Of Words and Verses ”“ Amrita Pritam

By Ritu Ghai

She lived a life less ordinary. Her writings can stir the soul awake. She writes from the depth of her heart, allowing her feelings to bleed onto the page. She is Amrita Pritam, first modern Punjabi women writer, who expresses the rawness of the world and beauty of love, in her poetic verses. 

Born on August 31, 1919, in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) of Punjab province in undivided India, she was forced to flee Lahore as partition ravaged the two countries. In her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp), published in 1976, she depicts the hair-raising horrors of partition.

She lost her mo ther when she was barely eleven. Her father Kartar Singh, a poet and scholar, left a deep impact on motherless Amrita.  She became a published writer at the aged of 17.

She is best remembered for her poem Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu (Ode to Waris Shah). This is an impassioned address to the great 18th century Sufi poet of Punjab, who had written the most popular version of the Punjabi love tragedy ”“ Heer Ranjha. In the poem, Amrita Pritam appeals to Waris Shah to arise from his grave and witness the horrors of India-Pakistan Partition of 1947  as the country was engulfed in the throes of mutilation, death and destruction. Amrita asks him to think about the millions of Heer, who are experiencing the raw barbarism committed during partition.

Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu, Ve tu qabran vichon bol
Tey ajj kitaab-e-ishq da, Koi agla varka phol
Ikk royi si dhi Punjab di, Tu likh likh marey wain,
Ajj lakhaan dhiyan rondiyan, tenu Waris Shah nu kain
Uthh dard-mandaan deya dardiya, utth takk apna Punjab
Ajj bailey laashaan bichiyaan, tey lahu di bhari Chenab
Ajj aakhan Warish Shah nu”¦

(Today, I invoke Waris Shah, speak from your grave
And turn, today, the book of love’s next page
Once, a daughter of Punjab had cried; you wrote a wailing saga
Today, a million daughters cry to you, O Waris Shah
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving; rise! look at your Punjab
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab”¦)

Her writings were at times rebellious and she was even blamed by a state government for her bold writings. Her sense of Independence was well expressed by her short hair style, drinking and smoking.  

Amrita Pritam firmly held her own in a clearly male dominated world.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, she wrote many novels, prose, poetry, essays and short stories. Her autobiographical works titled Black Rose and Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp) are widely acknowledged. Amrita Pritam is also well known for her novel Pinjar that was adapted into a movie in 2003, starring Urmila Matondkar as Puro and Manoj Bajpayee as Rashid.

She was the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her poem Sunehade (Messages) in 1956.  She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1969 and India’s most prestigious literary award, the Jnanpith in 1982 for Kagaz Te Canvas. In 2004, just before her death, she was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan. Amrita Pritam wrote in Punjabi and Hindi, but her works have been translated into many languages, including Danish, Japanese, French and Mandarin. She received the Vaptsarov Award from the Republic of Bulgaria in 1979 among many other awards.

Amrita Pritam worked in Lahore Radio Station and Punjabi station of All India Radio. She was associated with the Progressive Writers movements, edited a literary magazine ”“ Nagmani. . 

She was married to Pritam Singh in 1935 but the loveless marriage ended in 1960. She was in love with celebrated poet Sahir Ludhianvi and their fondness for each other is included in her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp).

Amrita was bold and upfront about her relationships. She drank and smoked freely. She attributed her smoking habit to Sahir Ludhianvi, one of the most famous lyricists in the Indian film industry and Amrita’s “first true love”. 

As mentioned in her autobiography, they often spend time together and whenever he left, Amrita would gather the half-smoked cigarettes stubs, he left in the ash tray and light them one by one to feel his presence.

ikk dard sa…
jo cigarette di tarah
Maine chup chaap piitaa hai
sirf kuch nazmaan thi
jo cigarette se maine
raakh ki tarah jhaadi hai

There was a pain
That like cigarettes
I inhaled quietly
Just a few poems remain
That I flicked along
With ash from the

Much later, renowned writer and artist Imroz came into her life and their love is legendary. She spent the last 40 years of her life with writer and artist Imroz. Her poem, ”˜Shaam ka Phool’ was written after her first meeting with Imroz, 10 years younger than her.

But she is perhaps best known for her last poem, a promise to Imroz titled Main Tenun Phir Milangi (I Will Meet You Again).

Main Tenu Phir Milangi
Kitthe? Kis Tarah? Pata Nahin
Shayad Tere Takhayul Di Chinag Ban Ke
Tere Canvas Te Utraangi
Ya Khowre Tere Canvas De Ute
Ikk Rahasmayi Lakeer Banke
Khamosh Tenu Takdii Rawaangi”¦

(I will meet you yet again

How and where? I know not.
Perhaps I will become a
figment of your imagination
and maybe, spreading myself
in a mysterious line
on your canvas,.
I will keep gazin”¦”¦”¦g at you.
Perhaps I will become a ray
of sunshine, to be
embraced by your colours)

Meeting Amrita Pritam”¦

A few days before I am to meet the legendary poetess, I go through excerpts of her biography. Unable to completely decipher the deep meanings of her poetry, I realize that whatever she writes definitely leaves an impact and represents the freedom she lounged for.

As I met her for the first time in the leafy bylane of Hauz Khas, New Delhi – I noticed how clear her face was despite old age. What struck me was her eyes ”“ bright, piercing straight into mine and very observant. Her powerful aura was a perfect foil to her frail figure.

A little indisposed, she spoke with intense profundity.

She questions God as to why he has limited the world of women. She is trapped at times, cannot travel alone, cannot sleep on the road or open meadows like a man. Yet this alone gives her the strength and it is this limitation that lends intensity to her poems. The mind must soar high, reach out. She confessed that as a woman she had some to deal with many difficulties and objections but if reborn, would still wish to be born as a woman, but with a ”˜pen’ in her hand always.

Men want service and pleasure from women. He cannot appreciate a woman with intellect. His concepts are conditioned around primitive grooves and traditional milieu. Even in the Goddess he sees a mother because that too is a role in which a woman serves him selflessly.

But Amrita Pritam is proud to be an Indian woman. “Rig Veda was compiled and written before Christ. About twenty-seven women participated in its writing, in that era. This makes me proud to be a descendent of such a great race”, she says and remarks that parents prepare their daughters for marriage but not for independent existence. “Ancient scriptures say that God is half man and half women ”“ Ardh Narishwar. Shiva is nothing without Shakti. Thus, women must realize their strength and make an attempt to find themselves”.

Her literary works depicted the grim reality of atrocities being perpetrated on women and she strongly believes that “You cannot liberate women if the Man is not liberated”.  

 Through her poems, Amrita questions the degeneration of life ”“ the emptiness of religion that teaches man to hate and kill others. She was not an atheist but believed in Dharma, which is different from religion.

In her poem, “The Frenzy”, a powerful critique of religious identities is felt:

When religion goes to people’s head
Steel is sharpened
People’s tongues grow cruel
The tongues of love grow dull
Veins flowing with red blood turn blue
At the black snake’s bite
From their hiding places behind every bush
Poisonous snakes come slithering out to bite
People walking on their way
And lips once beautiful to kiss begin to foam
Vultures gather, their tearing at the bodies
They don’t care of it’s the daughter or the daughter-in-law

She is sensitive, yet aloof. Pain, torment and grief were a part of her life but she was not lonely. She had a perfectly tuned relationship with Imroz, the man she loved but never married. I remember him as a slim grey-haired man dressed in Kurta and Jeans, very much like an artist, that he was. The poetess pens a few lines on the glory of such love:

Rall gai si es vich ik boond tere ishq di
Esse layi main zindagi di saari kudattan pee layi

Just because a drop of your love had blended in
I drank down the entire bitterness of life.

Amrita Pritam did not believe in marriage but more on finding love.

Her house K-25 was replete with art, poetry and memories. It was surrounded with nature, windows trailed by bougainvilleas, chirping of birds all around and portraits of herself, painted by Imroz and her poems written by him on clocks, lampshades, pen stands etc.

As I leave the house, I am accompanied by a wealth of knowledge. I look back at the nameplate with Amrita Pritam emblazoned on it in Imroz’s artistic flourish. With a pen in her hand, she has probably started writing yet another line, another poem.

After her death on 31st October, 2005, her house was bull dozed away for rebuilding. The edifice came down in a few seconds but not the moments lived in the house. It was written somewhere that Imroz carried away the nameplate as one of the many memories of Amrita Pritam.

Ae jism mukkda hai,
tan sab kuch mukk janda
par cheteyan dey dhaage,
kaayenaati kana dey hunde
main unha kana nu chunagi,
dhageyan nu walangi, te tenu main fer milaangi

When the body perishes
It all perishes
But the strings of memory
Are woven of cosmic atoms
I will pick these particles
Reweave the strings
And then I will meet you again.”

(From Main Tenun Phir Milangi )

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