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One of the greatest Tamil poets of all time, Subramania Bharati died in poverty. He gained enormous fame after his death, and there was an unprecedented popular demand to nationalize his writings. This is the story of the battle for copyright over a writer’s work in a newly independent country.

Who Owns that Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright

An excerpt 

The early 1930s saw what has been described as a ‘music boom’ by Stephen P. Hughes, historian of Tamil cinema. From the late 1920s, sound reprographic devices became available and grew in popularity. During this time, Subramania Bharati’s songs were part of not only patriotic theatre but also of commercial plays which had to reckon with the rising nationalist consciousness and mobilisation. Consequently, new considerations entered the scene. Probably to capitalise on this and perhaps to raise more money to augment resources, Bharati Prachuralayam sold the broadcast rights. An agreement was signed in 1934 with Jeshinglal K. Mehta. The poet’s half-brother C. Visvanathan later recalled that this assignment was initiated by a family friend, Pandit Harihara Sarma, without his knowledge.

The agreement with Mehta was towards ‘partial assignment of the rights to make records in gramophone and in talkies and any other sound producing broadcast device’ for a lump sum of ₹450 and a royalty of one anna per record sold. No details are available about any royalties that he may have remitted to Bharati Prachuralayam. Apparently, Mehta made no use of the rights that he acquired, and nothing was heard of them until a decade later.

Opening AVM Studios

By 1946 the worth of Bharati’s songs had been better recognised and its commercial value had increased manyfold. It was at this juncture, as Indian independence was imminent, that the movie mogul A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar entered the scene, hoping to cash in on Bharati’s popularity, by using his songs in a forthcoming film.

In a daring move, Meiyappan opened his new studio, AVM, in out-of-the-way Karaikudi in 1946. It was here that he decided to produce a social film, Nam Iruvar, based on a successful play. During the war years and immediately after, hoarding and black marketing were rampant, and Meiyappan decided that a film on that theme would find immediate resonance with the audience. Meiyappan, who until then — over a period of twelve years when he was involved in film business at the peak of nationalist activity — had displayed no inclination towards the freedom struggle, decided that using Bharati’s songs would make sound marketing sense. As he recalled later, “It’s important, in the making of films, to keep the storyline in tune with the times. In my Nam Iruvar, made at the time of Indian independence, I included Mahakavi Bharati’s songs, and they became a big hit. What’s there to talk about independence now!”

It was at this juncture that he asked around to acquire ‘the rights of reproduction by gramophone, broadcasting, and other sound-producing devices of the songs, works, and compositions of the late C. Subramania Bharati’.

A war of wits

It took Meiyappan many wide-ranging enquiries to discover that the rights were held by Jeshinglal Mehta. With a well-padded wallet, Meiyappan met Mehta, hoping to clinch the deal in the smug belief that the Gujarati businessman would want to get rid of what had become a dead investment.

But Mehta was no ordinary businessman. It was a war of wits between the Nattukkottai Chettiar and the Gujarati Bania. Since Mehta had bought the rights for only ₹450, Meiyappan hoped to take it off his hands for ‘three or four thousand rupees’ and, as he admitted in his memoir, he ‘employed every business trick’ to peg the deal at that price. But Mehta would not budge: perhaps realising that this was his one chance to make the best of a dead investment of over a dozen years, he struck a tough bargain. Meiyappan was the first to blink, and finally settled for the substantial sum of ₹9,500, though in the end he was not unhappy. The agreement was signed in September 1946, a quarter century after Bharati’s death.

Nam Iruvar (1947) proved to be a success beyond Meiyappan’s wildest dreams. The rising dancing star Kumari Kamala — later sometime wife of the cartoonist R.K. Laxman — sashaying to Bharati’s song ‘Aaduvomepallupaduvome’, prophetically heralding the coming of freedom to India, rendered by D.K. Pattammal, was the single-most important moment in the film that drew repeat audiences to the cinema hall.

In 1948, following Partition, AVM Studios acquired an evacuee property and moved to Chennai, where it continues to function to this day. Meiyappan’s stars continued to rise in the following years and decades. C.N. Annadurai’s Or Iravu, Sivaji Ganesan’s astonishing debut Parasakti, and many other blockbuster films were made. Meiyappan also produced many Hindi films such as Bhai-Bhai, Chori Chori, Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke and Bhabhi. By the 1950s, AVM, along with S.S. Vasan’s Gemini Studios, easily dominated south Indian cinema with a foot in the Hindi film world as well.

Meiyappan’s acquisition of the broadcast and recording rights of Bharati’s works was the fountainhead of the controversy that led to the nationalisation of Bharati. What had earned the movie mogul windfall profits would soon draw him into a controversy, and a crisis. He would have to rely on his keen business acumen and understanding of politics not only to save the day but also to convert a possible calamity into an opportunity.


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