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STATE OF REGIONAL LITERATURE: PUNJABI – A far cry from a glorious past

By June 20, 2018No Comments

Source : The Tribune    – Kuldip Singh Dhir

Bad literature is driving out the good and there is little effort to encourage interest in genuine literary works. Awards and honours galore but these have failed to connect winners to the readers

Punjabi is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by about 130 million people and ranks as the 10th most widely spoken language of the world. Punjab literary tradition goes as far back as 12th century with Baba Farid writing spiritual hymns, which were compiled later on in the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan Dev in 1604. Medieval Punjabi literature touched its zenith with the mystic poetry of Guru Nanak and his successors in terms of structural formations, literary finesse, diction and expression. They addressed the spiritual and temporal concerns of man in a strikingly secular, scientific and pluralistic manner, a rare phenomenon in religious history.

Punjabi Sufi poetry developed under Shah Hussain and Bulle Shah. It was followed by a genre of romantic narrative poetry known as Qissa, Heer Waris being the most popular one. Heroic ballads known as Vaars also had a rich tradition. Prominent examples of these are Guru Gobind Singh’s Chandi Di Vaar, Najabat’s Vaar on Nadir Shah and Shah Muhammad’s Vaar recounting the first Anglo Sikh War of 1845.

Punjabi literati were introduced to modernism, new genres and western modes of writing after the British took over Punjab in 1849. Earlier in 1835, the first Punjabi printing press using the Gurmukhi font was established by a Christian mission at Ludhiana.

Bhai Vir Singh was the first Punjabi writer to use western genres such as short poem, drama, epic and novel. His Kambdi Kalai, Raja Lakh Data Singh, Rana Surat Singh and Sundri testify it. Nanak Singh transposed this heritage from the religious to the secular plane, using it as a medium of social reform.

Modern Punjabi drama and theatre precipitated with I.C Nanda’s Ibsenite one-act play Dulhan in 1913. Progressive iconoclast Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari fired the imagination of the Punjabis for decades with prose and fiction marked with freshness of idiom and ideas. Puran Singh broke free of all constraints of form in his philosophical and romantic prose as well as poetry. Dhani Ram Chatrik celebrated various moods of nature. His other themes were religious/mythological heritage, patriotism, love for Punjab and Punjabi language. Struggle for freedom spawned a plethora of rebellious, Ghaddarite poetry.

Amrita Pritam jumped into the literary field to give vent to dreams, ambitions and fate of woman in a male-dominated society. Mohan Singh started as an emotional romantic poet. Both of them tried to weld individual romanticism and revolutionary progressive ideals. All this inspired a number of poets to write on these themes for oral recitation or as a serious literary job. Teja Singh excelled in aesthetic prose.

The forties of the last century saw a remarkable spurt in literary activity. A new generation of talented writers sprang up. Sant Singh Sekhon, Kartar Singh Duggal, Giani Gurdit Singh, Balwant Gargi, Surinder Singh Narula, Gurdial Singh Khosla, Amrik Singh, Devinder Satyarthi, Surjit Singh Sethi and Jaswant Singh Kanwal shone on our literary sky almost simultaneously.

Sekhon and Narula acquainted the Punjabi readership with realism and Marxism. Giani Gurdit Singh distinguished himself as a prose writer and researcher. His Mera Pind gave a detailed cultural portrait of a typical Punjabi village. Gargi, Sekhon, Khosla, Phul, Sethi and Amrik Singh devoted themselves to drama. The beautiful short stories of Duggal and Virk looked into the deepest recesses of human mind. Kanwal and Narula wrote novels and short stories. Ajeet Cour and Amrita portrayed angry rebellious women around us.

This new generation of writers was active till the turn of the century. Independence gave impetus to the lovers of Punjabi. Gurcharan Singh Jasuja, Harsaran Singh, Kapur Singh Ghuman, Gursharan Singh, CD Sidhu, Ajmer Aulakh and Atamjeet came up as new dramatists. Dalip Kaur Tiwana, Sukhbir, Mohinder Singh Sarna, Gurdial Singh, Narinder Pal Singh, Sohan Singh Seetal, Niranjan Tasneem, Chandan Negi, Darshan Singh and Gurmukh Singh Sehgal made a mark in fiction. There is a huge variety of themes, creative approaches and points of view among them. Similar is the case with new poetry. New trends ideas and devices mark it. Shiv Kumar was an instantaneous success with his romantic melancholic poetry. Pash, Lal Singh Dil, Darshan Khatkar, Lok Nath, Amarjit Chandan are known as neo-progressive revolutionary poets. Jasbir Ahluwalia and Ravi came up with experimentalism. Haribhajan Singh and Tara Singh reigned supreme as aesthetes in poetry. Jaswant Singh Neki and Pritam Singh Safir formed the neo-mystic duo. SS Misha was soft and incisive. Mohan Singh, Bawa Balwant, Santokh Singh Dhir, Harbhajan Hundal and Jagtar were popular progressive Poets. Parminderjit, Mohanjeet, Manjeet Tiwana, Jaswant Deed and Dev were some of the new poets.

The post-independence literary conditions were conducive to the growth of Punjabi literature. With its team of devoted scholars, the Language department, Punjab, produced a huge body of creative literature, reference books and research material. The paucity of funds has unfortunately brought this department to a standstill. Punjabi University Patiala has also done a great job to enrich the language by producing thousands of books and journals on diverse subjects. The university has lost steam due to severe financial crunch.

The academies and sabhas meant for the promotion of Punjabi have confined themselves mostly to awards, seminars or symposia with an occasional publication. Commendable work was done by Baldev Singh Badan at the National Book Trust where he helped to raise the number of Punjabi publications from 10 to 900. There are only a few large publication houses available to writers in Punjabi. These are Singh Brothers, Lahore Book Shop, Navyug, Lokgeet, Chetna and Sangam. We don’t have a book culture like Bangla, Odia, Tamil or Marathi. Then there is the problem of books not reaching aspiring readers. Book vans, book exhibitions and book fairs are rare.

The academic, ideological and friendly groups in universities and akademies are engaged in mutual praise, self-promotion, awards and petty politics. There is little effort to cultivate and encourage interest in genuine literature at the level of teaching, research, critical evaluation, awards and honours for the deserving. Awards and honours galore but these have failed to connect winners to the readers. Bad literature is driving good literature out of the field. Bhai Vir Singh’s Sundri has run into 49 editions, and each edition had a print of 5,000 copies. Nanak Singh’s Chitta Lahu has sold 85 editions and Pavitar Paapi 45 editions with each edition of 1,000 copies. Today not many books go into the second or third edition, and most of the books have print orders ranging between 250 and 1,000.

There are only a few stalwarts active on the Punjabi literary scene today. Kanwal, Tiwana, Mohan Bhandari, Prem Prakash, Tasneem, Patar, Chandan Negi, Atamjeet, Gurbachan Bhullar, Jasbir Bhullar, Navtej Bharati, Narinder Singh Kapoor, Ajeet, Kirpal Singh Kasel, Baldev Singh, Gurbachan and not many more. Philhaal, Hun, and Samkali Sahit are the three Punjabi quarterlies which serious Punjabi readers can fall back upon. Translation of Punjabi literature into English and other Indian languages is taken up mainly by the National Book Trust, Punjabi University and Sahit Akademi. Translations of almost all renowned authors of the past and present are available. Mention can be made of Sundri (Bhai Vir Singh), Dreams and Desires (Mohan Singh’s selected poetry), The Naked Triangle (Balwant Gargi), Tell The Tale, Urvashi (a novel by Dalip Kaur Tiwana), A Light Within (Haribhajan Singh’s selected poetry), The Skeleton (a novel by Amrita Pritam), White Blood (a novel by Nanak Singh), Shadows (a novel by Tasneem), Night of the Full Moon (Duggal’s short stories), The Last Flicker (Gurdial Singh). Translations of major works of all great writers in Hindi and other Indian languages are also available making our literature reach large masses across the country. Punjabi literature has a glorious past, and we must sincerely strive to ensure a bright future for it.

— The writer is an author, critic and former head, Department of Punjabi, Punjabi University, Patiala 


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