Commemorating Amrita Pritam

An event in Lahore marked the 12th anniversary of literary giant Amrita Pritam's passing. Report for the TFT Features Desk

Commemorating Amrita Pritam
Despite the violent sundering apart of Punjab during the 1947 Partition, and the divergent paths taken by the two fragments of this region as part of two separate countries, some ties could not be entirely broken. Most notable would be the cultural ties that bind the two Punjabs: a rich poetic heritage and post-1947 literary output continued to unite the writers and poets of the divided land.

No figure could be a better example of this process than Amrita Pritam. An event in Lahore, held on the 31st of October 2017 served to remind the observer of how her legacy remains just as powerful and poignant for the literati of Pakistani Punjab as it is on the other side of the border. The event marked the 12th anniversary of her passing. The day-long event, organised by the World Punjabi Congress (WPC), drew a significant number of poets, people of letters and members of the general public.

At the Pak Heritage Hotel on Davis Road Lahore, literary icon Mustansar Hussain Tarar was amongst those present at the event. While paying tribute to Amrita Pritam, he did note, however, that a lot more could be done on the Indian side of the border by Punjabi literati to reaffirm the poetic and literary connections between the people of Punjab as a region.

The event was heavy on visuals and audio: dominated by the screening of no less than nine video pieces of varying lengths, highlighting various aspects of the life, context and work of Amrita Pritam. These included a documentary by Basu Bhattacharya, and another by India’s Rajya Sabha TV. Much of the emphasis in the videos screened was on Pritam’s journey – one marked by a certain kind of radical honesty in her output – whether she discussed love, the human condition or social and political issues.

Given that she was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, her work was, of course, marked by a certain anti-colonial, pro-people sensibility. In this context, she deals with not only of the tragedy of the 1947 Partition, but of the pain of common people under the colonial heel even before that – such as, for instance, the 1943 Bengal famine.

Her experience of life, it would seem, was also marked by a profound sense of loneliness – no doubt having a lot to do with the traumatic passing away of her mother early in Pritam’s life. One of the documentaries screened at the Lahore event focused particularly on this earlier period of her life and its impact on a young Amrita Pritam.

In the case of Amrita Pritam, her complex relationship with poet Sahir Ludhianvi, as well as her life with artist and writer Imroz form part of her fascinating story – which was also referred to at the event, of course.

One of the videos screened focused on the tragic aspect of the passing away of a literary figure – how, after her death, her children were unable to preserve the house that she shared with Imroz. It was a home built by contributions from both Amrita and Imroz – a central hub for many literati and a place powerfully associated with their memory. The scenes of that place being torn down by a company to develop the property after it was sold by her struggling family, following her death, came as a powerful reminder that much more needs to be done to preserve the tangible heritage of Punjab’s greatest literary figures.
One of the videos screened focused on a very tragic aspect of the passing away of a literary figure - how, after her death, her children were unable to preserve the house that she shared with Imroz

The Chairman of the World Punjabi Congress, Fakhar Zaman, emphasized this unfortunate neglect at the event. He appeared to share Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s view that preserving the shared literary heritage of Punjab – including, of course, the work of figures such as Amrita Pritam – had to be a shared responsibility on both sides of the border.

Popular revolutionary poet Baba Najmi was among those seen to be in attendance at the event.

It was only fitting that at an event commemorating a figure who represents that which both parts of Punjab hold in common, much emphasis was also laid on Amrita Pritam’s famous poem invoking Sufi poet Waris Shah, in which she calls out to him in anguish, asking him to come and see what the violence of Partition had done to his beloved land:

Ajj aakhaN Waris Shah nu, kitoN kabraN vichoN bol,

Te ajj kitabe ishq da koi agla varka khol.


Ikk roi si dhee Punjab di, tooN likh likh mare vain,

Ajj lakhaN dheeaN rondiaN, tainuN warish shah nu kahen.


Ve dardmandaN dia dardia, Uth takk apana Punjab

Ajj bailey lashaN vichhiaN te lahu di bhari Chinab


Kise ne panjaN paaniaN vich ditti zahar rala

Te ohna paaniaN dharat nu ditta paani la.


Is zarkhez zameen de looN looN phuttia zehar

gitth gitth charhiaN laaliaN foot foot charhia kehar.


Veh vallissi vaa pher, bann bann vaggi ja,

ohne har ik baans di vanjhali, ditti naag bana.


Pehley dang madariaN, mantar gaye guach,

Dooje dang di lagg gayi, janey khaney nun laag.


laagaaN keele lok munh, bus fir dang hi dang,

Palo pali Punjab de, neele pai gaye ang.


GaleoN tutte geet fir, trakaleoN tutti tand,

TrinjanoN tuttiaN saheliaN, charakhare ghookar band.


Sane sej de berian, luddan dittiaN rohR,

Sane daliaN peengh aj, pippalaN ditti toRh.


Jitthe vajdi si phook pyar di, Ve oh vanjhali gayi goach

Ranjhe de sab veer aj, bhul gaye ohdi jach!


Dharti te lahoo vassiya, kabraN paiaN choan,

Preet diaN shahzadiaN, aj vich mazaraN roan.


Aj sabbhe kaidoN ban gaye, husan-ishq de chor,

Aj kitthoN liayiye labbh ke Waris Shah ikk hor.


Aj aakhaN Waris Shah nu, kitoN kabraN vichoN bole,

Te ajj kitabe ishaq da, koi agala varka phol.


[I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave

And add a new page to your book of love


Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;

Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:


Arise, o friend of the afflicted; arise and see the state of Punjab,

Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenaab flowing with much blood.


Someone filled the five rivers with poison,

And this same water now irrigates our soil.


Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?

And all Ranjha’s brothers forgotten to play the flute.


Blood has rained on the soil, graves are oozing with blood,

The princesses of love cry their hearts out in the graveyards.


Today all the Quaido’ns have become the thieves of love and beauty,

Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?


Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave

And add a new page to your book of love.]

(Translation by Darshan Singh Maini)