The modern understanding of Indian folk songs would be much poorer but for the work of Jhaverchand Meghani. A writer, journalist and freedom fighter, Meghani travelled across his home state, Gujarat, to seek out folk stories and songs that emerged from the far-flung hamlets. These appeared in a series of five volumes titled Saurashtra Nee Rasdhaar. “The songs he collected are being sung even now, 80 years later,” says theatre director Utkarsh Mazumdar, who had — for many years — nursed the wish to make a play based on the life of Meghani.
“These songs are familiar to every child who has grown up in Gujarat,” adds Mazumdar, who finally staged the musical Meghani Sarvani at the Prithvi Festival in Mumbai last year. After the run at Prithvi and a staging in Surat, Mazumdar has brought the two-hour long production back to the city.
To most people, Meghani’s most familiar work would be Mor bani thanghat kare, from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2013 film Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela. “He wrote that song based on Rabindranath Tagore’s song,” says Mazumdar. Meghani’s first book, published in 1922, was Kurbani ni Katha, a translation of Tagore’s Kathaa-u-Kaahinee. “He began his career in Kolkata, working at a company called Jeevanlal and Co, where he worked as the personal assistant of the owner. “Even though he faced a language problem there, Meghani refused to get disheartened and resolved to learn Bengali,” says Mazumdar, who plays the titular role in the production.
Meghani learnt the language by reading hoardings, attending plays and sitting in on Brahmo Samaj discourses. Soon, he was conversant enough in Bengali and started absorbing the literature. This was how he became familiar with Tagore’s thoughts on the importance of preserving folk literature. Meghani’s own involvement with cause began upon his return to Gujarat in 1921. The following year, he took up a job with the Saurashtra Weekly. He would work at the newspaper from Monday to Thursday and spend the remaining three days travelling around the state, collecting folklore.
“The womenfolk sang these songs and knew about them. It couldn’t have been easy for him to gain their confidence, but he managed it. Even in those days, he realised that people were growing distant from their roots and were losing interest in those stories and songs,” says Mazumdar. Meghani Sarvani will be performed at the NCPA on June 9