A 19th Century Gujarati Ghazal in Translation

The ghazal is a poetic, lyrical form that captures the depths of the human heart in fleeting, poignant ways.

The renowned Gujarati writer known by the pen-name of Amrit ‘Ghayal’ once described the ghazal in a memorable couplet:

લીટી એકાદ નીરખી "ઘાયલ​"
હલબલી જાય આદમી તે ગઞલ​.

In glancing through a line or two, Ghayal,
If a man is shaken to the core, then that is a ghazal.

Gujarati as a language has a significant heritage from the Perso-Arabic tradition and the ghazal is much more than a loan form, taking its own shape, and cadence within a vernacular context. In this post, I translate a ghazal by Balashankar Ullasram Kantharia (May 17, 1858 –April 1, 1898), a 19th century Gujarati poet known for introducing the ghazal form in Gujarati. Kantharia also served briefly as an editor of the magazine Buddhiprakash which documented the literary and intellectual life of Gujarat in the 19th century. Although the ghazal had been written since the 17th century, since the time of Vali Gujarati, the Gujarati ghazal came into its own only much later. Known for his pen-names Kalant Kavi and Bal, Kantharia was acquainted with the ghazal tradition through his father, who served as an administrator and was familiar with Persian. Kantharia was also a prolific translator who translated Sufi Ghazals of Hafez into Gujarati.

In this post, I translate one of his best-known ghazals ગુજારે જે શિરેતારે into English. This ghazal, which almost became something of an anthem, advises the reader on how to navigate the deceitful ways of the world and to find happiness on one’s own. One can see a variety of words coming from Urdu (કાજી, દિલ,ભલાઈ, બેવફાઈ, કીમિયા),Sanskrit (ઉન્મત્ત,નિર્મોહી, શિરે) and Gujarati. Even the words જગત and દુનિયા both of which refer to the world, have slightly different roots. I am still not very sure about the line ‘From unfaithfulness, you will climb into censure.’ If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment.

ગુજારે જે શિરે તારે જગતનો નાથ તે સ્હેજે
ગણ્યું જે પ્યારું પ્યારાએ અતિ પ્યારું ગણી લેજે

Whatever the lord of this world casts upon you,  endure it
Whatever is beloved to the Beloved, adore it as a treasure

દુનિયાની જૂઠી વાણી વિષે જો દુ:ખ વાસે છે
જરાયે અંતરે આનંદ ના ઓછો થવા દેજે

If the deceitful utterance of this world causes you pain
Let your inner joy not lessen in the least

કચેરી માંહી કાજીનો નથી હિસાબ કોડીનો
જગતકાજી બનીને તું વહોરી ના પીડા લેજે

Here, the judge in a court is worth only a pittance
Don't invite suffering by passing judgement on the world

જગતના કાચના યંત્રે ખરી વસ્તુ નહિ ભાસે
ન સારા કે નઠારાની જરાયે સંગતે રહેજે

The truth of things cannot be seen through the lens of this world,
Keep not the slightest company of the good nor the wicked.

રહેજે શાંતિ સંતોષે સદાયે નિર્મળે ચિત્તે
દિલે જે દુ:ખ કે આનંદ કોઈને નહિ કહેજે

Always remain with a peaceful, content and pure mind
Tell no one of the sorrow nor of the joy in your heart

વસે છે ક્રોધ વૈરી ચિત્તમાં તેને તજી દેજે
ઘડી જાયે ભલાઈની મહાલ્રક્ષ્મી ગણી લેજે

Anger- that adversary who lives in your mind- abandon it.
When a moment of goodness passes you by, cherish it as a blessing.

રહે ઉન્મત્ત સ્વાનંદે ખરું એ સુખ માની લેજે
પીએ તો શ્રી પ્રભુના પ્રેમનો પ્યાલો ભરી લેજે

Remain euphoric in your own happiness and take that as true bliss,
Fill your glass to the brim with the Lord's love

કટુ વાણી જો તું સુણે વાણી મીઠી તું કહેજે
પરાઈ મૂર્ખતા કાજે મુખે ના ઝેર તું લેજે

If you were to hear harsh words, speak sweet instead,
Because of another's foolishness, bring not poison upon your tongue. 

અરે પ્રારબ્ધ તો ઘેલું રહે છે દૂર માંગે તો
ન માંગે દોડતું આવે ન વિશ્વાસે કદી રહેજે

Fate is erratic! What you ask for is kept from you,
What you don't, comes running to you. Never put your faith in it.

અહો શું પ્રેમમાં રાચે? નહિ ત્યાં સત્ય તું પામે!
અરે તું બેવફાઈથી ચડે નિંદા તણે નેજે

Oh! What is there in love? You will not find truth there!
From unfaithfulness, you will climb into censure

લહે છે સત્ય જે સંસાર તેનાથી પરો રહેજે
અરે એ કીમિયાની જે મઝા છે તે પછી કહેજે

The truth that is desired by worldly life- stay above it
And speak later of how amusing this ruse is

વફાઈ તો નથી આખી દુનિયામાં જરા દીઠી
વફાદારી બતાવા ત્યાં નહિ કોઈ પળે જાજે

In all this world, I have not seen the slightest faithfulness
Don't go there at any moment to show your loyalty

રહી નિર્મોહી શાંતિથી રહે એ સુખ મોટું છે
જગત બાજીગરીના તું બધા છલબલ જવા દેજે

Being unattached, staying in peace is great happiness indeed,
The world's sorcery and all its trickery- let go of it all

પ્રભુના નામના પુષ્પો પરોવી કાવ્યમાળા તું
પ્રભુની પ્યારી ગ્રીવામાં પહેરાવી પ્રીતે દેજે

Stringing flowers in the name of God, offer as devotion
This garland of poems around God's beloved neck

કવિરાજા થયો શી છે પછી પીડા તને કાંઈ
નિજાનંદે હમ્મેશાં ‘બાલ’ મસ્તીમાં મઝા લેજે

You became the king of poets-what pain is there now?
Always relish and take joy, 'Bal,' from  your own happiness.

Selections from ‘Eating God’

Selections of Bhakti poetry from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection called ‘Eating God.’ These poems by different poets cover a variety of languages, regions and styles in English translation.

Here are some exercises in pure and sustained literary immersion from this week’s reading! Here are glimpses from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection of Bhakti poetry called Eating God which I have been reading and which stunningly reflects the breadth and depth of the devotional tradition in all its regional and linguistic diversity.

That Strange Disease Called Bhakti

Don't you take on
this thing called bhakti:

like a saw
it cuts when it goes

and it cuts again
when it comes.

If you risk your hand
with a cobra in a pitcher
will it let you

(Basavanna: A. K. Ramanujan)
Like a sharp arrow
Is the love of Rama.
Only someone struck by it
Knows the pain.

You look for the wound,
But the skin is not broken.
You bring out the ointment,
But there's nowhere to rub.

When all the women
Look the same,
Who among them
Will the lord choose?

Fortunate is she,
Says Kabir,
In the parting of whose hair,
And hers alone,

Is put vermilion.

(Kabir: A. K. Mehrotra)
She lingers out of doors.
She rushes in
And she rushes out,
Her heart is restless.
Breathing fast,
She gazes at the kadamba wood.
What has happened
The elders chatter
And the wicked gossip.
Is she possessed
By some enchanting god?
Forever restless
Careless of clothes,
Startled, she jumps in her dreams...

Her desire inflamed
By passion and longing,
She reaches for the moon.

Chandidas says that she is caught
In the snare of Kaliya, the dark.

(Chandidas: Deben Bhattacharya)

The spotless being depicted holding a silver
conch in his left hand will not show his form

to me. He arrives through an underground
spring to liquefy my house's foundations,

to seep into the walls and overflow my heart:
pure torture. Warbling kohl-bird drunk on

honey from the twitching stamen of magnolia
blossoms, intercede to the lord of Venkata
 on my behalf, murmur, get him to come.

(Andal: Ravi Shankar)

drunken clouds
no message 
from my love

the cuckoo

lightning flashes
in the dark
I want him

the wind is
cool and musical
the clouds
are pouring rain

where are you

your absence 
is venom
in my veins

(Mirabai: Rahul Soni)
Were I given a hundred thousand tongues instead of one
And the hundred thousand multiplied twenty-fold,
A hundred thousand times would I say, and say again,
The Lord of all the worlds in One.
That is the path that leads
These the steps that mount, 
Ascend thus to the Lord's mansion
And with Him be joined in unison. 
The sound of the songs of Heaven thrills
The like of us who crawl, but desire to fly. 
O Nanak, His grace alone it is that fulfills, 
The rest mere prattle, and a lie.

(Guru Nanak: Khushwant Singh)
Restless mind, don't infect the heart with fear.
That virus is not for you.
The Infinite knows what you hunger for. 
Ask Him to carry you across.

And one day
Death shall arrive

to evict this squatter
from his fragile hut of bones

Then as the spirit
quivers, buckles,

hurry, Goddess Abhirami-

you that are the primordial note
plucked by the strings of the veena
at the dawn of time


with the soft clink
of braceleted wrists


with your flock of handmaidens
of the sky


extend a bejeweled hand
utter the words I need to hear

Reassure me, say, 'Do not fear.'

(Abhirami Bhattar: Arundhati Subramaniam)
This body that you're fussing over,
this body that you're dolling up,
this body that you're wearing to the party,
this body will end as ash.

(Lal Ded: Ranjit Hoskote)
beware, your life is in danger:

the lord of gardens is a thief,
a cheat,
master of illusions;

he came to me,
a wizard with words,
sneaked into my body,
my breath,

with bystanders looking on
but seeing nothing,
he consumed me
life and limb,

and filled me,
made me over
into himself.

My lord
who lives in the city
of names
came here today

said he'd never leave
entered me
filled my heart

I've caught him
the big-bellied one
not content yet
with all that guzzling
on the sevenfold clouds
the seven seas
the seven mountains
and the world that holds them all

I've caught him
I contain him now

(Nammalvar: A.K. Ramanujan)