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This is an article submitted by Helen Gaynor:
Bharathi and Kannadasan: Two Lives Cut Short by Drug Abuse
The issue of whether drugs could enhance creativity has always been subject of debate. Samuel Taylor Coleridge credited opium for enhancing his creativity. Socrates also saw “madness as a gift of the heavens,” yet many thought that rational thinking was crucial to producing memorable work. For Lamb, for instance, “The greatness of wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be understood, manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties.”
Scientific studies have shown that there is a link between creativity, mental illness and drug use, with recent findings revealing an increase in psychopathology in creative artists, specifically writer and poets. One study has shown that bipolar disorder is between 10 and 40 times more common in artists than in the general public and some of the many authors who suffered from this disorder include Hans Christian Andersen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Blake. Drug use has also been found to be more prevalent in the artistic community. In this article we discuss the tumultuous relationship with drugs of Tamil poets, Subramani Bharathi amd Kannadasan.
The Link Between Drug Use, Creativity, Depression and Bipolarism
Subramania Bharathi was, for many lovers of literature, the perfect writer, his work encompassing the full gamut of human emotion, as noted by biographer, Varadharajan Ramaswamy: “In the poems of Bharathi—Do you want humour? Yes there is. Do you want sorrow? Sure. Do you want ecstasy? In excess. Fury? In abundance. Consolation? Volumes and volumes. Philosophy? Paragraph after paragraph. Why prolong? What is not here?”
Bharathi had what many consider a privileged upbringing, since his father held the post of officer at the Raja’s court. The young writer’s talent for Tamil poetry was recognized in the court, earning him the title of Bharathi. He was strongly favored by the Raja, who, oddly enough, first introduced Bharathi to opium and ganja, in an effort to improve the latter’s physique and strength. After his father’s death, Bharathi struggled to make a living as a teacher and then as the founder of the journal India (in 1906), which he used as a platform for his anti-colonial views. Bharathi was subjected to two prison terms for his political leanings. In jail, he was subject to torture and abuse, leading to anger and depression. His disillusionment with the political environment during Mahatma Gandhi’s rise led him to feel demoralized, and he found his solace in opium, which he referred to as “the rare medicine that will take me to heaven”. In his final years, his financial situation was dire, his disappointment growing when his plea for help to the Raja of Ettayapuram, was ignored. In July 1921, Bharathi visited the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple, where he was attacked by an elephant and suffered serious wounds and dysentery. However, he refused medication and died two months later. It is thought that the use of opium exacerbated the poet’s mental and physical health problems, and he died at the age of 39.
Bharathi was not the only poet to have fallen prey to drugs; Nagaswaram Vidvan Rajaratnam Pillai also lost his life to alcoholism, while poet Kannadasan, struggled against alcoholism, despite being one of India’s most prolific writers. He penned thousands of lyrics and created scripts for more than 12 films. His religious writings are also highly regarded, as are his 40 books of poems and plays. For Kannadasan, drinking was part of a daily ritual. He would consume his first alcoholic beverage at noon, work during the day and start drinking again at midnight. When he realized he was addicted, he began injecting pethidine in an effort to “detox” himself, only to become heavily dependent on this powerful drug. Researcher, O Somasundaram, published a fascinating article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, noting that the writer reveals the classic blend of bipolarism, drug taking and creativity in his work: “The creative thinking processes and the hypomanic states resemble each other—fluency, rapidity and flexibility of thought and the combination of ideas or the categories of thought to form new and original connections on the other. All these features are seen in Kannadasan's works. The writer also died at a young age, at just 54, when he was visiting Chicago.
Despite the link between creativity, “madness” and drug use, addiction can be addressed by increasing awareness of the treatments available for such medical health issues as depression and removing the associated stigma. Moreover, writers and other artists should be aware of the possible link between mental issues and creativity, to enable prompt diagnosis. Additionally, a paradigm shift is sorely needed in the world of writing and artistry, so that substance abuse and alcoholism cease to be glorified as a sign of genius and accepted as an illness that often accompany these qualities.