by: Shafqat Tanwir Mirza

Dawn 02-11-05

Description: in 1919 in Gujranwala, Amrita Pritam was the instrument of revival of Punjabi language and literature in our part of Punjab. This was mainly due to her famous poem on the partition addressed to Waris Shah in which she grieved over the carnage that accompanied communal riots of 1947.

Amrita was deeply involved with the classical sources of Punjabi literature and she successfully borrowed from these to address the needs of her time. Even the first line of the said poem is from a Punjabi marsia written by a Muslim poet from Gujranwala. The original line — Aj aakhan Naney Pak noon kiton qabran vichon bol — was addressed to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and attributed to Bibi Zainab, the sister of Imam Hussain. Amrita used its changed version that no ordinary Punjabi, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian could ever forget, because they all have been humiliated through the history in one way or the other by the mighty and powerful.

Writer and critic Kartar Singh Duggal, a native of Potohar, says: “Amrita Pritam is equally popular in Pakistan because of her famous partition poem, lamenting the plight of Punjabis during the holocaust of 1947.”

Amrita lost her mother at a very young age. It was her father Kartar Singh Ha Hitkari, a writer/poet, who brought her up. The young, sensitive Amrita was fascinated first by folk songs, and in her earlier poetry she profusely used lines from these. Her romantic poetry was not liked by her father who had a religious bent of mind. He tried to train her in his own style but it did not work.

Finally, at 17 Amrita came out with her first collection of poetry, Amrit Lehraan (Ripples of nectar). Then she was not married to Preetam Singh and the author’s name appeared as Amrit Kaur. She came to Lahore with her father and became closely associated with the Preet Larri group of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh.

Amrita showed keen interest in dance and music. She set out to learn both the arts, but when it came to public performance, her father did not allow that. However, she was allowed to sing for the newly established All India Radio, Lahore. Here she recorded many popular folk songs in pursuit of a passion that never quite withered away. One of the titles of her poetry books is O Geetan Waliya.

From 1936 to 1947, Amrita had eight collections of poetry published. According to Mr Duggal, Amrita’s poetic genius ripened after 1947 when she began voicing the tragedy of the partition, while at the same time welcoming independence in her collection Lamiyan Waatan (Long marches), published in 1949. In Kankan da geet (Song of wheat fields), she gives expression to the tragedy of the partition:

Ho kankan saavian

Rondey nein Mahiwal, rondian nein Sohnian

Rondian Chanawan aj rondian Ravian

(O green fields, crying are Mahiwals and Sohnis today/ as are waters of Chanab and Ravi).

The well-known and oft-quoted poem Aj aakhan Waris Shah noon kitey qabraan vichon bol expresses the same agony as she cries:

Tey aj kitab-i-ishq da koi agla warqa phol

Ik roi si dhi Punjab di toon lakh lakh marey vain

Ajj lakhan dhian rondian tenu Waris Shah noon kehn

Utth dardmandan deya dardia, utth tak apna Punjab

Ajj beley laashan vichhian, tey lahu di bhari Chenab

(Rise and speak up from the grave, Waris Shah/ Turn a new leaf of the book of love/ A daughter of Punjab wept and you let out a lakh laments/ Today lakhs are weeping, hear their cries/ Rise and behold your Punjab/ The killing fields, the blood-filled Chenab)

Sensitive poetry aside, Amrita was also a very brave and bold woman. In her autobiography she admits to the long affair she had with the poet Sahir Ludhianwi. “I used to collect and cherish the cigarette butts he left behind whenever he came to meet me,” she wrote. Years later she was to be confronted by her married son who, according to her, asked her if he was his father’s son or Sahir’s. The correct answer, she said, was the former.

Amrita had fallen in love with Sahir Ludhianwi after her marriage to Preetam Singh. She was deeply committed to literature and socialism, and perhaps that was the reason why she separated from Preetam Singh and married an NCA-qualified painter Imroze.

Together, the two published a literary magazine Naag Muni for more than half a century. Amrita used this magazine for the original as well as reproduction of the writings of Pakistani writers of Punjabi and Urdu.

In most her fiction work she focused on the miseries faced by abducted women. Her novel Pinjar (skeleton) is the story of one Puro who is abducted by a Muslim, Rasheed. Puro’s parents refuse to recover her from the man because they deem her as disgraced. After the disturbances of 1947, Puro witnesses the abduction of many young Hindu and Sikh girls. One of them she recovers with the help of Rasheed and sends her to the security of an evacuee camp.

Mr Duggal writes: “Amrita is a sensitive writer who has highlighted the problems of Indian women in her poetry and fiction... Her poetic expression lends charm to her prose. She knows the craft of weaving a plot and creating motivated characters.”

Amrita was a great writer, poet and editor who was honoured with not only the highest literary award of her country, the Bharatiya Jananpith Award, but also many awards from European countries. A number of Indian universities bestowed on her honorary degrees of doctorate in literature, making sure she gets her place among immortal writers of Punjabi literature.

When communal violence in Lahore took a nasty turn, Amrita was advised to shift to a safe place in East Punjab but she refused. Ultimately, when she was left with no choice but to leave her birthplace, she decided that the journey would be final. She never returned to her cherished city, Lahore. Maybe she wanted to keep the feel and image of the city she was forced to leave intact in her mind.