The Backdrop of Punjabi Literature

Note: This article, by Professor Rana Nayar, first appeared at cultivasian.org, which is now offline. We are reproducing it here in the larger interest of readers of Punjabi literature.

The beginnings of Punjabi language go as far back as the 10th century. Its emergence in the Indo-Gangetic plain, strangely enough, coincided with the growth and development of English language in a far-off island inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. It is another matter that English, being the favoured child of history, has confidently marched on ahead, spreading across several continents (thanks to colonialism), while Punjabi has had to stay confined rather diffidently to the plains of Punjab, the place of its birth. (It’s only in the past fifty years or so that the Punjabi people and their language have started making their presence felt across the globe). Despite their vast geographical, historical differences in terms of reach and spread, the common lineage of both English and Punjabi can obviously be traced back to the Indo-European family.

The Sufi strain – Baba Farid

Much in the manner of other world literatures, Punjabi literature, too, had its early beginnings in poetry. A Sufi strain was very much in evidence in the compositions of Baba Farid, a 12th century saint, widely recognized as one of the early practitioners of Punjabi poetry, whose bani continues to resonate, in different ways, not only within the marginalized Sufi tradition but also in the dominant Sikh tradition.

Though Baba Farid was not a very prolific poet (only 122 of his shlokas have survived to our times), his poetry could be said to have influenced not only the poetic traditions of Quissa kavya, but also the narrative traditions of varaans (heroic legends) initially, and then other forms of popular narratives such as story-telling and long and short novels.  Interestingly, in the context of early or medieval Punjabi literature, there is no real division between the poetic, the narrative and the dramatic traditions, the way it often exists in the West.

Popular perception about Baba Farid’s poetry is that it is otherworldly, soaked in mysticism and spirituality, inimical to social and material realities that gave birth to it.  What needs to be emphasized is that apart from being a Sufi, Farid was also an inveterate social dissenter, who raised a banner of revolt against established clergy, orthodox religious practices and the ruling establishment. This anti-hegemonic strain has been present in the Punjabi literary tradition right from the times of Guru Gorakh Nath, who was responsible for starting the cult of Nath-Jogis way back in the 9th century AD. How critical these jogis were of religious and social practices of their times is evident from the verses of Charpat Nath, who was particularly known for his caustic denunciation of selfishness and hypocrisy: “You may put on a white dress/Or change it for blue/whatever faith you assume/You pray only to your own stomach.” If there is a single, dominant strain that runs through the gamut of Punjabi literary/cultural tradition, it is, undoubtedly, the element of social dissent and non-conformism. This surfaces, again and again, be it in the satirical verses of Nath-Jogis or the Sufi poetry of Farid or other Sufis such as Bulleh Shah or Waris Shah.

Farid was conscious that only those who had already been liberated from the oppressive social or historical reality could possibly hope to develop or forge an equation with the Murshed or the Divine. No wonder, he strongly advocated a more personalized relationship between the devotee and the Guru, the acolyte and the Master, an ordinary, servile subject and the royal, sovereign ‘Sahib.’ Both in its conception and its praxis, Farid’s understanding of this dialectics is quite similar to the dynamics of Bhaktiyoga.

Varaans (Heroic Poetry)

For almost three hundred years after Farid, until the advent of Guru Nanak Devji on the scene, Punjab went through an extended, nightmarish phase of foreign invasions, bringing its literary/cultural march to a sudden, temporary halt.  Whatever little was written or produced around this time was destroyed and mutilated in the course of innumerable foreign invasions. In the context of Punjabi literary history, this period is euphemistically known as an ‘epoch of silence.’ By choosing to describe this period in a certain way, I’m not suggesting that no significant body of literature was produced or written in this period, but only emphasizing that literature of this period doesn’t, in any way, compare favourably with either what had preceded it or what was to follow later. In other words, this period was not dominated so much by individual literary efforts as it was by the community-based efforts such as varaans (heroic poetry).

As these varaans were essentially meant to celebrate the collective spirit of the people, they did but little to advance or foreground the cause of the individual writers/poets. It is significant that the emergence of this genre of heroic poetry coincided with one of the most turbulent phases in the history of Punjab. In fact, varaans were not only steeped in the local colours and folk history but also offered a strange mix of the poetic and the narrative. Though this form had actually begun to emerge in the times of Nath-Jogis, it began to proliferate only in this particular period. Some of the well-known varaans are Var of Dulla Bhatti and Jaimal Fatta, Tunde Asraj di Var, Kahn Bhagwan di Var, Asa di Var et al. Sung by professional singers (mirassis) to entertain royalty and commoners alike, these varaans were more like Western ballads. The subjects of these songs were as varied as the occasions on which they were sung, ranging from the protest of a young girl refusing to beautify herself for the unsuitable men her father chooses for her, to the travails of a people constantly under siege of invading armies. Often dealing with wars and conflicts, these varaans continued to surface in the Punjabi literature up until the middle of the 19th century. In a way, Shah Mohammed’s Jungnaama, which presents a record of the Anglo-Sikh Wars, could be seen as one of the last surviving documents of this particular genre. Apart from sensitizing people to historical developments and the need to offer resistance to invaders and marauders, these varaans also served as significant documentary efforts at chronicling the people’s view of history.

The Gurus and their resilience to violence

However, this literary/cultural inertia did not last very long. The birth of the great poet Guru Nanak Dev in 1469 A.D. heralded a new chapter in the cultural history of Punjab.

His poetic effusions do not find very many parallels in the history of the Bhakti movement. Spiritualism may have been the main force of his poetic content, but it always drew its ideological strength from a certain view of social reality that he subscribed to. Perhaps only a Punjabi sensibility could have thought of love for Brahama in the way Nanak essentially did: “Jar tar prem khelan kaccha chao Seer dhar tali gali mori aao.” (Whenever you wish to play the game of love, come to my street, balancing your head upon your palms).
This image of love fused with violence couldn’t have struck roots in any soil other than that of Punjab. When Babar came, he commented: “Paap ki janj le Kabulon charya, Jori mange daan we Lalo” (Bhai Lalo! This Babar has come from Kabul, accompanied by a sinful baraat (his army), and is now coercing us into the act of kanyadaan).

As the atrocities of Babar became more severe and brutal, Nanak’s protest, too, became more strident and vociferous: Jin seer sohin medhian maangi paaye sindhoor, se seer kaati muniyan gal wich aaye dhoor.” (This one has kicked all heads into dust, even the ones that were flower-bedecked and sindhoor-laden). And when Babar’s savagery became virtually intolerable, he raised his voice against it, saying “Jeh rat laghekapra jama hoye paleet, Joh rat peevan maansa tin keyo nirmal cheet.” (If a piece of cloth loses its purity the moment it is stained by blood, how can all those people hope to retain their piety who are always sucking other people’s blood).

This defiance in face of tyranny and oppression is not merely a hallmark of Guru Nanak’s sensitivity and depth, but also a cultural marker of Punjabi resilience and courage. Rejecting ritualism and superstition, Guru Nanak emphasized social equality and brotherhood as the essence of true religion. Once the Guru’s bani began to resonate through the fields of Punjab, soaking up and fertilizing its large tracts, there was no looking back. Being both philosophical and mystical in its thematic content, this bani ultimately found its rightful place in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, a rare combination of the spiritual and secular heritage of Punjabis. Guru Angad, the second Guru, could be said to have contributed a great deal towards the growth and evolution of the Punjabi language, as he was the one who actively promoted Gurmukhi script by extensively using it for his teachings.

However, the ambitious project of compiling the bani of the Sikh Gurus in the form of the holy Guru Granth Sahib was initiated by none other than Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru, a process completed by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. The Guru Granth Sahib is truly a repository of the collective wisdom of the Sikh Gurus, a confluence of all faiths, Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam. Composed in 31 different ragas, the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib correspond to different moods, times and seasons. Apart from the verses and teachings of the Sikh Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib gives a fair representation to the hymns and thoughts of Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Sheikh Farid and several others. In the context of Punjabi literature, Guru Granth Sahib occupies the same pre-eminent, canonical position that is often conceded to the Bible in the realm of English literature. Undoubtedly, it is one of the greatest works of poetry and/or literature in the history of the Punjabi culture and tradition.

Apart from poetry, other literary forms, often associated with Guru Nanak Dev ji, are called the Janam Sakhis or the life stories of Guru Nanak. Believed to have been written between 1620 and 1640 AD, these Sakhis are, in fact, hagiographies, concatenation of anecdotes about Guru Nanak’s life, gathered from oral sources, primarily with a view to establish his divinity. Almost every anecdote either reveals his teachings or emphasizes his divinity by projecting him as a miracle man. The language of these Sakhis is sometimes a cross between two dialects, sometimes the Multani or the central dialect, all of which do bear a strong impress of Braj Bhasa. The syntax is often simple, not convoluted and the imagery, homespun and domestic, so that the appeal of the Janam Sakhis to the popular mind is instant and immediate.

Waris’ Heer – the tragic love stories

If on the one hand, medieval Punjabi literature was dominated by Sikh thought and philosophy, on the other, it was ceaselessly nurtured by the uninterrupted flow of Sufi poetry, in forms as varied as Quissa (a narrative in verse), Kaafi (a poetic form) and Masnavi (another form of poetic expression). Though Sassi-PannuSohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiban, and Heer-Ranjha are some of the prominent tragic love legends of Punjab, it is Heer-Ranjha that has had a perennial fascination for the Punjabi mind and occupied a privileged, archetypal position in the cultural mindscape of the Punjabis down the ages. No wonder, different poets, starting from Damodar Gulati down to Ahmed Yar, Muqbal and Waris Shah, have engaged with this eternal legend, in the process producing its different versions. However, it is Waris’ Heer that has acquired a legendary status in the folk history/culture of the Punjab, as it continues to live in the minds and hearts of the common people, who often recite it during the more formal village assemblies or the informal poetic gatherings. Written in 1766, Waris’ Heer is a significant social and historical document as it chronicles that period in the history of the Punjab when the Mughal Empire was dying, East India Company was spreading its tentacles across India and the pernicious invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali were ruining Punjabi folk life and culture. Some other prominent Sufi poets of the medieval period are Shah Hussein (1539-1593), Sultan Bahu (1631-1691), Bulleh Shah (1680-1758), Hashim Shah (1753-1823), Amam Baksh (1778-1863), Kadir Yar (1805-1865) et al. Later, in the modern period, this strain of Sufi poetry reincarnated itself in the poetry of Bhai Mohan Singh, Shiv Kumar Batalavi, Surjit Pattar and several others.

British rule to Modernism

The emergence of modern Punjabi literature, ironically, coincided with the beginnings of the British rule upon the soil of Punjab, which happened only in the early 1850s. The setting up of a Christian mission at Ludhiana in 1835 (where a printing press was installed for using Gurmukhi fonts, and which also issued the first Punjabi grammar in 1838), the publication of a Punjabi dictionary by Reverend J. Newton in 1854 and the ripple-down effect of the strengthening and modernizing the education system under the patronage of the Singh Sabha Movement in 1860s, were some of the developments that made it possible for ‘modernism’ to emerge in Punjabi literary culture. It needs to be pointed out here that ‘modernism’ is being used here as an umbrella term to cover a whole range of developments in the Punjabi literary culture, starting with the break from tradition or the past to a commitment to progressive ideology, from the experimental nature of the avant-garde to the newness of the forward-looking.

Both in the realms of Punjabi poetry and novel, it is Bhai Vir Singh who is often seen as the harbinger of modernism. Starting off as a pamphleteer, he soon evolved into a major literary figure of his times, contributing a large body of qualitative and trail-blazing literature. If Bhai Vir Singh retrieved Punjabi poetry from the excesses of Persian poetry, he also energized the narrative tradition by adapting the Western form of the novel to his indigenous expression and ideology. Though his poetry, with its dominant mystical strain, easily gets linked to the tradition of the Sikh philosophy and thought, his efforts at creating historical romances such as Sundari, Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh, largely remain imitative of Walter Scott and his ilk.

Rooting the Punjabi novel in the soil of Punjab

Breaking away from such imitative efforts, his successor Nanak Singh, under the reformist influence of the Singh Sabha Movement, tried rather successfully to root the Punjabi novel in the very soil and substance of Punjab. Turning to the indigenous modes of story telling such as Quissa, popular in the medieval period, Nanak Singh gave to the Punjabi novel a distinctive local character and habitation. It was through his efforts that the novel managed to reclaim not only its vital link with the oral tradition, but also its soft, delicate formless texture. In the novels of Nanak Singh, fluidity of sentimentalism goes hand in hand with the ideological concerns of a social reformer, something that Sohan Singh Seetal and Jaswant Singh Kanwal, who were to come later, also tried to emulate, fairly successfully.

Interestingly, it was in the Punjabi language that the anchalik upnayas (whose beginnings literary historians often trace back to Phaneshwar Nath Renu’s Hindi novel Maila Anchal) made its appearance first of all. Kartar Singh Duggal’s Andraan, a novel written in the Pothoari dialect and steeped in the localism of the same region, its geography, economy, ecology, customs and conventions, was published as far back as 1948. In a way, emergence of this particular form of novel did help in foregrounding hard-core social realism in the Punjabi novel, which was to acquire its ideological underpinnings from a curious blend of Marxist thought and Gandhian socialism. Sant Singh Sekhon, Surinder Singh Narula, Amrita Pritam and Narinder Pal Singh, among several others, made a consistent and significant contribution towards this paradigm shift. By enabling the fiction to shed its obsessive, maudlin sentimentality, even quasi-romantic character, these luminaries slowly but surely paved the way for the advent of a truly modernist novel in Punjabi, with a distinctive psychological/sociological thrust.

Gurdial Singh – Radicalising the Punjabi Novel

Until the times of Gurdial Singh, two diametrically opposed ideologies viz., a brand of naïve romanticism and an indigenous form of realism had continued to exert pressures and counter-pressures upon the content and/or form of the Punjabi novel. Apart from these ideological tensions, which helped shape the aesthetic concerns as well as their articulation, Punjabi fiction had continued to shift back and forth between the rural and the urban, the past and the present, the poetic and the realistic. The historical importance of Gurdial Singh’s fiction lies in the fact that it sought to encapsulate the dialectics of tradition and modernity, even tried to attain a rare synthesis of the two, wherever possible, something that had eluded Punjabi fiction until then. If Gurdial Singh radicalised the Punjabi novel by infusing into it a new consciousness about the oppressed/underprivileged, Ajit Cour and Daleep Kaur Tiwana opened up newer possibilities by interrogating the marginalized status/position of Punjabi women in a heavily accented, feudal and patriarchal, societal regime. Niranjan Tasneem, Mohan Kahlon, Surjit Sethi and several others, in their distinctive ways, have continued to push the frontiers of the Punjabi fiction.

Punjabi Poetry in the modern context

Apart from Bhai Vir Singh, Dhani Ram ‘Chatrik’ (1876-1954), Puran Singh (1881-1931), Mohan Singh (1905-1978), Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) are among the prominent poets of the first generation, who sought to re-inscribe the ideology and aesthetics of Punjabi poetry in the modern context. Though in some form or the other, their poetry bore the scars of the trauma of Partition, each one of them wrote in as varied an idiom and as distinct a voice as anyone could. Steeped in the Indian tradition of romance and conforming to the classical rigour, Chatrik used poetry to celebrate varied moods of nature, or occasionally evoke an undying sense of patriotism through his nationalist verses. Brought up on a heavy dose of English and American poetry, Puran Singh was definitely more liberal and direct than most of his predecessors, and his poetic expression always bristled with naked sensuousness and primal celebration of human body. Most explicitly Freudian, he openly proclaims in one of his poems, “I want to be an animal again.” Mohan Singh could be described as a ‘progressive modern’ for it was he who liberated Punjabi poetry from the constraints of mysticism and/or revivalism. His range was simply astounding as he moved imperceptibly from the romantic felicities of Saave Pattar to the political consciousness of Adhvate, from the Freudian flights of Kasumbhara to the socialist fancies of Vadda Vela. If there is anything that defines Amrita Pritam’s poetry, it is the boldness of her expression, pungency of her social criticism and relentless critique of defunct morality that often works to the detriment of women. In a poem entitled ‘Kumwari’ (The Virgin) in her collection Kagaz Te Canvas, which won her the prestigious Jnanpeeth, she tells the story of a young girl in her characteristic sardonic tone: “When I moved into your bed/I was not alone there – there were two of us/A married woman and a virgin/To sleep with you/I had to offer the virgin in me/I did so/This slaughter is permitted in law/Not the indignity of it…”

Shiv Batalavi and Harbhajan Singh – Soul stirring lyricism

In 1950s, when Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam had already won great accolades and the future of the Punjabi poetry didn’t appear to be very encouraging, it was the soul-stirring lyricism of Shiv Batalavi and the thought-content of Harbhajan Singh that infused new possibilities into it. Attuning himself to the raw, jagged rhythms of his work-a-day, earthy life, Shiv Batalavi created such haunting melodies of pain and suffering that they continue to resound in our hearts, even today. A skilful craftsman of words, he had this rare ability to make even a fleeting, ordinary moment pulsate with eternal possibilities. To this day, his poetic drama Luna, in which he re-interpreted the popular legend of Puran Bhagat from a woman’s standpoint, remains one of the best works ever produced in contemporary Punjabi literature.

Harbhajan Singh’s breadth of experience and range of sympathies is simply unnerving, as he responds to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the same inwardness with which he portrays the exploitation of an underdog in his own society. Often his aestheticism becomes a challenge to the critical and militant mood of the progressives, as in these lines: “Whenever I enter into a dialogue with you/My breath sends out notes of a flute/….Or if you can not trust yourself with the flute/You may ply your sword on the flute and go.” Among the second generation of poets, we may mention Pritam Singh ‘Safeer,’ Santokh Singh Dheer, Prabhjot Kaur and Jaswant Singh Neki, who, through their varied contributions, enriched the ever-growing corpus of modern Punjabi poetry.

The 60s Naxalite Movement

In the 60s, Punjab suddenly found itself in the vortex of the Naxalite movement, much in the manner of other states of India, where the failure to implement land reforms had backfired. So extensive was the influence of this movement that it threatened to swallow up all the major gains Punjab was poised to make on account of the Green Revolution. Such were the conditions that led the progressive movement into its militant phase, with Bawa Balwant, Paash, Ravinder Ravi, Ajaib Kamal, Harbhajan Halwarwi, Amarjit Chandan and several others emerging as its major votaries. While others, fearing persecution, migrated to foreign lands, Paash, Bawa Balwant and Halwarwi, continued to spearhead the movement, even when it was on the decline. Later, when the high tide of terrorism swept through the Punjab, Paash and Ravinder Ravi fell to assassins’ bullets. But while they lived, Paash and his friends were swept off by the ideology of Che Guavera and Fidel Castro, and charmed by the poetic practises of Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. They have left behind a rich corpus of poetry that sizzles with political radicalism and revolutionary fervour, and articulates a trans-national commitment to the solidarity of the oppressed.

Though this phase didn’t last very long, it seems to have left a lasting impact on the growth of the contemporary Punjabi poetry. Surjit Pattar and Dr Jagtar are among those who came riding the crest of militancy, but have, over the years, softened a great deal, and now integrate their lyrical aestheticism with social criticism truly well. In one of his verses, written during the heydays of militancy, Surjit Pattar agonizes over the tragedy, saying, “This Punjab spanning two rivers and a half/Perhaps belongs to a political leader/I’m not a leader/My Punjab was done to death/A long time ago.” A gentle, persuasive irony runs through the whole gamut of his poetry, though sometimes, he does allow the mellifluousness of his Sufi-like voice dominate, especially in his ghazals, through which he has helped redefine and expand the frontiers of Punjabi poetry in the recent times. Among others, some of the younger poets who have left an indelible impact on the contemporary scene are Mohanjit, Jaswant Deed, Swrajbir, Joga Singh, Sati Kumar and Dev.

Women Poets

Another feature of modern Punjabi poetry is the presence of an overwhelmingly large number of women poets, who have impressed their readers not only by virtue of their prolific output but also the quality of their contributions. Manjit Tiwana, Pal Kaur, Surjit Kalsi, Nirupama Dutt, Gagan Gill, Amar Jyoti and Vineeta are some of the younger women poets who, through their sustained interrogation of patriarchy, have charted new paths in the Punjabi poetic tradition. Not only are they more liberal and less inhibited in their portrayal of man-woman relationship, but also more aggressively innovative in fashioning out the contours of an entirely new ‘female aesthetics.’ Unlike their predecessors, who thought woman was incomplete without man; these poets emphasized the emotional and intellectual autonomy of woman, thus bringing significant questions of gender ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ to the fore. One of the collections of Amar Jyoti is significantly titledMainun Sita Naa Kaho (Don’t you call me Sita!). Confronted with the maniacal frenzy of terrorism, Manjit Tiwana is forced to ask: “What times are these/Sitting on its threshold/We ask the whereabouts of our home.”

The new short story writers

It is an established historical fact that short story, in its archival, primeval form, is essentially Indian in its origin and character, and that its beginnings can safely be traced back to its mythological/archetypal sources such as The Mahabharata, Pauranik Tales, Panchtantra, Katha Sarit Sagar and Jatak Tales et al. It is also a fact that, owing to a large number of factors, the short story slowly lost out its pre-eminent position in our literary culture and didn’t regain it up until the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. When it finally did re-surface in several Indian languages, including Punjabi, it carried a definitive ideological and aesthetic imprint of the realistic form that Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Chekhov and other European masters had helped to develop.

In the Punjabi language, however, Charan Singh Shaheed, Joshua Fazal Deen, Heera Singh Dard and Nanak Singh were among the early practitioners of the short story. Some of the factors that helped in popularizing this form in its early days were the proliferation of printing presses across Punjab, the mushrooming of literary magazines, journals and newspapers, and the spread of literary education. In its initial stages, at least, the Punjabi short story was subversively used as a tool for propagating Sikh ideology and thought, as most of the story-tellers also happened to be strong votaries of the Singh Sabha Movement, too.

With the emergence of Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, Sant Singh Sekhon, Kulwant Singh Virk, Kartar Singh Duggal and Sujan Singh, the Punjabi short story anchored itself firmly into the progressive, Marxist ideology. This is also the time when attempts were made to harmonise the conflicting claims of ideology and aesthetics. More than others, it was Kulwant Singh Virk who understood and responded rather well to the multiple challenges that the story, as a modern form, often poses. Along with his irresistible penchant for the dramatic mode, his stories reveal a remarkable sense of control over his material and expression. Virk knew the art of counterbalancing a rare economy of style with an equally forceful and profound understanding of human psychology.

In a manner of speaking, most of his successors, especially Mohan Bhandari, Gurbachan Bhullar, Prem Parkash and Gulzar Sandhu et al owe their broad sense of ‘new humanism’ and ‘catholicism’ to Virk, as much as they owe their understanding of the art and craft of story-writing to him. This tradition is being ably supported and enriched through the efforts of some of the promising story tellers on the scene today, among whom we could easily count people like Chandan Negi, Jasbir Bhullar, Prem Gorky, Waryam Sandhu, Swaran Chandan, Harjit Atwal and Veena Verma. It would not be preposterous to claim that the contemporary Punjabi short story, being an extremely vibrant and innovative form, has a fairly bright future, and even the potential to compete with the best anywhere in the world.

Punjabi Playwriting

Unlike the short story, drama as a form in Punjabi has not had a very eventful or a consistent track record of growth and evolution, as it has been somewhat sporadic and fitful. Interestingly, the beginnings of the Punjabi drama/theatre are often traced back to the fortuitous efforts of Norah Richards, the Irish wife of a Unitarian minister preaching in Punjab. An amateur actor, she had also been associated with the Irish National Theatre Dublin once. Around 1913-14, Norah started drama competitions among her students of Dyal Singh College, Lahore, where she was teaching then. It was in one of these competitions that Ishwar Nanda, then a student and now widely recognized as one of the pioneers of Punjabi drama, discovered his talent for playwriting. His one-act play Suhag(1913) was adjudged the best and that marked the beginning of the indigenous theatre movement in Punjabi. Ishwar Nanda went on to write over twenty one-act plays, all of which show a definite influence of Ibsen, fired as he was by an unsparing zeal for social reform and change.

Among others, this tradition of playwriting found able and worthy legatees in Sant Singh Sekhon, Gurdial Singh Phul and Harcharan Singh, who not only strengthened but also nurtured the dramatic tradition founded by Ishwar Nanda. From time to time, Kartar Singh Duggal, Surjit Sethi, Harsharan Singh and Balwant Gargi contributed very significantly towards the incremental growth of this tradition. Of course, Gursharan Singh stands apart by virtue of his formidable contribution to the popularity and growth of street theatre in the far off villages of Punjab. Over a period of time, Punjabi drama has not only acquired a distinctive identity of its own, but also managed to get overwhelming support from the public as well as the much needed official recognition. That for two successive years, Sahitya Akademi has chosen to confer its prestigious literary award upon two eminent playwrights in Punjabi, Charan Das Sidhu and Ajmer Aulakh, is an ample proof of the kind of popularity Punjabi drama is beginning to enjoy now.

Though Atamjit, who invariably writes and directs his own plays, has not received similar official recognition so far, in terms of talent and genius, or for that matter, popularity, he is no less than any of his contemporaries. Atamjit has, in fact, crossed the narrow, geographical barriers of Punjab and staged his plays in Canada as well as U.S. Another person, who is responsible for giving international exposure to Punjabi theatre, is Neelam Man Singh Chaudhury, though she is primarily a director, not a playwright. Fusing together elements of Punjabi folk and classical forms such as thedhadhi (a form of recital), kavishar (ad lib performance) and gatha (martial arts), she has, under the banner of her production house, The Company, staged plays in France, England, Germany, Japan, U.S. and elsewhere.

The Survey so far

One could, if one wishes, go into the growth of Punjabi prose and criticism, too, but as there are constraints of space, I have chosen to leave it out of the scope of the present essay, at least. In the same way, I have not been able to create ‘separate’ space for the literature of the Punjabi Diaspora. Despite that, my conscious effort in this essay has been to offer as comprehensive a view of Punjabi literature and/or history as I possibly could. However, I’m not too sure how far I’ve succeeded in doing what I had set out to do. In the ultimate analysis, all surveys only succeed in offering a bird’s eye view of the subject, and howsoever hard one may try, often remain partial, even prejudiced. So I won’t be audacious enough to claim that I have managed to sum up all the major trends, movements and developments that swept through the Punjabi literature and/or literary forms in course of its long march over a thousand years or so, but I’ve certainly tried to map out some of these. For whatever else I couldn’t somehow achieve, I find it convenient to offer an apology.


Professor Rana Nayar is a translator of poetry and short fiction from Punjabi to English. He has more than forty volumes of poetry and translation works to his credit. He has been a pioneer in bringing into Punjabi translation a great number of classics from Punjabi literature. Among the prominent Punjabi authors he has translated are included such literary giants as Gurdial Singh, Raghubir Dhand, Mohan Bhandari and Beeba Balwant.

Sohail Abid   /   July 31, 2012