Poet of the pulse of Punjab

It may be impossible to take Patar out of Punjab or Punjab out of poet Surjit Patar,
but despite being rooted in Punjabi soil the poet has a voice nuanced in humanism that
transcends regional barriers. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry describes how she
collaborated with Patar for her various theatre productions

The award of the 2012 Padma Shri to Surjit Patar is indeed a proud moment for every Punjabi, as his identification with Punjab is inextricably woven into the imagery and syntax of his poems. Patar cannot be separated from the sensibility and the aspirations of Punjab. It is impossible to take Patar out of Punjab and neither can Punjab be taken out of Patar. Despite that, Patar’s work reflects a universal voice that is seeped with nuanced humanism and a sense of modernity that seemed neither dated, nor trapped in regional boundaries.  

 A doctorate in Literature on Transformation of Folklore in Guru Nanak Vani,  which he did from The Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. He also taught for many years at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, while simultaneously pursuing his vocation as a poet. Among his works of poetry are Hawa Vich Likhe Harf (Words written in the Air), Birkh Arz Kare (The voice of the Tree), Hanere Vich Sulagdi Varnmala (Words Smouldering in the Dark), Lafzaan Di Dargah (Shrine of Words), Patjhar Di Pazeb, (Anklet of Autumn) and Surzameen (Music Land). 

When Dr Surjit Patar recites his poems, he gives us the courage to engage collectively in an imagined future. Through his poetry he has given a voice to the fragile, disrupting borders, disturbing the status quo. While rooted in the political, social and cultural specificities of a particular time and place, he plays at the edge of what is real and what is not with a belief that poetry and theatre matters, that poetry and drama illuminates society and politics around us, and that a poet cannot run away from the world he lives in.

My relationship with Dr Surjit Patar is a story of collaboration and risk-taking, of jumping in the deep end. My meeting with Patar was fortuitous and defining. On a bleak winter evening I made my way into a studio theatre where a show of the play Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca was being performed.

More than the production, I was transfixed by the luminous quality of the translation, the searing intensity of Lorca’s poetry travelling deep into the cultural, social and emotional landscape of Punjab.  Patar had understood that in the theatre, language and words are never just verbal sounds but set up a whole range of propositions and possibilities.  From the translation I could sense that Patar  had a great feeling for the stage,  and  was in complete  empathy with the hidden text, the silences, the shades and moods behind the words. The language in the play went to the heart of everything that I knew I was looking for. I was determined to meet the writer, and immediately on coming home, I wrote a letter, clumsily introducing myself and inviting him to come and meet me in Chandigarh.

Many months later, on a lazy Sunday afternoon the doorbell rang, and a slightly built, laconic man with a blue turban holding an aerogram stood at the door of the house. I looked at the letter fluttering in his hands and recognized that this was the person who I had been desperate to connect with since many months. In one instant I knew that this meeting was going to determine the course of my future work. 

He has translated works for my theatre group that range from classics like  Federico Garcia Lorca’s, Jean Giradoux’s,  Jean Racine’s, Girish Karnad  and Henrik Ibsen, to the   dramatisation of short stories, by Doris Lessing, Can Themba and Rabindranath Tagore.  He has also written two original scripts based on ideas that were improvised and later structured and reassembled: Kitchen Katha, and Sibo In Supermarket. Translation/adaptation and dramatisation of the various texts mentioned above, involving a delicate de-contextualisation and re-contextualisation, a risky and complicated operation was eloquently articulated by Patar "if something is lost, then something is also gained" – To some extent this may be true, that the musicality of the ‘source’ language in the process of shifting may suffer, but conversely the musicality of the ‘target’ language into which it is being translated would add its own value to it.