Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Vintage Voice in Punjabi Poetry

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 121 Vol VI, October 15, 2010

THE kindergarten teachers know that poetry precedes in the mysteriously unique process of learning language by the tiny tots. The learned linguists attest that this beautiful phenomena is applicable to the over all evolution of languages of humanity too. To take liberty with William Blake's often quoted lines - "Breathes there a person with soul so dead: Who to himself a line of poetry never said"! The people have zealously kept alive the rhythmical words of poets, the mighty conquerors of human hearts: the great warriors and conquerors who built vast empires remain consigned to the dustbins of history! One should observe the grace and dignity with which people throng around the tiny – make shift - grave of Armenia-born Sufi martyr poet, Sarmad, in the middle of stairs of the massive Jama Masjid, facing the historic Red Fort.

The introduction to poetry, as if, dawned upon me - thanks to my doting and poetry loving two great grandfathers and the First World War soldier grand father - before I could make a sense of or speak a simple sentence! It was, however, in the last week of February 1952 when at the age of eight plus, I was witness to the crafting of a poem, in the early morning hours, titled Shubh Kaamna Suman Mala - A garland of Flowers of Good Wishes - by a Hindi/Sanskrit scholar friend of my father, to be read at the marriage of my paternal aunt - Bhua ji - on 2nd of March. I am glad to say that this composition, embroidered with classical imagery of celebration of spirit of Vasant - Spring - impresses me even today.

Enters Krishan Kumar - a poetically inclined, shy, smiling friend of my literary minded uncle - Chacha - who was more than eight years my senior. I vividly recall how Krishan had attempted the first draft of the Sehra - a traditional wedding poem from the groom's side - for the second marriage of my widower father, solemnized in a village near Rajpura on March 9, 1953. To my amazement, Krishan still remembers couplets from this Sehra! Krishan Kumar – I think that he had added Thakhallus - pen name - 'Ashant' - 'the Restless' - before he passed Matriculation in 1954 in the First Division, completing ninth & tenth classes in one year. He had side stepped sincere advice of his favourite teachers in M.G.M.N. High School, Ahmedgarh that he should not be in a hurry and that he should aspire to win a university scholarship. Krishan Ashant is understood to have convinced his teachers that saving of one year of life was more precious than the amount of scholarship! The philosophical and intellectual fascination with Time - the ever elusive, eternal and omnipresent, Kaal - in its myriad dimensions, had possessed our poet and futurologist much earlier in life!

It, therefore, came as no surprise when Krishan Ashant, as an under graduate student in Ranbir College, Sangrur, became a popular figure - with his fulsome poetic beard and a healthy frame of a college boxer - at Kavi Darbars / Mushai'ras that were regularly organized in the pulsating Punjab of fifties by Sahit Sabhas / Literary Circles fired with a genuine zeal for progressive ideology. Ashant's first anthology ,Taare te Kinke - The Stars and Specks of Dust - was quick to follow in December 1957, published by Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana,; 1,100 copies; 128 pages; Price - Two Rupees! I think that several poems by this college-student-poet had fired the imagination of young readers and also attracted attention of encouraging senior writers. Master Ashni Kumar, one of Krishan's admirers among his school teachers, asked me - then in my eighth class- to write a letter of felicitations to the First Poet of our school, founded forty years ago. Ashant retains a distinctly sweet memory of that letter and flatters me for my neatly calligraphic handwriting in Gurmukhi! The following lines of the opening poem had become popular quotes for declamation contests in schools / colleges in Punjab, of the times when its boundaries embraced Delhi and Lahaul-Spiti:
Hasat rekhawan di chinta na karo/ Hatth sirjanhaar ne taqdeer de.
Ikk saya hai Khuda insaan da/ Rabb, banda rukkh ikk tasveer de.

Lament not over lines (in palm) of your Hand/ Hands shape your Destiny.
God is but a reflection of Man/ God and Man are cast in same Image
.

Ashant did MA in Philosophy from Mohindra College Patiala where he shared roof in 'Bhootwara' - Ghost House - a rented accommodation fondly nicknamed and remembered as the legendary abode of extraordinarily talented students of literature like Gurbhagat, Navtej (Bharati), Harinder (Mahboob), Lalli, Gubux (Soch), etc. It was lovingly 'supervised' by an inspiring team of teachers led by the stern scholar, Prof Pritam Singh. Ashant, unlike his many friends who chose to be academicians in Punjab, decided to plunge into the 'big-bad' world of Delhi. The anchor was provided by his love marriage to a class fellow who became a teacher in the capital and allowed him luxury of shuffling jobs involving travels to distant and charmingly different destinations. The fields of his work in fast developing discipline of mass media brought him in intimate interaction with people braving acute urban rigors of shelter-less / jobless existence; the deprivations of the Tribal people ; dreams dying young all around; insensitivity of society at large…

All this resulted in, Shilalekh - Inscription in Stone - dedicated to his beloved wife, Kamal - brought out in 1978 by Aarsi Publishers, with a cover design by Imroz and sketches by Nikhil Biswas/ Dev, Price: Rs 10. In the 'Last Word' of the book, Ashant has confessed that for almost two decades, he could not write anything worth while because of an 'inner turmoil' about bedeviling realities all around Interestingly - and paradoxically - he turned to poetry to seek solace, "like crying bitterly over the dead body of a loved one and sigh as deeply as one can!" There are many subtle, memorably satirical, poems in this anthology. Janardan - Common Man - a poem of more than 500 lines - stands apart and is indeed of epic proportions in capturing an entire gamut of endless challenges of modern life. Meanwhile, Ashant had increasingly turned towards serious studies of Astrology and soon adopted it as a full time profession. He authored in 1994 - in Punjabi /Hindi - 'A Tale of 3 Evil (astrological) Houses', a product of lengthy conversations with Amrita Pritam and followed it with highly exclaimed texts titled, Lagan Darshan and Laal Kitab Jyotish.

Beete Nuun Awaazaan,
by Krishan Ashant
Since my return to Delhi after spending 21 summers abroad, I had been pleading - and prodding - gently and respectfully - with Ashant Sahib to share with his large circle of admirers all those poems which might have been lying in custody. It is, therefore, certainly a cause for celebration for all serious readers of poetry in Punjabi that, Beete Nuun Awaazaan' - Summoning the Past' - 49 poems and 12 Ghazals (Sonnets) saw the light of the day in August - thanks to Shilalekh Publishers. Here, we meet a poet of a mature vintage and a rare detachment who is reflecting deeply over eternal issues of human existence. The imagery, similes and extended metaphors are so profoundly rich in questioning both the day to day and the ultimate dilemmas of humanity. Ashant, poet-philosopher-futurologist rolled into one, is capable of enlarging the range and horizon of Panjabi poetry in this period of globalization - one should listen to the voice of 'Buddha Jand':
Ikk bande da khudi nun chhadd ke / Khud hi Khuda hona;
Alaamat hai ishak di…Mai tan Buddha Jand Han rohi da:
Evein jee rihan/ Aas hai ke ikk din aashak koee
Meri thandi chhan vich baithega aake!

When one transcends one's ego/ one merges into Him,
And that is a sign surely of True love.
I'm but an old Jand tree in the wilderness
Alive in aimlessness
But hoping that some lover might pass by this way
And take rest under my shade!

Ashant is firmly rooted in major Indian languages, scriptural mythologies, and has a full command over prosody and classical poetic devices which are amply reflected even in his Ghazals:
Tun Khuda si,tainu sharminda vee je karde asin;
Ess laee har kahar nun -kehnde rahe teri mehr
Main te jad jeevan da saghar rirkia,vish hi mili
Jhooth lagda kanth vich rakhi-Shivan saari Zehar

God, how we could make you feel ashamed!
So, we termed your tyranny too, as your kindness
Whenever I churned sea of life, I tasted only poison,
Seems false, Shiva has stored all poison in his throat!

Beete nuun Aawaazaan provides us the privileged to listen to a vintage voice of an immensely accomplished poet who traverses vast realms of heritage of Punjab echoing profundities – of past, present and future - having universal appeal. Poets are known for playing games with their real or poetic names - Ashant had also once toyed with Seetal Saroj - The Cool Lotus - as nom de plume: I hope that in the 75th year of his life, Ashant has attained 'the inner quietude' in its fullest poetic connotation!


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