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Saving Punjabi - III

Academics robs literature of popular touch

CHANDIGARH:Punjabi writer Amarjit Chandan is a product of the 1960s, a time when universities and colleges were considered a vibrant place for creativity.

Academics robs literature of popular touch

A Punjabi literature stall in Chandigarh. Tribune file photo

Vishav Bharti

Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, November 25

Punjabi writer Amarjit Chandan is a product of the 1960s, a time when universities and colleges were considered a vibrant place for creativity. He often wonders if what he studied at the college really made any impact on his literary creativity. He finds the answer in the negative.

Also read:

SAVING PUNJABI - I: Signs of Punjabi dropping off blackboards too
SAVING PUNJABI - II: Disappearing students and teachers of Punjabi in colleges

“In teaching, the syllabus comes first, followed by learning. Poor literature breeds poor syllabus. It is a vicious cycle. The quality of teaching in any language depends on the quality of syllabus. That further reflects the quality of its source, the literature written in the particular language.”

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Though Punjabi literature has a glorious history of almost 1,000 years, starting with Sheikh Farid (1173-1265), the history of formal Punjabi teaching is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the People’s linguistic survey of india 2016, it was towards the end of the 19th century that a movement started for the development of Punjabi and for its use in education and administration. 

It was only after Independence that Punjabi got due recognition and was used in education, mass media and administration. However, when it comes to formal Punjabi teaching, pioneer teachers Prof Sant Singh Sekhon and Prof Pritam Singh have mentioned in their memoirs that in the 1930s, the concept of diploma in Punjabi (Budhimani, Gyani, etc) was introduced in the University of the Punjab, Lahore, and MA in Punjabi was introduced five years after Partition.

A downturn 

Chandan says Punjabi teaching from the outset was fraught with “whimsical individuals” like Mohan Singh Diwana, et al. 

“What would one expect from students educated on the underdeveloped low-level modern prose of Teja Singh’s essay Ghusalkhana (Bathroom), and Lal Singh Kamla Akali’s travelogues?” he asks. Only Mohan Singh’s poetry by default was a saving grace, he says, adding that post-1970, Punjabi syllabi went down the drain.

Harish Jain, a major Punjabi publisher based in Chandigarh, agrees. He even goes a step further and says that formal education of Punjabi literature has done great disservice to the cause. “Academic hegemony over modern Punjabi literature has disconnected literature from the life of the common Punjabi man. In Punjabi literature, a book is not written for the reader but for critical appreciation, for an award, for recognition, or to have it included in university or college syllabi. It has become a small ecosystem, and the reader is not part of that ecosystem,” he says.

On the issue of formal Punjabi teaching, Patiala-based literary critic Dr Surjit Singh largely agrees that the main problem is with the ways of teaching and testing Punjabi, which have been structured on management and engineering lines. “There is no creativity in testing and teaching of Punjabi,” he says.

He goes into the origin of the problem, and says academics furthered the notion that certain forms of literature, including qissa and stage poetry, which were closely associated with people, were low forms of literature. They even refused to acknowledge stage poetry as literature. But it was these forms that people had relished, and that is why they survived for centuries in both the written word and oral tradition,” he says. 

The outcome is evident, in black and white: Every year, more than 1,000 new Punjabi literary books are published, but there are not even 50 that go into the second edition.

Mother tongue

However, Prof Joga Singh, a linguist from the Department of Anthropological Linguistics and Lexicography, Punjabi University, Patiala, feels that the problem is not with formal Punjabi teaching but with what is taught. He lays emphasis on teaching only the mother tongue to children for the first 10 years. “International expert opinion and practice overwhelmingly support the view that education, particularly at the school level, can be imparted successfully only through the mother tongue,” he says. 

“The contemporary international linguistic scene and practices provide irrefutable evidence that India has suffered great losses by handing over mother tongue domains to the English language. One significant reason for India’s lagging behind countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China is the intrusion of English in Indian education and other important domains,” he says. Prof Joga Singh says that at a time when Punjabi is being replaced with English at the school level, how can we create good Punjabi literature?

Economics of language

The issue of language, Amarjit Chandan says, is linked with the economy. In the age of world corporate capitalism, English rules as the language of the global market. Not only Punjabi but all other languages, including Urdu and Hindi, are in dire straits.

Looking at the future of literature written in Punjabi, he fears it is bleak. A new generation of Punjabi authors publishing in English has emerged in both East and West Punjab as well as among the diaspora. It seems likely that in the last decades of this century, a generation’s entire Punjabi literary output will be in English. “Just imagine,” he wonders, “if Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh, Ved Mehta, Ageye, and major Urdu poets such as Iqbal and Faiz had written in their mother tongue! The level of Punjabi teaching and learning would have been very different.” Indeed.

Punjabi language: Some facts

  • FE Keay, a researcher in western languages, traces Punjabi back to 1000 BC 
  • Punjabi is spoken by 13 crore people across the world and is the 10th most spoken language in the world and fourth in Asia 
  • Punjabi is the third most spoken language in the Indian sub-continent and also in the UK and Canada
  • There are 28 dialects of Punjabi. The major dialects spoken in eastern Punjab are Malwi, Majhi, Doabi and Puadhi, while those in western Punjab are Pothohari and Saraiki. Majhi, as spoken in the heart of Punjab, is considered the standard version 

Source: People’s linguistic survey of india

(This is the last of a 3-part series on the Punjabi language)

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