Looking back at the life and writing of the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning poet, who died at the age of 91 in Ahmedabad.
Niranjan Bhagat was a tall man with a booming voice. When I first saw him, it was on stage at my school, New Era, in Bombay, where he spoke to us about English poetry. We knew Bhagat as a famous Gujarati poet. We had studied his poems at our Gujarati medium school and our textbook had a poem of his virtually every year – Ghar (Home), Hun to bas farva avyo chhu (To roam have I come), Aquarium-ma (At the aquarium), and several others.
But that day, Bhagat talked to us about English poetry. He chose William Blake’s The Tyger and recited it from memory, with gusto and passion, his eyes widening and his voice rising, making us feel as if a tiger was indeed roaming in our assembly hall. I was 15 then.
Modernity with rhythm
Our last meeting was in February two years ago, as I had begun researching my book on Gujaratis. Bhagat was one of the first people I wanted to meet, and he agreed readily. “Come quickly. I am 90, you can never tell if I’d be around next week,” he said, with his characteristic dark humour.
We spent several hours together. He did the talking and I listened and wrote as he spoke. He gave me a spellbinding account of Gujarat’s literary history, taking me through the days of Narmad and Govardhanram. As he spoke of his friendship with Chunilal Madia and Umashankar Joshi, he told me the story of how a new aesthetic got developed, introducing modernity to the straitjacketed style deeply influenced by Gandhi.
Bhagat was a titan, a tiger of Gujarati poetry, and he roamed the scene for 75 years – his first poem was published in 1943. He was modest about his own contribution, but it was truly overwhelming, for he embraced modernity without discarding rhythm. One of his poems, Gayatri, is written in Anustup chhand, and is rightly regarded as a major achievement. Many poets – in Gujarati and elsewhere – have tended to confuse modernity with the discarding of rhyme and meter. They end up writing prose poems that break up sentences at odd places, often giving the poem an interesting shape on a page, but without the spark that would make it memorable.
The wars of 1962, 1965, and 1971 led to the publication of much poetry that Adil Jussawala rightly criticised as “patriotic rubbish”. Bhagat’s poems, however, dealt with the great themes of our time – independence, violence, and moral corruption – but also stayed close to the grammar of poetry. They rhymed and even the ones that did not had an internal cadence, a music of their own, which made you pause at the right syllable, making the experience of reading his poetry aloud an immensely pleasurable experience. His rhyming poems didn’t lull you into a sense of torpor.
The spirit of a city
Bhagat’s poems also captured the zeitgeist and pace of a bustling city. Pravaaldweep, his collection of poems written between 1946 and 1956 about Bombay and his adventures with his friend, the novelist Chunilal Madia, was outstanding. “When we were in Bombay, the island shook because of our adventures,” he told me. Rita Kothari and Suguna Ramanathan have sensitively translated the poems as Coral Island, published by the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi, in 2002.
Come, let’s go to Bombay city,
That tailless crocodile
Where people are like paintings
Unknown, yet friendly, nevertheless.
You need neither bags nor bedding;
Not arduous, this pilgrimage.
Cement, concrete, stones and glass,
Wires, bolts, rivets, screws and nails
Surpass the rainbow’s magic;
Of such stuff this paradise!
Grass will grow one day in every street,
The coral build its home here,
Before that happens, go if you will
Time beckons you to come.
— A translation of “Mumbai Nagri” by Rita Kothari and Suguna Ramanathan
Fierce creatures – humans – roam this forest
Made of concrete, stone, cement and glass.
An iron rainbow drops down from the sky.
Vegetation? No creepers trail, no tall trees sway;
Radios chirp full blast, but no birds fly.
An asphalt road, no stream, here unwinds.
No ghosts, but strange buildings rear their sides.
No fairies here but moving cars and trams.
Have hell’s exhalations, molten sighs,
Risen, cooled, set and frozen here?
Or did a demon’s scattered dreadful dreams
Sprout, flower and fruit in these enormous forms?
Forest? A mirage! Myster? On his solitary rounds
Did Purandar himself here lose his way?
— A translation of “Adhunik Aranya” by Rita Kothari and Suguna Ramanathan
Those poems were about the city’s emerging concretised skyline, visits to the museum, zoo, aquarium, airport, cafes, and other locations – Falkland Road, Flora Fountain, the Churchgate local train, and watching the sunset at Colaba. In one of his memorable poems, Patro (characters) he presented monologues by a poet, a beggar, a sex worker, a leper, a blind man, and a hawker.
The image of the city these poems provide is vivid – zany tunes from the 1950s and black-and-white images of films shot along Marine Drive come to mind. He foresaw an apocalyptic future of a sinking city (pravaaldweep). While his view was metaphorical, in the age of climate change, who knows if it doesn’t foretell a tale full of foreboding?
Emotionally and politically charged
Bhagat also wrote emotionally charged poems about love, light, and life. His collection, Chhandolaya (collection of rhyming poems), was aptly named, for Bhagat brought back the lyric to Gujarati poetry. Urbane and metropolitan, his poems spoke to a new India with verve and vigour.
Bhagat was a voracious reader. He had a strong affinity for European poets, in particular Baudelaire, but the Gujarati poet Manishankar Bhatt “Kant” too was an early influence. At Elphinstone College in Bombay he read other western poets – Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke, TS Eliot and WH Auden. Just imagine the time. The Progressive Artists Group presenting its own vision of a modern India being built; Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen in Calcutta looking at India with new eyes; and writers offering their versions of post-independent India – Nissim Ezekiel in English, Mohan Rakesh and Dharmaveer Bharti in Hindi, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Niranjan Bhagat in Gujarati – all born in the 1920s, all in their 20s in newly-independent India.
Bhagat taught till his retirement in 1986 and he retained an encyclopaedic memory of references that good teachers have. He was generous with his advice and insights and he enriched my research. When I met him, he produced books from his shelf, citing passages to underscore his view, while berating the TV news channels that were chiming in chorus, calling JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, and Umar Khalid “anti-national.” “They are students, don’t they realise? They are young. They want to change India. They want to set it on the right path. How dare these journalists call them anti-national! These students are the real nationalists; these journalists are…” he paused, for once at a loss of words, glaring angrily at the anchor who thinks what he knows is what the nation wants to know. Bhagat had kept the volume low; after some time he turned off the volume and laughed as he saw the fiercely gesticulating anchor and the participants in that show. “This is like watching a silent film,” he said, laughing.
Bhagat was a man who laughed a lot and wrote many songs. He saw the time at its present moment and found the rhymes from the past to give meaning to the frenzy. He identified the pulse and heartbeat of our cities and discovered the meter to write poems about it. He celebrated love and outraged when he saw bigotry and hatred. He had come here to roam, and now he is gone.
To roam have I come
Not to do anything for you
Have I come
How sweet the wind on this path
How glowing the faces I see!
Return, I shall not
I shall slide into my dream
Taking seven happy steps on a trot
Wish I could find the magic
Or love, for a moment or two
Or sing with joy, a verse or two
To bequeath a song of love
For the earth’s ears
Have I come
To roam have I come
— A translation of “hun to bas farvaa aavyo chhu” by Salil Tripathi