Selected Article from
International Journal of Punjab Studies
The Punjab has been one of the most important regions of the Indian subcontinent and has played a pivotal role in its political and economic development from anciant times. The International Journal of Punjab Studies provides interdisciplinaty and comparative reserch on the historical pre-1947 Punjab, the Indian and Pakistani Punjab after 1947, and the Punjabi Diaspora. The Journal carries articles from an international list of contributors, with an interdisciplinary base that includes history, langauge and linguistics, literature, political science, economics, social anthropology, geography and theology.
Shinder Singh Thandi
Gurinder Singh Mann
Nikky-Gunninder Kaur Singh
Darshan S. Tatla
University of Warwick, UK
UK Oxford Brookes University, UK
Coventry University, UK
Coventry University, UK
Stockholm University , Sweden
Lahore University of Management Sciences
University of Warwick, UK
University of Manchester, UK
University of Missouri -Columbia, USA
Juniata College, USA
Clark University, USA
Jawaharlal Nehru University, India
University of Washington, USA
University of Leicester, UK
Hamline University, USA
North Caroline State University, USA
Institute of Punjab Studies, Chandigarh, India
Punjab University, Pakistan
La Trobe University, Australia
University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
Grinnell College, London
Bath Spa University College, UK
University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
University of Otago, New Zealand
The University of British Columbia, Canada
The Queen's University of Belfast, UK
Guru Nanak Dev University, India
University of London, UK
State University of New York, USA
Colby College, Maine, USA
Founder Member, Association for Punjab Studies
University of London, UK
University of Missouri -Columbia
USA National University of Singapore
Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973) – Life and Poetry
Volume 9, Number 2, July-December 2002
The life and poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalvi - the most popular modern Punjabi poet and the youngest recipient of Shahitya Academy Award in 1967 - has been the subject of a large number of books and magazine articles, mostly written in Punjabi. Yet, a reliable and coherent study of his life has not come to light. The authors have attempted to put together a broad outline of Shiv’s life through detailed review of relevant published material, by interviewing a number of his contemporaries and family members and by conducting background research on people and places and the social and literary environment that shaped Shiv’s life and poetry. The authors also present an overview of Shiv’s poetry, highlighting its versatility and deep roots in Punjabi literary traditions. The authors have identified the main reason behind the extraordinary popularity of Shiv as his exceptional capability to embody the collective psyche of Punjabis and their traditional cultural identity in his poetry.
On the eve of the turbulent decade of 1960’s, a dynamic, exciting and controversial time for the youth around the world, who rose to challenge and redefine the established boundaries of politics, culture, literature and art of their societies, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a young man of barely 20 years of age, appeared on the scene of Punjabi poetry in East Punjab. By living a brief and intense life that was devoted to writing deeply profound, passionate and enchantingly lyrical poetic expressions of the pathos of his time, and dying young at the age of 36, a fate that he had predicted and romanticized throughout his poetry, he attained the charisma of a modern day saint and a fallen-hero in the eyes of many of his admirers. The sixties was primarily a phenomenon of western societies but its resonance had also touched the literature and art in the third world and had produced new trends in all forms of creative expressions. It was perhaps not a coincidence that Shiv Kumar Batalvi came to age and quickly gained prominence at this crucial juncture when the emerging era of modernity was decisively and permanently replacing the traditional way of writing Punjabi poetry. It was the most opportune time for talented poets to get attention and fame at a young age as the authentic voices of the new times. The real wonder of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poetry is not that he mastered the new and innovative ways to express modern poetical sensibilities better than most of his contemporaries, but that he did it by masterfully and artistically combining and fusing them with the spirit of Punjab’s culture and with the age old charm of classical Punjabi poetry and folk songs. He evoked, and still continues to do so, strong emotions among the listeners and readers of his poetry. For a vast majority, he is quintessence of the absolute best that great poetry is supposed to be, while for some his poetry is an unwelcome distraction from the true goal of poetry as a tool to identify and expose the fault lines in the society and people’s reaction to them.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Life:
Shiv was born on July 23, 1936, in a village, Bara Pind Lohtian, located in the northern part of pre-partition Punjab close to the border with the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Bara Pind Lohtian is about thirty miles east of Sialkot and 15 miles west of India-Pakistan border on Zafarwal-Shakargarh road, in district Narowal. Before partition, this area was in district Gurdaspur. Due to the proximity of Jammu and Kahsmir mountains, the weather here is relatively temperate compared to the extreme summer heat of the plains of the Punjab. A number of nalas (small streams) Aik, Daigh, Basantar, Tavi and others pass through the area. The village is located on the bank of Basantar nala. At the time of the partition, the village had approximately 400 houses of Hindu and 100 houses of Muslim families. There was only one Sikh household in the village. Muslims were mostly poor while Hindus were generally affluent. They were landlords, merchants and moneylenders. Their houses were solidly built with small bricks and wood. Doors and windows were elaborately designed. The main doors had engraving of their religious figures. Hindus were the dominant faction in the village. They did not allow the slaughter of cows but other than that people in the village lived together with remarkable religious tolerance and communal harmony. They drank water from the same wells, and Hindu and Muslim children used to play together. The religious and seasonal festivals were the big events of their lives and were celebrated with a lot of funfair. The village life was by and large very peaceful. Disputes were settled by the panchayat (council) of village elders and police never came to the village. No murders or other major crimes are reported in that area during those days.
The square of the village was an open space of about half an acre in area with a number of shops around it. Large mango orchards surrounded the village. On a clear day one could see the mountains of Kashmir and at nighttime lights of the city of Samba. An unpaved road passed through the village, coming from Jammu through Samba, Tanda, and Darman up to Amritsar. There used to be a diesel bus service between Samba and Amritsar that passed through the village once a day. The nearest railway station was Shakargarh, about 8 miles away. The village had a primary school for boys, an animal hospital and a small village council. There was no school for girls but a Hindu woman used to teach Hindu girls in a mandir (temple). Hindu women used to cover their faces with veils and usually did not go out of their houses. The land was very fertile and was irrigated through wells. The village was called Lohtian either because the businessmen of the area used to bring loha (iron) from Amritsar for selling, or more likely, because the cast of the Hindu Khatri clan that used to live there was Lohtia. Bara Pind Lohtian during pre-partition days was an ideal place for a sensitive and dreamy Hindu boy to grow up.
Shiv belonged to a middle-class family that had lived in that area for many generations. His father, Pandit Krishan Gopal, was the second-born among his three brothers and two sisters. He started his career as a patwari (land recorder and surveyor) and eventually reached the post of Qanoongoh (a mid-level supervisory position in the Revenue Department) and retired as the principal of Patwar School, Batala. Soon after passing the exam of patwar in 1931, Krishan Gopal married a tall and beautiful girl, Shanti Devi, from a nearby village. Shanti Devi was known for her melodious singing voice that Shiv inherited from her. Their first son, Davarka, was born during the second year of their marriage followed by Shiv a couple of years later. By all accounts, Shiv had a happy and carefree childhood. He was known for his peculiar habit of wandering around in the village and its surroundings alone. Many times, his father would have to search for him, finding him lying down under the trees at the banks of Bassantar nala or near a mandir on the south side of the village. At other times he would be found watching with fascination the tricks of snake charmers or absorbed in listening to the singings of raas-daharis (a folk verse-play based on religious songs). Even today, the old folks in the village remember that ‘patwari's son’ was known as a sheedai (obsessed) and a malang (wandering faqir). He was very fond of taking part in Ramlila (a musical verse play staged on the occasion of Hindu holy festival Dussehra for nine consecutive nights based on Ramayan) and other plays during religious festivals, usually in a female role.
Shiv studied at the boys’ primary school in the village where he got a scholarship in the 4th grade exam. His father was by then promoted to the position of Girdwar (supervisor of patwaris) and posted at Dera Baba Nanak. Shiv also moved to Dera Baba Nanak with his father, mother and elder brother, Davarka. Next year in August 1947, while Shiv and Davarka were visiting Bara Pind Lohtian during their summer vacations from school, the partition of Punjab was announced. In the middle of the gruesome carnage that swept the Punjab in the wake of partition, Shiv left the village with other close relatives. They travelled through the state of Jammu and Kasmir and after many days arrived at Dera Baba Nanak where Shiv's parents were anxiously waiting for their sons. Shiv's family soon migrated to Batala, across from Bara Pind Lohtian on the other side of the newly carved border. The bloody partition of Punjab shattered Shiv's idyllic childhood and brought the happiest period of his life to an abrupt end.
The impressions of this early period provided Shiv's poetry a nostalgic wealth of haunting imagery and metaphors, most of which can be traced back to the scenery and traditional village life of rural Punjab in the area where he grew up. The memories of his childhood stayed fresh in his mind . [Gargi 2000, ‘Kaudian Wala Sapp’ ]. The traumatic disruption of Shiv's childhood caused by the events of partition was perhaps one of the sources of his deep sorrow and melancholy, although Shiv never expressed it directly in his early poetry. Only at the end of his poetic career, he addressed it in his poem Dudh Da Qatal (Murder of Mother’s Milk), as part of a surgical and painful analysis of his inner sufferings, calling the pre-partition combined Punjab as his mother: 
I still remember it today, and you must remember it too
Shiv’s family settled down in Batala in Darussalam muhalla (section of a city), now re-named as Prem Nagar. Shiv attended the Salvation Army High School and passed his matriculation examination in first division in 1953. That is about how far he would go as far as formal education was concerned. To the utter disappointment of his father who wanted him to get a good education and start a successful career, he spent the next few years getting in and out of three colleges without getting a degree. He spent two years in the Baring Union Christian College, Batala, in the F.Sc. program but dropped out without sitting in the Board examination. He next joined R. D. College, Nabha, but left it after a few months. He then got admission in S.N. College, Qadian, a small town near Batala, in arts subjects but dropped out again after a couple of years. [Pal 1998]. Finally, his father forced him to join the Revenue Department as a patwari. After joining the service, Shiv took little interest in the work and for a while made an arrangement with a retired patwari to take care of his official responsibilities in exchange of one-third of his pay. Even that didn’t last for long and Shiv resigned from his job in 1961. [Kahlon. Int. 2002].
It was during the final year of his unsuccessful college career at Qadian in 1957 that Shiv started writing poetry in Punjabi. Among his student friends in the colleges he had attended, he was already very popular as a talented singer and he had developed a large following of fans. [Pal 1998]. Now, instead of singing folk and film songs, he started singing his own poems. He soon got introduced in the literary circles of Batala. Some senior writers of Batala, including Jaswant Singh Rahi, Kartar Singh Balgan and Barkat Ram Yumman, as the saying goes, took him under their wings. Among them, Barkat Ram Yumman played an important role in introducing him to the kavi darbars (poetry recital functions, also called mushairas) outside Batala. [Sharma 1979].
The Decade of Shiv’s Poetic Miracle
The next decade, after Shiv left S.N College, was the most prolific period of his poetry writing. It was during this time that he composed most of his masterpiece poetry that he was destined to write during his brief lifetime. Once he discovered his poetic genius, the writing of poetry became his primary passion and overshadowed all other considerations. He practically dedicated his life to writing poetry as the only objective of his life. He extensively studied Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English literature. Shiv also developed friendships with a large number of well-known Punjabi writers and started moving in their circle. Between 1960 and 1965, he published his first five collections of poetry. One of the only two other collections that he published later contained poems that were mostly written during this period. He was awarded the coveted Sahitya Academy Award for his verse-drama, Loonan, published in 1965, becoming its youngest ever recipient.
By the end of this period, Shiv had become a living legend and most sought after Punjabi poet. The organizers of kavi darbars all over the Punjab had found out that inviting Shiv would guarantee a large audience and success of their functions. They also began to break the longstanding tradition of seniority by inviting Shiv to recite his poetry after some well-established and senior poets knowing well that the audience will not stay around to listen to other poets after him. [Singh 1994]. He was the star attraction of kavi darbars and was famous for his unique and passionate style of singing of his poetry that could spellbind his audience into pin-drop silence. Many who had listened to Shiv’s recitations of his poetry found it as one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. [Duggal & Sekhon 1992].
Shiv’s extraordinary hold on his audience has been noted by all of his biographers. A typical example is Balwant Gargi’s description of a kavi darbar that he attended with Shiv:
The Years of Bitterness and Disappointment
Shiv had come to Chandigarh with many hopes but after four years when he left this city he was bitter and disappointed. Although his stay in Chandigarh initially brought him more fame, his growing popularity had already given rise to many detracting voices in Punjabi literary circles that became more loud and stronger during his time in Chandigarh. This eventually became quite distressing for him. So much so that he retaliated against the criticism of his poetry in an article published as the preface of Dardmandan Deean Aheen, a selection of his poetry, under the heading ‘Mere Nindak’ (My Critics).
Shiv hardly did any work at the State Bank in Chandigarh where he was employed. For a while, he was given the charge of some books lying around in the bank. Shiv simply kept a register on his table and let everyone know that whoever needed a book could make entry in the register and take the book. Similarly, he was also assigned other light duties on different desks, including of public relations. He would go to the bank only once or twice a week. [Bhandari. Int. 2002]. Shiv lived in a house in Sector 21. His favourite place in Chandigarh was the watch shop of Preetam Kanwal Singh, close to a liquor shop in Sector 22. It was a small booth type shop. Shiv would arrive there early in the day and would hold court until evening. He would sometimes lie down behind the counter to get some rest in the afternoon. In the evenings, he could be found at the ‘Writers-Corner’ in the square of Sector 22. [Manhas. Int. 2002]. On the same day that Shiv shifted to Chandigarh, he met some fellow poets, Mohan Bhandari, Bhagwant Singh, Bhushan Dhyanpuri and some others, standing by the railing on the side of the road at 22 Sector. They immediately decided to name this corner ‘Writers Corner’ to celebrate the occasion. A young boy was sent to get a small board painted with the inscription ‘Writers Corner’. They hanged the board there and got it inaugurated by Shiv. It is also called Battian Wala Chowk (the square with traffic lights) of Sector 22-23, since it is just in the first corner of Sector 22 from the main road and Sector 23 begins across the road. This Sector was the main centre of literary activities in Chandigarh. About 25-30 writers were living around in that area and other close by Sectors. Sector 22 was their main meeting place in the evening. [Bhandari. Int. 2002].
During the last couple of years of Shiv’s stay in Chandigarh, his health had started declining. He had a few attacks of epilepsy. [Batalvi. Int. 2002]. The harsh criticism of his poetry from some quarters had started taking its toll on his mental and physical health. Until then, Shiv’s social persona had never exhibited some of the deep sorrow reflected in his poetry. He was known as the delight of social gatherings of his friends and admirers where he was always a witty, sharp-minded and very intelligent conversationalist. From serious discussions about literature or recitation of his sad or serious poetry, he would effortlessly turn to telling jokes or other light and entertaining topics. [Kahlon. Int. 2002]. Now, a growing bitterness was often noticed in his demeanour. He started talking more openly about his impeding death. He also started drinking on a regular bases.
The Trip to England
In May of 1972, Shiv visited England on the invitation of Dr. Gupal Puri and Mrs. Kailash Puri He had been looking forward to his first trip abroad as a welcome relief from the drudgery of his life in Chandigarh. When he arrived in England, his popularity and fame had already reached a high point among the Punjabi community. His arrival was announced in the local Indian papers with headlines and pictures. [Takhar. Int. 2002]. He spent a busy time in England. A number of public functions and private parties were arranged in his honour where he recited his poetry. Dr. Gupal Puri arranged the first large function in Coventry, near London, to welcome Shiv. A large number of his fans and Punjabi poets, including Santokh Singh Santokh, Kuldip Takhar and Tarsem Purewal and many others attended this function. Another large gathering was organized at Rochester (Kent) in his honour. The famous artist S. Sobha Singh was also present who had travelled on his own expense to see Shiv. His engagements in England were regularly reported in the local Indian media and the BBC Television once interviewed him. While Punjabi community got their opportunity to listen to Shiv on various occasions, his stay in London proved to be the last straw for his failing health. He would stay late and continue to drink until 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning at parties or at home engaged in discussions with his hosts and other people who would come to visit him. He would wake up after a short sleep around 4:00 A.M. and begin his day by again taking a couple of sips of Scotch. [Kaur 1998].
The Final Days
When Shiv returned from England in September 1972, his health had declined visibly. He was now bitterly complaining about the undue criticism of his poetry by the progressive and leftist writers. He openly started talking about his disappointment at the unjustified condemnation of his poetry. [Gargi 2000 ‘Surme Walee Akhah’ ]. Within a couple of months after his return from England, his health started sinking, never to recover again. He was in a dire financial predicament during those days and felt that most of his friends had deserted him in his time of need. His wife, Aruna, somehow managed to get him admitted in a hospital in Section 16 of Chandigarh where he received treatment for a few days. A couple of months later, he was admitted in a hospital in Amritsar, but left it on his own against the advice of his doctors. He didn’t want to die in a hospital and simply walked out of the hospital and went to his family home in Batala. He was later shifted to the village of his in-laws, Kiri Mangial, a small village near the border with Pakistan. Shiv Kumar Batalvi died in Kiri Mangial during the early morning hours of May 6, 1973. [Kahlon. Int. 2002].
Punjabi Poetry Scene Before Shiv
Poetry has been a part of Punjab’s culture
as an important feature of Punjabis’ living experience since
at least, and probably long before, the time of the first major Punjabi
poet, Baba Farid (1173-1265). During the following centuries, it took
many different and distinct forms and besides producing a long line
of distinguished poets in the Sufi and Qissa (epic love story)
tradition, its oral tradition encompasses a wide variety of popular
poetry in its folk songs and verse-dramas on the themes of religious
mythology. The classical period of Sufi and Qissa Punjabi
poetry came to an end at the turn of the 20th century with Maulvi
Ghulam Rasul (1849-1892), Khwaja Ghulam Farid (1841-1901) and Mian
Muhamamd Baksh (1830-1904). By then, Punjabi poets had already started
adopting modern verse forms. Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1952) was the first
Punjabi poet who introduced free verse in Punjabi poetry. During the
first half of 20th century, Punjabi poetry went through the process
of a complete transformation from traditional to modern with the political,
economical and cultural changes that were taking place in India and
the rest of the world. The world wars on international front, Marxist/Leninist
revolution in Russia and India’s own independence struggle on
the national level brought about several changes in the life and outlook
of people that were also reflected in Punjabi literature. By the time
Shiv Kumar Batalvi started writing poetry in late 50’s, the
classical Punjabi poetry period was already long over and post-partition
poetry was represented by many emerging progressive and modern trends,
dominated by Prof. Mohan Singh (1905-1978), Amrita Pritam (b. 1919)
and other stalwarts of modern Punjabi poetry. [Singh 1994].
Shiv was not just a poet of a few dozen popular poems nor was his poetry limited to a couple of topics. He was a very versatile poet of many different styles and a wide range of subjects. Throughout his brief poetic career, his poetry shows a continuous progression from the early pangs of birha (separation from a loves ones) to increasingly complex emotions and different reactions to his inner sufferings and towards society at large. His sense of his own identity also went through many changes. He travelled a great distance from his first collection of poems Peeran Da Paraga (A Handful of Pains), published in 1960, to his last major work Mein Te Mein (Me and Myself) published in 1970. Following is a brief survey of his published poetry:
1. Peeran Da Paraga (A Handful of Pains) (1960): It is Shiv’s first published collection of poetry consisting of 25 poems. It includes poems that he had written between 1957 and 1960 expressing pain and sorrow of separation and his desire for death. It includes some of his early popular poems.
2. Lajwanti (The Shy Maid) (1961): Within a single year after the publication of his first collection of poetry, Shiv appeared to have arrived at a level of maturity that was not as prominent in his earlier poetry. This collection has some remarkable poems on many different subjects. In all of his poetry, there are certain subjects that he has touched upon once, writing a memorable poem on it, and then never coming back to the same subject. In this collection, Sheesho, an exceptionally beautiful and comparatively long poem, falls in that category. Shiv’s description of the exploitation of a poor village girl by the rich landowner is remarkable both for its poetic qualities and for Shiv’s heart wrenching pity and compassion about the poor girl’s plight. A long poem, Geet (A song - Uchcian paharan diya ohle ohle soorja – O Sun, hiding behind the high peaks of mountains) is an example of Shiv’s mastery of describing natural scenery:
A totally different mood from the sadness of some of his other poems, dominates another poem by the tile of Geet (A Song):
A number of Shiv’s memorable and popular poems are part of this collection.
3. Atte Deean Chirian (The Sparrows of Kneaded Flour) (1962): This collection is quite different from the previous two collections, both in matter as well as in its various themes. Shiv experimented with different themes under a dominant mood of sensuous feelings. He also returned back to the topic of birha in Shikra (A Falcon) and couple of other poems. Once again, there are poems in this collection that display his wide versatility of subjects, including various themes that are limited to single poems, i.e., Hijra (Eunuch) and Zakham (A Wound). Shiv also further experimented in some poems by writing them in the prevalent style of expressing post-modern consciousness. Shiv was awarded the first prize from the Language Department of Punjab for this collection.
4. Mainu Vida Karo (Bid Me farewell) (1963): This is another collection of songs full of symbols of death and pain of separation that he expressed in different forms, including the bemoaning of a love-torn girl addressed to her father in Dharmee Babula. Once again demonstrating his exceptional talent of interweaving Punjab’s culture in this poems:
Loonan stands out among Shiv’s poetic works for a number of reasons. It not only adds a new dimension to the versatility of Shiv’s poetry, it also recasts, to some degree, Shiv’s entire poetry in a new light. In particular, the profound and perceptive empathy of women’s emotions and feelings as victims of social inequity and injustice that Shiv portrayed in Loonan, allows deeper understanding of Shiv’s concept of love and gender-relations in his poetry than the stereotype of women as poet’s self-centred object of desire. Similarly, the masterful use of imagery that sets the tone and atmosphere of each of the eight acts of the verse play, helps to highlight Shiv’s superb poetic techniques of equally expert use of imagery in his other poems.
In Loonan, Shiv presents a remarkably incisive
and insightful appreciation of women’s sufferings in a patriarchy
and exposes its moral values as the tools that force women to sacrifice
their individuality to fit in various roles assigned to them. Reading
the deliberate politics of the monarchical discourse in the legend,
Shiv presents it from women’s point of view. More importantly,
Shiv rejects the glorification of patriarchal assignment of women’s
role and instead forcefully brings out the individuality of Loonan.
‘Shiv Kumar … views her sexual subjugation and deprivation
as a basic injustice to her and cause of her suffering. He vindicates
the veracity of her Being by asserting her right to choose and by
condemning her deprivation in marriage - through her own voice. In
Luna body is not merely a site of sexual desire but her humanity asserted
through valuing and articulating the needs of her body and condemning
their deprivation in marriage. The play is a strong assertion of woman’s
sexuality which has been ignored, abused, repressed or mythologized
(as passive) in patriarchy.’ [Singh 2000, 133-134].
It is also worth noting that, ‘… the play published in 1965 in fact predates the second wave of feminism in its assertion of woman’s being in her choice, sexuality and self respect, in protesting against woman’s abuse and in interrogating patriarchy.’ [Singh 2000, 143].
6. Mein Te Mein (Me and Myself) (1970): It is a long narrative poem that is written in a very different style and on themes that Shiv had not fully explored before. With this book, Shiv reached the height of his poetic evolution and practically the end of his poetic career. It is in the form of a monologue in search of his identity and inner self that is being torn apart by the demons of past and emotional responses to different events in his tortured life. The poem depicts the tragedy of modern man’s life in many different settings. There appear many autobiographical elements in this poem and it can be considered as an investigation by the poet of the complexities of his own life.
7. Artee (Invocation) (1971): Although published in 1971, this book contains poems that were written between 1963 and 1965. These are on variety of themes that are covered in his previous collections.
8. Birha Tu Sultaan (O’ Separation, You are Supreme) (1975): This book was published posthumously and contains poems that were not included in his previous books, and were either unpublished or were published in different newspapers and magazines. Some of the poems in this collection were originally written by Shiv to earn a few Rupees from All India Radio Jalandhar as part of official propaganda on some social issues and are not among his representative poetry. This collection includes the earliest folk songs written by Shiv (Ek Meri Akh Kashni and Lachi Kuri Wahdiyan Kare), as well as, some remarkable poems that he has written in free verse form. His poem, Rukh (The Tree) is one such example:
Shiv’s critics have generally given a few stereotyped labels to Shiv’s poetry, i.e., poet of Birha and a reincarnation of Keats, ignoring the versatility of his poetry. [Singh 1983]. His poetry has also been severely criticized, even condemned, for its alleged excessive romanticism and lack of social consciousness, particularly in the context of Marx/Lenin/Mao social analysis:
Similar harsh criticism was also levied against his poetry, during and after his lifetime, by many other Punjabi writers who either belonged to the Nexalite and other leftist movements or experimentalism and social realism schools of thoughts in Punjabi poetry. Some of the criticism was perhaps a reaction to the extraordinary phenomena, never witnessed in Punjab during modern times, of Shiv’s unparalleled popularity as a poet that outshined most of his contemporaries
One of the most prominent aspects of Shiv’s poetry is its ever-increasing popularity that has continued to grow since his death and has surpassed all other Modern Punjabi poets. Six years after Shiv’s death, O.P. Sharma noted the phenomenon of Shiv’s growing popularity as:
Since then, a number of indicators point to the fact that his poetry has immensely grown in popularity among all segments of Punjabis. Besides more than 20 books and numerous articles that have so far been published on his life and poetry, his poetry has also been the research topic of many doctoral theses at various Indian universities. Perhaps the most important market-based indicator of the popularity of Shiv’s poetry is the large number of recordings of his poems made for commercial audio albums by Indian and Pakistani Punjabi singers, including: Surrinder Kaur, Jagjit Zirvi, Pushpa Hans, Assa Singh Mastana, Mohinder Kapoor, Jagjeet Singh, Chitra Singh, Kuldip Deepak, Jagmohan Kaur, K. Deep, Dolly Guleria, Bhupinder Singh, Mitali Singh, Kavita Karishnamurthi, Deedar Pardesi, Jasbir Jassi, Neelam Sahani, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shazia Manzoor, Ghulam Ali, Tufail Niazi, Shaukat Ali and others. The latest album of Hans Raj Hans, released in October 2002, is solely based on Shiv’s poems.
Other than Punjabi Sufi and Qissa poets of classical period, no Punjabi poet except Shiv Kumar Batalvi has ever gained mass popularity on such a large scale. Shiv’s popularity has now reached a point where ignoring it as a yardstick to measure the significance of his poetry will amount to a contempt of the collective mind of Punjabis.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi has hit a chord with the psyche of Punjabis of all backgrounds. A closer look at his poetry reveals that the success and popularity of Shiv’s poetry, to a large extent, has its genesis in following the centuries old traditions of classical Punjabi poetry. Not in its purpose, content or message, specially of Sufi and religious poetry, but in skilfully adopting the diction, vocabulary, symbolism and many of its other important aspects. By imbibing the essential elements of classical Punjabi poetry, Shiv articulated an acute historical sense and combined it in the most aesthetically pleasing way in his otherwise contemporary poetry. He appeared to have intuitively followed the prescription of T.S. Eliot who had recognized the importance of proper reflection of historical sense in modern poetry in the following words:
At a time when many of his contemporaries were looking towards the western and, in particular, the progressive literature from around the world to learn new techniques of writing poetry, Shiv Kumar Batalvi took his inspirations from the classical literature of his own land. He adopted many of its techniques to express the crisis of disintegration of human soul as he saw it in his own life and time. The most important characteristics of classical Punjabi poetry tradition, that are shared by the whole spectrum of creative expressions in Punjabi from the devotional musings of Punjab’s saints to village folk singers, and are relevant to understanding the historical sense displayed by Shiv’s poetry, are worth noting here.
These characteristics are prominent in all of Shiv’s popular poems. One of his early poems Bhatti Waliye may serve as a good example:
This poem can be understood at different levels. It was written during a time when Shiv was suffering from the loss of his first love. It can be taken as poet’s wish to speed up the process of dying in the agony of his broken heart. He wishes that if he could get some help in raising the level of his pain to a maximum point, he may get freedom from the unbearable agony of his life. The dominant mood of the poem is very similar to the spiritual journey of a Sufi travelled in stages where each stage of spiritual purification demands new sacrifices. It is the setting of the poem in a Punjab village and the use of imagery from a typical village scene, i.e., symbols of day’s ending through the images of cattle coming back from their grazing grounds and birds making their noisy clamour of early evening gatherings on the trees, that kindles memories of familiar scenes in the readers’ mind and adds to the overall charm and haunting quality of the poem. Shiv’s descriptions of the village scenes are authentic in all of their details. It was a common practice in the villages to accept payment for services in kind (bhara), which the poet offers in the form of his tears. With the nightfall, a complete silence falls on Punjab’s villages and in the still air, a cloud of smoke engulfs them. Shiv has used this image to develop the symbol of winds that have gone to sleep as if tired of the daylong wailings and the illusion of the warmth of a light fever emitting from the stars. The death is not presented as something to be afraid of, but rather a welcome and necessary next stage of poet’s journey through his sufferings. The pain, the agony and the hurry to reach the next stage, death, none of them are depicted as the usual and mindless grief of a broken heart. They are described as part of a deliberate and determined process, the purpose of which is fully understood, accepted and desired by the poet.
Those are some of the qualities of Shiv’s popular poems. In most of his poems, the listener and reader encounter the same familiar characteristics of Punjabi classical poetry: simple language and idiom of village folks; celebration of death; lyricism; images and metaphors of rural Punjab and skilful depictions of Punjabi culture.
Shiv stands out among all Punjabi poets in his unique representation of various colours and shades of Punjabi culture.
Shiv was a very versatile and supremely gifted poet. His poetry includes poems written on many different subjects and a variety of styles. He could write traditional Punjabi folks songs, as well as, poems in post-modern diction and in many other verse forms. The only labels that may properly apply to Shiv’s poetry are human-ism and Punjabi-ism. The deep pain and sorrow of some of his poetry can best be understood in the larger context of a Punjabi’s reaction to the crisis of human identity in modern times. He articulated the tragedy of breakdown of Punjab’s traditional society under the onslaught of modernization. He had lived his childhood in a traditional village social set up that offered the poise, equilibrium, stability, tranquillity and self-assurance of Punjabi culture. Early in his adolescence, he experienced the sudden death of this centuries old way of living. For a large part of his versatile poetry, Shiv embraced the identity of a Punjabi folk storyteller and viewed the massive disruptions around him from the historical perspective of someone deeply immersed in Punjabi folklore. He became the passionate voice of millions of others who were, and still are, going through the same crisis. His poetry became a vast treasure of the fond memories of sights, sounds and symbols of the way of living and the scenery of rural Punjab, never so beautifully recorded in such breathtaking details except by the Great Master of Punjabi poetry, Waris Shah. Ultimately, his permanent place among great Punjabi poets is affirmed by his ever-growing popularity. He seems to have passed the test for determining the status of faqirs, equally applicable to poets, laid down by Sultan Bahu as:
Naam faqir tinhan da Bahu, qabar jinhan dee jeevay
Shiv’s date of birth as recorded on his horoscope is July 23, 1936, while a latter birth date, October 23, 1937 is recorded on his matriculation certificate that was the only official birth record at that time. The earlier date is generally accepted to be more accurate. It was a common practice by some parents in India to intentionally advance the birth date of their children in the school records to later provide them extra time to apply for government services that had age-limits for hiring in different cadres. Shiv’s father, himself a government employee in the Revenue Department, was probably well aware of the advantage of advancing Shiv’s birth date in the school records. [Bir 2000].
Shiv’s grandfather’s name was Mehnga Lal (Mehnga means precious). He married twice. He had three sons. The eldest son was Buwa Dita who was from his first wife and became a schoolteacher. Mehnga Lal’s first wife died early and he married again. He had two sons from his second wife, Krishan Gupal, Shiv’s father, and Ram Lal. [Rammah unpublished].
Shiv also had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. His elder brother Davarka had passed away. Mrs. Davarka lives in the family house in Prem Nagar, Batala. His younger brother, Subhash Batalvi lives in Panchkula (a town in the suburbs of Chandigarh) and Suresh Batalvi in Delhi. His younger sister Surinder, whose husband Varinder passed away in 2002, lives in Chandigarh. His youngest sister, Saroj and her husband Baldev Mehta are settled in Toronto, Canada. [Mahal. Int. 2002] and [Dass. Int. 2002].
The whole section ‘The Village’ and first two paragraphs of the next section ‘The Childhood’ are solely based on a detailed research report prepared by Aziz-ul-Haque Rammah. He conducted this research on the request of the authors during October 2002 by visiting Bara Pind Lohtian and interviewing a number of old people who have lived in that village since pre-partition times and have known Shiv and his family. People living in Bara Pind Lohtian, even the young ones, are quite familiar with Shiv as a great Punjabi poet. [Rammah, unpublished].
The poem Dudh Da Qatal is part of the last collection of Shiv’s poetry Birha Tun Sultan, published posthumously in 1975. It has poems from different periods of Shiv’s life that were not included in his previous books. In its form and diction, Dudh Da Qatal appears to belong to the same period when Shiv composed his last book Mein Te Mein.
Suman Kashyap, who is working on a book project of English translations of Shiv’s poetry, has kindly provided some of her unpublished translations for this paper.
Prem Nagar is now also known as Shiv Batalvi Nagar. A billboard at the entrance of the Prem Nagar has the name of the muhalla as ‘Shiv Batalvi Nagar. [Dass. Int. 2002].
Before partition Qadian was the headquarter of Ahmadiyya community. After partition, Ahmadis migrated to Pakistan and established their headquarter in Rabwah, dist. Jhang. A small contingent of about 300 Ahmadis was left in Qadian to look after their holy places. S.N College was established after partition in the same building that Ahmadi’s had built for their high school for boys.
Shiv never attended any training to pass the examination for becoming a patwari. At that time, Punjab’s patwari’s were on a strike that lasted a long time. Shiv’s father probably used his influence to get Shiv hired without going through the training and other pre-requisites for joining the service. [Kahlon 1974].
Prior to that,
he had written some poetry in Urdu and had tried his hand at a couple
of short stories. Shiv was well versed in Urdu and Persian script
since Urdu was the medium of instructions in Punjab’s schools
before partition. Shiv learned to write Punjabi in Gurmukhi script
sometime around 1957. [Hasrat 1980].
Shiv was around 5 feet 9 inches tall, of fair complexion, slim and smart and very handsome. He had large beautiful eyes and thick black hair. He was generally very well dressed. [Gill Int. 2002].
His earlier books were published by Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana that was owned by Jeevan Singh. The only royalty that Shiv would receive from him was mostly in kind in the form of a suite or a bottle of whisky and sometimes return fare whenever Shiv visited him in Ludhiana. [Gill Int. 2002].
Prior to around 1970, Shiv was not a regular drinker. His drinking habits were not different from an average drinker in his circle of friends and writers. They can be characterized as occasional light drinking and once in a while hard drinking at gatherings of friends or parties. The stories depicting Shiv as a life-long alcoholic could not be verified by the authors and are apparently based on his infrequent bouts of heavy drinking at certain occasions. Even when he became a regular drinker, he seldom got drunk. Kuldip Takhar, at whose house Shiv stayed for a couple of months during his trip to England, stated in a recent interview with the author (Rammah) that Shiv would start drinking in the morning by taking a few sips of Scotch and would continue that, a couple of sips at a time with long intervals, throughout the day. He would almost never get drunk. [Takhar. Int. 2002].
He refused to get admitted in the hospital for medical check up. Kuldip Takhar, at whose place Shiv stayed for a while in London, states that he once insisted to take Shiv to the doctor for check-up, saying that ‘Shiv, you will die if you won’t get proper medical treatment.’ Shiv’s reply was ‘Tell me something that I don’t already know!’ [Takhar, Int. 2002].
Most of the harsh criticism of Shiv’s poetry came from two main schools of thoughts in the contemporary Punjabi Poetry. From the major poets and writers of Nexalite movement, led by Avatar Singh Pash, Dr. Jagtar and a few others. The other group of poets who condemned Shiv’s poetry belonged to the experimental school of poetry led by Jasbir Auhluwalia and Ravinder Ravi. [Gill. Int. 2002].
After Shiv’s death, Dr. Harcharan Singh, head of Punjabi Department, offered his wife Aruna a job in Punjabi University Patiala as library assistant. Aruna still works there and lives in a house in the University campus. Meharban completed his M. Phil in Punjabi from Punjabi University, Patiala. He is married and lives with her mother. Puja completed M.A. and M. Phil in economics from Punjabi University, Patiala. She is now working on her doctorate thesis. She is married and settled in Cincinnati, USA, with her husband Jay Dev Sharma. They have a daughter, Shivana. [Mahal. Int. 2002].
Shiv took poetry writing as a very serious work. He would normally wake up during early morning hours to compose poetry in a totally peaceful environment. He would sit crossed-legged on the floor in a corner of his room. He would finalize a poem only when he was completely satisfied with it in all respects, editing it many times and sometimes discarding some otherwise exceptionally beautiful lines. Sometimes the idea of a poem would stay with him for a long period of time and Shiv would compose it by jotting down couple of lines at a time. He had a great command on the proper techniques and conventions of writing poetry in many different forms and could readily pinpoint the errors and weaknesses in other poets’ compositions. [Kahlon. Int. 2002].
Dr. Darshan Gill, a famous Punjabi poet and critic, who had personally known Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Harbhajan Singh (1920-2002) and have followed their poetic careers, disagrees with the statement that Shiv Kumar Batalvi copied Harbhajan Singh’s style. On the contrary, according to Dr. Gill, in early sixties Harbhajan Singh got impressed with Shiv’s lyricism and started writing poetry in his style and diction. Harbhajan Singh, who mostly wrote his poetry in free verse, published his first book of lyrical poetry, Adh Vainy (Midnight), after Shiv was already established as a popular poet. [Gill. Int. 2002].
Punjabi singers, on a much smaller scale as compared to Shiv’s poetry, have also made commercial recordings of the poetry of a number of other established Modern Punjabi poets. Among them, Prof. Mohan Singh, Nand Lal Nurpuri and Manzur Jhalla have so far been the other favorites of Punjabi singers. Nand Lal Nurpuri and Manzur Jhalla mostly wrote popular folk songs. Ahmad Rahi was the most popular Punjabi film songwriter.
1. Bhandari, Mohan (1973) ‘Ek Raat’ Arsee
Special Issue of Magazines
1. Naagmani (1973) Special Issue on Shiv Kumar Batalvi,
edited by Amrita Preetam, New Delhi (32).
1. Bhandari, Mohan . (Contemporary and friend of Shiv Kumar
Batalavi). Interviewed by the author (Sharma).
Shiv Kumar’s Collections of Poetry
1. Batalvi, Shiv Kumar (1960) ‘Peeran Da Paraga’
Lok Sahit Prakashan, Amritsar.
Books edited by Shiv Kumar Batalavi
1. Batalvi, Shiv Kumar (Editor) (1966) ‘Je Main Mar Jaawan’
New Book Co., Jalandhar.
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