Amrita Pritam ji is considered the first prominent woman Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist. She was born in Guranwala, (Punjab) Pakistan on August 31 1919. She died on 31st October 2005 at the age of 86 in Hauz Khas (New Delhi), after a long illness, survived by her daughter, son and grandson. Amrita’s mother died when she was eleven and the only child of her parents. Soon after, she and her father moved to Lahore. Confronting adult responsibilities, she began to write at an early age. Her first collection was published when she was only sixteen years old, the year she married Pritam Singh, an editor to whom she was engaged in early childhood.
When the former British India was partitioned into the independent states of India and Pakistan, she migrated to New Delhi, India in 1947.Like many others; she lived the agony of partition when millions of people from all religions died due to communal violence. She expressed her agony in this poem, “Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Noo”, addressed to the Sufi poet Waris Shah, author of the tragic saga of Heer and Ranjah, the Punjabi national epic. This poem is my personal favorite one, screening her tenderness of pain caused due to the flames of fire of partition 1947, and I think this is one of the signature poems where she challenges the literature of Punjab,
Utth dard-mandaan dey dardiyaa tak apna Punjab
Beyley laashaan vichhiyaan
Teh lahoo da bharya Chenab
(Sharer of stricken hearts,
Look at your Punjab,
Corpses are strewn in the field
Blood flows in the Chenab.)
Her story cannot be completed without the name of Sahir Ludhianvi. She was involved with him when she asked her husband for divorce. But Sahir then found a new woman in his life. The journey of life of Amrita ji would not be completed without even conversing about Sahir ji. A bachelor to the end, Sahir fell in love with writer Amrita Pritam and singer Sudha Malhotra, relationships that never fructified in the conventional sense and left him sad. Ironically, the two ladies’ fathers wouldn’t accept Sahir, an atheist, because of his perceived religion. A young Amrita Pritam, madly in love with Sahir, wrote his name hundreds of times on a sheet of paper while addressing a press conference. They would meet without exchanging a word, Sahir would puff away; after Sahir’s departure, Amrita would smoke the cigarette butts left behind by him. After his death, Amrita said she hoped the air mixed with the smoke of the butts would travel to the other world and meet Sahir! Such was their obsession and intensity.
There was a grief I smoked
in silence, like a cigarette
only a few poems fell
out of the ash I flicked from it.
Amrita grew closer to Imroz whom she had known for many years. Amrita Pritam lived the last forty years of her life with the renowned artist, Imroz. The eminent Punjabi poet and novelist is worthy of much more than what she has been given the acknowledgment. This beautiful young woman has a audacious story, she began her literary voyage in Lahore in 1935 when she penned her first book of verse in Punjabi called Thandian Kirnan. She considered being pioneer woman writing in Punjabi, portraying Punjabi culture, thoughts, literature, and comptemprary art of living.
Professionally she worked for All India Radio. From 1960, after her divorce she worked primarily for woman society. Some of her stories and poems depicted clearly the unhappy incidents of her marriage. A number of her works have been translated into English, French, Japanese and other languages from Punjabi and Urdu, including her autobiographical works Black Rose and Revenue Stamp (Raseedi Tikkat in Punjabi).
Also wrote many books which were filmed later i.g. Daaku (Dacoit), Pinjar (The Skeleton) a novel based on the torments of partition. She received many awards including Padma Vibhushan (India’s second highest civilian award), Sahitya Akademi Award etc.
Since childhood, we are reading her work. During my stays in Punjab, her name was taken with great respect and her literature found the place in Schools and Universities and so do in the hearts of many people, bookshelves used to be filled with books, magazines and her fine oeuvre. One poem I remember very well “Main kal tak nahi rehna,” was sung by many folk artists of Punjab and get in touch with masses.
Recently, Gulzar (Famous Indian poet and Film maker) released an album (Gulzar presents Amrita Pritam), rendering himself dozens of her poems and his poetic views. Gulzar says “Amrita ji, Amrita Pritam ji has travelled whole 20th century on pages of Punjabi poetry. Once crossed the threshold of 20th century, her body fatigued, soul was fresh even then. Perhaps she got up to walk and Imroz held her hand, who was her travel companion from last century. She turned back, but his hand was not moved away, not even his fingers and she said “Main tenu phir milangi” (I will meet you again)”
Mein tainu pher milan gi (I will meet you yet again)
I will meet you yet again
How and where? I know not.
Perhaps I will become a
figment of your imagination
and maybe, spreading myself
in a mysterious line
on your canvas,
I will keep gazing at you.
Perhaps I will become a ray
of sunshine, to be
embraced by your colours.
I will paint myself on your canvas
I know not how and where –
but I will meet you for sure.
Maybe I will turn into a spring,
and rub the foaming
drops of water on your body,
and rest my coolness on
your burning chest.
I know nothing else
but that this life
will walk along with me.
When the body perishes,
but the threads of memory
are woven with enduring specks.
I will pick these particles,
weave the threads,
and I will meet you yet again.
(Translated by Nirupama Dutt and published in The Little Magazine2005)
The Album follows her other beautiful poems as O Sai Tere Charkhe Ne, Rang De Dupatta Mera, Channa De Phulkari, Rishte Ghadde Da Pani, Kufr which is on the pains of Partition, Aye Mere Dost, Mere Ajbabi and the famous Akkha Waris Shah that has immortalised her. The last part begins with Amrita promising Imroz again that she will come back to him. It concludes with a poem by Imroz Beej on Amrita that dawned on him after she died.
Courtesy- Amrita Pritam recited by Gulzar
Amrita Pritam and Imroz
The Story So Far
No one can really judge the real relationship of Amrita Pritam ji with Imroz. Imroz by profession is a painter and is less knowned than Amrita Ji. The married life of Amrita ji with her husband was not in good health, she was a great admirer of well know poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. She divorced her husband to seek love shelter from Sahir, but relationship ruptured with Sahir too. At this time (1960s) Imroz, who was previously a friend of Amritaji, provided emotional hold and their liaison began growing. Being younger to Amrita ji and living in Indian high values society, Imroz still gave her soul companionship. Amrita ji and Imroz were great soul mates never lived but they shared the floors of same house in Delhi along with children. She used to write very long letters, poetic, full of emotions and pathos to Imroz. She used to address Imroz as “Mere Mehboob” (My beloved) and discuss many themes of the social order and society. Their love remained a ‘sacred hymn’ and became a pure platonic saga of love.
When I wrapped myself with your being
Our bodies turned inwards in contemplation
Our limbs intertwined
Like blossoms in a garland
Like an offering at the altar of the spirit
Our names, slipping out of our lips,
Became a sacred hymn . . .
Amritaji never lived life sadly, contrary she was pensive and thoughtful person and so do Imroz, both the artistes filled their gloomy emotions in their work (Nazms, poems and Canvases) but never in their lives. I am a great admirer of both the artistes, and about their handling of delicate sort of relationship. Their love was never bound of physical terms of limits but it went beyond that in the form of words, canvas, poems, colours, ideas, thoughts etc. I feel like that their love for each other is complementary and paired to each other. When Amrita ji writes a poem, it shows the different images and insights of Punjabi cultures and satires. The same way when Imroz lays emotion on canvas, metamorphic scenes and words ponders through mind and senses. I remember very well the renowned portrait of One of the great poets of Punjab Shiv Kumar Batalvi (King of Sorrow) made by Imroz. You can see here
When Mr Jagjit Singh was recording this album, Shiv Kumar Batalvi was in hospital in Shimla and later he died on May 7 1973 at the age of 37. Shiv was apparently deeply in love with a girl who passed away suddenly. Shiv’s phenomenal approach towards the meaning of solitude makes him stand at the top of all those poets who have ever described loneliness. Shiv as the traditional poetical phenomenon was born out of the literary conjugation (kalmi sanjog) of Amrita Pritam and Professor Mohan Singh, to whom he appropriately dedicated his most important creation, Birha Toon Sultan (which means Separation thou art The King).
During the same period Jagjit Singh wanted his photo for the cover of Album but could not find any so he approached Imroz for the same. As you can see this portrait has been done by Imroz and forward has been written by Amrita Pritam for this Album.
Here is an article written by Amrita Pritam ji admiring Shiv kumar Batalvi for the album cover of Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s Album called Birha da Sultan released in 1976.
“Shiv kumar Batalvi is the only modern Punjabi poet who sung like a phoenix and his own fire eventually consumed him.
One day while taking to me he asked, “Who has sown the seeds of sigh in my chest? Who has transplanted sorrows in my thoughts? I am a sigh escaping from a woman’s womb, moist with cold sweat…I am a shrill cry of a lonely bird in the sky of her womb. I am a falling star in the ocean of her milk… like a dying ember in her hearth.”
And he added, “I shoved the sigh in the pocket of my life, which gradually rusted, a coloured sigh has a thousand names – broken promises, agonising pains… one day the coloured lips get burnt, the death of my first love quietened them, my sigh tried to commit suicide, but there were a few friends – a few commitments – a few dreams held it back, probably the unfulfilled dreams were reaching out for fulfilment. They were drenched in the spring of pain and flowers of hope blossomed… the hope did not die, nor did the life. These, my songs, are the wounded birds and their painful moans are my poetry.”
And he started living intensely, in a breathless haste. He embraced the whole Punjab in his tender arms and held tight the land, the trees and even the thorny cactus.
And now when he is no more with us, I feel the ‘king of sorrow’ has gone to god to borrow some fresh and virgin pains.
HMV offers this magnificent Long Play Record as its humble tribute to the great poet.”
Waris Shah— Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu ( Her best-known work is a classic poem, addressed to the great eighteenth-century Sufi poet Waris Shah, in which she laments the carnage of Partition and calls on him to give voice from his grave.)
Ajj aakhan waaris shah noo kiton qabran vichon bol!
te aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol!
ik roi si dhee punjab dee tuu likh-likh mare vain
aj lakkhan dheeyan rondian tainuun waaris shah noon kahan
uth darmandan diaa dardiaa uth tak apna punjaab!
aj bele laashaan vichiiaan te lahu dii bharii chenaab!
kise ne panja paanian vich dittii zahir rala!
te unhaan paaniaan dharat nun dittaa paanii laa!
jitthe vajdii phuuk pyaar di ve oh vanjhli gayi guaach
ranjhe de sab veer aj bhul gaye usdi jaach
dharti te lahu vasiya, qabran payiyan chon
preet diyan shaahazaadiiaan aj vich mazaaraan ron
aj sab ‘qaido’ ban gaye, husn ishq de chor
aj kithon liaaiie labbh ke waaris shah ik hor
aj aakhan waaris shah noon kiton qabran vichon bol!
te aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol!
Poem [ENGLISH TRANSLATION]
I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love
Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;
Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:
Arise, o friend of the afflicted; arise and see the state of Punjab,
Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenaab flowing with much blood.
Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this same water now irrigates our soil.
Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?
And all Ranjha’s brothers forgotten to play the flute.
Blood has rained on the soil, graves are oozing with blood,
The princesses of love cry their hearts out in the graveyards.
Today all the Quaido’ns have become the thieves of love and beauty,
Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?
Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love.
(This translation is taken from book in English by Darshan Singh Maini called STUDIES IN PUNJABI POETRY)
Poem [FRENCH TRANSLATION]
J’invoque aujourd’hui Varis Shah
J’invoque aujourd’hui Varis Shah : « Parle, de n’importe où, de ta tombe,
et du livre de l’amour aujourd’hui tourne encore une page !
Une fille avait pleuré, une enfant du Panjab, et tu écrivis une élégie.
Les filles sont aujourd’hui des milliers à pleurer, qui te disent, Varis Shah :
“Lève-toi, sympathisant des malheureux, lève-toi, regarde ton Panjab !
Le marais est aujourd’hui jonché de cadavres et pleine de sang la Chenab.
Quelqu’un aux cinq rivières a mêlé du poison
et la terre a été arrosée de leur eau.
Du poison a germé dans chaque parcelle de cette terre fertile,
qui s’est un peu partout couverte de taches rouges et de calamités.
Un vent vénéneux alors a soufflé sur les forêts,
de chaque flûte en roseau il a fait un serpent
et voici que les serpents ont hypnotisé les gens et mordu, mordu ;
en tout lieu le corps du Panjab a bleui.
Les chants ont rompu avec les gorges, les fils avec les fuseaux,
les compagnes avec les parties de filage; les rouets se sont tus.
Luddan a fait couler le bateau-lit,
la balançoire aujourd’hui a cassé les branches du pipal.
Elle est perdue cette flûte où chantait le souffle de l’amour
et les frères de Ranjha ont tous oublié comment il en jouait.
Le sang s’est épanché sur le sol, il s’écoule des tombes.
Les princesses de l’amour pleurent dans les sanctuaires.
Tous aujourd’hui sont devenus des Kaido, voleurs d’amour et de beauté.
Où trouver aujourd’hui un autre Varis Shah ?” »
J’invoque aujourd’hui Varis Shah : “Parle, de n’importe où, de ta tombe,
et du livre de l’amour aujourd’hui tourne encore une page !”
(Translated in French by Denis Matringe from PunjabiTraduits du panjabi par Denis Matringe /“La Vérité” – Traduit du panjabi par Denis Matringe (135 p.) – 1989, Editions des femmes)
Amrita Pritam never woke up on the afternoon of October 31, 2005 and the world is emptier without her musings. She embodied the fullness of poetic expression, creativity and the intensity of a woman in the perpetual state of love. Amrita’s voice was rooted in the South Asian idiom with all its contradictions, diversity and a faint recognition of fate. Her remarkable affinity with the depths of the Punjabi language adds to her iconoclastic status in India, Pakistan and wherever Punjabi is spoken and appreciated. Yet her audience has been global as well: her work was translated into dozens of world languages.
Amrita Pritam is not dead; her dreams of peace, universal love and triumph of humanism will continue to shape our collective memories. This is not a time to mourn but to acknowledge that Amrita has crossed another milestone in her quest for self-knowledge and love. Au revoir, Amrita!
One of her poems makes the following confession:
Today I have erased the number of my house
And removed the stain of identity on my street’s forehead
And I have wiped the direction on each road
But if you really want to meet me
Then knock at the doors of every country
Every city, every street
And wherever a glimpse of a free spirit exists
That will be my home
(Translation found from Outlook India)
Presenting you her extract from an article Visions of Divinity for a magazine called Life Positive, published on April 1996. She expresses her visions over spiritualities
“This happened in 1999, in the early hours of March 14. When I woke, I was astonished, but happy. And for almost a year, I was under the spell of this question—that Sai had been concerned with my well-being. Almost a year passed and much later,one day, I was lighting some incense in front of Sai Baba when I sensed that I was not the one holding the stick of incense, but had myself become the incense, the incense that wanted to burn at the shrine of Sai. And this whole experience came to life, word by word, and set itself down on paper. Sai, please give me a little bit of fire from your chillum…
I am your incense and for a little while will burn at your shrine.
I have kneaded your passion into my own clay.
When this body smolders, smoke will rise.
This body’s smoke will flicker and will say only this much-
Whatever breezes pass through’ these touch your breath, I want to become one with those breezes.
Sai, please give me a little bit of fire from your chillum…..
I am your incense and for a little while will burn at your shrine.
No, I won’t say anything.
When the incense burns a delicate fragrance will say something in a whisper and then my body, turning to ashes, will touch your feet. It must become one with the earth of your shrine.
Sai, Please give me a little bit of fire from your chillum….
I am your incense and for a little while will burn at your shrine.”
I hope you liked this exhaustive editorial on the legendary Amrita Pritam ji which I wanted to write since long, I feel she is the only lady from Punjab who overturned the pages of history in her own ways and many great writers like Mr Khushwant Singh still believes that she is the most influential Indian woman from Punjab . I welcome you to leave your comments and notes.