DAWN - the Internet Edition

Silence of five rivers

Zubair Ahmad
A poet and writer in Punjabi and English language teacher at the Islamia College, Lahore

Zubair Ahmad writes about the factors which influenced the development of the Punjabi language

Our literature is our pride, the finest thing we have created as a nation. In it is all our philosophy; it bears the impress of great flights of the spirit; in this marvellous temple that has sprung up with magic speed there burn to this day minds of great strength and hearts of sacred beauty - the minds and hearts of the genuine artist. These all exclaim to us as they truthfully and honestly illumine what they have realized and lived through: "the temple of Russian art has been erected by us with the silent aid of the people; we have been inspired by the people; therefore love the people!" - Maxim Gorky.

Anthropologists have traced the first footsteps of early man here; the fossils found here are about 15 million years old. They inherit the ancient civilizations of Harappa and Moenjodaro. Their language has pre-Vedic origins. Have they produced any literature?

The man in the street will have a twinkle in his eyes, he may show his reverence and humility towards some household names like Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah, could recite some lines correctly or wrongly but could not elaborate further. An educated one neither has any knowledge of nor cares to know about the literature of his own land.

The Punjabi intelligentsia is culturally and linguistically the most alienated species on earth. The Punjabi "petit bourgeois" is least conscious about its culture, land and history. The whole world from New York to Tokyo is moving with Punjabi dhammal and their foods are in vogue in the world's metropolis. But what about their literature? Punjab has a written literary history of one-thousand years: the oral and folk tradition is as old as the land of Punjab. The first poet, Baba Farid (1173-1226), belonged to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. And the last classical poet died in 1910. In between is a galaxy of poets like Baba Nanak (1469-1539), Shah Hussain (1539-1599), Dammodar (1556-1605), Bulleh Shah (1680-1752) and Waris Shah (1735-1784). The literature was there. It is like the silence of five rivers, flowing from time immemorial, serene, eternal. It is the land of saints and faqirs, bards and minstrels.

What happened: alienation of culture

The answer lies in the annexation of Punjab in 1849. The Britishers made Urdu and English the official languages of Punjab while Punjabi was condemned as inferior and considered merely a spoken language. The people had no choice but to get education in languages other than their own and had to embrace an alienated culture. With the passage of time, this alienated educated class increased specially among Muslims and Hindus and this was the very class which was also in the forefront of the movement for the independence of India.

But people still have distant memories of their poets: they gather annually at the mazars of these poets. Punjab is perhaps a unique land where poets have turned into saints and saints into poets and these saintly poets have gone so deep in people's memory that Punjabi literature has become an index of their collective political and social unconsciousness. It is subterranean, from the known to the unknown, the mere expression of their being, to be there in history and time. The history of the last five decades of Punjabi literature cannot be studied without this historical perspective.

Literally speaking, united Punjab was a whole unit. Punjabi literature in its essence is secular, pro-people and anti-establishment. With the partition of Punjab, like other people, writers were also uprooted. The happiness of Independence was coloured by the mass killing on both sides. Ustad Daman wept:

(The redness in the eyes shows that we both have wept.)

Amrita Preetam cried:

(I call Waris Shah to speak from his grave.)

Punjabi writers in the British period were read and praised irrespective of their religion. Hence, Mohan Singh's Savey Patter (green leaves) was equally popular among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Ahmed Rahi's Trinjan was the first collection of poetry published just after the partition of Punjab in 1952. It at once went to the hearts of the Punjabis and is still very popular. Critically speaking, Mohan Singh, Amrita Preetam, Ahmed Rahi and Ustad Daman belong to the strong lyrical and folk tradition of Punjabi poetry which continued to survive in colonial Punjab. Ustad Daman was a true product of the oral tradition, a poet of baaghs (gardens). Put behind bars by all rulers for reciting his poetry in public places, his only book was published posthumously by his friends and pupils.

After Independence, Urdu was declared the national language of Pakistan while other Pakistani languages were neglected. Consequently, there was no movement for Punjabi culture and literature. The history of the last fifty years of Punjabi literature cannot be separated from publications of Punjabi books, magazines and organizations. In 1951, Dr Faqir Muhammad Faqir started his magazine Punjabi. He was joined by Abdul Majid Salik, Sufi Tabassum and others. Muhammad Afzal also came with his Panj Darya from Temple Road, Lahore. Maula Bakhsh Kushta's book Punjabi Shairian Da Tazkra was published in 1955.

But real activity for Punjabi language started in 1957 when the Punjabi Majlis was founded by Safdar Mir, Anees Nagi, Asaf Khan, Raja Rasaloo, Akmal Aleemi and Akbar Lahori. The Majlis published a collection of Punjabi writings Sajray Phol (fresh flowers). This collection was edited by Saleemur Rehman and Hakeem Nasir. The patron-in-chief of the organization was Karamat Jafri who was once the principal of the MAO College, Lahore. The Majlis used to hold its weekly meetings in various libraries and cafes of Lahore. Before the Majlis could expand its agenda, Ayub's martial law was imposed and the organization was banned as being an offshoot of the Communist Party of Pakistan.

But Punjabi writers' activities could not be stopped. In the early sixties, Dr Faqir Muhammad and Muhammad Baqar were able to organize the Punjabi Academy with government funding and other sources. The academy's contribution was to make available classical literature in readable and standardized form. Previously, Punjabi books were published from the Kashmiri Bazaar, Lahore, by Allah Walley Dee Qaumi Dukan. Books were published in large quantity and supplied to the whole of the province. But now this wonderful and traditional institution was in decline. The role of Punjabi writers and intellectuals was now twofold: to make available classical literature and to make efforts to increase the readership as well as to inspire new writers to write modern literature in their own language.

Majlis Shah Hussain: hectic activities

This was done by Majlis Shah Hussain which was founded in 1964 and played its required historical role. But Punjabi writers were already engaged in hectic activities which served as a background for the launching of the Majlis Shah Hussain. The Punjabi Academy for the first time published the standardized reprints of classical poets. Sheikh Abdul Aziz's Heer Waris Shah was published. The first authentic versions of Bulleh Shah, Hashim Shah and Maqbul's Heer also saw the light of day. Another event which activated Punjabi writers was the Punjabi chapter of the Writer's Guild. Ayub Khan was planning to rule the country for a long time and he needed the support of all segments of society, including writers. Hence, the Writer's Guild was launched by Qudratullah Shahab, a top bureaucrat in Ayub's regime. Its Punjabi sub-region was headed by Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, who had played a leading role in the Punjabi movement.

The Punjabi sub-section held a cultural meeting in Lahore Museum's auditorium in 1963 which coincided with the Mela Charaghan, the urs of poet Shah Hussain. The meeting was organized by Safdar Mir, Asif Khan, Raja Rasaloo, Najm Hosain Syed, Ghulam Yaqub Anwar and of course Shafqat Tanvir Mirza. Some of these writers also read articles and Inayat Baey Darro Walley, a famous singer of her time, paid tribute to Shah Husain in her wonderful voice. One of the resolution approved by the meeting was that Punjabi should be made the medium of instruction in Punjab.

The Writers Guild reacted sharply, and Shafqat Tanvir Mirza was suspended. This created an uproar in literary circles and the national press. The fireband Safdar Mir wrote many articles in favour of Punjabi language and its promotion. Prof Asaf Khan returned his award to the Guild. The Punjabi literary meetings were banned. In the same year, the Punjabi Adabi Sangat started its weekly meetings. In 1964, the Majlis Shah Hussain came into being and all the writers mentioned above were organizers and founders of these two organization.

The Majlis had an extensive agenda. It continued to hold annual meetings on the occasion of the Mela Charaghan until 1968. It founded the first modern Punjabi institution, the Shah Hussain College, in 1970, where Prof Manzoor Ahmed, Amin Mughal and Eric Cyprian taught Punjabi and other subjects at graduate and post-graduate levels. The Majlis also published many rare books like the Poetry of Shah Hussain and introduced modern Punjabi writers like Najm Hosain, Hussain Shahid and many others. The Majlis Shah Hussain and the Punjabi Adabi Sangat were the true harbinger of genuine and solid Punjabi literary activities which ushered in a new dawn for modern Punjabi literature.

This was the beginning of the great seventies. On the national scene, Z.A. Bhutto was stirring people's nationalistic feelings and on the international level the whole world was passing through great upheavals and revolutions. This was the time of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zhedong. In Europe and America, students were on the streets, marching to the tune of the Internationale.

The Punjabi intellectuals and writers were also part of this consciousness. They were themselves inspired and gave inspiration to others. Language was not just considered a tool to vent one's feelings. It was seen as reflecting people's history and culture and as an expression of the insulted and humiliated. Challenging the history of court historians, Punjabi writers went deep in search of their inheritance and identity. Dullah Bhatti, a rebel against Akbar (1554-1605), and poet Shah Hussain of the same era became symbols of resistance and defiance.

The whole of modern Punjabi literature should be studied keeping in view this background. Actually, the bulk of Punjabi literature was produced after the mid-sixties, and the seventies was the most energetic and creative period. All main writers who are still on the literary scene are the product of these times or were groomed by the writers of those days.

Important writer:Najm Hussain Syed

The most important writer in contemporary Punjabi literature is Najm Hussain Syed. He is a philosopher, poet, critic, translator, playwright and above all a towering light for the young generation. He has been constantly engaged in writing Punjabi literature for the last four decades. He has authored more than twenty books, some of which have been reprinted a number of times. Two of his earlier books on criticism have become modern classics. Saran (Comprehension) and Saidhan (The Correct Path) were published by Majlis Shah Hussain and opened new vistas and horizons in literary criticism.

Two of his plays, Takhat Lahore and Ik Rat Ravi Di (A night on River Ravi) are based on Dullah Bhatti and Ahmed Khan Kharal (1803-1857). Takhat Lahore has also been staged many times in Punjab and abroad. As a poet, he had drunk deep at the spring of classical literature and created new metaphors and symbols. Basing his language on classical models, Najm has been very insistent on it being the standard language of Punjab. For the last many years he has been engaged in writing a critical history of Punjabi literature starting from Baba Farid to the present times and has also made use of folk poetry and mythology. Arguably he has contributed more than anyone else to the Punjabi language in the twentieth century.

In 1971, the Punjabi department was established in Punjab University and Dr Muhammad Ajmal, then vice-chancellor, invited Najm Hussain Syed to head the department. He gathered there the most learned and reputed scholars like late Asaf Khan, Ali Abbas Julal Puri and Sharif Kunjahi. They decided to establish a higher institute of Punjabi language and literature, but the plan was never implemented. Ironically, this idea found favour across the border and the Guru Nanak University adopted it. With the political change in 1978, all the faculty members were thrown out while charlatans and sycophants were patronized.

The grand old man of Punjabi literature is Sharif Kunjahi: his early poems were written in 1938. The author of many scholarly works, he has also translated some books of Allama Iqbal. Recently, his liberal translation of the Holy Quran was well received. A very good poet and critic, he has always been in the mainstream. Shafqat Tanvir Mirza is another leading writer. Basically a journalist, he has fought many battles.

Another field which is unique to Punjabi writers is the editing and correction of old classical works because with the passage of time the actual scripts have been lost or were altered by other writers. Asaf Khan and Ustad Sharif Sabir should be ranked as the most distinguished scholars in this field. Asif Khan, who died on March 17, 2000, was among a rare breed of learned researchers. Punjab should be proud of having such a scholar and linguist in its ranks. He edited many poets and wrote long researched editorials. Being a linguist, he published a book containing all available verbs in the Punjabi language. His scholarly book Punjabi Boli Da Pochokar (Perspective of Punjabi language) is a great contribution not only to the Punjabi language but also to the Indian languages. Ustad Sharif Sabir had edited Waris Shah and Sultan Bahu: the editing and correction of Waris Shah's text took him 12 years and his glossary of Waris Shah's Heer is a commendable work.

Most Punjabi classical literature consists of poetry: hence poetry is the only form in which contemporary literature is self-sufficient. Poetry has witnessed many movements in the last five decades. The influence of symbolism, avant-gard, surrealism, psycho-analysis, existentialism and socialism can be found in Punjabi poetry. We can broadly categorize poetry into three movements. First, there is traditional lyrical poetry which can also be labelled as romantic. Writers like Ahmed Rahi and a host of other writers fall in this category. This kind of poetry is still written and, perhaps, in huge volume.

Second, there is the so called avant-gard movement of writers. Appearing on the literary scene in the early seventies, they could not hold on for too long. Among the protagonists of this school can be included Fakhar Zaman, the late Zamarrud Malik, Asif Shahkar, Ahmed Saleem and Sarmad Sehbai. Credit goes to them for modernizing Punjabi literature and some of their phrases have also clicked. We can also place Munir Niazi, Afzal Ahsan Randawa and some other writers in this category.

In the third category are those writers who are very conscious about their identity as Punjabi writers and have gone a long way in absorbing classical literature and learning from western literature. Apart from Najm Hussain Syed, Mushtaq Sufi, Abid Amiq, Ashoo Lal Faqir, Riffat Abbas, Ayub Awan and Raja Sadiq Ullah, a whole generation of young writers fall in this category.

The state of modern Punjabi fiction is not as satisfactory as poetry. Joshua Fazal Din was the first writer who wrote some reformist and didactic novels and short stories in British Punjab. The main fiction writers were Sikhs and there was hardly anything worthy in Pakistani Punjabi fiction. In the sixties, some novels and collections of short stories were published. Akbar Lahori is the pioneer of the short story: his stories were realistic and written on classical models.

Nawaz also came with his collection of stories Dongian Shamaan (Deep evenings) which has a romantic tinge to it. After Akbar Lahori, the most important writer is Afzal Ahsan Randawa. His first collection of short stories, Rann, Talwar Tey Gora (Women, sword and horse), was well received and has since gone into many editions. Randawa is obsessed with pre-partition Punjab and the Jats' chivalric deeds: his stories are about a Punjab which is no longer there. In his latest book of stories, he has made some experiments and there is an influence of magic realism.

Masterly technique: cartoonist's short stories

Another important short story writer is Anwar Ali, more famous as the Pakistan Times cartoonist Nanna. He has written modern short stories. His famous story Janaza (Funeral) is masterly in its technique of stream of consciousness. His first collection of short stories in 1972 was a step forward in modern Punjabi fiction. Since then a new generation of short stories writer have cropped up.

The scene with regard to Punjabi novel is not very encouraging but is also not too depressing. Two very good novels were written by Mansha Yad and Hussain Shahid just before the close of the twentieth century. In southern Punjab, Ahmad Hamdani and Zafar Lashari have written some good novels. Other important novelists are Fakhar Zaman, Farzand Ali and Ahmed Saleem.

In play-writing, apart from Najm Hussain Syed, the late Ishaque Muhammad also gave two plays to Punjabi literature. Basically a radical in politics and an activist of the Punjabi movement, his well-written essays on Punjab's history are still quoted. His two famous dramas, Musali, and Quqnus, were staged by labourers and peasants in villages and factories in the seventies. Shafqat Tanvir Mirza translated the plays of Lorca and Sartre. Sufi Tabbassum translated and adapted some plays of Shakespeare. The other important playwrights are Sajjad Haider and Nawaz.

Punjabi language has never been encouraged by the media and the establishment, although Punjabi bureaucrats and political leaders have always been in a position to make decisions. The Punjabis are still denied their mother tongue. Nobody realises that basic education cannot be spread without teaching in the mother tongue. Despite all these difficulties one should praise Punjabi writers who have continued to produce literature in their language. Presently, around 15 Punjabi magazines are in circulation and over 200 books are published annually. But then, who reads Punjabi literature? And who listens?


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