In love with the world

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

Rajendra Keshavlal Shah, who has been in the vanguard of the modernist tradition in Gujarati poetry, is honoured with the Jnanpith.

FROM running a small grocery shop in Ahmedabad to winning the coveted Bharatiya Jnanpith Award, eminent Gujarati poet Rajendra Keshavlal Shah has come a long way. He is the third Gujarati litterateur to receive the award; poet and literary critic Umashankar Joshi shared the honour with K.V. Puttappa in 1967 and fiction writer Pannalal Patel received it in 1985. While Umashankar was one of the leading voices in Gujarati poetry in the Gandhian period, which extended from 1930 to 1950, Rajendra was a harbinger and pioneer of post-Independence Gujarati poetry. Since the publication of his first collection of poems Dhvani in 1951, Rajendra has published 21 poetry collections; the latest went for printing a day after he was declared the recipient of the award.

Born on January 28, 1913 at Kapadvanaj, a small town in Kheda district of Gujarat, as the only child of his parents, Rajendra lost his father at the age of two. His mother brought him up in the orthodox Swaminarayan tradition. Rajendra attended a local school and was about to appear for his matriculation examination in 1930 when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha. Responding to the Mahatma's call, young Rajendra gave up his studies and joined the freedom movement. When a group of young students hoisted the national flag atop the city tower at Kapadvanaj, the police went up the tower to remove the flag. Rajendra climbed up the tower and reached the top before the police. While trying to save the flag, he fell down and broke his leg. Thereafter he was imprisoned for three and a half months.

Despite his participation in the freedom movement, the bulk of Rajendra's poems sing a different tune. The poems in Dhvani do not reflect any of the ideals and activities that dominated the Gandhian period. For Rajendra, "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty". It is not that he was unconcerned or unaffected by what was going on in the country. But Rajendra preferred to sing of love, nature, and all that was beautiful and sublime. Umashankar Joshi prophesied that judging from his first collection, Rajendra would become a major poet. However, he wondered how Rajendra's poems were almost untouched by the historical events that preceded their publication.

After he was released from prison, Rajendra resumed his studies and graduated in Philosophy from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. After a few years of work in Ahmedabad for an organisation devoted to the betterment of women, Rajendra started a grocery shop in the same city. Later on he started a shop to sell charcoal. The shops were not a big success, and in 1945 he moved to Mumbai, where he worked as an agent for a timber merchant and spent much of his time in the forests of Thane. His work brought him in close contact with the tribal community living in the forest and with the seafarers who lived on the banks of a nearby creek. Employing the local idiom, he composed later on many songs and poems that reflected the life - the mores, joys and sorrows - of these communities. Poets of the Gandhian period wrote about the poor and the downtrodden, but most of their poems had a patronising tone. In contrast, Rajendra depicted the life of the tribal people and the seafarers from within.

In 1951, he began as a paper merchant and then started his own printing press in downtown Mumbai. The press soon became a meeting ground for Gujarati poets - both established and upcoming - to read and discuss poetry. Soon these Sunday morning meetings became informal training sessions for poets. With a view to promoting young poets, Rajendra started a bimonthly, Kavilok, the first Gujarati periodical devoted solely to poets and poetry.

Rajendra arrived on the literary scene relatively late in life. His first collection was published at the age of 38, followed in quick succession by collections such as Andolan (1951), Shruti (1957), Shant Kolahal (1962), Chitrana (1967), Kshan je Chirantan and Vishadne Saad (1968). By the time Vishadne Saad was published, Rajendra had established himself as a major poet, not only of the post-Independence period, but also of the modernist tradition in Gujarati poetry. Modern Gujarati poetry has three main branches - verse written in traditional Sanskrit metres, that written in the lyrical form and free verse or verse libre, which came into existence in the post-Independence period. Rajendra has handled all three forms, especially the first two, with unique grace and finesse. He is equally at ease writing longer poems in the traditional Sanskrit metres and composing lyrical sonnets. In fact, Rajendra is regarded as a major writer of songs in modern Gujarati poetry. On the one hand, his lyrics are influenced by traditional folk music and the songs of the tribal people and the sea-faring communities, and on the other, they have been influenced strongly by Rabindranath Tagore's poems. While studying in Vadodara, Rajendra picked up the Bengali language from a neighbour; soon he became deeply interested in Tagore's poetry. Many of his songs and poems, written in Sanskrit metres, have derived their vocabulary, rhythm, and even ideas and expressions from Tagore. This has lent his poems a certain delicacy of idiom, expression, thought and feeling. Many of his songs have been set to tune by leading Gujarati music composers, and some of them have become so popular that they found their way, albeit inadvertently, into a compendium of Gujarati folk songs published by the State government.

In 1969, Rajendra fell seriously ill and battled for life for almost six weeks. The experience reinforced his philosophical bent of mind, which was reflected in subsequent poems. In 1971, his printing press was reduced to ashes in a devastating fire. This brought to an end his flourishing business in printing. Rajendra managed to cope with the immense financial loss with a rare equilibrium of mind. However, entrusting the task of reviving the printing press to his son, Rajendra returned to Kapadvanaj and began devoting his time to the study of religion and philosophy and the writing of poetry. He handed over Kavilok, the periodical that he nurtured with great care and devotion, to his friends in Ahmedabad.

Over the years, Rajendra has received many honours and awards. In 1947, he received acclaim for his poems published in Kumar, a reputed monthly published from Ahmedabad. In 1964, he received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award; in 1985, the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Puraskar; and in 1993, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Gujarat State Literary Academy. In the same year, he was unanimously elected President of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, the premier institution of Gujarati language and literature, which will celebrate its centenary in 2005. The following year, Rajendra became the first recipient of the newly instituted Narasimha Mehta Award for Poetry, a coveted award named after the 15th century Gujarati saint-poet Narasimha Mehta whose hymn `Vaishnavajana to tene re kahiye' was close to Mahatma Gandhi's heart.

As a poet, Rajendra is not only prolific, but versatile. There is hardly any poetic form that he has not touched. He has written narrative, descriptive and lyrical poems, songs and ghazals, verse plays, longer poems and sonnets, and even verses for children. Rajendra is an exceptional writer in that he has penned some eight short stories, a few articles, and some mandatory lectures and speeches, but has not published any of his prose writings in book form. His poems reflect his genuine concern for society, people, and the country, yet Rajendra is not a public figure. He is not a man for seminars and symposia, speeches and lectures. In spite of his deep love for and understanding of literature in general and poetry in particular, he has not tried his hand at literary criticism. In a short preface to the volume of his collected poems published in 1983, he has refrained from making any statement about his own poetry, saying that he prefers that it reaches the reader directly, without any intermediary or interpreter. At the age of 90, he looks and lives more like the ancient Rishi-Kavi (seer-poet), who is deeply and genuinely concerned with the world around, but at the same time prefers to be detached from it. In a poem published in 1951 he says (translated by this writer):

Aimlessly Yet fascinated I wander in the world My clothes smeared with dust. At times I am enveloped By the drifting fragrance of flowers, At times I am beckoned By the sweet notes of cuckoo, Crazily eyeing all the colours around, My feet follow my mind To the world full of love. The trodden path I do not take, But with every step I lay a fresh track, Playing my lute abundantly I move amazed In the maze of light and shadows, Like a boat drifting in the ocean of endless joy. I multiply myself to enjoy everything And yet, I remain undivided, alone.

Deepak B. Mehta is a literary critic and translator.

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