PUNJABI IS MY MOTHER TONGUE, my blood, my soul, my language. I think, dream and feel in it. I will also die in it,” proclaims Amarjit Chandan, an acclaimed poet born in Kenya. “In pardes (abroad),” he explains of his adult life spent in London, “I invented the Punjabiland.”
For a land that has been home to some of the world’s richest civilisations, modern Punjabi culture remains remarkably little known outside the noisy clichés of Bollywood and music videos. As the Indian state of Punjab grapples with complex social and economic issues, the Pakistani province of Punjab collapses due to political woes, and a large diaspora stays settled all over the globe, Punjabi poets and storytellers of old seem to be disappearing along with the water levels in the land of the five rivers. But Punjabis are nothing if not adept at handling change—it is the legacy of their own turbulent history, after all—and there are small but significant signs, that this vibrant melting-pot culture is on the verge of reemergence.
History has not been kind to the people of Punjab. The brutal division of the state during Partition led to both carnage and to one of the biggest mass population movements during the 20th century. Amidst the riots, butchery, rape and devastation, Punjabis of all religious persuasions suddenly found that they had to create new identities. In Pakistan, those identities had to be established through a new, Urdu-speaking nationalist ethos that sought to reimagine the country’s history and culture by severing ties with its neighbour. In India, those identities had to be reshaped by millions of refugees whose culture, possessions, love and longing belonged to another place. In the decades after Partition, hundreds of thousands of Punjabis from both East Punjab, in India, and West Punjab, in Pakistan, left their homelands to seek sanctuary and a new life abroad. For all of these people, the historical and cultural ties to their motherland had to be reforged. The multi-hued complexion of both states had become altered radically overnight.
Lahore, the united Punjab’s former capital, had long been considered the jewel in the crown of North India and had been developed as a cultural capital under both the Mughals and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. “Jisne Lahore nahi dekhya, woh janmia nahi (Those who have not seen Lahore, have not lived),” proclaimed popular lore at the time. With Lahore as its capital, Punjab’s multilingual, multireligious culture had flourished in poetry, art, music and literature in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi, weaving smoothly in and out of religious boundaries and between both rich and poor alike who patronised the baithaks and shrines of the “City of Gardens”. In 1901, the first Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, India’s first music university funded by public support and donations, was started there by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The famous Takia Meerasian at the city’s Mocchi Gate played court to a myriad legendary musicians, such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who, although from Lahore district, eventually sought Indian citizenship in 1957, having become disenchanted with the Pakistani government’s official attitude towards music. He is reputed to have said: “If, in every home, one child was taught Hindustani classical music, this country would never have been partitioned.” In order to begin to understand what the loss of Lahore meant to Indian Punjab, one must try to imagine either France without Paris or England without London; a sense of the cultural desolation begins to resonate. “The land of the five rivers became a land of two and half rivers each,” says Nirupama Dutt, an eminent Punjabi journalist, writer and activist based in Chandigarh. Although a strong body of Partition literature inevitably emerged, with courageous writers such as Amrita Pritam depicting the pain of their upheaval in heartfelt poetry and prose, the destruction of a once-unified Punjab meant that it would take decades before a new Punjabi identity could begin to be reborn.
Punjabi poetry and literature begins in the realms of Sufism. The first Punjabi poetry dates back to the 12th century with Baba Farid, some of whose writings later made their way into the Guru Granth Sahib along with those of Kabir. Spirituality, from both the nascent Sufi and Sikh traditions, is a strong Punjabi literary theme which has often sought to straddle the practicality and earthy qualities of village and agricultural life and tales of tragic love. The celebrated Punjabi kissas such as ‘Heer-Ranjha’, an ancient story of two ill-fated lovers that became famous when penned by Waris Shah, a fêted Punjabi Sufi poet, and others such as ‘Mirza-Sahiban’, ‘Sassi-Punnun’ and ‘Sohni-Mahiwal’ have been passed down and written, rewritten, sung and recreated over history by different artists with different religious backgrounds. Today, the words of Bulleh Shah, born in 1860, have been revitalised both by the Pakistani rock band Junoon and the rising Indian singer Rabbi Shergill. Those versions have been runaway successes in India and Pakistan, and it is perhaps entirely fitting to Bulleh Shah’s humanist legacy that both Muslim and Sikh artists have reignited his lyrics.
Salman Ahmad, the well-known frontman of Junoon who has a fanatical following in both India and Pakistan, says, “I’m interested in the culture of my forebears because culture humanises what politics demonises. Arts and culture open the doors for people to walk through. That is why I wrote my book Rock & Roll Jihad, so that it could act as a viewfinder for a culture which is being hijacked and distorted by politics and violence.” Now living in the US, Ahmad uses his fame to spread the message of cultural fusion, blending qawwali, bhangra, rock and jazz.
Punjabi writers and artists have consistently engaged with politics in their works, whether in attempts to embrace or escape the developments around them. The rising Naxalite and separatist movements of the latter 20th century contributed to the growing body of literature and art emanating from East Punjab with revolutionary poets such as Avtar Singh ‘Paash’, a Naxalite whose works, such as Loh-Katha (Iron Tale) and the literary magazine Siarh (The Plough Line), led him first to jail and then towards his assassination during the height of the 1980s ‘troubled’ years in Punjab. Now the revolutionary songs and poetry of another iconic figure, Bant Singh, an agricultural labourer from Jabbar village in Punjab, have been immortalised in a Goethe-Institut-supported documentary project titled Words, Sound and Power. This musical collaboration with three other musicians, Samrat Bharadwaj, Taru Dalmia and Chris McGuinness, has attempted to spread Bant Singh’s political message about intercaste violence and equality through the modern mediums of electronic fusion, ska and dancehall music.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Punjab’s troubled politics has inspired the work of leading contemporary artists. They include Amrit and Rabindra Singh, known as the Singh Twins, whose award-winning paintings are recognised as constituting a unique genre in British art and credited with initiating the revival of the Indian miniature tradition. The two describe their work as “PastModern”, a blend that seeks to engage with critical issues of serious debate, which have a meaningful impact in challenging pervading social, political and cultural attitudes. In paintings such as ‘Nyrmla’s Wedding’ or ‘Mr Singh’s India’, the Twins depict the multiple layers of their own personal identities as British Asians, interspersed with more global concerns of ecological exploitation and multinational domination. They do not shy away from the political troubles that have rocked their motherland. In ‘1984’, one of their most famous works, they examine the storming of the Golden Temple through the eyes of Sikhs, depicting their profound sense of sadness and injustice, as well as their critical reflections on the media’s role in the tragedy. “The bias of the media and the damaging effect it has had on the reputation of Sikhs is symbolised by the group of blindfolded reporters who stand as ‘partners in crime’, shoulder to shoulder with Indian troops,” they explain. “There is a sense of horror and panic as pilgrims scramble over one another to find refuge from the bullets and armoured tanks. The diagonals created by the composition by the steep line-up of soldiers and the specific orientation of the square temple complex lend themselves to the visual disturbance and chaos of the scene. The surrounding borders of the painting hem in the fleeing crowds, enhancing the feeling of claustrophobia and revealing the futility of its attempts to escape.” The pair says their work is a tribute to the past as well as a celebration of a new reality.
Those from other mediums continue to reap meaning from the Punjabi tradition as they innovate and break through boundaries. Navtej Johar, one of India’s top male dancers in both classical and contemporary mediums as well as the founder of Delhi’s yoga Studio Abhyas, says the poetic and spiritual ethos of his Punjabi Sikh background has inspired his creativity. “I find Punjabi thought to have always been very political and progressive, if not subversive,” he reflects. “When I was growing up, almost all Punjabi literature was leftist. I find the creative Punjabi mind very questioning and not easily satisfied with the status quo. Beginning with Sufi poetry as well as Gurbani, the common strain that I find in serious Punjabi art, literature and even music is that apart from endorsing inclusivity and abandon—be it spiritual, romantic or political—it always comments upon and questions, if not opposes, the sociopolitical system of the time.” Johar also says that neither the Sufi poetry nor the Sikh Gurbani of Punjab can be considered spiritual texts, because both were written by people who took very strong political stands and make very strong sociopolitical assertions. “The Punjabi-self,” he says, “is closely tied to these expressions that are from and of the land. Gurbani is and should remain to be perceived as a pan-Punjab voice of an assertion that is first human and then spiritual.”
Johar has been involved in a number of cross-border initiatives: He collaborated with composers Madan Gopal Singh and Elangovan Govindarjan in the 2007 production of Fana’a: Ranjha Revisited. The dance-theatre piece fused the predominant Punjabi Sufi love legend ‘Heer-Ranjha’ with Kutrala Kuravanji, a genre of dance-drama from Tamil Nadu. The production, which is accompanied by a powerfully stirring musical composition by Singh, a Sufi musical genius, took Johar to Lahore. “I love the Punjab of Pakistan,” he says. “It is in fact ‘my land’, my people, my dialect, I palpably identify with it. The first time I crossed the border, I had tears streaming down my cheeks; the first time I performed in Lahore I was choking.”
Other Indian artists who cross the Punjabi border reveal that same deep affection for the culture and people there. For Amarjit Chandan, Lahore is the muse. “A decade ago, when I first visited Lahore, I wrote down more than 13 poems in a single day walking the streets. I was possessed,” he says. His vision of the two states is melancholy and appropriately poetic. He says that his only desire “is the reunification of the Punjab”.
Beyond the imaginative stirrings of literary Punjabi legend, however, there are valid questions as to whether the artistic love shared across the border translates into a reunified and revitalised Punjabi culture. Professor Rajesh Sharma, from the Punjabi University in Patiala, is downcast. He believes that there is a crisis of identity, driven by globalisation, which generates the need for “culture”, in a commercial sense alone, to fill the gap. History, he believes, has had a tremendous impact on Punjabi culture today. “Culture is a process, marked as much by gaps, ruptures and breaks as by continuities. Ultimately, neither Punjabi culture, nor any other can be sliced off from its historical moorings, and then celebrated,” he says.
Navtej Johar describes this rupture of historical moorings mournfully. He says Partition left Punjabis “in perpetual longing for each other on either side of the border. ‘Lang aajaa patan Chana da yaar’ (Come across over to the banks of the Chenab, O beloved) says it all. In East Punjab, the biggest loss has been the loss of dialects. Dialects probably are a product of the physical landscape and cannot survive transmigration.” Johar says he longs for the ethos of Saraiki, his parents’ dialect, in which Sufi saints wrote. “It has been a huge loss to lose out on a whole treasure of multiple oral cultures, the idiosyncrasies and nuances of which kept our imaginations and our sense of self alive and afloat. The brevity and profundity of the tappas and maiyas (traditional forms of rhyming couplets and verse) of the Rawalpindi area are unparalleled; they are simple, poignant, human, direct and, most of all, inclusive. With Partition, I feel we are in a way orphaned. Of course, we are very good at keeping our chins up, but we are a deeply wounded people. And our truths lie in our wounds, which we are still struggling to address and heal.”
Language, after all, is both the root and tool of any literary voice within a culture; without it, the life experiences which build, reveal and unlock the culture become lost, fading into memories, unrecorded or unexplored. Amarjit Chandan, writing in London, sums up his fears that the loss of Punjabi as a language will contribute towards a cultural desecration in his poem ‘The Peacock in Walpole Park, Ealing’:
…The heart sinks when the peacock screams
The body shivers and the world rejoices
The heart sinks when the peacock screams
It yearns for mango flowers lost long ago ..
Notwithstanding his deep concern over the gradual loss of a language which, for Chandan, represents both life itself and the lens through which he comprehends all other languages, his energetic participation in the literary world outside India is some cause for celebration. Punjabi is, after all, statistically the second most widely spoken language in Britain today. Recently, for example, he took part in the British Library-sponsored ‘Poet in the City’ event in London, marking the centenary of the birth of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most prominent poets of the subcontinent who wrote in both Punjabi and Urdu, and whose work was filled with egalitarian themes of love, dignity and resistance to injustice. Last year, Chandan’s readings from his bilingual Sonata for Four Hands were well-received at London’s iconic Whitechapel Gallery. The increasing interest in Punjabiyat by younger generations of all religious persuasions amongst the diaspora suggests that Punjabi cultural heritage is beginning to move forward, more than 60 years after Partition.
The Lahori view on the impact of language loss to Punjabi culture, however, is less than optimistic. Punjab accounts for some 55 percent of the population of Pakistan, but the heavy use and encouragement of Urdu as the standard language has led to a major decline in the use of Punjabi there. Punjabi publishing in Pakistan has, inevitably, shrunk to minimal levels. Nadir Ali, a retired lieutenant colonel, has spent much of the past 30 years developing Punjabi culture in Pakistan under the mentorship of Najm Hosain Syed, a major Punjabi scholar, poet, critic and playwright who created a study group of Punjabi poetry in 1976, which continues to the present day. Meeting several times a week, the group studies Punjabi poets from the 12th to the 19th centuries, including Waris Shah, Baba Farid and Guru Nanak. Members also publish a regular Punjabi magazine previously called Ma Boli (Mother Tongue), but now renamed Pancham. In a deliberate act of bridging the border, the magazine features major writers from both East and West Punjab.
The retired lieutenant colonel is passionate about Punjabi literature and language and bemoans the fact that Kashmiri Bazaar, the publishing capital of Pakistan’s Punjab, does not have a single Punjabi bookshop. Syed’s group, Ali says, had to set up its own shop in order to publish the works of Punjab’s great poets. Ali also complains that the national mood and ideology has swung so violently towards religious definition alone that the very nature of free speech, encouraged and contemplated by art and literature, is no longer available in Pakistan. He wistfully recalls hearing a Punjabi discussion on the very existence of God by a semi-rural group at the Shah Hussain Mela in Lahore some 50 years ago. That, he says, is simply not possible today because in the current climate, it could lead to death or assassination. He recalls that, pre-Partition, his religious teacher would quote Guru Nanak whilst teaching Islamiat. That generation, he claims with both sadness and anger, is dead and gone along with the vigour of the Punjabi language in Pakistan, without which, literature is doomed. Ali is adamant that, perhaps unlike in India or amongst the diasporic communities, there has been no resurgence of interest in Punjabi culture in Pakistan. “Punjabi was considered subversive to the very ideology of Pakistan,” he says. “All Punjabi literary groups were banned in Pakistan by Ayub Khan in the 1960s. The handful of diehards who remained were leftists, who themselves were denounced in Pakistan during the Cold War era. Language became treated as a question of class in Pakistan and today, Punjabi language and singing survives only in the villages and small towns of the province. Even in the village where my grandparents lived,” he laments, “I have to teach them old marriage songs; they make do instead with movie songs.”
Music, though, may be the great glue in the Punjabi tradition which holds it all together, and a new generation’s interest in Punjabi music could be key to sustaining its revival.
In Pakistan, pop singer Meesha Shafi’s rendition of an old Punjabi song, ‘Chori Chori’, on Coke Studio, a television series featuring diverse musical influences in Pakistan, was met with critical success but also caused a major stir. “I belong to a Punjabi-speaking household,” Shafi says, “but I think it surprised people to see a young girl dressed in modern, Western attire singing a regional, folk Punjabi classic. It was a milestone for me as an artist and as Reshma’s fan to be able to do her song some kind of justice.” In India, Madan Gopal Singh has become a fixture at major festivals, appearing at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year and regularly enchanting Delhi, international crowds and cinema audiences with his mesmeric renditions of Punjab’s hauntingly evocative Sufi music.
Further afield, music has forged a link between the children of immigrants who are finding new ways to combine their parents’ language with the street outside. The bhangra genre, developed in the 1980s and 1990s mostly in Britain, has hit new heights of popularity, and today British and Canadian bhangra artists are bringing their music ‘home’ to Punjab, shifting and extending the boundaries of musical expression and understanding. With record sales often exceeding those of the mainstream pop charts in the UK, bhangra and Asian fusion music has provided a strong sense of pride and identity to Asian youth in the West. Artists like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney exploded onto the British underground music scene in the 1990s, creating a lasting impact on novel and exciting forms of British Punjabi and Asian music. The ‘Nusrat effect’, too, brought a new pride to Punjabi musical culture as the surge of international recognition for songs like ‘Dam Mast Qalandar’ began to recast the modern realities of a globalised Punjabi culture.
Sheniz Janmohamed is a second-generation Canadian- South Asian poet. Her recently published book Bleeding Light (TSAR Publications), is a composition of ghazals written in English, one of which (‘Allah Hu’) was inspired by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Janmohamed herself is not Punjabi but acknowledges that her work is heavily influenced by the Punjabi poetic tradition. Her ghazal, ‘Roses are Stones’, begins with a subtle reference to the life of Saeen Zahoor, the Punjabi folk musician whom she describes as “a living repository of Bulleh Shah’s poetry”. Back to ‘Heer-Ranjha’ again, Janmohamed also incorporates its themes and specific concept of ishq-e-majazi, a metaphorical love that transforms into true love or the love of the Beloved. Bleeding Light was written under the tutelage of her mentor , the late Kuldip Gill, one of the first Canadian-South Asian poets to write ghazals in English. Gill’s last book, Valley Sutra, is a strong tribute to her dual homelands of Punjab and Canada. With each new variation on older themes, Punjabi cultural heritage is morphing and moulding with the movements of its people all over the world.
Self-evidently, the Punjabi diaspora does not speak with a single voice. Having settled in many different places and spaces, the contributions they offer reflect their personal and unique experiences in foreign lands. Gurpreet Chana, also known as “The Tabla Guy”, is a talented Canadian Sikh musician who was born in Toronto. His formal training with Ustad Professor Parshotam Singh in the Punjab Gharana has led him into novel and exciting collaborations with a wide variety of musicians, including Nelly Furtado and Wyclef Jean. Chana acknowledges the strong influence of Punjabi culture on the creation of his music. He says that “music is integrated in almost every part of Punjabi culture, whether it is celebration, contemplation or sorrow”. Instead of the émgirés’ culture becoming frozen in time upon their leaving their homeland, Chana says the diaspora plays a big part in rejuvenating Punjabi culture. Even more, the new Punjabi generations growing up in Canada and elsewhere, he says, expand the tradition as they incorporate other influences from their new contexts.
The complex modern-day realities scarring the peoples of Punjab notwithstanding, these individual stories of artists who are spread across the world represent the moulding of modern Punjabi identity. The forms of art, literature and music which they create may not have been born or even recognised in Jalandhar or Ludhiana, but they are no less integrally Punjabi than the heritage of the previous generations. In a culture which has known both invasions and integrations, fluidity and change may come to represent its strength.