What Surjit Patar means to me : The Tribune India

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What Surjit Patar means to me

Poet in him can’t be isolated from the vast-minded reader, the transcreating translator, the thinker, the heart-warming conversationalist

What Surjit Patar means to me


Rajesh Sharma

The conversation that has been going on since Surjit Patar’s death has focused on just a small part of him. It will take some time and much work to map his achievement and fathom its depths. No doubt he was the tallest Punjabi poet for decades, a position he used meaningfully to intervene in public discourse. His stature derived from an inimitable voice that many tried to imitate, but none could. One’s voice is the soul of one’s style, for it is the articulation of one’s presence in the work. Patar was wholly present in his best work.

From which it follows that he must have worked as much on himself as on his work. Signs of insistent self-scrutiny appear often in his poetry when he addresses himself, as when he says:

Every poem you wrote has been sold
A deal made on your songs
Impressed by your soaring flight
They have sent this cage of gold

He carried an immense reservoir of patience, refusing to react on impulse. He took some time to respond to the farmers’ movement. He was diving into agitated waters and had to reach the hard rock of clear understanding. This was not possible without bringing an epic poet’s many-sided, far-seeing vision to bear on the situation. The writings that followed showed the movement as a moment of civilisational crisis.

Indeed, Patar would not stoop to paint on a canvas less than epic. His poetry is elemental and cosmic even when it is meant to light a lamp to show a neglected little corner of someone’s small, circumscribed world. After all, as he often said, his inspiration came from the greatest. And he not only lived tradition, but also reanimated it with his own breath. The poet in him cannot be isolated from the vast-minded reader, the transcreating translator, the introspective man, the literary critic, the thinker and the heart-warming conversationalist that he also was.

Folk songs, in a changed form, supplied the fuel that propelled some of his political poems. His early engagements with Sartre and Camus and with myth made him wonder, at the end of his rendering of Racine’s ‘Phaedra’, if our very choices are fated.

He pondered all his life on the mysteries of the creative process. A poem arrived in a kind of inner quivering, he would say. This reminds you of the initiatory spandan, as Shaivism terms it, of creation. The name and the form appear and dissolve on the seeming surface of an endless flux, he wrote in a poem. The deepest insights of Buddhism blossomed effortlessly in his consciousness.

Yes, he was a gifted poet: among his finest poems are those he wrote as a university student. But he ceaselessly worked on his gift. In this, his talent had the luck to be cradled by several fervent, luminous minds in Patiala and Jalandhar. Sohan Singh Misha once told him to read a lot of books and not waste time in coffee houses in the company of mediocre versifiers.

So, he read widely and deep. He was reading Leonard Cohen’s poetry and songs when we met in March. He told the audience that Cohen sometimes revised a text a hundred times. He often invoked Greek drama, Shakespeare, French literature, Persian poetry, Sanskrit poetics, Octavio Paz, Brecht, and others. He drew no self-protective boundaries, for he was centred in himself, thanks to the light that fed his spirit: the light from the Gurus, the Bhaktas, and Waris. It gave him the courage to say that Racine’s ‘Phaedra’ was far richer than Shiv’s ‘Loona’. Among the finest essays on music in Punjabi is an essay he wrote.

He worried about the future of Punjabi, but he didn’t despair. He raged coolly, yet he signed off his essay on Puran Singh in words of fire. He was all too human, but transcendently so.

#Surjit Patar


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