Sharif Kunjahi – Serving his language

By Safir Rammah

Sharif Kunjahi passed away on January 20, 2007

Dawn 11 Feb, 2007

IN a short span of less than one year, the Punjabi language has lost some of its brightest stars: Amrita Pritam, Munir Niazi and now Sharif Kunjahi.

As a poet, prose writer, teacher, research scholar, linguist, lexicographer and translator, Sharif Kunjahi served the Punjabi language with unwavering dedication throughout his long and productive life in many more ways than his eminent co-travellers. The modern era of Punjabi literature, as far as Muslims’ contribution to it is concerned, began with Sharif Kunjahi, and with his death the last living link to the early days of modern Punjabi literature stands severed.

Sharif Kunjahi was born in 1915 in Kunjah, a small town in Gujrat. Four centuries earlier during the reign of Aurangzeb, another poet, Ghanimat Kunjahi, had already placed Kunjah on the literary map of Punjab as the writer of his famous Persian Masnavi Naurang-i-Ishq. The status of Persian as the dominant literary language had been replaced by Urdu when Sharif Kunjahi started writing poetry. Although he tried his hand in poetry, writing in both Urdu and Persian, and even made a name as an Urdu poet quite early in his writing career, Punjabi was always his first love. For an up-and-coming Muslim writer of that period, especially among the early progressive writers and poets, adopting Punjabi for his creative articulation was a rare phenomenon. It turned out to be a blessing of immeasurable proportions for Punjabi language.

For the son of a school teacher living in a small town, life was a never ending struggle against long odds. Sharif Kunjahi did his matriculation in 1930 from a school in Kunjah and intermediate in 1933 from Government Intermediate College, Jehlum. By that time he had started writing poetry and was known as a progressive writer who was sympathetic to Indian National Congress. His affiliation with the Congress party became a hindrance for him as he had to get police clearance to obtain entry level jobs in the government service. After getting fired from the army as a clerk for failing to get the certificate of good character from police and his other failed attempts to land a job, he came back to Kunjah to live with his parents.

He completed his Munshi Fazal and BA from Punjab University as a private student in 1943 and later completed teacher’s training from Lahore. He then taught at various schools until finally he obtained the degree of MA Urdu as a private student in 1954 and of MA Persian in 1956, and was hired as a Persian lecturer in Government College, Campbalpur, in 1959. He was transferred to Government College Jehlum from where he retired in 1973. From 1973 to 1980, he taught at the newly established Punjabi Department at the Punjab University Lahore.

Sharif Kunjahi was among the pioneers of modern Punjabi poetry. He started writing poetry in 1930s at about the same time when Prof Mohan Singh introduced secular themes and a new style in Punjabi poetry. While Mohan Singh is acclaimed by East Punjabi critics as the poet who ushered Punjabi poetry in the modern era, Sharif Kunjahi’s role in modern Punjabi poetry is not widely recognised.

A reason could be that Sharif Kunjahi was not a prolific poet and published only two anthologies of his poetry, both long after partition. He started writing poetry in the early ’30s but his first collection of Punjabi poetry Jagrate (sleepless nights) was first published in Gurmukhi in East Punjab in 1958, and wasn’t published in Shahmukhi in West Punjab until 1965. It contained only 37 poems. His second anthology Orak Hondi Lou (dimming light) was published in 1995. Mohan Singh’s first anthology of poetry Sawe Patter (green leaves), on the other hand, was published in 1936 and was immediately recognised as a ground breaking book. It is still among the most well-known poetry books by East Punjabi writers in West Punjab.

Kunjahi’s poetry is a complete break from the qissa and Sufi traditions. Even his earliest poems have all the elements of modern poetry: secularism, expression of individualist experience, awareness of social and political changes around him, etc. His deep sense of departure from the existing value system was expressed in many of his early poems:

Today, I am going to walk past your village,
A place from where I was not able to move away in the past,
Where I always was looking for some excuse to go.
What excuse? The truth is that you were the real reason
Who had made that village a place for pilgrimage?
What a beautiful name it had,
How exciting it was to just listen to its name.
Looking at its trees from a distance would take away all tiredness,
It seemed like their branches were giving me a signal to come close.
Standing under their shadow was heavenly.
Today, I will walk by those trees.
Nothing is pulling me towards them,
Neither do I feel the loving touch of breeze coming from your village
No one is there to meet me with affection
Or waiting for me,
Hiding behind the Kikkar trees, and alone
I am passing by your village
As if it is a graveyard, not a village.

(From Jagrate, translated by S.H.R).

Without being overburdened by excessive symbolism or extreme emotions, Kunjahi’s poetry is a realistic and balanced expression of his social consciousness in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. He played a crucial role in setting new directions for Punjabi poetry and he opened doors for Punjabi poets to move away from the traditional style of writing poetry and experiment with new modes and techniques.

Just like he had done in poetry, Sharif Kunjahi also broke new grounds in Punjabi prose. It was through his translations in Punjabi of two books of Bertrand Russell and Allama Iqbal’s lectures — ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts’ — among the numerous other translations, that he demonstrated that Punjabi language is capable of eloquently communicating even the most complex philosophical thoughts. He developed many new terms by creatively employing the vast treasure of Punjabi vocabulary. Perhaps his masterpiece is his translation of the Holy Quran in idiomatic and fluent Punjabi of such a high order that it has set a new standard for writing Punjabi prose.

Sharif Kunjahi was among the earliest writers who employed modern techniques of literary criticism. In a different field, his research in identifying many linguistic similarities in the Punjabi and Scandinavian languages is another pioneering piece of work.

Through his lifelong work on various aspects of Punjabi literature and language, Sharif Kunjahi carried the burden of serving his language during a time when most Muslim Punjabis had rejected their own language for all literary and creative expression. Sharif Kunjahi enriched the Punjabi language in so many different ways that his contributions will always be remembered in the history of Punjabi literature.

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