Rich literary history
Reviewed by Jasbir Jain

The History of Punjabi Literature (Part-I): Modern Punjabi Poetry
By Tejwant Singh Gill.
Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala. Pages 220. Rs 250.

The history of Modern Punjabi Poetry is another work by the writer to make Punjabi literature accessible across languages and cultures. Ideas and cultures need to be carried across, circulated and made visible, for what is not seen or heard is soon forgotten. This follows the writer’s commitment to his mother tongue. Over the years we have seen several volumes of his translations, ranging from Sekhon to Pash, as well as a biography of Amrita Shergill, but this volume, covering more than a hundred years, is apparently an attempt to define the shifts, first from religious poetry to modern poetry and then from romantic and existential poetry to ideological and political poetry. These shifts necessarily run parallel to dislocations on one hand and experimentations on the other. Beginning with the poetry of Bhai Vir Singh, the history goes on to encompass the diasporic writers and modernity. Viewed as a sequel to earlier literary histories, one of the tasks it performs is to bring it right up to our times.

One may well ask: "What are the issues and theories of historiography? What is it that a literary historian is expected to cover?" There can be pioneering histories which tend to glorify and build up a national tradition, then there are histories which are more factual and grapple with movements and ideas, and still further there are those histories which trace connections, analyse and spread out, include nuances, biographies and departures. Obviously, none can aim to do all these. I would place this volume loosely in the middle category. It gives the reader an idea of the progress, the trends, the major writers and takes into account movements like Marxism and Feminism. There is a fairly detailed critical survey of the earlier work done in this direction. One can follow it up for the newness incorporated here. Gill himself sets himself six questions — what, when, where, who, why and how. They also set the parameters for evaluation, and the reader may well ask: "Have these questions been addressed and answered in some measure by the volume?" The first four have largely been attended to, but the last two keep on hovering in the shadows.

The meaning of the word ‘modern’ is confined to the accounts rendered by earlier histories. No serious attempt to identify its slippages into ‘modernism’ is evident. Perhaps we need to ask different questions and raise multiple issues before we can get more perceptive answers. Again, why is there such a prominence of nature in the poetry right from Bhai Vir Singh to Dhani Ram Chatrik? In what way is the romanticism of mid-20th century different from the earlier romanticism? Are there any local contexts, other than Whitman, Wordsworth and Goethe? Is the periodisation of literature a running stream or are there breaks? Gill displays an awareness of the break with the past in both feminist and political poetry, and its engagement with reality, but several other aspects are bypassed. T. S. Eliot’s essay, ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’, also hovers in the background and is recognisable as an unconscious framework.

There is a detailed bibliography but the absence of an ‘Index’ strikes one. Punjabi University Publication Bureau needs a total revamp of its quality of binding, cover designs and other minute details in order to capture a worldwide readership: any work in English is in that direction and needs to be viewed as a valuable contribution to the building of a more comprehensive national culture. Gill deserves to be congratulated for this work which displays a wide range of approaches and is a welcome addition to literary history.