The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 4, 2003

Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s death anniversary falls on May 6
Loona: An ‘umwomanly woman’ or a tragic heroine?
B. M. Bhalla

Lesser-known facts about a well-known poet

Shiv Kumar Batalvi succeeded in creating a new genre -- the modern kissa  Shiv Kumar Batalvi was born in village Lohtian (Pakistan) on October 8, 1937.
After Partition he migrated to Batala along with his parents.
His father was a patawri.
He only studied up to matric.
He worked as a patawri for a short time when he was young.
He moved to Chandigarh in 1965.
His first book on poetry Peeran Da Paraga was published in 1960.
After coming to Chandigarh he joined the State Bank of India as a librarian.
He was a heavy drinker. 
He became famous after the publication of Loona
Alcoholism took his life at a young age on May 6, 1973. 

 — Jatinder Puri

Loona, a verse-drama written by the well-known Punjabi poet, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, has achieved the status of a minor classic in modern Punjabi literature. It has already been translated into Hindi and English, and presented on the stage a number of times in India, Pakistan and England. Its theme is based on the ancient legend of Puran Bhagat and therein lies the secret of its popularity.

There is hardly any Punjabi who has not heard the story of Puran Bhagat. The story has come down to us as part of our oral tradition from times immemorial. There is no mention of it in our ancient religious texts but it is part of our folk tradition and elements of it are woven in our folk songs. Reference to it in the daily parlance of common people has survived to this day. It was narrated in the kissa form by Kadaryar in medieval times in two of his literary works: Puran Bhagat and Kallian Puran Bhagat. Kadaryar had obviously narrated the popular version which, as always, had many variations. This is why his two narrations are not the same. Kadaryar’s narration is an affirmation of social cohesion, stability and continuity. It reflects the values of its historical epoch in terms of caste, class and gender.

But Shiv Kumar Batalvi wanted to write a different type of story based on the Western epic tradition which, according to him, was more earth-bound and realistic. He felt that the life depicted in Punjabi love legends reflected the life of the common people of a particular age. However, some traditional thinkers have tried to show that these legends belonged to a single cultural tradition and treated them as vehicles of didactic and moral teaching.


Loona, being an untouchable and a woman, claimed his entire sympathy and he wanted to write the story from her perspective.

Keeping this in view, Batalvi effected important changes in the old story that he inherited from Kadaryar. Adopting the dramatic form, he decided to end the play when Puran’s limbs are severed from his body and justified it in the name of realism and dramatic effect. Though Batalvi was very eager to distance himself from the old tradition, yet the main features of the old story still formed part of Batalvi’s play. The main characters such as Salwan, Ichran, Chaudal and Puran are not common people but kings, queens and princes. He added another king and his queen, Varman and Kunte. The locale of action is Syalkot, which is said to be the capital city of the Greek Satrap Seleukus. This was perhaps why Batalvi thought that the Greek influence on these legends was evident. But there is hardly any evidence of this.

Batalvi’s assertions in the introduction create a number of problems of intention and execution. Batalvi obviously manipulates the elements of the story to make them fit vehicles for his ideology and relate them to our historical context. Our society and beliefs have undergone a sea change. Today we swear by individual freedom, equality of sexes and democratic norms. The bold innovation of having a female protagonist brings the question of Dalit and women’s emancipation and empowerment to the fore. Batalvi’s core argument in characterising Loona is her claim to her sexuality and its assertion as a badge of her individuality and freedom, irrespective of the distinctions of caste and class, exposing the old social structure based on what some may call male perfidy. The play thus becomes a document of gender revolution. In this sense it is not only modern but also revolutionary.

Batalvi obviously wanted to write a tragedy. His play ends with the death of Puran but he is not presented as a hero, the protagonist here is Loona. Puran is a victim. His death cannot create the tragic emotions of pity and fear nor effect their purgation. The death or sacrifice of the tragic hero is supposed to cure "all that is rotten in the state of Denmark", but in Loona Salwan continues ruling and also having both his wives. Nothing changes. And what sort of tragic heroine is Loona? She is a victim, no doubt, belonging as she does to the untouchable caste and married to an old impotent king. She is terribly sex starved, so much so, that when Puran arrives on the scene she pounces on him. Puran’s refusal to act according to her plan infuriates her. She falsely accuses him of physical assault on her and gets him executed. She becomes a criminal not a helpless victim. It was Salwan who had wronged her. There would have been justification if she had avenged herself on him. But it seems that she is afraid of the king’s might. In the end Puran being a soft target becomes the scapegoat. The sympathy of the reader is not with Loona any more.

Perhaps Batalvi was thinking of writing a play in the tradition of Ibsen, Shaw and Miller. This is why he talks of treading a new path by making his story modern, rational and realistic. Is Loona, then a Shawian "Unwomanly woman" who is expected to repudiate all social conventions to achieve emancipation? Does she have the grit and courage for this unconventional role? Unfortunately, Loona does not repudiate anything. When her accusation becomes public she becomes a conventional loving and loyal wife to Salwan, swearing her love for him. Is she then comparable to Ibsen’s great heroines like Nora, Mrs Alving, Rebecca or Hedda? Ibsen’s heroines question traditional morality. They dare and suffer as responsible individuals. Loona questions old conventions but she behaves most irresponsibly towards Puran and does not dare to say even a word to Salwan. She has no courage.

Loona, in its present form, is neither a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy nor a revenge play or domestic drama. It is not a drama of ideas or a modern play in the tradition of Shaw, Ibsen and Miller, though Batalvi might have consciously or unconsciously wished it to be so.

Batalvi has used symbolism rooted in Indian psyche both as a structural device as also for thematic exposition. Its dialectical nature and philosophical depth have imparted a unique richness to the play. It helps in creating dramatic tension and reinforcing the theme. Batalvi posits some polarities such as the modern vs the traditional, pre-destined vs free will, the carnal vs the spiritual, the court vs the forest, modesty vs immodesty etc. These polarities are reinforced by the symbolism of the sun, snake and fire. Sun symbolises energy, heat, passion and shade quite the opposite. Snake, a sexual symbol, is further polarised as Passion viper and Dream snake. Life and death are matched by wakefulness and sleep. Wholeness is juxtaposed against duality, sunny life against amnesia and depression, unripe fire against passions flame, revolution against status quo.

The basic symbolic polarity on which the play’s structure rests is Puran vs Apuran i.e. the wholeness, purity and perfection symbolised in the character of Puran (though he says he is not perfect) versus the half-way men and women, who struggle and suffer and burn in the fire of lust because of their being what they are. Loona, Ichran, Salwan, Varman, Chaudal, Kunte all are half-way men and women. Puran, being perfect, is out of reach for all of them. They don’t have the capacity to understand what he stands for. He has conquered craving therefore he cannot be a party to Loona’s designs. When he is accused and questioned about his being guilty of assaulting Loona and he does not respond or gives only vague and evasive replies, it is obvious that he knows that his questioners won’t understand. Explaining the truth to them would require their moral and spiritual development, which is not possible in the wasteland of an unjust and oppressive society that Batalvi depicts in the play. Puran as a symbol of perfection cannot flourish in this wasteland, he has to wither and die. Thus a grave-yard calm prevails and nothing changes.

It is also important to note the ideological polarities. The pure world of the celestial beings and their pure mirth is juxtaposed against the lust, violence and sinfulness of human nature. Salwan’s justification of his marriage to Loona and Varman’s pleading about his moral responsibility towards Ichran and the debate about the domestication of passion and its free play, offer interesting insights. Loona’s justification of her views and conduct is hotly contested by an opposite point of view presented by Ira.

Ichran’s acceptance of the traditional role of a deserted wife and her suffering is matched by her maids’ outright condemnation of male perfidy. Puran and Loona debate the meaning of true love and the opposition between the carnal and the spiritual, the fake and the real. The dialectical pattern in theme, symbol and ideology is woven with rare virtuosity in the play.

The musical rendering which is the hallmark of Punjabi folk literature and ensures its continuity has been retained and enriched by Batalvi. The play has some really heart-rending songs to enthrall the audience. The songs and dialogues of different characters are appropriate to the mood and create the corresponding emotional impact.

Batalvi, therefore, has succeeded in creating a new genre — the modern kissa which translated into English may be called Punjabi verse-drama. The ingredients that make this literary form are purely indigenous. Batalvi’s assertions in the introduction notwithstanding, the play is not based on any concept of Western poetics. Actually it is the classical rasa theory that unlocks the secret of its popularity. Three main rasas which dominate are shingara, which is generated by the interplay of passion and all that is luxuriant in nature, which is evident in the opening scene and the portions where Loona and Puran interact, virah, which expresses the pain of separation and the agony of deprivation, and karuna which is the outcome of deep sympathy for those who are subject to undeserved pain and suffering. The rest of the scenes distil these two rasas or a combination thereof, depending on the context.

Batalvi’s kissa is modern because it takes up the ideological exploration of a modern theme viz the condition of women in a male dominated society and their fight for their rights. The traditional kissa had no agenda of this type. While the old form was a narration of affirmation, the new is dramatic, disruptive and revolutionary. Batalvi is obviously influenced by the West in formulating his ideology on the issue and he frankly acknowledges his debt in the introduction. This theme is vehemently articulated by a number of characters in the play. Loona, therefore, becomes a symbol of suffering for all women, more so because she belongs to the untouchable caste. In her case the deprivation is double. This is why Batalvi says that it is Loona’s story, not Puran’s, and gives the same title to the play.