The fingers of both his hands are dancing, as if making – or backing – the point that he is putting across; the eyes, with discernible dark pouches underneath, are sparkling. The voice is loud enough not to need a microphone even in an auditorium, although full of warmth and friendship. The forehead displays the furrows time has made on a face that is otherwise noteworthy because of a largish nose.
But, the owner of these features,Prof.Niranjan Bhagat,poet and teacher,and a human being par excellence, seems to be hardly aware of all the visual impression he is making on his listeners. In fact, it would appear that rest of his body is merely a functional attachment to the extremely lively –and invisible feature — that ticks under the greying hair combed straight, his mind
Prof.Bhagat has not written more than two or three poems in the past 35 years, and even in the preceding 15 years, his work could perhaps fill 200 pages.Yet, it is the profoundness of his poetry, and not his prolificity, that has made Bhagatsaheb, as he is known to countless students of literature in Gujarat, a pillar of post-Independence Gujarati poetry.
For some five years, he had been speaking for an hour-and-a half every Tuesday at the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad on poetry; in Gujarati on poetry in many a language ranging from Gujarati to French. Said a regular listener, one of the 30 odd-people who collected at the Parishad to relish the pleasure of his erudition, exposition, explanation and critique: "You could listen to him for five hours without ever feeling bored. It is like listening to the roar of the Niagra, ever enchanting. Mark his mannerism of closing his hands to his chest and outstretching them to his listeners, as if he giving them something from the depth of his heart. It is unlike so many others, notably politicians, whose far-flung arms close towards their chest, as if taking away something from those who came in touch with them."
That alone would make Prof Bhagat a unique teacher, a rare bird even in these days of proliferation of educational institutions, with all the Tom, Dick and Harry taking a tutorial tempted to call himself a professor. He is more than a mere teacher. Although he formally retired from teaching in college years ago, he has never tired of delving into the world literature, and meticulously preparing himself to give what he has excavated to others.
Niranjan has been hailed as a poet of restraint and consciousness, whose poetic creativity took place mostly between 1943 and 1958.Born in 1926, he calls himself "a child of the city, an industrial city”. At the time of his birth,Ahmedabad still lived mostly was a walled city; the western suburbs were still villages and Gandhiji had been in town with an ashram for a decade or so. The Mahatma's Dandi March took place when Niranjan was a child. On the eastern side of the Sabarmati,he recalled once, were the textile mills, spawning eddies of black smoke into the sky and on the west was the Gandhian establishment, with its subdued noise of the indigenous spinning wheel, the charkha. The struggle for the country's independence, for the growth of its swadeshi industry, for freedom to go its own way of social, political and economic development was the backcloth against which the young Niranjan's childhood was spent, first in the walled city and later in the Ellis bridge area. His Bhagat surname was derived from an active participation in Magan Bhagat's Bhajan group by his grandfather, Harilal.But this was more of an accident, according to the poet.” I do not perform any religious puja at home, nor do I go to temples. I have never advertised my relationship with the Almighty either through thought in private, or through words of action in public. Even in solitude, I never take God's name without any rhyme or reason, either to myself or others." Eldest of among three children of his parents,Narhari and Menaben,the young Niranjan had a taste of freedom fight when he suffered a fracture on an arm during a police lathi charge near Gujarat college in 1942.He went to college at the L D Arts in 1944,and to Bombay for two years for post-graduation. He regards his childhood as a very happy period- a paradise. “I have tried to re-enter that paradise through my poetry, a failed attempt. Maybe I will still try to do it. I am looking for my childhood in poetry". His creative journey appears to have actually begun in 1942 when he wrote the first line of Mari Papan Ne Palkare. It was not a full poem, but the journey took him to the publication of his first collection of poems, Chhandolay, in1949.He was also given the Kumar medal for the best original contribution to the magazine, Kumar in that year. The next year saw the publication of Kinnari, another volume of his poetry. In 1950, he took up teaching English literature at a college in Ahmedabad, and continued to teach forever, even though he no longer goes to a college, having formally retired several years ago. After Pravaldwip, which came out some 35 years, Niranjan appears to have stopped writing poetry, partly because he never felt satisfied that his creation could be better than what it had been till 1958.It is not a writer's block in the sense that he does not have anything more to say; it has something to do with his quality consciousness.
Invariably, whether the visitor is a close friend or unknown admirer, the question that comes up more often than not is: Even so, why did he stop writing poetry? "There is no definitive answer. I do not know why I wrote, I do not know why I stopped. I cannot even say that I will never write poetry again." He says: "Is it a matter in the hands of poet that he will or will not now or ever pen a poem? One thing is sure I will never write anything that looked like a dilution of my earlier work, or a reehash, or a watering down." He gives an impression of being a wordsmith who produces when there is an inner call, and when there is no such call would not do a thing in spite of all the world telling him to produce.Art,in the eyes of a true artist, just happens; it can never be ordered about, or mass produced.
His creative process, he frankly admits, is some sort of a mystery to himself. ” I wrote poetry for 15 years because I felt like it; it was all bursting out on its own." His work had never been a forced or disciplined output– a formalised production process so to say. He has to spontaneously feel like writing and then only could he write. He has written some prose, mostly literary criticism; and more often, he has emptied his thoughts to his innumerable student audiences. He reads a lot, learnt French, has travelled to various countries and goes regularly to Paris. "I must have walked a thousand miles in cities of London, Athens Rome and Paris since 1982.Everytime I go to a big city, I roam around. I will always continue to do it."
Actually,Niranjan is a loner. “I do not belong to any camp. I like both classical and modern, traditions and experimentation." Painting,music,scupture,architecture do not seem to attract the professor much; nor do the flora and fauna, birds and bees, animals, sky and the sea, the vales or dells, the plains or peaks. “All these are beautiful and I am aware of that fact, but personally these do not enchant me. I am interested in poetry, cities, and the nameless, faceless crowds roaming the roads in the cities." He is a voracious reader, who wants not to enjoy world literature himself, but enable his friends, acquaintances and even strangers to partake the pleasure. He would dearly love to translate the 164 poems of Baudelaire from French into Gujarati.He has lived a full life, and does not have any regrets. He sets a great store by his friends, who are innumerable in number. He sometimes quotes Yeats:" My glory was I had such friends".
He admits to finding some mystique in the crowds of human beings, unstable, unknown, formless crowds. Yet, this attraction is not without a curious detachment. “I am in crowd, but not of the crowd. His desire to translate Baudelaire into Gujarati also stems from this. But, he would like to dodge questions that would commit him to anything. When and how will its flight take place, the bird knows not.
(Niranjan Bhagat's caricature by Nirmish.)