Enduring magic of Surjit Patar: A tribute to Punjab’s beloved poet : The Tribune India

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Enduring magic of Surjit Patar: A tribute to Punjab’s beloved poet

A tribute to Punjab’s beloved poet, who passed away aged 79 in Ludhiana



Nonika Singh

Main raahan te nai turda, main turda haan taan raah bande...

Indeed, Surjit Patar was that rare indomitable poet who forged new paths of poetic resonance and emblazoned them with luminosity of words, metaphors, idioms and imagery rooted in Punjab’s folklore. An unmatched expression of thought, an incomparable poet, he can be put in the same league as many greats of Punjabi poetry, and was perhaps the tallest in contemporary times. The kind, as eminent theatre-person and playwright Dr Atamjit says, “One has not seen after Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Dr Jagtar.”

Surjit Patar (1945-2024)

Poet of humanity

His poetry was steeped in Punjabi culture, its rupaks, alankars. He was so unpretentious, like ‘Koi daaliyan cho langhya hawa ban ke’. He wrote about humanity, humans and their pain. He had everyone in a thrall and was universally accepted. Governments came and went and all the powers that be bowed to his literary stature. — Dr Sarabjit Sohal, president, Punjabi Sahit Akademi

What made him stand apart is how he could navigate different worlds. If at one moment he was writing about the political climate in the country, at another point it could be lament over social concerns. From the deep philosophy of Guru Nanak Dev to heartfelt emotions of love, his poetry reflected it all, almost as if he was viewing the world through a 360-degree viewfinder and nothing could escape his discerning poetic eye.

Interestingly, though he often responded to contemporary issues, what he wrote was quintessentially timeless. Punjab’s crises, the dark chapter of 1984, Naxalite movement, Punjabi diaspora or, more recently, the farmers’ agitation — on the face of it, his poems appeared to be an instant reaction to a provocative issue. But delve deeply, and the poems not only became anthems, these represented eternal echoing through the corridors of time. As he himself wrote recently in context of the farmers’ protests, ‘Ehde vich vartmaan, ateet naal bhawikh shamil hai,’ his poems coalesced the past, present, future and withstood the acid test of time.

The measure of a poet can’t be separated from the man himself. Here was a man born on January 14, 1945, at Pattar Kalan (Jalandhar district), hence the moniker ‘Patar’ affixed to his name, whom Diwan Manna, president of the Punjabi Lalit Kala Akademi, calls a ‘harman pyara poet’.

Loved and admired by one and all, though he never threw his weight around, but when he spoke, even the high and mighty listened. And the common man could relate to the anguish he poured in the torrent of words. In the veins of Punjabi diaspora run the lines, “Jo videsha ch rulde ne rozi de lai, oh jadon desh partange apne kadi, kuj te sekange maa de sive di agan, baki kabran de rukh heth jaa behange”, encapsulating their pain at leaving their motherland. And bigwigs like the Chief Minister of Punjab are often found quoting his poems. What made his poetry akin to a treasure trove of quotable quotes was his singular ability to appeal to one and all through simplicity of expression, coupled with the gravity of thought. ‘Laggi nazar Punjab nu’ and then the famous ‘Kal Waris Shah nu vandya si ajj Shiv Kumar di baari hai’, a worthy progression in the line of Amrita Pritam’s eponymous ‘Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu’, live in the hearts of his admirers.

Dr Yograj, vice-president of the Punjab Arts Council, explains his vast popularity thus, “He was a bridge between human intellect and emotions.”

If the lyricism of his poetry added to his poetry’s recall value, it was also seeped in his very being. Diwan, who met him just the other day, says, “Even when he walked, there was a rhythm in his gait. It was as if his whole persona was suffused with music and he was forever humming a song within.” And he sang beautifully at mushairas, where he was much in demand.

Strangely enough, the lyrical beauty of his poetry and his enduring appeal at poetic symposiums often came in for censure by the tribe of naysayers. To the acerbic critics, Dr Atamjit’s repartee is, “He was not a poet because he could sing, but a great poet who also sang.” In fact, the names of musical instruments, especially sarangi, were woven into his poetic metre organically.

He was a literary hero in Dr Atamjit’s admiring eyes, fortunately not a tragic one, like many before him. He was much celebrated and awarded in his lifetime. Sarswati Samman came to him for his book ‘Lafzaan di Dargah’, which he dedicated to the tradition of Punjabi poetry and language. Though he did return the Padma Shri on account of the ‘insensitive’ attitude of the Centre towards the demands of the protesting farmers, he was not angst-ridden. In fact, no one, friends or admirers, recall ever seeing him angry.

Sophistication marked his unassuming persona. Diminutive but taller than many in literary stature, even when he spoke off the cuff, there was clarity of thought and vision. Certainly, like all poets, he was sensitive to the core. Issues bothered him, especially the death of his maan boli. Mother tongue, he believed, influences one’s thought process and social commitments. It was certainly the soul of his creativity, as evident in his exemplary command over Punjabi.

Theatre-person Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, whose association with him dates back 35 years, says, “He was not caught in a time warp but was in step with modern ethos.” He was equally aware of the emergence of a new Punjab where migrants were discovering Punjabi as a requisite to their livelihood. Dr Yograj observes, “He touched upon Punjab’s collective unconsciousness in which lie dormant emotions like pain, despair and sadness. Yet, there was an unbeatable, overarching optimism so much in sync with the Punjabi trait of finding ways to cope with tragedy.” The promise of a bright tomorrow came seamlessly into his works.

What he wrote often had a political meaning and context. Invariably, meanings were attributed to his poems like ‘Budhi Jadugarni’, which he proclaimed he never intended to be about a former Prime Minister. But then, there never was any single point of entry or allusion in his poems. Like his multi-layered poetry, he, too, was a man of many dimensions. He translated much acclaimed plays for Neelam Mansingh’s theatre company and transformed them with such felicity that they seemed like original texts. She remembers how when ‘Nagmandala’ travelled to Karnataka, the original playwright Girish Karnad remarked, “Now I would have to translate the Punjabi version into Kannada.”

And when Spanish poet Lorca’s girlfriend saw ‘Yerma’, she thought Patar’s Punjabi sounded like Spanish. And all this, reminisces Neelam Mansingh, he achieved effortlessly, almost magically. “Here I would be discussing ideas with impassioned verve and he would be sitting with a stillness, almost as if he was not paying attention. And when he would send the script, it was as he had read my invisible thoughts, subtexts, invariably going beyond what I had expected.”

“Translation,” anyway, she deems, “is not an intermediary activity but a creative act in itself where a translator has to enter not one but two worlds.” Only in the hands of this force of nature would it become a force of its own volition.

Words in our hands are ineffective tools to match the wizardry of his words. As Dr Yograj says, “Academically, we may and do try to define his poetry. But in the light of magic of his poetry, pedantics simply fail to summarise him.”

An emblem of Punjabi culture, he wanted to change the cultural landscape of his state. As chairperson of the Punjab Arts Council, a position he occupied since 2017, he had a dream and sincerely believed that culture shapes the conscience of its times and firms up the society’s moral fabric. His wish to create a parallel stream of meaningful and impactful culture might have met with limited success, but there was no doubting his noble intentions.

As recently as on May 8, he was brainstorming with members of three akademis and showed little signs of slowing down. There were many unfinished projects. Rumour has it that he was going to write a film on yet another master of verse, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, with whom he was often compared. Wedded to his mother tongue, on his wish-list was also an endeavour to enable/empower the Punjabi language to meet the challenges of an AI-driven world. But no technology can overshadow the fire in his words.

Literary critic Tejwant Gill says, “Of the seven poets whom Sant Singh Sekhon had viewed as poised on the highest peaks, Surjit Patar was one. He kept on writing with the same if not more ardour as before. He was hale and hearty and busy writing and publishing poems at regular intervals, entailing more grasp of contradictions and contrasts marking human life of Punjab in particular, and of India in general. Sometimes, he was charmed by the global issues as well. To refer to their enigma was also intrinsic to his poetic writing. Age had not slowed his momentum and change had not decreased the reception his poetry was accorded in whichever form — song, ghazal, narrative, descriptive and dramatic — he deemed to write.”

Bemoaning the irreparable loss, Neelam Mansingh says, “Death claims us all.” But as the world will claim and reclaim Surjit Patar’s poetry that spans over 16 books and never fails to ignite both mind and heart, they will remember: “Jadon tak lafaz jeonde ne/Sukhanwar jeon marke vi/ Oh kewal jism hunde ne/Jo siviyan wich swah bande ne.”


Shabdaan Da Jadugar

Latini Amreeka de/ Columbia desh vich

Medellin shehar di/Obrero park vich

Kavita utsav de dini

Ik Spaini bachcha cycle chalaunda

Mere kol aaya/Meri pagri te daadhi dekhke

Poochhan laga/Tu jadugar aein?

Kehan lagga saan nai/Par uss chaa bhare bachche nu

‘nai’ kehna mainu changa lagga nai

Main keha: Haan...

Achcha, taan phir tu mere ma-baap de ghar nu

mahal vich badal de

Main chhithha jeha paike aakheya/Asal vich cheejaan da jadugar nai/Lafzaan da jadugar haan...

Main Kavita Tolda Haan

Main kavita tolda haan

Kadi hathiyaar vaang/kadi paani de sheet pyale vang

Kadi marham vaang/kade hanere ghar vich mombatti vaang/Kadi aasre vaang

Main kavita tolda haan

Kiteyon mile/Kise kitab chon

Kise risale chon/Kise kaagaz ton

Tere bolaan chon jaan mere mann chon

Kuchh Keha Taan

Kuchh keha taan hanera jarega kiven

Chup reha taan shamadaan ki kehenge

Geet di maut iss raat jo ho gayi

Mera jeena mere yaar kinj sehenge

Aes adaalat vich bande birkh ho gaye

Faisle sundeya-sundeya sukk gaye

Aakho inhanu ujde gharin jaan hun

Eh kadon teek itthe khade rehenge

The Magician of Words

I was sitting in Obrero Park in the town of Medellin in Colombia.

I was there to attend a world poetry festival.

A child came to me riding his bike.

Looking at my turban and beard, he asked me:

Are you a magician?

I was about to say: No, I am not./But I didn’t feel like saying so/I said: Yes...

Then can you turn my mama and papa’s house

into a palace?

I am not a magician of things /I play magic with words...

— Translated by Amarjit Chandan

I Search For A Poem

I search for a poem

At times like weapon/At times like tumbler of cold water

At times like balm/At times like candle in a dark house

At times like solace

I search for a poem

to appear somehow/In a book

In a magazine/On a page

In your utterance or in my mind

How Would Something Spoken

How would something spoken the darkness bear

What would silence make the candelabra declare

If the song breathed its last tonight

How would my friends endure my being alive

People into trees did turn in this court

Repeated hearings sapped their innermost

Tell them now, return to their homes-deserted

How long would they, stand here rooted

— Translated by Gurshminder Jagpal, Courtesy: Unistar Books

#Punjabi #Surjit Patar


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