Preliminary work has begun on a project that I have been wanting to do for more than a decade. It is a definitive documentary on the life and times of Narsinh Mehta (1414-1481), one of India’s most revered poet-saints and among the pioneers of the Bhakti movement. Although he was known to have written close to 800 poems, songs, ballads and other forms of incantations, in modern times Mehta is most readily associated with a single bhajan or a devotional ballad ‘Vaishnav Jan To’. The song has become as emblematic of Mehta as it has of Mohandas Gandhi who considered it to be a guiding force of his life. It was Gandhi’s patronage of the song that has given it national and international immortality it enjoys even though it was always highly popular in Mehta’s and my native Gujarat for centuries.
My fascination for Mehta is from many different vantage points but particularly him as a poet-philosopher who was famously detached from and averse to the more mundane aspects of human existence. His otherworldly devotion to Krishna is, of course, the stuff of countless legends but not being a believer myself I am more interested in the process that led him to be so captivated by and beholden to this compelling member of the Hindu pantheon. Unlike any other among the Hindu pantheon, it is Krishna who inspires such deeply personal devotion, love and obsession as manifest throughout Mehta’s life to the exclusion of all worldly demands.
As of now the plan is to begin shooting the documentary in and around Junagadh sometime in January. The overall theme of the documentary is still under development but I intend to examine, among other things, what was peculiar to that period that created figures such as Mehta and Mira. Of course, I am not sure if Mirabai was truly his contemporary since one is not entirely sure of her era. She was supposed to have been born in 1498, a full 18 years after Mehta’s death but not being a historian or a scholar I make no claims about the authenticity of his or her precise dates. That is one of the questions I would examine as well.
In so much as it involves the life of a poet, how remarkable it is that one of his creations—‘Vaishanv jan to’—continues to flourish nearly six centuries after it was first written. I am equally interested in telling that story. So in short, there is a lot of ground to cover. It is going to be a feature length documentary, hopefully shot with very high visual standards. I am not yet sure if I would consider reenactments of some of the major highlights of his life. That depends on the final budget.
This years marks the 600th anniversary of Mehta’s birth. It would have been an excusably symbolic peg to release the documentary. But as in his life, in my life too money trumps ambition. He had his IOUs purportedly honored by Krishna himself. In my case, my financial reach is nowhere close.