Never heard of Narsinh Mehta?

Oct 15, 2015, 07:31 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

But you know his bhajan Vaishnav Jan To. Chicago-based Mayank Chhaya’s docu and e-book to take the Gujarat poet’s cultural contribution to the world

Mission accomplished! That describes the current mood of Chicago-based journalist-turned-author Mayank Chhaya, who had committed himself to two projects. First, a 75-minute documentary titled Gandhi’s Song on the 15th century Gujarati poet-philosopher Narsinh Mehta. Second, an e-book, Narsinh: The Poet for the Eons that honours Mehta as Gujarat’s first social reformer who coined the term, harijan. While the documentary pivots around the poet’s popular bhajan, Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye, the book is an introduction to the poet in a broader context, beyond the Gujarati ethos where he is already revered.

Mayank Chhaya at the Mahatma’s room in Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad
Mayank Chhaya at the Mahatma’s room in Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad

Promotion of both projects factors in Chhaya’s visit to India, particularly Mumbai, where he began his journalistic career in 1982. He plans to hold a joint media event to boost the sales of the book and documentary. The last time he was in India was when he shot for three months in Ahmedabad, Talaja, Gopnath and Junagadh in Saurashtra where Mehta’s life unfolded (1414-1480). Currently, he is busy with social media initiatives for engaging audiences in India and overseas. A website titled Gandhi’s Song excerpts from the book. Chhaya is also promoting bits of Narsinh Mehta’s poetry on Twitter as well as Facebook.

Narsinh Mehta lives on through his work
Narsinh Mehta lives on through his work

The book, available online at $1 (R 65 approximately) starting October 20, and the documentary to be released worldwide a little later, emerge from Chhaya’s personal appreciation of a writer of hundreds of songs, verses and ballads with great poetic and philosophical depth.

Book cover of Narsinh: The Poet for the Eons
Book cover of Narsinh: The Poet for the Eons

He feels that Mehta’s influence on the making of India has not been sufficiently appreciated. While there have been attempts to capture the poet’s magic by the Gujarati film industry, there has been “Nothing that accords him the kind of serious professional attention that he so eminently deserves.”

A particular instance served as a trigger for Chhaya to take up the projects. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was feted at the Madison Square Garden in September 2014, violin maestro L. Subramaniam and his singer wife Kavita Krishnamurthy performed a re-composed version of Mehta’s Vaishnav Jan To. No one mentioned that it was written by Narsinh Mehta. “I wanted to undo that omission.”

Chhaya feels Mehta’s life offers great potential to capture aspects of Gujarat’s cultural depth that’s often not discussed. Mehta’s poetry mostly transmitted orally over the first couple of centuries after his death, suffused Saurashtra and beyond. It impacted generations and has been internalised in people’s consciousness, which needs to be acknowledged.

Excerpts from an interview with Chhaya:

Q. While in Chicago, how did you think of Narsinh Mehta, Gandhi and Vaishnav Jan To...?
A. Narsinh Mehta has been a subject of my literary passion. He is one of the world’s great poetic and philosophical minds, the boundaries of whose fame are constricted by the language barrier. Gujaratis of a certain generation know him very well, and not just because of Vaishnav Jan To. He is regarded as Gujarat’s ‘Adi Kavi’, someone who not only practically invented the Gujarati poetic form but refined it to the highest level of literary and philosophical expression. A documentary and a book about Mehta have been on my to-do list for at least two decades. It has been difficult to find backers for a project of this nature. In the past year, I have managed to get three funders in Dahyabhai Prajapati and Dr Bharat Thakkar, both based in Chicago, and Tapan Vaidya in Bahrain. I believe Mehta is ready to cross over as a world poet.

Q. The trigger was the bhajan, Vaishnav Jan To...?
A. One of the things about Vaishnav Jan To that always amused me was that people think Gandhi wrote it. When I tell them it precedes Gandhi by four centuries, they are surprised. The choice of the title, Gandhi’s Song is because of this. It gets a foot in the door for Mehta. Vaishnav Jan To or ‘The Truly Righteous One’ lays down a simple yet exacting secular, nondenominational and remarkably modern benchmark for upright human conduct. It is not only one of the world’s most sung creations but also a defining cultural standard for India’s campaign for freedom from nearly two centuries of British rule.

Q. In the context of US-India relations and Narendra Modi’s US visit, a book on a Gujarat poet will resonate in America.
A. I do not believe there is any interest in a book on Narsinh Mehta among the Gujarati diaspora, other than a few individuals of a certain generation. He is of an order that rises too much above the social media generation’s intellect. Their language is fractured and expression hobbles.

Q. How are you going to juggle both projects with your busy schedule as foreign policy commentator?
A. The documentary has been my pre-occupation for the last eight months. I had a clear idea in my mind to use Vaishnav Jan To as the gateway to Narsinh Mehta as a larger poet-philosopher. There are three anchor interviews and a narrative woven around it. I had already done enough reading over the years to not have to do something special for the documentary, when it came to research. I freshened my perspective by reading two outstanding books on him, both written by Gujarat’s literary giants — Umashankar Joshi and Kanaiyalal Munshi.

Q. Mumbai to you means...
A. Mumbai is where I began my journalistic life in The Free Press Journal and where I opened the floodgates of the reservoir of my English expression. I began conversing in English only after coming to Mumbai at 21. Until then, I had just read a lot in Ahmedabad, where I was born. I was always direct but after coming to Mumbai, I became unabashedly so. That is one element of the Mumbai state of mind that I still carry.

The writer is a Mumbai-based cultural chronicler

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