Amrita Pritam: A Restless Cloud
Source: The Dawn
Amrita Pritam, the eminent Punjabi poetess, novelist and short story writer and an outstanding literary figure of South Asia, passed away quietly in her sleep at her residence, 25 Hauz Khas, New Delhi, during the afternoon of October 31, 2005. With her demise, a golden era of Punjabi literature, of which she was the shining light, came to an end.
Before she made her mark on the scene of Punjabi literature, the voice of Punjabi women was either weaved into epic love stories by the classical Punjabi poets who were all male or was hidden behind certain forms of Punjabi folk songs that have anonymously given expression to women feelings for many centuries. Amrita Pritam single handedly changed this forever.
Among her many overlapping identities, the one that truly represents her is her Punjabiat. She got her inspirations from Punjabi folk songs, classical literature and Punjabi culture, and remained true to her Punjabi origins although a few of her later novels and short stories were first published in Hindi. Even after Partition, her creative self remained bonded to the whole Punjab.
It was no coincidence that after witnessing the atrocities and bloodshed caused by Punjab’s partition, when she cried out for help she could think of no one else but Waris Shah. The way her famous poem “Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nun, Kiton Qabran Wichon Bol,” resonated with the sufferings of millions of Punjabis is one of the miracles of great poetry.
During her lifetime, she published more than 75 books, including 24 novels, 15 collections of short stories, 23 volumes of poetry, two biographies and a number of other works of prose.
The recognition for her artistic genius poured in from all directions. From the large scale sale of her books to translations in almost all Indian and east European languages, and in English, French, Danish and Japanese. Three Bollywood movies were based on her novels. More recently Pinjer, a movie based on her novel by the same name, received high acclaims.
She received the highest civilian awards in India, including Padma Shiri, Padma Vibushan, Sahitya Academy Award, Bharatia Jnanpith Award, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from 5 universities. She was also made a member of Rajaya Sabha, the upper chamber of Indian Parliament, from 1986 to 1992.
That is not how her life was supposed to turn out. For a girl born in 1919 in the then small town of Gujranwala in a deeply religious Sikh household, she was supposed to remain confined in many layers of boundaries within a rigid and traditional social structure. There was no room for either a self-willed personal or creative fulfillment.
She achieved both. Without even making the compromise of permanently keeping the personal and creative aspects of her life in two separate compartments. She eventually melded them into one cohesive expression of her inner beliefs and aspirations.
It was a struggle, slow and long and often torturous. It required courage more than anything else, as she had once written, “What matters is not life, but the courage you bring to it.”
Both her parents, Nand Sadhu (Kirtar Singh Hitkari before he had renounced the world and joined an ashram) and Raj Bibi, were teachers in a school in Gujrawanla at the time of her birth. Her father had by then left the asharam to marry her mother and raise a family. Her mother passed away when she was only 11. She lived a lonely life for the next few years in a house full of books about religion and meditation, following the rituals and prayers with her father who didn’t approve of her making any friends.
She did learn the art of rhyme and rhythm and metrical compositions from her father, who wanted her to write about only religious themes, and started writing her own poetry. Perhaps it was also the example of her father that planted the seeds of the guiding principle of her life: to live in peace of her innermost self, without worrying about how the world thought of her.
Her first book of poetry, Amrit Lehran, was published when she was barely 17 years old. She got married about the same time. In 1936 she moved to Lahore with her husband, Pritam Singh. She changed her name from Amrita Kaur that had appeared on her first book, to Amrita Pritam, which was destined to become a household name in Punjab.
Lahore in the 1930’s and until the mid-40’s was a cosmopolitan Punjabi city where Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Punjabis were living in a religious and cultural harmony. Many of the famous pre-partition era’s Punjabi writers were settled in Lahore, which was then the center of Punjabi literary activities. Amrita Pritam became a part of the literary circle centered around Gurbux Singh’s Punjabi magazine Preet LaRee. She took formal training in music and dance, and joined Lahore Radio as a singer of folk songs.
A prolific writer all through her life, Amrita Pritam published 8 books of Punjabi poetry before partition, gradually moving away from her early love poems and folk songs to more progressive themes. Her collection of poems Loke PeeR, published in 1944 with poems on the tragedy of the Bengal famine of 1943, signaled a clear departure from her earlier poetry.
After partition, Amrita Pritam settled in Delhi. She wrote a number of poems, short stories and novels stories on the theme of Punjab’s partition that were widely recognized as the best articulations of this colossal tragedy. At the same time, she increasingly started picking up themes on women issue in her short stories and novels that brought her wide popularity among Punjabi and Hindi readers.
With Sunehre (Messages), another collection of Punjabi poems published in 1955, Amrita Pritam reached the height of her poetic art. This was an anthology of poems that were mostly dedicated to and woven around her deeply emotional feelings of love for Sahir Ludhianvi, a famous Urdu poet. This book won her the Sahitya Academy Award. She was its first women recipient.
Amrita Pritam had never reconciled with her loveless arranged marriage. This also became a prominent theme in her poems and novels. Sahir Ludhianvi was her first true love. She openly talked about it in her biography Raseedi Ticket (The Revenue Stamp) that became one of her most popular book and has been translated in many languages.
The reconciliation in her personal life finally came when she got divorce from her husband in 1960 and started living with Imroz, an artist and painter, who became her dedicated companion for the rest of her life. It proved to be a blessing for Punjabi Literature.
Amrita Pritam and Imroz started publishing a Punjabi magazine, Nagmani, in 1966. Nagmani, like Preet LaRi before it, played a very important role in opening new vistas for Punjabi literature. Nagmani helped in establishing the writing careers of Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Manjit Tiwana, Amitoj, Dalip Kaur Tiwana and a long list of other modern Punjabi writers.
Nagmani was regularly published until 2002 when a minor accident, a fall at home at the ripe age of 83, signaled the beginning of the final and quieter period of Amrita Pritam’s life which she had lived with such extraordinary intensity.
Even as her ability to walk became gradually more restrictive and the energy to speak was eventually reduced to no more than a few minutes at a time, the doors of her house remained opened. 25 Hauz Khas had been the gathering place of Punjabi writers for many decades, where hundreds of visitors from India, Pakistan and abroad had been coming each year.
The number of people coming to see her during those last years had trickled down to a few, mostly young writers. She could still inspire them, telling one visitor after the Gujrat riots, “Why do we humans fight? Can’t we learn something from flowers? They are all so beautiful but never become jealous of each other.”
She continued to write an occasional poem. Main tainu pher milange, was perhaps her last poem. It was dedicated to Imroz, her companion for the last 41 years:
I will meet you again
Where? How? I don't know
Perhaps as a figure
Of your imagination
I will appear on your canvas
Or perhaps appearing as a mysterious line
On your canvas
I will keep staring at you.
Only for those last three years, her once poetic broodings came true: “Ve Main TiRke GhaRey Daa Paani – Kal Assan Naheen Rehnaan (I am like water in a cracked earthen pitcher – It won’t last for too long).
For the rest of her life, she soared high as a restless cloud, full of energy and strength, free from limits and boundaries, always gathering precious droplets of moisture from the winds and giving out life sustaining water and shadows, never suspended at one place for long and ever rising to new heights.
We are too close to the extraordinary phenomenon that was Amrita Pritam’s life and creative art to fully grasp its significance and achievements, or to pass a final judgment on it. There is no doubt that as the first universally recognized women Punjabi poet and novelist, she has secured a permanent place among the great Punjabi writers.