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Gujarati – Language from the Land of the Gujjars
Gujarati is spoken by over 46 million people around the world with sizeable populations of expatriate Gujarati-speakers found all over East Africa and North America. This article traces the origins and literary history of Gujarati
Gujarati is recognized as one of the languages of India and is the official language of the state of Gujarat, home to the famed salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch. Gujarati, in contrast with most other Indian languages, is considered to be a relatively young language, with its origins traced back to around the 12th century AD. A formal set of grammarian principles of the precursor of this language was written by eminent Jain monk and scholar Hemachandra Acharya in the reign of the Rajput king, Siddharaj Jayasinh of Anhilwara. This treatise formed the foundation of Apabrahmsa grammar, forming a language from the combination of corrupted form of languages like Sanskrit and Ardhamagadhi.
The earliest examples of Gujarati literature survived through an oral tradition. The genesis of Gujarati literature can be traced to a famous Krishna devotee and egalitarian Narasinha Mehta around the 17th century AD. The life of Narasinha Mehta was chronicled and composed as a long narrative ballad by Premananda, widely known as the "Mahakavi" of Gujarati, who worked in the late 17th century AD. Gujarati literature flourished after this period under the auspices of the “Bhakti” movement in Hinduism, a popular cultural movement to liberate the religion from entrenched priesthood.
In the medieval periods of Gujarat’s history, poetry was employed to express religious sentiments. The first work of poetry in Gujarati is considered to be “Bharateswara Bahubali Rasa”, composed by Shalibhadrasuri, a 7th century Jain monk. A number of Jain Sadhus followed his example and composed short storytelling poems called “Rasas” till the end of the 18th century AD.
In the 15th century, a prominent poet called Narsingh Mehta brought in a new era in Vaishnava poetry, with his portrayal of Krishna as a playful child, a lover, a friend and the poet’s muse. Narsingh Mehta’s works became a blueprint for his successors in composing devotional as well as philosophical poetry. Raje, Raghunathdas, Pritam, Ratno and Muktananda were some prime contributors to this era of devotional poetry. In the 18th century, the poet “Vallabh” created two very significant devotional songs called “Garbo” and “Garbi”. Premananda, introduced a famous work called “Akhyana”. Most of these poems drew their inspiration from Sanskrit and Prakrit fiction. Nayasundar and Samal emerged as popular narrators of devotional poetry in the 18th century.
Poetic literature soared to new heights in the later stages of the 18th century under the steadily strengthening British influences. Narmad and Dalpat were pioneers of this constantly innovating age. The noted poets of this century like Kalapi, Kant, Nanalal and Balavantrai Thakor produced significant bodies of work under various categories of poetry. After the rise of Mahatma Gandhi’s prominence in a steadily strengthening struggle for Independence and social equality, a great volume of poetry, written by poets like Umashankar, Sundaram, Shesh, Snehrasmi and Betai, among others, were centered on the existing social order, the struggle for Independence and the travails of Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Post-Independence Gujarati poetry displays a higher form of subjectivity and explores newer philosophies and lines of thought and imagery. Prominent Gujarati poets of the post-Independence era include critically acclaimed poets like Suresh Joshi, Gulam Mohamed Sheikh, Harinder Dave, Chinu Modi, Nalin Raval and Adil Mansuri, among others.
Modern exploration into Gujarat and its language is credited to British administrator Alexander Kinloch Forbes shortly after the British occupation of the region. Alexander Forbes carried out an extensive exploration of Gujarati culture and literature over the prior thousand years of history and amassed a large collection of manuscripts. An organization named after him, called the Farbas Gujarati Sabha, dedicates itself to the preservation of Gujarati language and history from its headquarters in Mumbai.
Owing to its apparent youth with respect to its written history, the Gujarati script follows the Nagari writing system. This is a derivative of the Devanagari script with one notable difference being that the horizontal line is not utilized. The Gujarati script also has a few other variations in terms of certain consonants and utilizes a slightly different set of symbols for numbers.
Gujarati has also been the language spoken by two of South Asia’s greatest and most prominent leaders: the Father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi and the Founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
In less than two hundred years, Gujarati literature has shown growth in compounded leaps and bounds, an ample demonstration of the Gujarati people’s commitment towards modern ideologies in both expression and thought. With the Gujarat Government’s new emphasis on the basics of e-governance and the development of the Information Technology sector, Gujarati is slated to attain the significance it aspires towards in this Digital Era.
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