Zubair AhmadA 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 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.
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:
Amrita Preetam cried:
(I call Waris Shah to speak from his grave.)
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.
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.
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.
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's membership in Pakistan Writers' Guild was suspended. This created an uproar in literary circles and the national press. The firebrand Punjabi intellectual Safdar Mir wrote many articles in favor 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 was founded by Najm Husain Syed, Dr. Manzoor Ejaz and other Punjabi intellectuals. Najm Husain Syed was to become a leading modern Punjabi poet and playwright, writing exclusively in Punjabi language for the next 40 years. The Punjabi Adabi Sangat members would read and analyze a classical Punjabi Kafi, especially those by Shah Husain and then sing it in a melody often composed by Najm Husain Syed himself (a multi-talented personality) at its weekly meetings. In the next four decades, nearly every reputable Punjabi poet, writer and critic from Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab had at one time or another attended the Punjabi Adabi Sangat's meetings. Dr. Manzoor Ejaz recounts his participation in the Punjabi Adabi Sangat in his video interviews available on YouTube channel "Wichaar WebCast."
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 Husain 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 Husain Syed
The most important writer in contemporary Punjabi literature is Najm Husain 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-garde 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 modern Punjabi 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.
In play-writing, apart from Najm Husain 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?