Gujarati, in contrast with most other Indian languages, is considered to be a relatively young language, with its origins traced back to around the 12th century AD. A formal grammar of the precursor of this language was written by Jain monk and eminent scholar Hemachandra-charya in the reign of Rajput king Siddharaj Jayasinh of Anhilwara (Patan). This was referred to as an Apabhramsha grammar, signifying a "corrupted" form of the formal languages of the time, Sanskrit and Ardhamagadhi Prakrit.
The earliest literature in the
language survives in oral tradition and can be traced to the Krishna
devotee and great egalitarian Narsinha Mehta. The story of Narsinh Mehta himself was composed in the 17th century as a long narrative ballad by Premananda, accorded the title mahakavi or "great poet" by modern historians of the language. Other than this, a large number of poets flourished during what is now characterised as the bhakti ("devotional") movement in Hinduism, a movement of the masses to liberate the religion from entrenched priesthood.
Premananda was a vyakhyankar, or traveling storyteller, who narrated his subject in song and then perhaps elaborated on the lines in prose. His style was so fluent that his long poems, running into hundreds of lines, were nonetheless memorised by the people and are still sung today. In this sense, the oral tradition of the much more ancient Vedas was clearly continuing in India till late. Premananda's famous poetic stories deal with epic themes couched in stories of mythical kings, and the Puranas. He also wrote a drama based on Narasinh Mehta's life capturing his simplicity and his disregard for worldly divisions of caste and class.
In the medieval periods of Gujarat’s history, poetry was employed to express religious sentiments. The first work of poetry in Gujarati is considered to be “Bharateswara Bahubali Rasa”, composed by Shalibhadrasuri, a 7th century Jain monk. A number of Jain Sadhus followed his example and composed short storytelling poems called “Rasas” till the end of the 18th century AD.
In the 15th century, a prominent poet called Narsingh Mehta brought in a new era in Vaishnava poetry, with his portrayal of Krishna as a playful child, a lover, a friend and the poet’s muse. Narsingh Mehta’s works became a blueprint for his successors in composing devotional as well as philosophical poetry. Raje, Raghunathdas, Pritam, Ratno and Muktananda were some prime contributors to this era of devotional poetry. In the 18th century, the poet “Vallabh” created two very significant devotional songs called “Garbo” and “Garbi”. Premananda, introduced a famous work called “Akhyana”. Most of these poems drew their inspiration from Sanskrit and Prakrit fiction. Nayasundar and Samal emerged as popular narrators of devotional poetry in the 18th century.
Poetic literature soared to new heights in the later stages of the 18th century under the steadily strengthening British influences. Narmad and Dalpat were pioneers of this constantly innovating age. The noted poets of this century like Kalapi, Kant, Nanalal and Balavantrai Thakor produced significant bodies of work under various categories of poetry. After the rise of Mahatma Gandhi’s prominence in a steadily strengthening struggle for Independence and social equality, a great volume of poetry, written by poets like Umashankar, Sundaram, Shesh, Snehrasmi and Betai, among others, were centered on the existing social order, the struggle for Independence and the travails of Mahatma Gandhi himself.