Gujarati Poems

We Are

We still are
Here, on this ground
Half the age of the Earth
We are nurturers of green shades
Of prime primeval times
Assigners of names
Examiners of the ancient mind
We still are
With each gash we grow.
When water perishes
Will we perish.

– Translated by Rupalee Burke 

Worth It

Spent a lifetime with one loin-cloth
In his village in the black kanthari thicket
Peacocks call out bhammarji
On the other hand,
Arise songs of globe-trotting, capturing the world in a fist,
The light of the third generation internet
Imposes darkness in broad daylight
The IT savvy brother cares for carbon credit
On the other side,
The Lakhara painting the Pithora on the wall
Sees links between beasts, birds, humans and gods
Moistens colours,
Plays with pickaxe and spade
When famine strikes
Blocks the door of his hut with brambles,
Migrates from the village
Wanders in the city smoke
At midnight wind returns to repose in the shaman’s body
Considering the stars his ancestors, beckons them.
Can the forest be saved somehow?
Can the river be kept alive anyhow?
If just one tree survives
If the wind stays hale and hearty
Sweat poured to build high-rises is worth it.

– Translated by Rupalee Burke 


Leaving hills
Took to fields
Forsaking fields
Set up villages
Dismantled villages
Founded cities
Path, track, lane
Roadway, waterway, airway
Way upon way
All ways are ways of the mind
The foot-track set off
Like a typhoon all over the world

– Translated by Rupalee Burke 

Dada, Let Us Do The Ghumar

In darkness dada awoke
The first dada took a banyan
And carved out the sun

In another darkness
From a mahuda
He made the moon
From other trees he created the stars

Every morning, dada
Placed the sun in the sky
And at night
He arranged the moon and the stars
By the time the day would break
With their daily ascent to the sky
The sun, moon and stars gained mastery

One samajog
Dada was no more
The sun, moon and stars
Forlorn, lusterless
Continued to ascend the sky
Day and night took their turns

One mahajog of samajog
A new dada arrived
All-pervading darkness
What could one do?
He called out to his son and daughter-in-law
Far deep in the forest.
Drawn by his call they came
Were swept upwards
One became the moon, the other the sun.
At night the children descended on the Earth
One . . . by . . . one . . .
Dada was resting on the dhoyni
The children began the ghumar around the dhoyni.
Dada joined them
Exhausted he fell asleep
When he awoke
The Earth was flooded
Dada on the dhoyni was afloat.

Once again darkness fell
The children started weeping
Dada, give us the banyan
Dada, give us the mahuda
Dada, let us do the ghumar.
The poem is inspired by an adivasi tale

– Translated by Rupalee Burke

On the Bank Of the Dhebariya

Walked along the path
Camp, home-outside and haat
Exchanged pleasantries
At the meet of faces
Intellect makes, weighs and measures.
Wandering hearts arrived in Udaipur
There the Dhebariya lake
The king tyrannizes the subjects
The Dhebariya waiting to burst its banks
I heard: I am falling, I am falling.
At that instant
Mother Cobra emerging from the lake
King O King
Put your hands into my mouth
The king said: What about my kingdom?

Then Mother said:
O subjects, put your hands into my mouth

O re! This is our Mother
Every day we greet her
Bestower of returns rich
How can we say ‘no’?

The subjects put their hands into Mother’s mouth
Took them out
Golden, sinewy, chiselled hands of the Earth
Glittering hands

Effervescence lit the bank of the Dhebariya.
Haat – Village flea market

– Translated by Rupalee Burke



A tiger appeared in a dream
The next day a cobra
I soar high on a cot
A sack descended.
Picked me up
Dipped me into the brimming river.
Dipped me to the top of my head
Playfully dipped me again and again

See the standing,
The seated
The dying and the killing
This is this
This place
Is not recent
It dates back to the time parents planted the seeds
Agony in the body
Struck by disease
How to cure the malady?
I descend into the river
A meal a day
A grain at a time
At sunrise, sunset, I worshipped the air and the wind,
The hills, the tiger, the cobra,
I wandered and settled.

Found earth the size of a charpoy
Tunes of wakefulness and dream blossomed
I sing,
Worship, solemnize rituals,
Offer sacrifice,
Sprinkle haro
I utter oracles
In the threshing ground, the field, the verandah
The river walks
Malady leaves the body
I sing
And the sick stand up and walk
I take upon me the sorrows of all creatures
The burning stops
All cools down

– Translated by Rupalee Burke 

Bit by Bit

What is the name?
Eating, drinking and hungry at intervals.
Rage in gaze and armed with bow
To pierce forests and glades.
Grain by day and boulder by night.

There was no foot-track
Scales of labour and wages were not created
Man and wife kept oaths
To carry their lineage forward
Offered fire sacrifices to the mountain
The flames went and touched the deity’s heart
Haro drunk along with share of the sacrifice
The tale harks back to then
The scales came later
Wooden handles were fitted to the axe-head
Labour emerged
The wind and forests were sliced
Gone were roots, fields and farming
Plains, mountains, water, boulders, everything gone
Mighty bow replaces the small bow
Blunt arrow put aside, perfect aim taken
Resolutions of man and forest annulled
Bunds of lakes broken
Livelihood, name, country and work gone bit by bit.

– Translated by Rupalee Burke 

The Tale of the Big and the Small*

Once upon a time
The small mountain began to scale the big mountain
The big mountain started getting bigger and bigger.
The small mountain said: Let me go to the other side.
The big said: No, no.
The small said: Let me put a creeper or two of mine upon you.

While the argument was on
The rain rose and lashed down.
The small said: Don’t drench me
          Let me go across
          My sister lives on the other side
          All my kin are on the other side
The rain didn’t stop.

Again the small said: Rain you too are bare
          And so am I
          Don’t drench my loin cloth
          Look, there is no forest in the forest
          No river in the river
          What will you gain by drenching the loin cloth?
          You too are siding with the big.

*Adapted from an adivasi tale

– Translated by Rupalee Burke


About the Poet

Kanji Patel – Life and Works

photo-1Kanji Patel (b. 1952) is a leading Gujarati poet and fiction writer. Janpad (1991), Dungardev (2006) and Dharti na Vachan (2012) are his collections of poetry. Translations of his writings into English have appeared in prominent national and international journals. He is Editor of Vahi in which he publishes mainly folk and adivasi oral literature. He writes about oral traditions, the adivasi way of life etc., in Gujarati and in English.

He had been teaching English in a college in Lunawada. A former Director of the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh, Gujarat, he is the presently Editor of the Gujarat Volume of People’s Linguistic Survey of India headed by Ganesh Devy.

Kanji Patel is an activist working for the welfare and rights of the nomadic, de-notified and adivasi communities on his own as well as in collaboration with leading adivasi activists like Mahasweta Devi and Ganesh Devy. Every year, he has been organizing ‘Kaleshwari Adivasi Arts Fair’ for the last twenty years, attracting hundreds of Adivasi artists, contemporary writers and crowds of ordinary people.

He has been invited for poetry reading sessions in different parts of the country; he has also participated in the SAARC and Commonwealth literary meets held within India and abroad. He has also visited Sweden and Germany (Frankfurt Book Fair) as a member of the Sahitya Akademi delegation.

His first collection, Janpad which literally means, ‘verse of/for folk’, is, as described by Rupali Burke in her essay in Research Hoizons (Vol.5, July 2015), ‘…a vivid document of life lived by the rural folk.’ She says that minute details of the way of life of farmers and labourers, methods of agriculture, significance of their rituals, shamanic practices, the importance of the various seasons and natural elements, role of natural landscape in the joys and sorrows of the folk, life of nomads, life of kharwas (fisher-folk), the impact of environmental degradation and so on, find expression in these poems. His second collection Dungardev carries mostly poems dealing with the oral traditions and myths of the adivasis, chiefly centred around  their creation myth, human evolution, ‘Mela’ as a metaphor of human life signifying celebration of life, religious ceremonies, dirges, shaman’s spells, tales from their oral traditions, the frugality of their life, hardship, hunger, songs of nomadic communities, the hegemony of the written script over orality and so on. His third collection Dharti na Vachan (Earth-speak) has poems on themes such as hegemony of languages, land rights of adivasis, adivasis and their mysticism, deities, festivals, creative expression, food, music, etc., as well as about the loss of their idyllic ways of life, how adivasis are affected by environmental degradation, urbanization and modern development that creep up on their natural habitat, the material deprivation faced by them, discrimination and political oppression silencing them, political censorship of freedom of speech, the revolt led by Birsa Munda, the death of the Andamanese language Bo, and so on.

Though it is primarily as a poet that we consider Kanji Patel here, his contribution to the development of both Gujarati poetry and prose in Panchamahali Bhili adivasi language, is unique. Rupalee Burke, in her essay, “New Writings of/for/by Adivasis: A Slice of Contemporary Gujarati Prose,” published in Muse India of July-August 2014, places Kanji Patel as the key writer in the second phase of the development of adivasi literature in Gujarati. She describes him as “a non-adivasi novelist and poet who chose consciously to write fiction and poetry revolving round the rural and adivasi community life of the region to which he belongs…” Emphasizing his importance, she quotes the author: “Kanji Patel says in his preface to Dero, ‘I experienced an indescribable identification with adivasi consciousness when I wrote the short story ‘Padav’ (Camp) for Gadyaparva in 1988. My connection with the oral traditions and way of life of adivasis, nomadic and de-notified communities was deepened further when I was handling the compilation for Gadyaparva between 1993 and 1998.’  This is where Kanji Patel, who writes with an insider’s perspective, becomes a very vital and organic link between the oral tradition of the adivasis and writing emerging from the adivasi communities in Gujarat, the precursor to literature written by adivasis.”

His novellas Kotar ni Dhar Par (1982, 2013), Dehlu (1989), Aadi (2008) revolve round folk-life of the Bhili adivasi communities that live around the Panchmahal region and employ their language in his writing. Dero is his collection of short stories about de-notified and nomadic communities (2008, 2012).  Delhu was published by Macmillan India as Rear Veranda (1997) in English, translated by Nikhil Khandekar.

He has won the Sahitya Parishad Award for poetry, the Katha Prize for fiction, Gujarat Sahitya Akademi and Dhumketu Awards for short fiction and also Umashankar Joshi Award.

Kanji Patel’s poetry is strongly based on the orality of the Bhili language of his region. In his readings, he makes maximum use of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, colloquialisms and raw, energetic folk diction, bringing the language alive with the possibilities of performance-poetry. His is certainly not ‘page-poetry’ as Rupalee Burke would term it. Kanji Patel deliberately avoids using punctuation marks, which poses an initial problem for the reader of the text; but in reciting the poem, the stops come naturally to the performer, with a little practice. This takes the poetry away from print and closer to orality, the origin of all creative writing.

©A. J. Thomas, with inputs from the two essays of Rupalee Burke quoted above.