characters giving glimpses from their lives. Venkatachalapathy sets the tone of the book with this section and begins the prologue with the title Copyright Claws which would make the readers clear of what they are about to encounter in the upcoming chapters making them even more inquisitive.

The book is divided into 4 breviloquent chapters and has a selected few poems of Subramania Bharati translated by M.L.Thangappa at the end. The book draws a meticulous portrayal of events that happened during and after the poet’s life. The author’s fluid and engaging words keep the book a real page turner and he doesn’t shy away from sprinkling his academic finess educating the reader all along. He uniquely takes forward the non fiction which picks up pace once the legal tussle begins.

The book never once appears hagiographical with the author fixing his focus on the events that lead to the nationalisation of the poet’s work. The tale of how after Bharati’s death, his unlettered wife sold the rights for a paltry sum to Bharati’s half brother and how a movie mogul initiated copyright contempt against another movie maker for using the poet’s verses in his film is succinctly described through engaging chapters.

The book, even though teeming with details about numerous characters, never once appears insipid or vapid. The book untangles the role played by the Government, people and others who were instrumental in bringing the poet’s work into the public domain. This insightful book will be an eye opener for all the people to know more about the national poet who died in obscurity without knowing his writings would live to kindle spirits even after decades of his death. The another beauty is that the book never ventures into the polemic realms with whom the copyright of an artist must be vested upon.

It also starkly reminds the readers, how we have failed Bharati by not popularising his works, who is a contemporary of Tagore. It is no wonder that Bharati in one of his essays wrote, “From now on support and succour for the arts will come from the common people. It is the duty of the artists to instil good taste in them. It will yield them good returns” in 1916.

To remind, Delhi High Court ruled in 2016 in one of its cases,Copyright is designed rather to stimulate activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public. Copyright is intended to increase and not to impede the harvest of knowledge. It is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors in order to benefit the public”.

The Government of Tamilnadu has since then acquired more than 100 writers work and nationalised it. Remember, it all started with Subramania Bharati.

Source: Wikipedia

John Corlos Ebenezer is from Chennai, the Land of Dosa and Chutney. He muses about the books he reads in his personal blog.

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