Friday, December 16

From Punjab, with love

The smell of fresh earth mixed with oxygen-laden air, plucking fruits off trees, the sight of homemade butter melting on hot aloo parathas — Shivya Nath brings you a slice of rural life writing in The Hindu
As a kid, I’ve often heard my grandmother talk about growing up in our native Punjab. I pictured little boys and girls running across big fields, plucking sour fruits and wild flowers, returning home at noon to the aroma of curries made with veggies fresh off the farm and paranthas laden with home-made white butter. I never imagined waking up to these images someday, given how they seemed only to be romanticized in the memories of people I knew.
In a desperate attempt to break the monotony of Delhi’s city life, we’ve impulsively decided to board a train to Abohar, a small town in Ferozepur district of Punjab, a town that Google could tell us almost nothing about. Eight hours and a short drive later, I’ve found myself in the midst of a 400-acre fruit farm. I now sit by a gurgling stream, watching the first rays of sunrise through the white, thin barks of Eucalyptus trees. I extend my hand towards what look like snowflakes dotted on dark green shrubs, only they don’t melt at my touch. I am in the most fertile cotton belt of the country and November happens to be the plucking season.
The smell of fresh earth mixed with oxygen-laden air reminds me of A.R. Rahman; this must be the aroma of our soil he refers to in his music. Just like in my grandmother’s stories, a whiff of freshly cooked aloo parathas and homemade butter floats in the air as we approach the farmhouse we are staying at. Our host Kishan, from the nearby pind (a village in the native Punjabi), ensures that we have a hearty breakfast. Heftily built with a thick Punjabi accent, he was a little intimidating at first, but breaking the ice came naturally to him. After greeting us at the Abohar train station, he immediately offered that we drive his jeep to the farm, which, for the sake of survival, our half-asleep selves politely declined!
As we busily devour the yummy parathas, Kishan rolls his long moustache and invites us to dinner at his own house in the pind. We’ve all heard stories of Punjabi hospitality, but to experience it first hand is different altogether.
We walk along a narrow clearing with tall Eucalyptus trees on either side, past ripening guavas, brown fields of Basmati rice, bitter gourds hiding away in their roped enclosures, water chestnuts growing out of mucky green ponds, and women in saris expertly plucking cotton off the shrubs. I am tempted by the half-ripe kinnows that glow with an orange-green tinge atop short trees. Kishan, as though reading my mind, plucks a few and tosses them towards me, only to smile as he sees me cringe at their tanginess.
That night, we make our way to Kishan’s house in the pind. I have been to villages in other parts of India, but Punjab is different. Kishan’s house might be very basic, but it is soothingly airy and spacious, much more than the cramped little flats of Delhi that I’ve grown used to. Kishan offers the men drinks, while the women pass around a bottle of Coke, and conversation begins to flow at a homely pace. He talks about life in the pind, the future of his two sons, his romantic encounter with his wife in Jammu, and captivating tales about his extended family.
A few drinks later, Kishan’s wife, who had slipped away into the kitchen after exchanging a brief greeting with us, announces dinner. Laid on the table are saag and baingan ki sabzi, made from veggies fresh off the farm, and an assortment of other vegetables and lentils. In less than five minutes, we have forgotten our city manners; we are licking our fingers, sharing our plates, gossiping about people we barely know, and laughing at a friend who can barely understand Kishan’s alcohol-tinged Punjabi accent. While my friends struggle with the language, I am glad for bits of it I’ve subconsciously picked up while living in a Punjabi household, perhaps my only surviving Punjabi trait.
Evening turns to night, and as we part ways, Kishan offers to accompany us to the Indo-Pak border at Sadqi the next afternoon, with some homemade lassi for the way. He also promises to invite along his friend who lives close to the border and would make a good guide for all our questions. A single weekend in Punjab has convinced me that we, city-people, have much to learn about egalitarianism from our counterparts in rural India.
I suddenly understand what my grandmother meant when she said that living in Punjab is like being part of one big family, and I long to live in the world she grew up in.
The author specialises in digital marketing for rural tourism initiatives in India.

Wednesday, November 9

Punjab, 1940s

India-The Punjab, a silent teaching film distributed by Encyclopaedia Brittanica Films Inc about the undivided Punjab in the 1940s

Tuesday, October 11

I may be reborn as a human in Punjab

That I may be reborn as a human in Punjab,
to this very land I may return
To this hacked, chewed up earth,
in a modest home
Of a modest caste I may be known
On a leafless tree an unlucky bird
I may sing that very song of separation
On the moonless night I may visit His Pond of Nectar*
On the full-moon night I may bathe in the river Chenab of
*Amritsar (lit. pond of nectar) – Sikhs’ holiest shrine

-Harbhajan Singh
(Translated by Madan Gopal Singh)
photograph by Amarjit Chandan

Thursday, September 1

Bengali brides for Punjabi men

Men from Punjab's Malwa region, notorious for its skewed sex-ratio, are bringing girls from Bengal to marry, for a payment, reports Jatinder Preet in The Sunday Guardian
Nishabar Singh of Lehra in Sangrur district paid Rs 50,000 to arrange for a bride from Kolkata for his 35-year-old son Dulla. Tek Ram from the same village, who arranged the match, insists this does not amount to purchasing the bride. The money was for arrangements on weddings and other expenses, he claims. Among other expenses he includes the money that has to be paid to the person arranging the match in Kolkata.
Known as Teku in the area, he himself is married to a girl from Kolkata. Teku says he is just helping others who cannot find suitable brides in Punjab.
Take the case of Dulla, he explains. Dulla was a drug addict and was known to be a petty thief. His father Nishabar Singh, knowing well that he would not find a match for his "ageing" son in Punjab, approached Teku. Teku, who has his wife's family in Kolkata and has the experience of arranging many such inter-cultural matches, found a girl for Dulla.
"There is so much poverty there," he observes when recounting his first trip to Kolkata 15 years ago as an assistant to a truck driver. "It's not only about Dulla, I also helped a needy family who could not afford to spend on their daughter's marriage," he says.
A girl from another poor Bengali family was brought to Punjab by Mithu Singh of Lehragaga when his first wife died at childbirth. 35-year-old Mithu refuses to talk about it.
Puran Singh from village Khokhar found a Bengali bride after he could not find a suitable girl here. Similarly, another girl, Rinki from Kolkata is married to a truck driver from village Jawanda. Her sister Tikli is married into another Punjabi family in Malerkotla.
Teku says he has arranged around 25-30 such marriages in the area. There are many girls ready to be married to anybody who can pay for it, he claims. Teku talks of a girl in Kolkata whose family has approached him to look for a man in Punjab to marry her off. All he knows of the girl is that she is fair and is around 22-23 years of age. "It's my responsibility," he says, vouching for the girl as he cites his own marriage as a successful experiment.
His wife Pinki plays down the scope for any problems because of cultural differences. She was married to Teku 15 years ago and like any other girl who adopts her husband's family and their ways, she too has adapted herself, she says in fluent Punjabi. She asserts that she is happy here and adds, "Men are alike everywhere."

Monday, August 15

Searching for narrative in a photograph

PAKISTAN. Lahore. 1948. Women's camp. (MAGNUM/Henri Cartier-Bresson)
There they undergo medical examinations (to control epidemics). A woman taken there from the time of the August '47 troubles has been reunited with her husband but is detained pending verifications before she can leave prison. Camp has 800, but they come and go continually. This woman was separated from her husband for 10 months. They found each other with aid of Indian organization set up for purpose when Pakistan sent these women to India.
This is the description that follows the photograph in Magnum collection, one of the very few in public domain of the period encompassing partition and the events thereafter. This is also rare in the sense that unlike the pictures depicting the general narrative of the times, this photograph tells the story of particular - a particular individual. Of all the people in the frame the photographer is interested in the perspective of the 'detained woman'. He is, in fact, standing inside the facility with bars to keep others out. On the other side is, we are told, her husband, from whom she has been separated from ten months. The overwhelming moment has her hanging both her arms around the man through the bars, slightly hunched forward but not close enough to embrace fully. The accumulated pain coupled with the relief at seeing someone she seems to be writ large on her face.
The story, however, remains tantalisingly hanging there. The picture doesn't tell much. Who is this woman? How was she separated from her husband and where was she for ten months? What became of her ultimately? Did she go back to her family ultimately? We are not even sure if she is a Sikh, a Hindu or a Muslim.
There are no clear answers, at least not in this photograph and the description.
We have a context though, well documented, mostly in writing and some through films and literature. Women were the worst sufferers of the mindless violence perpetrated across the divide against each other. "Nationalism and communalism were the two most significant ideologies during this period, and both of them placed women at the very heart of their discourses and actions," according to Furrukh A Khan, who did a research based on the oral narratives of women from the Indian subcontinentwho survived the Partition. He wrote "The women who suffered during this time period were later considered to be social outcasts by their communities and, in a number of cases, by their families. It was because of such treatment of these women victims that it was deemed acceptable for women to kill themselves or to be killed off by their relatives in order to escape being abducted or sexually molested by men from the other communities."
"Throughout the chaos, both planned and random abduction of women were carried out, particularly in situations in which large numbers of refugees -disoriented and inadequately protected - had assembled or were on the move," writes Bina D'Costa in Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia, as she cites the heart-rending testimonies of survivor women she interviewed.
'Recovery operations' were launched by governments on both sides soon thereafter with establishment of Military Evacuee Organisations. District transit camps were set up in Lahore and Jullundhur for non-Muslim and Muslim women, respectively, informs Bina D'Costa. Camps on both sides of the borders where 'recovered' women were kept were visited by the men who had abducted them earlier,in order to persuade the women to return. D'Costa emphasises it was not that all women were captives and wanted nothing more than to be rescued by the state. In fact, there are clear instances of women who refused to be 'recovered' on both sides. "Some women were happy and settled in their locations." writes Urvashi Butalia in her essay Abducted and Widowed Women: Questions of Sexuality and Citizenship During Partition. She quotes Social workers such as Kamlaben Patel and Damyanti Sahgal who worked in the Central Recovery Operation, speaking eloquently of the women who did not want to return.
According to Amrik Singh, quite a number of these women had got married (though forcibly), and after the initial turmoil adjusted to that life and as such were not willing to migrate. Amrik Singh writes in The Partition in Retrospect, the cases of recovered women fell under two categories: (1) Women who did not object to being evacuated and were called ‘indisputable’ cases and the other group called ‘disputable’ cases involving women who refused to be evacuated for one reason or the other or where the abductors refused to surrender them or where the disposal of children created emotional or legal problems. Many of them got pregnant and a few having met good persons were not prepared to leave their ‘husbands’ for an uncertain future. So, when they were forcibly evacuated by the police and brought to the transit camps, a number of them escaped.
Butalia cites public records to suggest the number of Hindu and Sikh women abducted in Pakistan was roughly 33,000—although some estimates put this figure at 50,000—(this did not include women from Kashmir and it was felt that if these were added the figure could well have reached 50,000). Lists received from Pakistan showed the figure of Muslim women abducted in India to be around 21,000.
The sad story continues with men employing same tools with similar tragic consequences in the name of religion as evidenced in Delhi and some other parts of India in 1984 and Gujarat in 20022. D' Costa could well be talking of 1984 or 2002 as she writes, "Horrendous as they were, such experiences of women were regarded as little more than a product of the chaos of the times, as an abnormal occurrence in a society that had been undergoing severe temporary dislocation for decades. yet this prescription ignored the socially embedded nature of gendered violence."
Andrew J Major agrees wholeheartedly. In his book ‘The Chief Sufferers’: Abduction of Women during the Partition of the Punjab he wrote, "... it would seem to be quite wrong to regard the rape and abduction of Punjabi women in 1947 as a product of anomie of the times, as an abnormal occurrence in a society undergoing severe temporary dislocation, for that would ignore the fact that violence against women is embedded in everyday relationships in this society."
                                                                                                                                                         -Jatinder Preet

Sunday, July 31

Kashmiri separatists’ and Khalistanis lobby together

Kashmiri lobbyists continue with their anti-India propaganda, often working in tandem with Khalistan protagonists in US, Canada and in many European countries, writes Jatinder Preet in The Sunday Guardian.
Kashmiri lobbyists have made common cause with Khalistani protagonists in the United States, Canada and European countries for long. While the arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai in the US for getting funds from Pakistan's ISI is in the spotlight, many more similar Kashmiri and Khalistani lobbyists are still working, often together, against India.
The Khalistan movement is believed to be almost over in India, but the Khalistani propagandists continue with their activities in friendly countries. Gurmit Singh Aulakh, self-styled president of the Council of Khalistan has been more prominent of this lot. In a US Congressional hearing in 2004, speaking as one of the main witnesses, he called for cutting off aid to India and asked for "support to the cause of freedom in the subcontinent" to help end what he called "the repression of Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, and other minorities in India". Supporting him was Ghulam Nabi Fai, although he kept himself confined to Kashmir.
Earlier in 2000, Fai led a delegation from the Kashmiri American Council to the Guru Nanak Foundation Gurudwara in Silver Spring, Maryland. Fai's joint statement with Dr Paramjit Singh Ajrawat, founder of Anti-Defamation Sikh Council for Khalistan, was released later which called for the US and the United Nations to intensify their efforts to facilitate a peaceful solution to the "liberation of the Sikh Homeland, Khalistan and the 52-year-old Kashmir conflict".
The propaganda continues, with Kashmiri activists often featuring in Khalistan groups' statements, besides participating in common protest activities. Last month in Canada, Kashmiri and Sikh activists oragnised a joint protest in opposition to the death sentence of Davinderpal Singh Bhullar in India. Similarly, in June last year, a joint protest was organised in Toronto, the venue of the G20 Summit. A similar joint protest was held in Brussels in December last year, timed for the European Union-India Summit when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was on an official tour of the EU. Gurmit Singh Aulakh represented the Khalistani cause in the rally comprising mainly of Kashmiri groups from across Europe.
Habib Yousafzai, the spokesperson of Canada based World Kashmir Diaspora Alliance (WKDA), is one of the more active members of the web group Khalistan where he regularly posts on alleged human rights violations in India. The Khalistani lobby returned the compliment when in a memorandum submitted to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights last month it quoted WKDA on Kashmir, while listing alleged cases of human rights abuses of Sikhs and other non-Hindu minorities in India.
(The picture has been taken from the website of World Kashmiri Diaspora Alliance)

Tuesday, June 21

‘Three Girls’

Oil on canvas by Amrita Shergill (displayed at National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)
Born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, Amrita Shergill is considered to be one of India’s foremost artists. In 1921 her family moved to India, where she began her schooling. At the age of sixteen, Amrita went to study painting at Paris in France. The five years she spent there are considered to be a period of experimentation as she took inspiration from European masters. She returned to India in 1934 to immerse herself in painting at her family home in Shimla in undivided Punjab. She travelled extensively discovering her Indian roots and traditions of Indian art. With the above painting that she made a year later in 1935, Amrita is considered to have moved on from the academic, realist style of painting in which she was schooled. Marking her complete transformation she went on to paint in flatter, more modern compositions with richer colours. The passionate empathy for the Indian subjects that she now chose became her signature style. In 1938, she married her cousin, Victor Egan. The couple settled in Lahore, where she died in December 1941. She was only 28 then.

Tuesday, March 22

Read the Revolutionary

What our beloved mere-23-at-death symbol of nationalism deserves is a little more attention, love not infatuation. Reading what he read and wrote could be the first meeting, suggests Aarish Chhabra in Hindustan Times
No matter what the difference between what they achieved and didn't, what Che Guevara is to the world, Bhagat Singh is to our country. The ideology is besides the point. What a young man of this generation seems more interested in is using these revolutionaries to feed his own self-image of a rebel, non-conformist.
And that's about it. Coasters, T-shirts, lifesize posters with a Bhagat Singh motif are in. I am a rebel, they cry out.
So, was Bhagat Singh a revolutionary in just that one, vague sense?
His love of anarchism and Marxism is well-documented; how many of us have actually read what he thought of the freemarket economic system? A college-goer walking in designer jeans bought with his land-baron daddy's money, topped with a fashionable Inquilab Zindabad T-shirt, is a picture of utter irony. Bhagat Singh stood for peasants' rights, for the rule of the proletariat. Never in a million years would he have desired to be the poster boy of trigger-happy, rich brats.
Also, the last I read him, he had clearly stated his lack of belief in god, and at times even expressed mild disappointment at prayers by people facing the gallows. Then why is it that even newspapers these days insist on using pictures of him only with a turban, never with the hat that was as much a trademark of his as the loosely tied turban. That he was born a Sikh can't be doubted, but whether he chose to die one has a different answer.
It's not that hard to figure out unless you want to use his picture alongside that of a right-winger who wanted a separate state based on religion. Using their pictures together is, again, reducing the Shaheed to a mere gun-toting extremist, revolutionary only in action, not thought, and certainly not a nationalist. It's his martyrdom day today, and there would be rallies at his native village Khatkar Kalan. Speaking from the daises would be leaders from different parties, with the single-minded goal of painting a one-dimensional picture of Bhagat Singh in the voter's mind. It's easy to see that these politicos would be feeding the young majority that loves its own rebel self-image.
But there's a Bhagat Singh much beyond that, whose family has said they are sickened by the use of his image on every political party's poster.
But blaming politicians alone proves no point; the whole generation shares the blame. What our beloved mere-23-at-death symbol of nationalism deserves is a little more attention, love not infatuation. Reading what he read and wrote could be the first meeting.
Don't be tempted to pick up placards and raise slogans demanding inclusion of all his writings in all textbooks. Why involve those who want to use your hero for votes?
Go to a library, use the internet. He is ours more than theirs, he is everyman's hero.
Just don't reduce your admiration to mere hero worship.
(The Bhagat Singh's picture above is of an unfinished painting by Australian artist Daniel Connel)

Thursday, March 3

Bringing Punjabiyat Back

Modern Punjabi culture remains remarkably little known outside the noisy clichés of Bollywood and music videos. Now, more than 60 years after Partition, this cultural heritage is beginning to move forward, writes Schona Jolly in Caravan

“Punjabi is my mother-tongue, my blood, my soul, my language. I think, dream and feel in it. I will also die in it,” proclaims Amarjit Chandan, an acclaimed poet born in Kenya. “In pardes (abroad),” he explains of his adult life spent in London, “I invented the Punjabiland."
For a land that has been home to some of the world’s richest civilisations, modern Punjabi culture remains remarkably little known outside the noisy clichés of Bollywood and music videos. As the Indian state of Punjab grapples with complex social and economic issues, the Pakistani province of Punjab collapses due to political woes, and a large diaspora stays settled all over the globe, Punjabi poets and storytellers of old seem to be disappearing along with the water levels in the land of the five rivers. But Punjabis are nothing if not adept at handling change—it is the legacy of their own turbulent history, after all—and there are small but significant signs, that this vibrant melting-pot culture is on the verge of reemergence.

History has not been kind to the people of Punjab. The brutal division of the state during Partition led to both carnage and to one of the biggest mass population movements during the 20th century. Amidst the riots, butchery, rape and devastation, Punjabis of all religious persuasions suddenly found that they had to create new identities. In Pakistan, those identities had to be established through a new, Urdu-speaking nationalist ethos that sought to reimagine the country’s history and culture by severing ties with its neighbour. In India, those identities had to be reshaped by millions of refugees whose culture, possessions, love and longing belonged to another place. In the decades after Partition, hundreds of thousands of Punjabis from both East Punjab, in India, and West Punjab, in Pakistan, left their homelands to seek sanctuary and a new life abroad. For all of these people, the historical and cultural ties to their motherland had to be reforged. The multi-hued complexion of both states had become altered radically overnight.
Lahore, the united Punjab’s former capital, had long been considered the jewel in the crown of North India and had been developed as a cultural capital under both the Mughals and Maharaja Ranjit singh. “Jis Lahore nahi dekhya, oh jammia nahi (Those who have not seen Lahore, have not lived),” proclaimed popular lore at the time. With Lahore as its capital, Punjab’s multilingual, multireligious culture had flourished in poetry, art, music and literature in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi, weaving smoothly in and out of religious boundaries and between both rich and poor alike who patronised the baithaks and shrines of the “City of Gardens”. In 1901, the first Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, India’s first music university funded by public support and donations, was started there by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The famous Takia Meerasian at the city’s Mocchi Gate played court to a myriad legendary musicians, such as ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who, although from Lahore district, eventually sought Indian citizenship in 1957, having become disenchanted with the Pakistani government’s official attitude towards music. He is reputed to have said: “If, in every home, one child was taught Hindustani classical music, this country would never have been partitioned.” In order to begin to understand what the loss of Lahore meant to Indian Punjab, one must try to imagine either France without Paris or England without London; a sense of the cultural desolation begins to resonate.
“The land of the five rivers became a land of two and half rivers each,” says Nirupama Dutt, an eminent Punjabi journalist, writer and activist based in Chandigarh. Although a strong body of Partition literature inevitably emerged, with courageous writers such as Amrita Pritam depicting the pain of their upheaval in heartfelt poetry and prose, the destruction of a once-unified Punjab meant that it would take decades before a new Punjabi identity could begin to be reborn.
Punjabi poetry and literature begins in the realms of Sufism. The first Punjabi poetry dates back to the 12th century with Baba Farid, some of whose writings later made their way into the Guru Granth sahib along with those of Kabir. spirituality, from both the nascent Sufi and Sikh traditions, is a strong Punjabi literary theme which has often sought to straddle the practicality and earthy qualities of village and agricultural life and tales of tragic love. The celebrated Punjabi kissas such as ‘Heer-Ranjha’, an ancient story of two ill-fated lovers that became famous when penned by Waris shah, a fêted Punjabi Sufi poet, and others such as ‘Mirza-sahiban’, ‘sassi-Punnun’ and ‘sohni-Mahiwal’ have been passed down and written, rewritten, sung and recreated over history by different artists with different religious backgrounds. Today, the words of Bulleh shah, born in 1860, have been revitalised both by the Pakistani rock band Junoon and the rising Indian singer Rabbi shergill. Those versions have been runaway successes in India and Pakistan, and it is perhaps entirely fitting to Bulleh shah’s humanist legacy that both Muslim and Sikh artists have reignited his lyrics.
Salman Ahmad, the well-known frontman of Junoon who has a fanatical following in both India and Pakistan, says, “I’m interested in the culture of my forebears because culture humanises what politics demonises. Arts and culture open the doors for people to walk through. That is why I wrote my book Rock & Roll Jihad, so that it could act as a viewfinder for a culture which is being hijacked and distorted by politics and violence.” Now living in the us, Ahmad uses his fame to spread the message of cultural fusion, blending qawwali, bhangra, rock and jazz.

Punjabi writers and artists have consistently engaged with politics in their works, whether in attempts to embrace or escape the developments around them. The rising Naxalite and separatist movements of the latter 20th century contributed to the growing body of literature and art emanating from East Punjab with revolutionary poets such as Avtar singh ‘Paash’, a Naxalite whose works, such as Loh-Katha (Iron Tale) and the literary magazine Siarh (The Plough Line), led him first to jail and then towards his assassination during the height of the 1980s ‘troubled’ years in Punjab. Now the revolutionary songs and poetry of another iconic figure, Bant singh, an agricultural labourer from Jabbar village in Punjab, have been immortalised in a Goethe-Institut-supported documentary project titled Words, Sound and Power. This musical collaboration with three other musicians, samrat Bharadwaj, Taru Dalmia and Chris McGuinness, has attempted to spread Bant singh’s political message about intercaste violence and equality through the modern mediums of electronic fusion, ska and dancehall music.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Punjab’s troubled politics has inspired the work of leading contemporary artists. They include Amrit and Rabindra singh, known as the singh Twins, whose award-winning paintings are recognised as constituting a unique genre in British art and credited with initiating the revival of the Indian miniature tradition. The two describe their work as “PastModern”, a blend that seeks to engage with critical issues of serious debate, which have a meaningful impact in challenging pervading social, political and cultural attitudes. In paintings such as ‘Nyrmla’s Wedding’ or ‘Mr singh’s India’, the Twins depict the multiple layers of their own personal identities as British Asians, interspersed with more global concerns of ecological exploitation and multinational domination. They do not shy away from the political troubles that have rocked their motherland. In ‘1984’, one of their most famous works, they examine the storming of the Golden Temple through the eyes of Sikhs, depicting their profound sense of sadness and injustice, as well as their critical reflections on the media’s role in the tragedy. “The bias of the media and the damaging effect it has had on the reputation of Sikhs is symbolised by the group of blindfolded reporters who stand as ‘partners in crime’, shoulder to shoulder with Indian troops,” they explain. “There is a sense of horror and panic as pilgrims scramble over one another to find refuge from the bullets and armoured tanks. The diagonals created by the composition by the steep line-up of soldiers and the specific orientation of the square temple complex lend themselves to the visual disturbance and chaos of the scene. The surrounding borders of the painting hem in the fleeing crowds, enhancing the feeling of claustrophobia and revealing the futility of its attempts to escape.” The pair says their work is a tribute to the past as well as a celebration of a new reality.

Those from other mediums continue to reap meaning from the Punjabi tradition as they innovate and break through boundaries. Navtej Johar, one of India’s top male dancers in both classical and contemporary mediums as well as the founder of Delhi’s yoga studio
Abhyas, says the poetic and spiritual ethos of his Punjabi Sikh background has inspired his creativity. “I find Punjabi thought to have always been very political and progressive, if not subversive,” he reflects. “When I was growing up, almost all Punjabi literature was leftist. I find the creative Punjabi mind very questioning and not easily satisfied with the status quo. Beginning with Sufi poetry as well as Gurbani, the common strain that I find in serious Punjabi art, literature and even music is that apart from endorsing inclusivity and abandon—be it spiritual, romantic or political—it always comments upon and questions, if not opposes, the sociopolitical system of the time.” Johar also says that neither the Sufi poetry nor the Sikh Gurbani of Punjab can be considered spiritual texts, because both were written by people who took very strong political stands and make very strong sociopolitical assertions. “The Punjabi-self,” he says, “is closely tied to these expressions that are from and of the land. Gurbani is and should remain to be perceived as a pan-Punjab voice of an assertion that is first human and then spiritual.”

Johar has been involved in a number of cross-border initiatives: He collaborated with composers Madan Gopal singh and Elangovan Govindarjan in the 2007 production of Fana’a: Ranjha Revisited. The dance-theatre piece fused the predominant Punjabi Sufi love legend ‘Heer-Ranjha’ with Kutrala Kuravanji, a genre of dance-drama from Tamil Nadu. The production, which is accompanied by a powerfully stirring musical composition by singh, a Sufi musical genius, took Johar to Lahore. “I love the Punjab of Pakistan,” he says. “It is in fact ‘my land’, my people, my dialect, I palpably identify with it. The first time I crossed the border, I had tears streaming down my cheeks; the first time I performed in Lahore I was choking.”

Other Indian artists who cross the Punjabi border reveal that same deep affection for the culture and people there. For Amarjit Chandan, Lahore is the muse. “A decade ago, when I first visited Lahore, I wrote down more than 13 poems in a single day walking the streets. I was possessed,” he says. His vision of the two states is melancholy and appropriately poetic. He says that his only desire “is the reunification of the Punjab”.

Beyond the imaginative stirrings of literary Punjabi legend, however, there are valid questions as to whether the artistic love shared across the border translates into a reunified and revitalised Punjabi culture. Professor Rajesh sharma, from the Punjabi university in Patiala, is downcast. He believes that there is a crisis of identity, driven by globalisation, which generates the need for “culture”, in a commercial sense alone, to fill the gap. History, he believes, has had a tremendous impact on Punjabi culture today. “Culture is a process, marked as much by gaps, ruptures and breaks as by continuities. ultimately, neither Punjabi culture, nor any other can be sliced off from its historical moorings, and then celebrated,” he says.

Navtej Johar describes this rupture of historical moorings mournfully. He says Partition left Punjabis “in perpetual longing for each other on either side of the border. ‘Lang aajaa patan Chana da yaar’ (Come across over to the banks of the Chenab, o beloved) says it all. In East Punjab, the biggest loss has been the loss of dialects. Dialects probably are a product of the physical landscape and cannot survive transmigration.” Johar says he longs for the ethos of saraiki, his parents’ dialect, in which Sufi saints wrote. “It has been a huge loss to lose out on a whole treasure of multiple oral cultures, the idiosyncrasies and nuances of which kept our imaginations and our sense of self alive and afloat. The brevity and profundity of the tappas and maiyas (traditional forms of rhyming couplets and verse) of the Rawalpindi area are unparalleled; they are simple, poignant, human, direct and, most of all, inclusive. With Partition, I feel we are in a way orphaned. of course, we are very good at keeping our chins up, but we are a deeply wounded people. And our truths lie in our wounds, which we are still struggling to address and heal.”

Language, after all, is both the root and tool of any literary voice within a culture; without it, the life experiences which build, reveal and unlock the culture become lost, fading into memories, unrecorded or unexplored. Amarjit Chandan, writing in London, sums up his fears that the loss of Punjabi as a language will contribute towards a cultural desecration in his poem ‘The Peacock in Walpole Park, Ealing’:
…The heart sinks when the peacock screams
The body shivers and the world rejoices
The heart sinks when the peacock screams
It yearns for mango flowers lost long ago ..
Notwithstanding his deep concern over the gradual loss of a language which, for Chandan, represents both life itself and the lens through which he comprehends all other languages, his energetic participation in the literary world outside India is some cause for celebration. Punjabi is, after all, statistically the second most widely spoken language in Britain today. Recently, for example, he took part in the British Library-sponsored ‘Poet in the City’ event in London, marking the centenary of the birth of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most prominent poets of the subcontinent who wrote in both Punjabi and Urdu, and whose work was filled with egalitarian themes of love, dignity and resistance to injustice. Last year, Chandan’s readings from his bilingual Sonata for Four Hands were well-received at London’s iconic Whitechapel Gallery. The increasing interest in Punjabiyat by younger generations of all religious persuasions amongst the diaspora suggests that Punjabi cultural heritage is beginning to move forward, more than 60 years after Partition.
The Lahori view on the impact of language loss to Punjabi culture, however, is less than optimistic. Punjab accounts for some 55 percent of the population of Pakistan, but the heavy use and encouragement of Urdu as the standard language has led to a major decline in the use of Punjabi there. Punjabi publishing in Pakistan has, inevitably, shrunk to minimal levels. Nadir Ali, a retired lieutenant colonel, has spent much of the past 30 years developing Punjabi culture in Pakistan under the mentorship of Najm Hosain syed, a major Punjabi scholar, poet, critic and playwright who created a study group of Punjabi poetry in 1976, which continues to the present day. Meeting several times a week, the group studies Punjabi poets from the 12th to the 19th centuries, including Waris shah, Baba Farid and Guru Nanak. Members also publish a regular Punjabi magazine previously called Ma Boli (Mother Tongue), but now renamed Pancham. In a deliberate act of bridging the border, the magazine features major writers from both East and West Punjab.
The retired lieutenant colonel is passionate about Punjabi literature and language and bemoans the fact that Kashmiri Bazaar, the publishing capital of Pakistan’s Punjab, does not have a single Punjabi bookshop. syed’s group, Ali says, had to set up its own shop in order to publish the works of Punjab’s great poets. Ali also complains that the national mood and ideology has swung so violently towards religious defi- nition alone that the very nature of free speech, encouraged and contemplated by art and literature, is no longer available in Pakistan. He wistfully recalls hearing a Punjabi discussion on the very existence of God by a semi-rural group at the shah Hussain Mela in Lahore some 50 years ago. That, he says, is simply not possible today because in the current climate, it could lead to death or assassination. He recalls that, pre-Partition, his religious teacher would quote Guru Nanak whilst teaching Islamiat. That generation, he claims with both sadness and anger, is dead and gone along with the vigour of the Punjabi language in Pakistan, without which, literature is doomed. Ali is adamant that, perhaps unlike in India or amongst the diasporic communities, there has been no resurgence of interest in Punjabi culture in Pakistan. “Punjabi was considered subversive to the very ideology of Pakistan,” he says. “All Punjabi literary groups were banned in Pakistan by Ayub Khan in the 1960s. The handful of diehards who remained were leftists, who themselves were denounced in Pakistan during the Cold War era. Language became treated as a question of class in Pakistan and today, Punjabi language and singing survives only in the villages and small towns of the province. Even in the village where my grandparents lived,” he laments, “I have to teach them old marriage songs; they make do instead with movie songs.”
Music, though, may be the great glue in the Punjabi tradition which holds it all together, and a new generation’s interest in Punjabi music could be key to sustaining its revival.

In Pakistan, pop singer Meesha Shafi’s rendition of an old Punjabi song, ‘Chori Chori’, on Coke Studio, a television series featuring diverse musical influences in Pakistan, was met with critical success but also caused a major stir. “I belong to a Punjabi-speaking household,” Shafi says, “but I think it surprised people to see a young girl dressed in modern, Western attire singing a regional, folk Punjabi classic. It was a milestone for me as an artist and as Reshma’s fan to be able to do her song some kind of justice.” In India, Madan Gopal singh has become a fixture at major festivals, appearing at the Jaipu
r Literature Festival this year and regularly enchanting Delhi, international crowds and cinema audiences with his mesmeric renditions of Punjab’s hauntingly evocative Sufi music.

Further afield, music has forged a link between the children of immigrants who are finding new ways to combine their parents’ language with the street outside. The bhangra genre, developed in the 1980s and 1990s mostly in Britain, has hit new heights of popularity, and today British and Canadian bhangra artists are bringing their music ‘home’ to Punjab, shifting and extending the boundaries of musical expression and understanding. With record sales often exceeding those of the mainstream pop charts in the uK, bhangra and Asian fusion music has provided a strong sense of pride and identity to Asian youth in the West. Artists like Talvin singh and Nitin sawhney exploded onto the British underground music scene in the 1990s, creating a lasting impact on novel and exciting forms of British Punjabi and Asian music. The ‘Nusrat effect’, too, brought a new pride to Punjabi musical culture as the surge of international recognition for songs like ‘Dam Mast Qalandar’ began to recast the modern realities of a globalised Punjabi culture.

Sheniz Janmohamed is a second-generation Canadiansouth Asian poet. Her recently published book Bleeding Light (TsAR Publications), is a composition of ghazals written in English, one of which (‘Allah Hu’) was inspired by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Janmohamed herself is not Punjabi but acknowledges that her work is heavily influenced by the Punjabi poetic tradition. Her ghazal, ‘Roses are stones’, begins with a subtle reference to the life of saeen Zahoor, the Punjabi folk musician whom she describes as “a living repository of Bulleh shah’s poetry”. Back to ‘Heer-Ranjha’ again, Janmohamed also incorporates its themes and specific concept of ishq-e-majazi, a metaphorical love that transforms into true love or the love of the Beloved. Bleeding Light was written under the tutelage of her mentor , the late Kuldip Gill, one of the first Canadian-south Asian poets to write ghazals in English. Gill’s last book, Valley Sutra, is a strong tribute to her dual homelands of Punjab and Canada. With each new variation on older themes, Punjabi cultural heritage is morphing and moulding with the movements of its people all over the world.

Self-evidently, the Punjabi diaspora does not speak with a single voice. Having settled in many different places and spaces, the contributions they offer reflect their personal and unique experiences in foreign lands. Gurpreet Chana, also known as “The Tabla Guy”, is a talented Canadian Sikh musician who was born in Toronto. His formal training with ustad Professor Parshotam singh in the Punjab Gharana has led him into novel and exciting collaborations with a wide variety of musicians, including Nelly Furtado and Wyclef Jean. Chana acknowledges the strong influence of Punjabi culture on the creation of his music. He says that “music is integrated in almost every part of Punjabi culture, whether it is celebration, contemplation or sorrow”. Instead of the émgirés’ culture becoming frozen in time upon their leaving their homeland, Chana says the diaspora plays a big part in rejuvenating Punjabi culture. Even more, the new Punjabi generations growing up in Canada and elsewhere, he says, expand the tradition as they incorporate other in- fluences from their new contexts.

The complex modern-day realities scarring the peoples of Punjab notwithstanding, these individual stories of artists who are spread across the world represent the moulding of modern Punjabi identity. The forms of art, literature and music which they create may not have been born or even recognised in Jalandhar or Ludhiana, but they are no less integrally Punjabi than the heritage of the previous generations. In a culture which has known both invasions and integrations, fluidity and change may come to represent its strength.