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Narsinh Mehta

Narsinh Mehta (1414? – 1481?) was a poet-saint of Gujarat, India, notable as a bhakta, an exponent of Hindu devotional religious poetry. He is especially revered in Gujarat, where he is acclaimed as its Adi Kavi (Sanskrit for "first among poets").

Biography

There is not any definite information about Narsinh Mehta's life available. Traditionally it is believed that Narsinh was born in Talaja, Bhavnagar District of Saurashtra, to a Nagar community. After the death of his mother (about 1425), Narsinh married Manekbai probably in the year 1428 and soon he lost his uncle. Narsinh and his wife went to stay at his cousin Bansidhar’s place in Junagadh. However, the cousin’s wife (or bhabhi) was a particularly ill-tempered woman, always taunting and insulting Narsinh. When he could take it no longer, he left the house and went to a nearby forest where he fasted and meditated for seven days by a secluded Shiva Lingam until Shiva appeared before him in person. On the poet’s request, the Lord took him to Vrindavan and showed him the eternal raas leela of Sri Krishna and the gopis, the cowherd girls of Vrindavan. A legend has it that the poet transfixed by the spectacle burnt his hand with the torch he was holding but he was so engrossed in the ecstatic vision that he was oblivious of the pain. Narsinh, as the popular account goes, at Sri Krishna’s command decided to sing His praises and the nectarous experience of the rasa in this mortal world. He resolved to compose around 22,000 kirtans or compositions.

After this dream-like experience, the transformed Narsinh returned to his village, touched his bhabhi's feet, and thanked her for insulting him. In Junagadh, Narsinh lived in poverty with his wife and two children, a son named Shamaldas, and a daughter for whom he had special affection, Kunwarbai. He revelled in devotion to his hearts’ content along with sadhus, saints, and all those people who were Hari’s subjects - Harijans - irrespective of their caste, class or sex. It also seems that he must have fallen into a somewhat ill repute for his close relations with Lord's sakhis and gopis, Narsinh’s women followers, with whom he danced and sang. The Nagars of Junagadh despised him and spared no opportunity to scorn and insult him. By this time, Narsinh had already sung about the rasleela of Radha and Krishna. The compositions are collected under the category of shringar compositions. They are full of intense lyricism, bold in their erotic conception and are not without allegorical dimensions, this saves the compositions from being something of erotic court poetry of medieval India.

Soon after his daughter Kunwarbai’s marriage (around 1447) to Sringara Mehta’s son, Kunwarbai became pregnant and it was a custom for the girl’s parents to give gifts and presents to all the in-laws during the seventh month of pregnancy. This custom, known as Mameru, was simply out of the reach of poor Narsinh who had hardly anything except intransigent faith in his Lord. How Krishna helped his beloved devotee is a legend depicted in ‘Mameru Na Pado’. This episode is preserved vividly in the memory of Gujarati people by compositions by later poets and films. Other famous legends include ‘Hundi (Bond)’ episode and ‘Har Mala (Garland)’ episode. The episode in which none other than Shamalsha Seth (The Dark one as Seth) cleared a bond written by poverty stricken beloved, is famous not only in Gujarat but in other parts of India as well. The Har Mala episode deals with the challenge given to Narsinh by Ra Mandlik (1451-1472) a local king and a vassal of Delhi’s Sultan, to prove his innocence in the charges of immoral behavior by making the Lord Himself garland Narsinh. Narsinh depicts this episode. How Sri Krishna, in the guise of a wealthy merchant, helped Narsinh in getting his son married is sung by the poet in ‘Putra Vivah Na Pado’. Mahmud Begada (Mahmud Shah I) 1458-1511, invaded Junagadh in 1467 and soon after many a sporadic Muslim raids, the city was annexed to the Gujarat Sultanate. Perhaps to escape the consequences, he went to Mangrol where, at the age of 66, he is believed to have expired. The crematorium at Mangrol is called ‘Narsinh Nu Samshan’ where perhaps one of the greatest sons of Gujarat was cremated.

Works

One of the most important features of Narsinh’s works is that they are not available in the language in which Narsinh had composed them. They have been largely preserved orally. The oldest available manuscript of his work is dated around 1612, and was found by the noted scholar K.K.Shastri from Gujarat Vidyasabha. Because of the immense popularity of his works, their language has undergone modifications with changing times.

For the sake of convenience, the works of Narsinh are divided into four categories:

  1. Autobiographical compositions: Putra Vivah, Mameru, Hundi, Har Same No Pado, Jhari Na Pado, and compositions depicting acceptance of Harijans. These works deal with the incidents from the poet’s life and reveal how he encountered the Divine in various guises. They consist of ‘miracles’ showing how Narsaiyya’s Lord helped his devotee in the time of crises.
  2. Miscellaneous Narratives: Chaturis, Sudama Charit, Dana Leela, and episodes based on Srimad Bhagwatam. These are the earliest examples of akhyana or narrative type of compositions found in Gujarati. These include:
    1. Chaturis, 52 compositions resembling Jaydeva’s masterpiece Geeta Govinda dealing with various erotic exploits of Radha and Krishna.
    2. Dana Leela poems dealing with the episodes of Krishna collecting his dues (dana is toll, tax or dues) from gopis who were going to sell buttermilk etc. to Mathura.
    3. Sudama Charit is a narrative describing the well-known story of Krishna and Sudama.
    4. Govinda Gamana or the Departure of Govind relates the episode of Akrura taking away Krishna from Gokul.
    5. Surata Sangrama, The Battle of Love, depicts in terms of a battle the amorous play between Radha and her girl friends on the one side and Krishna and his friends on the other.
    6. Miscellaneous episodes from Bhagwatam like the birth of Krishna, his childhood pranks and adventures.
  3. Songs of Sringar. These are hundreds of padas dealing with the erotic adventures and the amorous exploits of Radha and Krishna like Ras Leela. Various clusters of padas like Rasasahasrapadi and Sringar Mala fall under this head. Their dominant note is erotic (Sringar). They deal with stock erotic situations like the ossified Nayaka-Nayika Bheda of classical Sanskrit Kavya poetics.

See Vaishnav jan to, his popular composition.

Further reading

Works of Narsinh Mehta

  • Narsinh Mehta. Narsinh Mehtani KavyaKrutiyo (ed.). Shivlal Jesalpura. Ahmedabad:Sahitya Sanshodhan Prakashan, 1989
  • Kothari, Jayant and Darshana Dholakia.(ed.). Narsinh Padmala. Ahmedabad: Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 1997
  • Rawal, Anantrai.(ed.). Narsinh Mehta na Pado. Ahmedabad : Adarsh Prakashan, 1994

Critical material in English

  • Munshi, K.M. Gujarata and Its Literature: A Survey from the Earliest Times. Bombay: Longman Green and Co.Ltd. 1935
  • Swami Mahadevananda (trans.) Devotional Songs of Narsi Mehta. Varanasi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1985.
  • Tripathi, Govardhanram. The Classical Poets of Gujarat and their Influence on Society and Morals. Mumbai: Forbes Gujarati Sabha, 1958.
  • Tripathi, Y.J. Kevaladvaita in Gujarati Poetry. Vadodara: Oriental Institute, 1958.
  • Zhaveri, K.M. Milestones in Gujarati Literature. Bombay: N.M Tripathi and Co., 1938
  • Zhaveri, Mansukhlal. History of Gujarati Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1978.

Critical material in Gujarati

  • Chaudhri, Raghuvir.(ed.). Narsinh Mehta: Aswad Ane Swadhyay. Mumbai, M.P.Shah Women's College, 1983
  • Dave, Ishwarlal.(ed.). Adi Kavi Ni Aarsh Wani: Narsinh Mehta ni Tatvadarshi Kavita.Rajkot: Dr. Ishwarlal Dave, 1973
  • Dave, Makarand. Narsinhnan Padoman Sidha-ras. A Lecture in Gujarati on Siddha-ras in poems of Narsinh Mehta. Junagadh: Adyakavi Narsinh Mehta Sahityanidhi, 2000
  • Dave,R and A. Dave. (eds.) Narsinh Mehta Adhyayn Granth. Junagadh: Bahuddin College Grahak Sahkari Bhandar Ltd., and Bahauddin College Sahitya Sabha, 1983
  • Joshi, Umashankar, Narsinh Mehta, Bhakti Aandolanna Pratinidhi Udgaata' in Umashankar Joshi et al (eds.) Gujarati Sahitya No Ithihas. vol.II. Ahmedabad: Gujarati Sahitya Parishad,1975
  • Munshi, K.M. Narsaiyyo Bhakta Harino. Ahmedabad: Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 1952
  • Shastri, K.K, Narsinh Mehto-Ek Adhyayan. Ahmedabad: B.J.Vidyabhavan, 1971
  • Shastri, K.K, Narsinh Mehta. Rastriya Jeevan Charitramala. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1972

Audio Cassettes of Narsinh Mehta's compositions

  • Narsinh Mehta: Uttamlal Pado, vol. I, II, and III, Music Direction: Aashit Desai, Mumbai:Navras Records Pvt.Ltd,1996
  • Narsinh, Ek Zhanki. Music Director: Kaumudi Munshi, Mumbai: N.K.Parikh Parivar, 1998

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