Gujarat is a flourishing province of India, and the history of Gujarati literature may be traced back to the 6th century AD. Since then, it has been flourishing to the present. It has a unique characteristic in having almost no patronage from a ruling dynasty, other than its composers.
In the context of gradual evolution, the history of Gujarati literature may be chronologically classified into three broad periods—the Early Period (up to 1000 AD ), the Mediaeval Period (up to 1850 AD) and the Modern Period (since 1850 onwards).
Early Period: In the early period, poetry was a medium for expressing religious beliefs and was basking in its long lineage, dating back to the 6th century. It is generally accepted by historians and researchers that the earliest writings in this language were by Jain authors. The distinguished Jain monk and scholar Hemchandracharya Suri was one of the earliest scholars of Prakrit and Apabhramsha grammars and the mother of the Gujarati language.
Mediaeval Literature: The mediaeval era (1000-1850) is subdivided into Prag Narsinh Yug (before Narsinh) and Narsinh Yug (Narsinh period) including Bhakti Yug. Some scholars further subdivide it as Rasa Yug, Sagun Bhakti and Nirgun Bhakti.
Prag Narsinh: Yug Gujarati literature in this period was composed in the form of Rasas, Phagus and Vilasas. The Rasas were long poems which were essentially heroic, romantic or narrative in nature. The Phagus are poems that pictured the blissful and cheery nature of the spring festival. Rajsekhara’s Neminatha Phagu and Ajant Kavi’s (unknown poet’s) Vasanta Vilasa are unsurpassed instances of such texts.
Manikyachandra’s Prithvichandra Charita is an example of the formative Gujarati prose and is reminiscent of Banabhatta’s Kadambari.
Narsinh Yug and Bhakti Yug: During the 15th century, Gujarati literature had come under the tremendous sway of the Bhakti (Devotion) movement to liberate religion from the entrenched priesthood. Narsinh Mehta (1415-1481) was the foremost poet of this era. His poems delineated a very saintly and mystical sense reflecting the simplified philosophy of Advaitism.
This period also experienced the Puranic (mythical) revival which led to the rapid growth of devotional poetry. This era is subdivided into two parts—Sagun Bhakti Dhara and Nirgun Bhakti Dhara.
In Sagun Bhakti Dhara God is worshipped in physical form like Rama, Krishna, etc. Meerabai and Premananda Bhatt are deemed to be the most important poets elevating the Gujarati literature to new peaks. Shyamal Bhatt was an extremely creative and productive poet who composed unforgettable works like Padmavati, Batries Putli, etc.
In Nirgun Bhakti Dhara God has no physical form, but pervades everywhere. Narsinh Mehta and Akho were the foremost contributors of this dhara (stream). Other contributors are Kabir-pantry, Dhira Bhagat, Bhoja Bhagat, Bapusaheb Gaikwad and Preetam.
Modern Literature: The British rule and the technology of printing and press spread its colossal influence in Gujarati literature in this era. And for this, from the middle of the 19th century, the area of literature earned much more dimensions other than the earlier religious style of poetry. Such creations reflect social welfare, worship of the country, the values of life, plays, new-age thinking, etc.
This era is subdivided into Sudharak Yug or Narmad Yug, Pandit Yug or Govardhan Yug, Gandhi Yug, Anu-Gandhi Yug, Adhunik Yug and Anu-Adhunik Yug.
Narmad Yug started with a great scholar Narmad (1833-1886). The very first Gujarati dictionary, known as Narmakosh, was composed and compiled by Narmad. It is essentially a history of the world and also an authority of poetics, Narmad attempted many varieties of poetry and smoothly adapted English verses into Gujarati. Udayram Dave is regarded as the pioneer in the art of playwriting in Gujarati. Other significant dramatists were Dalpatram, Narmad, and Navalram.
Modern studies of Gujarati language and literature got its momentum with the British administrator, Alexander Kinlock Forbes shortly after the British occupied Gujarat. He carried out an extensive investigation of Gujarati culture and literature over the previous thousand years and amassed a large collection of manuscripts.
Pandit Yug or Gobardhan Yug started with Gobardhan Tripathi (188 1915). He was the dazzling and stupendous novelist of Gujarati literature. His most renowned novel is Saraswati Chandra (a novel).
Gandhi Yug: During this period, Mahatma Gandhi and Gujarat Vidyapith became the nerve-centre of all literary activities, where new values emerged and more emphasis was given to Gandhian values. Novels, short stories, plays, biographies, travel books, diaries, letters, essays, criticisms, and all kinds of prose came out profusely in Gujarati literature. Gandhi usually wrote in Gujarati, though he also revised the Hindi and English versions of his books.
For decades he edited several newspapers including Harijan in Gujarati, Hindi and English. Indeed after the rise of Gandhi’s prominence, a great volume of Gujarati literature emerged with the existing social and political issues. Highly inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, Umashankar Joshi enriched the Gujarati literature by penning in the same manner. For his poem Nishith, he was awarded the Jnanpith Award in 1967. And Pannalal Patel won the Jnanpith Award in 1985 for his novel Maanavi Ni Bhavai. Thereafter Anu-Gandhi Yug, Adhunik Yug and Anu-Adhunik Yug flourished in Gujarati literature in manifold directions.