Sometime in the early 1940s, a young student from Ahmedabad came to Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, to study at Elphinstone College. His name was Niranjan Bhagat. He would go on long walks by the Marine Drive, visit the sights, and found the big city fascinating. One of the first lines of poems he wrote then was: Ekde eko/ Parmeshwarne name pahelo melo moto chheko (O-n-e is one/ First of all let’s cross out the name of the Eternal One.)
Modernity began in Gujarati poetry with those lines, the poet and critic Prabodh Parikh said at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai in early February. What Bhagat, who died on 1 February, was doing was not merely defying the gods, for he was indeed doing that, but marking his territory, his space, his position in the cosmos of Gujarati poetry, placing himself firmly at the centre. That assertion was a sign of modernity—Gujarati poetry would no longer be dictated by norms and conventions of the past; it would shake off its obsession with the metaphysical and devotional; it would emerge out of the deep and profound influence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; and it would embrace the new.
Bhagat was a pioneer of modern Gujarati poetry. He had begun writing during his college years in Mumbai, and that anthology, Pravaaldweep, was published in 1956 (and translated in 2002 by Rita Kothari and Suguna Ramanathan as Coral Island). An admirer of Western poets like John Milton, W.H. Auden and Charles Baudelaire, and Indian ones like the saint-poet Meera and Umashankar Joshi, Bhagat gave voice to urbanity. He did so while remaining true to the form and grammar of poetry—modernity was not an excuse to defy norms of rhythm and stanzas. His poetry respected the structure of the lyric and the discipline of rhyme—but he added themes and ideas that might seem incongruous to someone expecting the conventional.
Indeed, in the years that followed, Gujarati poetry blossomed. Modernity expanded in different, definite ways, including form, theme, ideas and contemporaneity. Bhagat himself, and two older poets, Rajendra Shah and Umashankar Joshi, had created a new aesthetic that showed Gujarati poetry acknowledging and responding to international trends in writing. If its heart called out for the rejection of tradition, its mind showed concentration on the text, offering new ways in which the poet could play with language.
It took more than a decade, and indeed, another city, for the next revolution in Gujarati writing to occur—and the place was Vadodara. The critic and writer Suresh Joshi introduced an entirely new world to Gujaratis. He was drawn to modern European writing, and rejected the naturalist and emotion-laden universe of English poetry. Joshi’s own poems introduced obscurity and ambiguity—poetry did not have to be facile or easy, but it didn’t have to be insurmountable either; and reaching the meaning the symbol represented was meant to produce joy akin to solving a puzzle. Joshi’s own imagery was stark and vivid, and offered sometimes brutal contrast, even shock, to readers who were accustomed to images of a softer kind. Writing about the kind of kajal he might smear into the eyes of his beloved, Joshi would not think of tired tropes like black ink or the dark sky, but the spot of darkness that the sun may have become after being ground inside the pupil of the eye of an owl, its eyes wide open. Reflect on that image for a moment; imagine that darkness, the night, and the possibility of what might follow. Sinister and erotic, mesmerizing and enchanting.
The journals Joshi edited were milestones of literature—Vrishchik and Kshitij. The last journal he edited, Etad, continues (he died in 1986), edited by the talented poet Kamal Vora (whose recent cycle of poems on ageing is a tour de force).
Among the writers who collaborated with Joshi is Gulammohammed Sheikh, who has experimented with vers libre. His collection of poems, Athva (Or), presented sharp and vivid images of Gujarat that were at once tactile and colourful. Readers in English got to read his poem on Jaisalmer in that pioneering anthology Adil Jussawalla put together in 1974, New Writing In India, but there were other haunting poems, which came to him during the mass atrocities in Bangladesh in 1971: Thoughts like splinters of glass clenched in my fist/ Skin torn/ The pain sent horses thudding through my eyes (translated by Mala Marwah).
The poet who has taken a magnificent, imaginative leap in both form and ideas is Sitanshu Yashaschandra. Exploring the dream world of surrealism, he has looked at myths with fresh eyes, looking at the ancient past and making it strikingly modern. The critic Chandrakant Topiwala wrote that in Sitanshu’s writing one saw the unity of logos and mythos, of Apollo and Dionysus. With epic poems like Mohenjo-dado and Jatayu, and the remarkable collection Odysseus Nu Halesu (The Oar Of Odysseus), and the onomatopoeic marvel, Ho Chi Minh Nu Geet (The Song Of Ho Chi Minh), Sitanshu’s poetry created intense images. In a poem called Jungle, he writes: I am inside the white cool cliffs of marble,/ I am inside multifaceted crystals/ Behind the stiff rocks of huge cut diamonds./I see, all around, this forest lit up by the flames,/ I am untouched by the fire./ I am singed./ I burn (translated by Sitanshu Yashaschandra).
A different kind of modernity, more attuned to the middle-class and upper middle-class sensibilities of the cities, emerged from the works of four Mumbai poets: Suresh Dalal, Harindra Dave, Jagdish Joshi and Vipin Parikh. Of them, Parikh primarily wrote free verse; the others also wrote rhyming poems. Dalal’s early poems showed lyrical intensity that made way for more crowd-pleasing free verse in his later years. They wrote some fine love poems, and Dalal made poetry popular among Gujaratis in Mumbai and beyond, through his bi-monthly journal Kavita and packed poetry events in the city’s auditoriums. Panna Naik is another notable poet from that era, whose sensibility is shaped by her years of having lived abroad (in the US). Last year, her collected poems, about her time in India and in the US, were published in two volumes. In one poem she writes: Today/ In the middle of winter/ In a yellow desert/ I yearn for/ The touch of gulmohur’s leaping flames./ And then/ I become Vasant Panchami.
And in another poem—/ Would the warmth of the sun soothe/ The one singed by frozen ice?
Meanwhile in Ahmedabad, the Ayurvedic doctor Labhshankar Thakar, who died in 2016, wrote fine poetry and plays. His poems were deeply influenced by existentialism, exploring the absurdity of existence. His verses about Bako, a boy, who meets Gandhi, have been brought to life by the gifted artist Atul Dodiya. Prabodh Parikh has recently made a film on Thakar’s work for the Sahitya Akademi (another one, on Sitanshu Yashaschandra, is in the works).
Udayan Thakker and Hemen Shah are in the next generation of Gujarati poets from Mumbai who have written ghazals. Thakker says Gujarati poets have readily taken to sonnet, ghazal and haiku, and experimented with the form.
A survey of almost 1,000 Gujarati writers by Deepak Mehta in 1989 showed that only 88 were women. In a recent issue of Indian Literature, poet and translator Gopika Jadeja has compiled an excellent selection of contemporary poetry that shows a diverse range of voices, including of Dalit and minority poets, making it reflect the reality of modern Gujarat, because, for too long, collections and anthologies of Gujarati writing have been dominated by upper-caste and -class writers. Pratishtha Pandya has explored modernity through myths, while Vipasha (who uses only one name) writes about desire and the body from the perspective of someone suffering from multiple sclerosis, and Vahida Driver seeks solace and comfort in poetry. Mehul Devkala writes about urban angst and international political developments and Manisha Joshi reassesses the female identity—like Naik, she lives in the US. Ajay Sarvaiya alludes to the growing religiosity in Gujarat in this poem: Thankfully,/ you don’t have to take your shoes off/ before entering the library./ You don’t have to put/ a tilak on your forehead./ You don’t have to pray./ You can even enter the library/ with a sense of being wrecked (translated by Jadeja).
In her introduction, Jadeja has written: “One of the accusations that Gujarati poetry and Gujarati literature as a whole have faced in the last few decades of the twentieth century is that of apathy and lack of political engagement, a preoccupation with form, meter and traditional subjects."
While many in Gujarat remained silent during the killings of 2002, some poets did speak out. Anil Joshi wrote Hullad Geeto (Songs Of The Riots), Ramesh Parekh and Labhshankar Thakar wrote anguished poems, Gulammohammed Sheikh wrote about the devastation, and Sarup Dhruv and Kanji Patel have written politically charged poems since.
The passing of Bhagat marks the end of an era, but the profusion of new voices and the sheer diversity of experiences suggest that Gujarati poetry is alive and well. You may not always find it in the familiar places though.