Sunday, January 11, 2004

Signs and signatures
Pioneers of modern Punjabi love poetry
Darshan Singh Maini

Amrita Pritam
Amrita Pritam

THOUGH love poetry in the Punjabi language has been on the scene for centuries in the form of folk ditties, tappas and bolians, it did not become a part of great poetry till perhaps epic poets like Waris Shah and others around him picked up the immortal, tragic love story of Heer and Ranjha in the 18th century. It was then that great love poetry with erotic undertones came of age, and that love in the purdha or behind the veil, came out of the privacy of the home and of the harem to claim clamouring attention. However, when the Sufi movement and the Bhakti wave in the 15th century, turned secular love into spiritual longings for union with Lord, it was then that this poetry became transcendental and had a wide and deep influence.

Since the spousal imagery and metaphors abound in the Guru Granth, clearly, the Sikh Gurus wanted the human body to be treated as a temple of God, and given both love and adoration. The sexual was sublimated in the divine. But what we today understand as love poetry started much later, almost at the commencement of the 20th century.

Now Bhai Vir Singhís poetry was essentially religious, and love as such didnít quite fit into his frame of thought. However, in Prof Puran Singh, we have a distinct expression of controlled erotic poetry, something akin to Walt Whitmanís verse. All the same the seminal impulse was religious, and the secular love strains were woven into the fabric of his free verse. He could be, in a way, described as the first modern love poet in the manner we understand todayís poetry. But, as Iíve said, he drew no line between the body and the soul, between the flesh and the spirit. Both were subsumed in his evocation of the gurbani, and, therefore, his "modernity" remained limited or restricted.

"Modernity" then, is at once a question of theme and style. The new poetry starts with Mohan Singh (1905-1978) whose first birth centenary falls next year. There are, of course, some other poets in this category, but poets like Prabhjot Kaur, the earlier Pritam Singh Safeer, Bawa Balwant, Sohan Singh Misha didnít finally, touch those heights of sensuous, romantic and deeply disturbing passion which the three poets ó Mohan Singh, Amrita Pritam and Shiv Batalvi touched. They truly represent the modern era and its love poetry in which distinct Freudian echoes can be heard. Sexuality achieved (as it did in Waris Shah) a certain order of beauty and openness.

The first pioneering poet to appear on the scene was Mohan Singh, and he almost changed the themes and style of his verse to translate the modern sensibility. His development describes a progress from romance to reality, from conventional love to an uninhibited expression of the man-woman relationship. He actually started as a part of Sikh thought and Sikh nationalism. However, he soon came under the radical western influence of Marx and Freud, and his poetry graduated from "feathers to iron", to use a Keatsian phrase. Punjabi poetry of love before him had, by and large, become stereotyped and stagnant. He blew fresh air into the developing new verse. Sex was, then, brought out of the closest and the bedroom to shine in the noonday sun. The poetry of shy, furtive, suppressed love was soon out of fashion.

In a span of some 50 years, Mohan Singh published eight volumes of verse besides the final epic, Nankayan (1971). From Sawey Pattar or The Green Leaves (1936), he went on to produce powerful poetry, and the archetypal conflict between blood and judgment, between body and soul, between dream and reality became the powder for his burgeoning imagination of sexual love. His own sojourn in "the realms of gold" was directly related to his feeling of desolation and waste after the death of his beautiful young wife, Basant. 

Shiv Kumar Batalvi

This roused imagination produced a body of delicate love poems:

Let my bones be immersed

in the river Chenab,

My bones are the bones

of a poet,

A lover alone knows their worth. (Sawey Pattar)

His symbolism now becomes significantly suggestive. Here is a young woman celebrating her nuptials:

My sleeping lotus rose

Out of the mud, craning its neck...

Amrita Pritam, too, started with conventional religious poems in Amrit Laheran (1936), but an unhappy marriage soon roused the rebellious woman in her. Her imagination became secular, erotic and earthy. The establishment received quite a few satirical swipes on societal hypocrisies as in the poem, Un-Datta or The Bread-Giver from the volume, Pattar Geetay or The Stone Marbles. Her famous poem, Waris Shah, dwells upon the brutish ways of man when after Partition in 1947, women were raped en masse, and she calls upon the great poet of love, Waris, to rise from his grave and give tongue to their long lament.

With Suneproy (The Intimations), there begins a period of complexity of thought and expression.

My right hand, inebriated, spun dreams of love,

nestling within his palms. (poem, Supney or "The Dreams")

In her poem, Sayal or The Winter, the chill of age, loneliness and separation finds expression in a multiple metaphor.

Iíll waft here and now

A palmful of the sun,

And slip a ray or two

In my frozen womb,

And then, perchance, may end

The winter of my births and discontent.

Shiv Kumar Batalvi who died at the age of 35 is popularly known as the Keats of Punjabi poetry. His death caused by a jilted, faithless beloved, and the consequent drunkenness in his very first volume, Peeran da Paraga (A Lapful of Pains) burst out into a poetry of tragic love, and his fame soon took the young readers and audiences by storm, as it were. Itís as if he had willed such a fate, and, thus, his poetry became an organic expression of Eros and Thanatos. Itís typical of Batalvi to have adopted the female persona in rendering the anguish of his heart.

Daily do I drink

the fire of wait,

Daily do I turn my heart

into black and burnt coal.

(poem Hanjuian di Chabeel or The Fount of Tears)

In his Luna which is something of a cross between an epic and a poetic play, he has used the ancient love-story of Luna and her stepson, Puran, who in obedience to his own call of duties rejects her love, turning her into a woman of vengeful fury.

Iím, but a ball of fire, O mate,

Bound hence to distant lands;

One breast of mine burns like May,

And the other smokes like June.

Shiv Batalvi, thus, brings the poetry of sexual love initiated by Mohan Singh and deepened by Amrita Pritam full circle.