By Tushar Bhatt
Time: Summer, 1930. Place: Dhandhuka. Scene: The courtroom, with nearly two thousand people milling around outside.
A big-eyed, moustachioed man in his thirties, impressively dressed in typical Kathia-wadi attire, complete with a turban, had just heard Judge Isani hand him down a sentence for two years, for trying to undermine the British Empire. It was for a speech he had never made in the nearby Barwala. But, the police wanted to im-prison him badly in those days of the salt satyagrah.
In his rich voice, the man started singing a self-composed nationalist song, so poig-nantly that it seemed to carry the burden of the sufferings of millions of his enslaved countrymen:
Nathi Janyun Amare Panth Shi Afat Khadi Chhe,
Khabar Chhe Etli Ke Maatni Hakal Padi Chhe.
(What obstacles are on the way, I do not know,
All I know is that the Motherland calls me, and I must go.)
A hush fell over the court premises. When he finished, tears welled up in hundreds of eyes, including the judge's. It was something that depicted the mood of India at that time, when it was impossible to predict when the sun will set on the mighty Em-pire. Nobody knew if the freedom struggle would lead to independence, or when, and yet none was bothered. They seemed responding to the inner call.
Not for nothing Father of the Nation, Gandhiji, had described him as the Poet of the Nation. The Mahatma, whose first name was Mohan, once described Meghani as something like a flute of the freedom struggle, comparing him with the flute of an-other Mohan, Krishna.
Had he been alive, Jhaverchand Meghani, whose birth anniversary falls in August, the month in which India won its independence, would have been nearing the cen-tenary of his life. More than half a century after his death, Meghani still remains the most popular of Gujarati writers and poets, a darling of everybody.
But, to appreciate him only as a poet of deeply-stirring songs of patriotism would be like appreciating only one side of a multi-faceted gem. For a quarter century, Meghani had done yeoman's service in collecting, documenting, researching and bringing on to record Saurashtra's rich folk stories, songs and music. He had also done much to preserve the original style of the folk singing, remembering more than 500 folk songs, bhajans, duhas and what not in every authentic detail possible.
Meghani was more than that too; he was a bridge between the old and the new, was as much at ease with charans, folk musicians, village women and unlettered but highly-cultured people of old Kathiawad, as with the modern day poets, be they Irish or English or even Rabindranath Tagore. Till today, he remains a colossus striding the Gujarati literary scene, unmatched by any single writer's contribution or sensitiv-ity. Meghani did not just master the techniques of putting words on to the paper; he had mastered the magic of capturing the flavour of the soil, the romance of the day-to-day and the music extra-ordinary of the most ordinary.
All these were there since time immemorial, but only rarely did the men like Jhaver-chand Meghani hit the literary scene, possessing an acute ear, a dexterous pen and a literary refinement that was so sophisticated that even the most rustic would feel augmented, rather than over-whelmed by it.
His speciality also lay in his ability to bring into Gujarati something that deeply moved him, whether it happened to be folk song sung by an old kharva woman of Mahuva or a poem about a Santhal woman by Tagore. He could create an entirely new idiom, harness words, impart them newer and deeper shades of meaning and make it all melodiously rhythmical, both in prose and verse.
Gandhiji was a prosaic man, although he too wielded a powerful pen, both in English in Gujarati. Even he could not but bring in an elegant simile when talking of Meghani few months after Jhaverchand died on March 9,1947. When after the Independence, the Junagadh merger tangle came up, Manuben Gandhi quoted the Mahatma in her diary, about his home region, Kathiawad: "One should have special acumen to know Kathiawad.... It is loaded with history, there is an innate strength of the people, there is an art, and there is culture, beauty everything. Meghani was immersed in re-searching the literature of all these. In today's turmoil, a few masters of folk-literature like could change the entire atmosphere in a moment."
Gandhi went on to say that services of people like Meghani could be compared with the role of the flute played by Krishna. Although Krishna played it, the flute it was that lured the gopis, the people and the cattle alike. Gandhi noted with a sense of regret that the real worth of such people was never assessed; they were never prop-erly understood.
Yet, Jhaverchand Meghani himself was always modest about what he did. In a typi-cal self-introspection in Eak Taro, he said: "Do poets, and other creators of literature write everything from their own experience? Do they filter every happening through their own experience? I would reply in the negative. Maybe, there is one group of poets who do bring forth on to the paper, their own emotional experiences. There is another group that mostly tries to play on their own emotional veena or eak tara ex-periences of others. I have done this."
Even though he may not have personally experienced, Meghani, nevertheless was capable of intensely empathising with others; it was this trait that gave an elegiac tone to his writing. A friend of his and poet the late Dula Kag, noted an incident where Meghani found a 70-plus old woman working as a labourer at Mahuva port. Her son had drowned in the sinking of a country vessel owned by a local merchant. Meghani idly asked her as to why had she not asked the owner of the vessel for compensation. The old woman said plaintively: "How could I ask? Maybe, it was be-cause of my son that his vessel sank. On hearing this, recalled Kag, Meghani sat down and wept, asking him: "Dulabhai, who is more civilised, this poor old woman or the rich owner of the ship?"
So sensitive was his heart's seismograph, so powerful was his soul's literary antenna that Meghani did not need personal experience; he could empathise as intensely in other people's experiences of life, filter it and bring forth real gems of folk literature that had appeal beyond the barriers of language. Dula Kag once compared Meghani with a dhuldhoya, some one who washes the ore to separate gold from the dust.
Jhaverchand Meghani was a prolific writer; over a span of a little over a quarter cen-tury, he produced some 75 works of high literary note, including volumes of poetry, novels, novelettes, biography, short stories, folk stories, folk songs, research work on folk literature and other writings. He was one of the most industrious letter writers too. A volume of his 600 letters has been published after his death. Meghani's litera-ture has been translated into several languages, ranging from Assamese to Tamil and English to Sindhi.
Among the more acclaimed of his writings are the five-part Saurashtra Ni Rasdhar, Sorath Tara Vahetan Pani, Mansai Na Diva, Yug Vandana, Prabhu Padharya, three-part Sorath Baharvatia, Halaradan, Sorathi Santo, Sorathi Geetkathao. The list goes on and on, and is only illustrative.
Born in August(there is some uncertainty about the exact date as also the year, please see the next article), at Chotila in Surendranagar district, in the house of Ka-lidas Meghani, who was in the police department of the then Kathiawad Agency, and Dholiibai, a bania couple, Jhaverchand always loved to describe himself as a child of the mountain, a reference to a hill at Chotila. His father had a job that took the family to far-off outposts in different parts of Saurashtra, at Datha, Chamardi, Lakha Padar, Paliyad, Bagasara, Rajkot. He went to a primary school in Rajkot and to a high school in Wadhwan Camp and Amreli, and after matriculation in 1912 went on to join college, first for a term at Junagadh and then at Bhavnagar. In 1916, he took his B.A.degree with English and Sanskrit and became a teacher in Bhavnagar while preparing for his post-graduation. But within a year he gave up studies, and went to Calcutta to join Jivanlal's aluminium company, spending three years, starting on a junior post and climbing to that of a manager. During this period he went with his boss on a visit to England too. The boss was so impressed that he wanted to post Jhaverchand to London permanently, but the young man had different ideas.
Meghani has noted that his childhood memories had firmly imprinted in his psyche the ambience of Saurashtra's more remote places, their silence, the roar of the wind swishing through trees, rivers and rivulets, cutting through hills and jungles, the ech-oes of duhas, songs, stories and joys and sorrows of that blissful life -- all had re-mained forever with him, as if haunting him to return. Without realising their worth, the boy Jhaverchand had relished the culture fervour and flavour of it all, and it left a life-long pining for more of it in him.
His stay in Calcutta, far from his beloved homeland of Kathiawad, became unbear-able, impelling him to write on September 18,1921 a letter home, giving notice of his coming back. Even today, it reads evocatively of his mind-frame, which with the pas-sage of time, became bigger and bigger, encompassing the gamut of literary activi-ties he was to undertaken: I feel like go on writing today. I want to write and re-write the same line in different manners but am afraid, would not be able to explain what I mean to say. For, I seem to speak in the language of another place, and you would not understand. Darkness is falling. It is time for the dusk to depart; cattle are re-turning from their day of grazing, the bells around their necks ringing. The temple zalar is beginning to sound its celestial music. I am returning in a month or two, for-ever. As if I am responding the clarion call of my shepherd, at the time of the dusk, the time when light and darkness fight a battle. I would not stray, would forget the way as I am able to recognise and follow his voice. Let me say I am not alone, with-out friend. What more?" Jhaverchand signed the letter not with his him, but with a cryptic phrase," I am coming".
His action did not please his employers and colleagues; they wondered if it was pos-sible in Gujarat to earn a livelihood by writing. But the inner voice's call was so irre-sistible that he headed back for Bagasara.
Poet Umashankar Joshi, who was a fan and a friend of Meghani, has noted that by that time the young may had hardly any literary achievements to his credit. There were one or two poems, penned perhaps in 1916 or 1918, but these did not show any signs of what his voice was dictating.
Jhaverchand had, however, begun to show literary inclinations from his school days. A brilliant boy who used to stand first in the clas, Meghani had a good voice, nature's gift and would be the first choice for leading students in singing the daily prayer. At 12, what he sang for him a prize for his school friends from a rich man. He had po-etic bend of mind too and would attempt writing poetry, a trait that was re-inforced by his introduction to the poetry of Kalapi. Meghani would sing the songs of sorrow of this heart-broken king-poet, earning a nick-name of Vilapi, one who cries a lot. He took part in a lot of youth activities, as has been noted by Kapil Thakkar, his child-hood chum. An acquaintance of those days put Meghani on the path of folk-literature. He was Hadala Darbar, Vajsur Vala, to attend whose theosophy class Jhaverchand and his friend would walk five miles from Bagasara to Hadala. His in-terest in the work of Gandhiji too was aroused in this period only. He was one of the first to act for abolition of untouchability by accepting an invitation to break bread the untouchables . He also started propagating the swadeshi commodities, such as the bathing soap. Kapil, his brother Ramu Thakkar and Meghani would also have com-petition among each other in instant poetry composition. Meghani's years in Calcutta exposed him to the rich Bengali culture, to the poetry and prose of Tagore, to the Bengali stage, and the Brahmosamaj discourses; all these helped nourish his cul-tural moorings.
It brought him back, but he himself has noted that in 1922, "I was directionless. I did not know what should I do; one idea was to take to farming, while relations were commending me to business. Service in one of the princely states was also possible and there always was the job of a teacher. "Vassar Vala helped in the process of clearing the mist for the young man. He persuaded Samatbhai Gadhvi to recite story after story to Meghani in those days, giving a direction to his creative urge. In 1922 , Meghani got married to Damayantiben.
Around this time, Mr Amrutlal Sheth had started a journal from Ranpur, called Sau-rahstra to which Meghani sent two or three pieces. Sheth recognised the potential in him and invited him to join his paper in the same year. His book publication began with Kurbanini Kathao, and that of his folk-literature with Saurashtra Ni Rasdhar. He wrote almost continuously and got fed up of journalism in 1926, and went away to stay at Bhavnagar. In 1928, he got the prestigious Ranjitram Gold Medal for his reearch work in folk literature. In 1930, his poetry took on nationalist colour in full swing and his poem, addressed to Gandhi as he prepared to leave for the Round Table, Chhello Katoro Jher No Aa Pi Jajo Bapu, earned him the recognition as poet of the Nation. He was arrested and sent to jail for two years, but was released after serving nine months.
In 1933, a mishap caused him a terrible setback; his wife died in a burning incident and Meghani shifted to Bombay. In 1934, he married a Nepali lady, Chitradevi. Meghani was always a loving family man, adored by his relations and worshipped by his six sons and three daughters. He stayed on for sometime in Bombay, working in Janmboomi, but went back to Ranpur to take up the editorship of the journal, Phulchhab. He made a distinctive mark for himself not only in literature but also in journalism. Phulchhab press was seized by the government in 1942 for all its pains. Meghani took retirement from the journal in 1945, devoting time to writing only. He wrote Ravindraveena, providing Gujarati with Tagore's poetry and gave the world-famous Manasai Na Diva, based on the experiences of Ravishankar Maharaj, Sar-voday leader, in reforming the Patanwadia dacoits. He chaired the section of litera-ture in Gujarati Sahitya Parishad conference in 1946 at Rajkot. He was finishing Sorathi Santwani, a research on Sorathi bhajans, when suddenly on March 9,at the age hardly of 50, he suffered a massive heart attack, and breathed his last at Botad.
He had done a lot of research into Saurashtra's folk literature and had set his sights on doing similar work in the rest of Gujarat when the end came, sending a wave of shock across the region and the country.
Jhaverchand Meghani has, after all these years of his departure, continued to be one of the top-draws in Gujarati literature; people read and re-read his books ,which sale as briskly as when they first got published. His songs remain the mainstay of public singing in Gujarati, making him one of the most widely read Gujarati authors.
Meghani never complained about anything, least of all about Gujarat not having done enough for him. But in his lifetime, he was under-recognised by the literary es-tablishment, which seemed to have grudgingly accepted him after his contribution to the nationalist movement in the form of patriotic songs was hailed widely. Although he knew by heart, the content, tunes and raags of hundreds of folk songs, All India Radio could not take advantage of his rich singing. There are no recordings avail-able. But all this never came in the way of the public esteem in which Meghani has been held, underlining that the people always recognise those who are their cultural representatives.
His stature was so tall that not many remember that his Koi No Ladakvayo was based on an old English poem, Somebody's Darling, simply because the Gujarati version is far superior to the original written by Mrs. Mary Lacoste.
In the same vein, what he sang 65 years ago in the Dhandhuka court, a song titled Viday, farewell, was far more evocative and stirring than the original Urdu, Hambhi Ghar Reh Sakate The. It is so hauntingly beautiful, and true sounding, especially on the eve of the Independence Day that one might think it would be made a compul-sory reciting on all such occasions, when we, as a people, tend to under-estimate what all sacrifices were needed in attaining independence. Mournfully, Meghani sang, lest we forget those like him:
Biradar, Naujavan | am rahthi tun dur raheje,
Amone panth bhulela bhale tun mani leje,
Kadi jo hamdili aave, bhale nadan kaheje;
'Bichara' kahish na - lakho bhale dhikkar deje |
O, dosto| dargujar dejo diwana bandhavo ne;
Saburi kyayan didhi chhe kaleje aashako ne?
Dile shun shun jale - dekhadiye dil aah kone ?
Amari bewkufi ye kadi sambharasho ne?
Agar behtar,bhuli jajo amari yaad fani|
Buri yaade dubhavjo na sukhi tam zindgani;
Kadi swadhinata aave -- vinanti,bhai chhani:
Amoney smari lejo jari,pal ek nani|
(Comrade, young man| stay away from taking our path;
Think of us as those who had lost their proper path;
Someday if compassion overwhelms, call us even childish;
But, don't pity as poor things-hate us as people hellish|
O, friends, forgive us, your brothers, as mad;
Did anyone find what patience such hearts ever had ?
What sorrows assail our hearts,-who would hear our cry?
Will you remember our stupidity, even with a sigh?
Better it would be if you forgot us,
we wouldn't ever make any fuss;
Should such a memory sour your happiness, even for a moment?
If ever Independence comes, oh, brother, may I make a request fervent?
Do think of us, even for the briefest of a moment.)
Independence came on August 15,1947; we have honoured Meghan's word by not souring our happiness too much with such remembrance as his.
(Please see the next article too)