I am acutely aware that I have been pushing the case for generously acknowledging Narsinh Mehta, the great poet-philosopher of Gujarat (1414-1480), as the writer of ‘Vishnav Jan To’ with obsessive zeal. That it is not working only makes the case more compelling for me even though my endeavor may come across as a weird fixation.
As the year-long commemoration of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary has gotten underway in India and elsewhere this October 2 (which was his 149th birth anniversary), the nearly six-centuries-old song will inevitably become its signature. If Gandhi were a nation, ‘Vaishnav Jan’ would be its anthem.
Watching a slick video featuring musicians from across the world singing the song, produced courtesy of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), I couldn’t but help notice a jarring absence of Mehta’s name from it. It is a moving video that does justice to the great song, except that its poet’s name has been studiedly left out.
I have been engaged with Mehta’s extraordinary body of works for decades and that engagement led to make a feature-length documentary about it. It is a pity that Mehta’s name is not known outside Gujarat even though one of his songs has become one of the world’s most widely sung. Quite mindful of the irony I named the documentary ‘Gandhi’s Song’ because I wanted to ride Gandhi’s global celebrity and recognition to bring some eminently deserved attention to a penurious poet-philosopher’s brilliant works.
So far I have not succeeded other than pestering a few people into watching it. Admittedly, it is an acquired taste even though it does tell a rather engaging story.
When I first saw the MEA -sponsored video I knew intuitively that Mehta’s name would not figure in the credits. I was right. I tweeted to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who happens to be from Mehta’s home state and often presumes to be the guardian of its cultural heritage, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that glaring and even gratuitous omission. Predictably, they did not so much as even acknowledge the message.
In some ways, it is a tribute to the literary and philosophical depths of ‘Vaishnav Jan’ that it has come to overwhelm its poet’s name to the extent of erasing it. This happens to the best of literary and artistic names. However, when an institution such as the country’s foreign ministry does not find it necessary to credit Mehta, it needs to be corrected.
It is an undeniable fact that without Gandhi’s patronage of the song from 1907 onward it would not have been known outside Gujarat. That should hardly encourage people to completely disregard its writer.