119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, May 23, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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A classicist rooted in the soil
By K.S. Duggal

PRITAM SINGH ‘Safeer’, the seniormost Punjabi litterateur of today passed away in Delhi recently. Rooted in the soil and classical sensibility and yet abreast of the modern perceptions of the avant-gardists, Pritam Singh ‘Safeer’ was a unique phenomenon of the forties, the decade known for the proliferation of Punjabi letters. Author of as many as 11 collections of poems, he ranks among the most pervasive verse writers of the Punjabi language in recent times.

Born in 1916 at Malikpur in Rawalpindi district, now in Pakistan, ‘Safeer’s’ father Sardar Mehtab Singh who served as headmaster of Shri Guru Arjan Dev Khalsa High School, Tarn Taran, was a leading Sikh political activist. After graduating from Khalsa College, Amritsar, he qualified for law in 1938 and started practice at the Bar at Lahore. He then moved to the Delhi Bar after the Partition. In 1969 he rose to become a judge of the Delhi High Court.

His first publication which came out in 1939 was a collection of one-act plays. It was followed by a series of poetry books - Katak Koonjan (Swallows of Kartik) in 1941, Pape de Sohile (In Praise of Sin) in 1943, Rakat Boondan (Drops of Blood) in 1946, Aad Jugaad (Ever Eternal) in 1955, Sarab Kala (Omnipotent) in 1966. Guru Gobind in 1966, Anik Bistar (Panoramic Creation) in 1981, Agam Agochar (Beyond Reach) in 1981, Sanjog Vijog (Union and Parting) in 1982 and then an omnibus volume containing all his works entitled Sarab Nirantar (All Pervading) in 1987. His latest collection of verse entitled Ape Bauh Rangi (Of many Splendours) was brought out by Navyug, a leading Punjabi publisher recently. The only prose work he has authored in Punjabi is Dhur ki Bani (The Song Divine) published in 1975. Ten Holy Masters and Their Commandments (1980), The Tenth Master (1983) and A Study of Bhai Veer Singh’s Poetry (1985) are his three prose works in English.

‘Safeer’ has also been associated with the Punjab and the Punjabi Universities as a member of the senate and Delhi University as a member of their Board of Punjabi Studies. He led a writers’ delegation to Armenia in 1958 and has also served as founder-chairman of the Punjabi Writers industrial cooperative.

Literary recognition came to him in the shape of various awards including the Shiromani Sahitkar Award of the Punjab Government in 1966, Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993, Sahitya Vicharmanh Award in 1987 and K.S. Dhaliwal Award of Punjabi Academy in 1988.

‘Safeer’ entered the realm of Punjabi letters with verse of a distinctive character which he has maintained all these years. Stalwarts like Bhai Vir Singh, Mohan Singh and Dhani Ram ‘Chatrik’, with whom he rubbed shoulders failed to influence his style and approach. An island unto himself, it has also not been possible for anyone coming after him to emulate him. Though he liberated himself from the rigidities of traditional forms isncluding those of conforming to metre and rhyme, he continues to avail himself of the musicality of rhyme in highly subtle and skilfully fabricated patterns. Having drunk deep at the fountain of thought and idiom of the Sikh scriptures, Safeer’s verse has metaphysical overtones and scriptural idiom. At times he gives the impression as if words fail to keep pace with his torrential outburst of emotions. Temperamentally impetuous, at times his imagery has a riot of colours.

A great admirer of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, he highlights the higher values of truthful living and impeccable conduct of life. There is an unmistakable strain of mysticism in his poetry, though he tries his best to retain his feet on the ground and take care of the social reality. No deviation from the determined path, no flirtation with new-fangled models of the new writing and yet he remains the newest among the new. The familiar unfamiliarity of his thought, his preference for sophistication of expression loaded with personal idiom, more often than not makes his reader pause and ponder over what the poet is trying to say.

With the spiritual strand in his temperament and his preoccupation with metaphysics, he often seems to take a cynical view of love. In his well-known poem Amritsari Preet, he says:

The collyrium-dyed eyes of a maid,
Inset with scenes of love,
She crossed the Chenab seven time or more,
With her face like a dove
She catches hold of the garment of a groom.

Indian mystics believe that it is ishq majazi or worldly love, that in due course turns into ishq haqiqi or spiritual love. ‘Safeer’ also seems to follow this dictum, but the craftsman in him is so skilful that his readers hardly ever perceive when he slips from one into the other.

Here is an artist who arrests with the passion of a mystic the moments of self-confrontation against shadows of the physical love of a common mortal. There is an awareness of a mission in Safeer’s poetry, an urge for a higher meaning, the quality of soul. Says he:

Love is destiny,
It is love
That leads one to be a prophet.
(Ishq betaqdir hai)

Here is a poem translated by the poet himself from the original in Punjabi from Katak Koonjan (Swallows of Kartik).

Millions of Katak months
Dawned and passed off
Millions of birds called "Koonjan"
Having permeated the seasons
With their song, perished
Millions of religions
Millions of nations
Were begotten out of women.
Millions of nights
having spread across the earth
Were lost into the unseen
Millions of adams enjoying their Eves
Forgot that death was round the corner.
Millions of lakes brimmed with water
Then dried up and became extinct
Millions of mountains have burst into space,
Millions of prophets, having proclaimed themselves
have passed away.
The world seeking eternal light
Is still halfway in darkness.
I do not accept
That these stars and universes
Are old, immortal and unique
Millions of gods have suffered extinction
There is no one to remember them.
Like blades of grass
There have been myriads of incarnations
Vishnus, Shivas,, Brahmas
Which particular Parvati
Should lament for anyone?

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