AUTHOR: Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973) -
Poet of melody
Dawn: July 28, 2002
By Safir Rammah
Lyrical sweetness - the magic touchstone of poetry - found a permanent home
in Punjabi poetry more than a millennium ago. While Baba Farid (1173-1266)
wrote most of his Punjabi poetry in the melodious two-line metre of dohras,
many major Punjabi poets that followed him explicitly set the lyrics of
their poetry in well-defined ragas of classical Indian music. Punjabis
relate to their poetry primarily through singing. Whether it is Baba Nanak's
saintly verses, Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain's kafis, Sultan Bahu's baits,
Waris Shah's Heer or Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, Khwaja Farid and Sachal
Sarmast's enchanting poems - the depth and meanings of their poetry are
primarily experienced through the powerful feelings brought to life by a
Shiv Kumar Batalvi's poetry gained immense popularity in the same
old-fashioned way. During his brief lifetime, he mesmerized packed halls of
audiences in kavi darbars by singing his poems in a tender and
agonizing high-pitched tone. The unparalleled emotional intensity of his
lyrics soon made them a popular choice for dozens of aspiring, as well as,
well-established Punjabi singers. He is now, rightfully, the first and only
modern Punjabi poet who receives the same level of reverence and adulation
from the singers and listeners of Punjabi poetry that so far has been
reserved for the great Sufis.
Ironically, he is still an unknown entity in the country of his birth -
Pakistan. Where many enjoy the dazzling renderings of his poems by Nusrat
Fateh Ali Khan (Maaen ni maaen mere geetan de nainaan wich birhon di riRk
pave), Jagjeet (Main ek shikra yaar banaya), Surinder Kaur (Ni
ek meri akh kasni) and others, without realizing that they are listening
to the poetry of perhaps one of the greatest modern poets of the
Shiv was born in Bara Pind Lodhian, tehsil Shakargarh, district Narowal
(which is now part of Pakistani Punjab) on July 23, 1936. His father was a
patwari. After partition, Shiv's family migrated to Batala. By the time he
reached the final year of BA at S.N. College Qadian, writing poetry had
become his all consuming passion. He left college without completing his
bachelor's degree, lived a bohemian life and literally burned himself out by
writing most of his best poetry in a phenomenal creative outburst of less
than ten years.
He published his first collection of poetry A Handful of pains at the
age of 24 in 1960, followed by Lajwanti and Loonan in 1961, The
sparrows of kneaded flour in 1962 and Bid me farewell in 1963.
Invocation, the last collection of his poetry, published in 1971,
contains poems that were mostly written between 1963 and 1965. He was
awarded India's coveted Sahitya Academy award in 1965.
This poet genius discovered his exceptional gift and true calling early in
life. He never cared much about a career or success in a worldly sense.
After leaving college, he roamed aimlessly in Batala for many years. His
early admirers were the relatively affluent grain merchants of this dusty
town. He would spend his evenings reciting his mystifying poetry to them.
They were the ones who introduced him to kavi darbars around Punjab, as far
as New Delhi. Shiv eventually took a job as a patwari. Well known for his
fascination with the birds, trees and thorny plants of Punjab's landscape,
working in the open fields as a patwari turned out to be the most productive
period of his poetry writing.
He married in 1967. His wife Aruna was a Brahmin from district Gurdaspur. He
had two children, Meharbaan (b. 1968) and Puja (b. 1969). In 1968 he moved
to Chandigarh where he was employed as a bank clerk in the State Bank of
India. Shiv went on a long trip of many months to England, Canada and the
United States in 1970. He was in such high demand that he was routinely
offered 500 pounds or more for an evening of poetry recitation in small
gatherings in private homes. That didn't mellow down his usual sharp
criticism of people living 'normal' and content lives. "They are all hungry
for pounds and dollars and act like they have conquered London and New
York," he complained to his close friend and famous writer Balwant Gargi on
Talking to his friends and colleagues, one finds many anecdotes about his
non-conformist social behaviour, his constant tussle with the established
Punjabi literary elite of his time, his unique social commentary but not
much about his reading or research interests. Like Sa'adat Hasan Manto, he
had only the basic formal education, but was yet intuitively and expertly
able to pinpoint the fault lines in the social structure at large. Shiv was
very well versed with the classical and modern Indian literature - that is
about all we know.
Although Shiv had become a legend in his lifetime, he remained an anathema
for the poets and critics of his generation. In the aftermath of
extraordinary disruption caused by the partition of Punjab, poetry of
disillusionment, despair, rage and self-criticism, coloured with left-wing
ideology, was in vogue in East Punjab. Shiv stayed clear of all political,
social and ideological debates of his time. Oblivious to the criticism
hurled at him as a hopeless romantic by the exponents of social-poetry, he
immersed himself in writing passionate and captivating poems about the
firestorm of love for life raging in his heart, blended with acute pain at
failing to experience the extremes of its potential for beauty and
The two main currents of classical Punjabi poetry, celebration of life in
folk songs and search for its higher meanings in the Sufi tradition, are
seamlessly blended in Shiv's poetry. His purely secular search for higher
elevations of life experience follows the same deliberate process of
deprivations, sufferings and pains that was the sufi's chosen path to
For example, his poem 'Shikra', made famous by Jagjeet's mesmerizing voice,
explores the classical Sufi theme of "death before dying" in a modern
context. The poem begins with the description of a handsome, free and
Maaen ni maaen/Main ek shikra yaar banaya/Ohde ser te kalghi/Ohde paireen
jahnjar/O chog chugainda aya
...Ek ohde roop di dhup takhairi/O dooja mehkan da tirhaya
(Oh, my mother/I befriended a she-hawk/On her head she wore a crown/On her
feet anklets/Hither she came picking her feed
...Her beauty was drenched in warm sunlight/Oh, she had a fragrance all her
Then comes the moment of transformation when he is smitten by Ishq:
Ishqe da ek palang navari/Assan chandiniyaan wich dhaya/Tan di chadder ho
gai maili/Oss per ja palanghe paya.
(A string-cot of love/I decked with sheets all white/On which I lay like
another sheet stained/Wherein she got her foot entangled)
The enormity of this complete transformation and what may lie ahead of him
brings tears to the eyes of the narrator:
Dukhan mere nainan de kohye/Wich har hanjuan da ayaa/Sari raat gaee wich
sochan/Oss eh ki zulm kamaya.
(Grief then washed my vision away/Eyes swelled like rivers in flood/All
night I in deep thought lay/What curse, what spell on me she cast)
Nothing can now bring Shikra back to his old carefree self:
Subah sawairey ley nee watnan/Assan mal mal oss nohwaya/Daihee de wichon
niklan chingaan/Sada hath gaya kumlaya
(Early morn she readied to leave/Rubbing with hands I bathed her clean/Her
body fire did emit/Leaving my hands scalding)
Shikra thus enters a new state of being and a point of no return:
Chooree kuttan taan o khaonda naaheen/Assan dil da maass khawaya/Ek
udaree oss aisee maree/O mur watnee naa ayaa
(Sweetbread she wouldn't eat/I fed her the best of my heart's cut/Then
flight she took at once/And was never seen again)
Such powerful imagery, metaphors of nature as living and breathing
reflections of life and a deep and unbearable sorrow are hallmarks of Shiv's
poetry. The dichotomy of acute longing for everything beautiful that life
has to offer and the heart breaking pain of failure to fulfil this yearning
is the main subject of his poetry.
Umaran de sarvar/Sahvan da paani/Geeta we chunj bhareen (Sacrifice to
a lifetime/A breathful of water/Song, take in your beak) - begins another
poem, advising the singing bird to drink every drop from the running stream
of life. It ends with a sad reminder of the poet's own failure at living the
life to its fullest: Hara we oye/Naa tun tirhaya/Mere wang mareen
(Hark and listen/Don't you dare/Die in anguish like me)
Baba Farid had declared "Birha" (the pain of separation from a loved one)
the king of emotions (Birha birha aakhiye, birha toon sultan). In the
annals of Punjabi poetry, it found its most profound expression in Shiv's
lyrics. No wonder that the first encounter with Shiv's poetry invariably
brings tears to the eyes of listeners - for its overpowering sheer beauty,
not just for the deep emotions it stirs.
From age 28 onwards starts a sort of slow breakdown process that ended with
his death. He started talking about his desire to die soon. He was among
those writers who live their life to such a level of intensity, that once
they lose interest in living, it becomes simple for them to end it on their
own like Ernest Hemingway or Mustapha Zaidi. "I don't want to die an old
man," he would say to his friends, "One should learn how to die from the
flower of cherry that drops off at the height of its bloom." Another of his
famous poem begins with the following lines:
Siker dopeher ser tey mera dhal chalyaa parchawan/ Qabraan udeekdiyan
mainun jeyoon puttraan nun maanwan.
(The hot afternoon sun has shortened my shadow/Grave prays for me like a
mother for her son to come home)
Death at a young age was a recurring, almost obsessive, theme in Shiv's
poems. Assan te joban rutte marna/Tur jaanan asaan bhare bharai (I'll
die in my spring's delight/Leaving the world in full bloom) or Eh mera
geet kisse na gaana/Eh mera geet mein aape gaa ke, bhal ke nu mar jaana
(This song of mine no one shall sing/This song of mine only I shall sing and
die) and other invocations to an early death can be found in many of his
poems. True to his words, He died in 1973 at the young age of 36.
Writer's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow-up letters published in the Dawn, August 10, 2002
Modern Punjabi literature cannot be viewed in any meaningful way
without including Shiv Kumar Batalvi's exquisite and immensely
significant body of work. Safir Rammah's observations on Batalvi's
poetry are perceptive, thoughtful, and even thought provoking.
Unfortunately, the embarrassingly unpoetic, incorrect, and at times
absurd translation, was a grave disservice to the poetry of Batalvi as
well as to the points made by Mr Rammah. No one reading this translation
is going to think "Wow! what a wonderful poet this is!". And that should
be the goal.
One hopes that you will continue to educate your readers about
Punjabi writers - but with justice to their work.
With reference to my article on Shiv Kumar Batalvi (July 28), I
greatly appreciate that you took the time to provide an excellent
translation of Shiv's verses that were quoted in the article. Allow me
to bring to your attention a discrepancy in the translation of Shiv's
famous poem "Shikra".
In classical Punjabi literature, there is a well-established poetic
tradition that sometimes the poet assumes a feminine identity while
addressing his beloved. It is commonly used in sufi poetry to emphasize
the poet's complete submission and devotion to God. Both in sufi poetry,
as well as, in the lok and popular songs, it opens up an extra dimension
and rather charming possibilities for the poet to express his feelings.
For example, while using the symbols of Heer and Ranjha, it is common
for Punjabi poets to write poetry in the role of Heer.
Ranjha Ranjha kerdee nee main/Ape Ranjha hoee
Repeating the name of Ranjha/I have become Ranjha myself (Bulleh
The refrain - Mai Nee Mai - is almost always an indication that the
poet is writing in his feminine role.
Shiv, like many other modern Punjabi poets, has selectively employed
metaphors and poetic traditions of Punjabi classical poetry. A number of
his poems are in the form of a geet or a song. In his poem "Shikra", the
shikra (falcon) is a male and the poet or narrator of this poem a
female. Shiv has used masculine pronouns and verbs in all references to
shikra. The repeated refrains "Mai Nee Mai" and "Nee main waree javan"
clearly establish that Shiv is writing this poem by adopting a feminine
The otherwise brilliant translation was marred by assuming shikra as
a female (she-hawk) and caused a misinterpretation of the whole poem. I
hope this clarification will provide a better understanding of Shiv's
poem for your readers.
Fairfax, Virginia, USA
The translator replies:
The objections to "Shikra's" translation appearing in Mr Rammah's
article on the poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi as a 'she-hawk' instead of his
preferred 'falcon' seem banal at best. We are not told what would a
she-falcon or a she-hawk be called in Punjabi, because as far as one
knows the language, there is no such word as shikri.
Banalities aside, the point that like many sufi poets Batalvi
sometimes also assumed the female gender is rather obvious and must be
taken for granted for anyone acquainted with Punjabi literature. The
obvious example of this is Batalvi's poem that runs thus:
Tussi kehRi rute aaye mere Ram ji'O
(Look, when you have come to me)
Now there are two ways of translating this poem in which a woman
laments about the lover coming to get her 'too late'; too late meaning
now it just cannot be anymore. The traditional way to interpret it would
be the easier way out in which the girl's lament becomes her last cry.
But Batalvi was the farthest thing from such mundane thoughts, let alone
make them subject for his poetry.
His was a very contemporary idiom and sensibility, which sought
something that would perhaps always elude human grasp; hence the
tragedy. He was an existentialist and believed only in one thing with
conviction: worthlessness of life, unless proved otherwise.
It would be unfair to read the sufi in his thoughts, for, like Manto,
Batalvi had rather be called a rascal than a mystic. His bosom buddy,
Balwant Gargi, would vouch for it any time. He lived life to its full,
deceived and used girls (and perhaps boys) and got used by them, and, in
the process, composed some of the best contemporary poetry in Punjabi.
Punjabi has more than enough unsung heroes than it deserves, and if the
living gurus of the language and its largely rustic literature cannot
create a more contemporary idiom today the least they can do is not to
masquerade some exceptional contemporary works as neo-classics. Batalvi
would have hated this.
It was not Batalvi's fault, after all, that he was stuck with a
language whose idiom has really not grown much beyond where the masters
left it. Urdu, on the contrary, thanks to the Progressive Writers'
Movement, managed to shed its rustic classical skin to some extent, and
Majaz was able to express the same thought as that expressed by Batalvi
in Tussi kehRi rute aaye, without having to switch the gender, by
composing Ab mere paas tum aai ho to kya aai ho.
We need more people like Batalvi to take the language farther from
where he left it. And those who still live in the trance of a classical
idiom and sensibility are the least equipped to do so.