& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Rediscovering a poet

Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin. 

I got an email from her last week, inquiring about my grandfather Harischandra Bhatt (1906-1950), eminent Gujarati poet credited with introducing western sensibilities in Gujarati literature and ushering a new post-nationalistic era in Gujarati poetry.

Harischandra’s only major collection of poems – Swapnaprayan – was published posthumously in 1959. (Incidentally, Swapnaprayan was also Dwijendranath Tagore's second collection of poems). 

He worked briefly at the Polish consulate in Bombay during the Second World War and translated several Polish poets into Gujarati in collaboration with his colleague Wanda Dynowska at the Polish consulate. They published Scarlet Muse, an anthology of Polish poems.

Dynowska subsequently edited an anthology of Polish translation of Indian poems titled Indian Anthology. Vol. IV Gujarati Literature The second edition Gandhi – Selected Writings. (Ed. Wanda Dynowska, Madras, 1960)

Aleksandra translated into English the Polish preface of the anthology that reveals hitherto unknown  (to his family) details about Harischandra. 

Reproduced below is Aleksandra's translation:

Antologia Indyjska. T. IV Gudżerati. Wydanie drugie znacznie rozszerzone. Gandhi – wyjątki z pism. Oprac. Wandy Dynowskiej, Madras, 1960, s. XXIII-XXVIII.

(Indian Anthology. Vol. IV Gujarati Literature. The second edition. Gandhi – Selected Writings. Ed. Wanda Dynowska, Madras, 1960, p. XXIII-XXVIII.

“Before describing Gandhi’s work and his influence on the Gujarati culture and literature I would like to say about Harishchandra Bhatt. I wish India to find among Polish writers as devoted friend as he was for Poles. He worked many years at the Polish Embassy in Bombay and was a tireless supporter of Polish affairs that’s why the longer note should appear in Polish-Indian Library in order to immortalize his name.

He came from the poor but intellectual Brahminic family (Surat). His father died early so being the oldest son he had to take responsibility for the whole family, especially for his younger brother. Thanks to Harishchandra’s devotion and after 8-year study in France his younger brother is a professor of French in Bombay now.

Since he was a teenager Harishchandra was interested in the European literature but mainly the Slavic one. Limiting drastically his needs he acquired foreign books which were almost unknown in India (i.e. he subscribed Slavonic Review). 

The big collection was gathered in his flat. There were the books written by French, German, Polish, Czech and other authors in the beautiful bookbinders because their owner was a bibliophile (until recently it was unique in India where the beautiful bookbinders were rare).

His collection gathered numerous writers from Whitman and Verlaine to Hofmanstahl; from Mickiewicz and Słowacki to Kafka. He was a sensitive aesthete dreaming about a new way of publishing which would be close to the European model. Many years it was his unattainable goal but he was aspiring to it constantly.

He enjoyed his work at the Information Department (Polish consulate) which enabled him to express his love to Polish culture and literature. The numerous articles in the newspapers, countless talks about Poland among friends and the wide correspondence gave him the chance to “serve” Poland and approached it to India.

Harishchandra prepared monograph on Marshal Piłsudski. He translated with me Crimean Sonnets and Wojciech Bąk’s poetry (the last one moved him especially). Working at the embassy he published (thanks to help of his friends) his anthology of Polish poets “The Scarlet Muse” and a volume about great people of contemporary India “Among the Great”. The last one was written by the eminent musician and poet Dilipkumar Roy.

The results of his work was so excellent that some friends decided to cooperated with him and he established a publishing group Nalanda  which was famous in the whole India. The group published over a dozen books which aesthetic standards were equally to the Western ones. That time was the intense for his writing as well as the happiest in his life.

He could create much more but painful disappointment was a reason of his early death. Harishchandra, a sensitive and nervous artist, coped with suppression and burdens too heavy for his mind. Firstly, the family situation made impossible to complete his education and he was suffering because of that the whole life.

Secondly, his work which was hard and wearisome took so much time that he almost didn't have chance for own study, meetings with other poets, writings and the books. What’s more he was in fragile health so heavy work and daily problems were enervating him slowly. His dreams about creative work were not achievable for a long time and when they started to become true the sudden blow broke his spirit completely. He was seriously taken ill and committed suicide.

Harishchandra was fully engaged in his publishing house. The results of Nalanda were great but the costs too high. The only member of the publishing house who had funds began to have financial problems and was forced to give up this project. Harishchandra suddenly had to face the breach of obligations. His plans were ruined and he was deprived from creative work again. It was too hard for his sensitivity. Everybody who knew him and had observed the happiness of the last three years could understand his sadness and despair. Not only he lost the goal but also his viability.

Harishchandra’s writing stopped halfway. He could be among the best Gujarati poet soon. The poems which are dispersed in the newspapers and the only collection of his poetry which he was preparing for publishing cannot guarantee him immortality in Gujarati literature though.

Unfortunately, his best cycle of sonnets titled “For Her” written because of his platonic love to a young girl was never published. The girl was a Catholic and worked as a typist in his friend’s office. It was beautiful, fresh love. I was a witness and confidant of that feeling. The poems about Jesus Christ written because of her were never published either.

The first could get his wife down whom he loved deeply too. The second one needed a longer preface for the readers to explain Harishchandra’s understanding of Christ (Jesus Christ is known in India and he is not only respected but also worshiped and treated as a one the greatest prophet and teacher of the world. There are a lot of houses where His portraits is hanged among other great figures.)

Harishchandra understood Christ particularly and without an explanation about the context his poems wouldn't be comprehensible for his countryman. He didn't prepare anything before his death, so it was impossible to publish them.

In Polish-Indian Library I edited only a one poem from that cycle and some (For Her) which we translated few years ago.

Let the reader have his opinion about Harishchandra’s poetry but I want to add that his language was clear and soft and the style full of undertone and half-light.”

The book also has his biography:

He is very gifted poet but less known and not so widely-read by his countryman. He didn't have enough time to flower his talent and died crushed by hard conditions.

His four year devoted work at the Polish Embassy in Bombay makes him especially close to Poles.

He was honoured with Order of Polonia Restituta for his propagation the knowledge about Poland and advocacy of its side (spoken and written).

Knowing perfectly Polish literature (he had a big collection of books) Harischandra informed his countryman about Poland writing numerous articles and having talks.
He wrote a monograph about Józef Piłsudski which was published in Gujarati and translated into Tamil.

He also translated Crimean Sonnets and Wojciech Bąk's poetry. He loved Poland and dreamt about visiting it. He was a romantic, idealist and enthusiast.     

Photos: Aleksandra Skiba


  1. i remember having read the following poem in our textbook :

    નિર્દોષ ને નિર્મળ આંખ તારી
    હતી હજી યૌવનથી અજાણ,
    કીધો હજી સાસરવાસ કાલે,
    શૃંગાર તેં પૂર્ણ ચિતા મહીં કર્યો !

    કૂંળી હજી દેહલતા ન પાંગરી
    કૌમાર આછું ઊઘડ્યું ન ઊઘડ્યું,
    પ્હેરી રહે જીવન ચૂંદડી જરી,
    સરી પડી ત્યાં તુજ અંગથી એ !

    સંસારના સાગરને કિનારે
    ઊભાં રહી અંજલિ એક લીધી,
    ખારું મીઠું એ સમજી શકે ત્યાં
    સરી પડ્યો પાય સમુદ્રની મહીં !

    છો કાળ આવે, શિશિરોય આવે,
    ને પુષ્પ કૂંળાં દવમાં પ્રજાળે;
    સુકોમળી દેહકળી અરે અરે
    વસંતની ફૂંક મહીં ખરી પડી !

    the poet needs to be reintroduced to the present generation.

  2. I'm a friend of Aleksandra's, and came to know about the poet Harishchandra Bhatt from her, albeit not much beyond his existence and his association with Ms. Dynowska. However, I could never imagine how he lived and what he dreamed of. His story is indeed one of the most poignant one.

    Also, Mr. Neerav Patel, it will be wonderful if you could translate his poem to English.