Before I continue with my Narsinh Mehta postings, a look backward to look forward.
I started this blog last July with the goal of bringing Narsinh Mehta’s poems and life, or as one might put it, his character and his oeuvre, to the global Indian Diaspora and to lovers of world-class literature at large.
I discovered that his works are best known as Bhakti songs and his life is known as someone who experienced miracles. Literary evaluations or analyses of his work ultimately end in awe at his “saintly” qualities and amazing ability to use the emerging modern Indian language for his devotional passion. The more distinctly Vaishnav form of Hindu worship, with its central focus on Krishna as the avatar of God Vishnu which really became widespread in Gujarat and northern India two centuries after his death, has claimed Narsinh for their own.
All these things are true. And yet, I feel two elements have not received the attention they deserve.
One. Narsinh Mehta’s poetic skills have not fully received the literary analysis dedicated to great authors because everyone gets sidelined by his powerful and pervasive devotion or tangled in the miraculous associations in his life and works. This is not to say that his literary contribution has not been addressed. Twentieth century scholarship has traced his sources, his innovations, and his contributions to Gujarati language and literature. Two recent scholars who deserve special recognition are Nilima Shukla-Bhatt of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and Sachin Ketkar of M.S. University, Baroda. Sachinbhai has a FB group called Nectar of His Lips with more than 600+ subscribers and growing. So check it out if you do FB activity.
Sitanshu Yashashchandra, a leading poet-critic, fluent in Gujarati and English, and Utkarsh Majmudar, a film and TV actor of note, have developed a powerful play called Jaagine Joun To: Narsaiyyo which has been running to packed venues since 2008. The play takes the view that Narsinh Mehta awakens to discover that no one knows or remembers him for who he was. NOTE: this by no means is a complete list. I know there are many more, for example, Niranjan Bhagat, Raghuvir Chowdhury, Darshana Dholakia, . . . and those no longer with us whose shoulders I stand upon: Shivlal Jeslapura and Jayant Kothari to name just two . . . . it’s my limitation that I don’t know them all.
This thought keeps echoing: Our cultural heritage remains incomplete if we do not know Narsinh’s works. But because his life is so interwoven with his works, we need to know the man as a full human being.
Two. How can we know the man if we do not grasp his experience of life? Mehta’s biography and autobiographical works describe events which include society, men, and women of his times. Of these a couple of details have become common knowledge. He crossed caste lines to pray with the untouchables and was condemned by his community. His son’s marriage caused his wife anxiety and his daughter’s pregnancy ceremonies were in jeopardy. His brother’s wife’s taunts caused him to leave home for a week and return a devotee and poet. Although reportedly not formally educated, his work shows evidence of a fairly impressive classical learning in Sanskrit scriptures and local literature across the India of his time.
So what was this man’s life like? What were his experiences with women around him? Did he get his incredibly realistic expressions of a sensual passionate woman and a loving mother from his reading alone? Did that life seems so bleak that he took refuge in the life of the imagination? Or, did that life give him fulfilling experiences along the way as well?
Hence, my twin goals have been
One: to look at ways to bring Narsinh Mehta’s poems to a new generation of readers and to explore his inner life as expressed in them.
Two: to gather knowledge about his life and times, especially of the lives of women of that period to enhance an understanding of the sources of his inspiration and passion.
A blog by definition is something you enter (add-to or read) as things happen. So what you see here is thinking in progress.
Like a good researcher, I have hypotheses but no absolute conclusions.
Remember to join in this venture. It is an adventure and lifeline for me but like lifelines and ziplines the mechanics only work when there is a dialog or two or more folks involved.
Monologs only work in the theater and only when Shakespeare writes them!