During the long spell of my 'lying abroad' - 1975-'80 and then 21 consecutive years from 1982-2003 - it was my soul mate pen-pal Prof Sat Parkash Garg (1937-'96) of Bathinda who kept me posted till his last about the affairs of the beloved Punjab, particularly the developments on the socio-cultural and literary scene. It was he who had quoted (as advice!) Surjit Patar to me in one of his letters, "enna sacch na bol, ke kalla reh javen / Chaar ku Bande Chhad lai, Modha den laee - Do not tell truth to an extent to be left alone / Do spare four people to be pall-bearers." With the spreading of Patar's reputation for 'looting' all the Kavi Sammelans - Poetical Festivals - with his mesmerizingly melodious voice, I imagined him to be an inheritor of the mantle of inimitable lyricist Shiv Kumar whom I had listened and studied since student days.
The two recent functions in Delhi – one in Sahitya Academy and another to Award him prestigious Saraswati Samman on 17th September - established my literary introduction with Patar as a poetic-prophetic voice of my generation, in my mother tongue. I could recently finish reading all his poetical works in quick succession: I felt that his poetry has some thing about it comparable to the notes of agony and ecstasy in Bismillah Khan's Shehnai!
As an extra inquisitive student of the recent history of Punjab - the proverbial 'Land of Five Rivers', not to speak of 'Sapat Sindhu' of folk antiquity - I have been tempted to ask, "When was it that this land mass indeed enjoyed a period of a single generation of relative peace and progress since the celebrated poetic name figured formally in the official records during the reign of Emperor Akbar?" The popular war poem - Jang Hind - Punjab - by Shah Mohammad leaves me with a disgusting feeling that the destiny of the children of the Lion of the Punjab and the Khalsa Fauj was indeed fully deserved. One is grudgingly forced to seek some answer, with a substantive data, in the eight decades between 1880-1940 of the British rule when Lahore indeed emerged as a vibrant capital of commerce & culture and the province developed dream canal colonies. The revolution of rail / road transport had quietly knit colonial India together, never mind the 666 plus native kingdoms also flying their own flags.
Then, in the wake of freedom for the nation of Ashok and Akbar, befell the worst calamity of the Partition of the Five Waters. The arbitrary lines, drawn in a tearing hurry on the palm of Punjab by the white Sahib Radcliff, would transform for ever the Destiny of Punjabis - the Sikh in particular. The rulers in their new 'avatar' of politicians, representing characters in Mahabharata to the warring children of maker of Taj Mahal had their own selfish scores to settle causing 'collateral' massacres, genocides, mass rapes... It was left to the genius of Sadat Hasan Manto to tell the bitterest truths of the tragedies of the most madly partitioning of the legendary land of Buddha, Farid, Nanak... - but who cares to remember a Manto!
The poets have been becoming martyrs in the service of history by challenging the tyrants. During modern age of the M.A.D. - Mutually Assured Destruction - with the stock piles of nuclear weapons more than sufficient for decimating the planet many time over and the recent decades of mindless global terrorism, many of the soldiers of pen have dared to be warriors of peace in providing the healing touch and moral spine for the innocent masses who are victims of the oppression by both the instruments of state and those resorting to arms against perceived wrongs by the state.
Surjit Patar (Born Jan.14, 1945) has been acknowledged as the lyrically captivating and profoundly authentic voice in Punjabi poetry of the besieged Punjabis. He has been penning the most polished poetry without 'shying away' from the 'explosive' issues raging during the troubled times of terrorism in Punjab. A bright student in a village school near Kapurthala, he had shown an early promise in poetry and music which found a fuller expression during his studies in college. After completion of Post Graduation in Punjabi from Patiala where he met many kindred literary souls and later earned a Doctorate, Patar (pen name denoting softer version of the name of his village), joined the Dept. of Journalism, Languages and Culture in the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana in 1971.
The city of Sahir - Wizard (of words) - surely provided Patar a stimulating atmosphere to grow pretty wings of poesy while working under Mohan Singh, the veteran poet of, 'Saaven Pattar' (Published in 1936). This was the period when the Naxalite movement involving many literary activists had been brutally crushed by the state and the ideological space was being contested, among others, by the Sikh religious revivalists. Surjit Patar got formally launched in 1973 when the ten of his poems were published in an anthology titled, 'Collage'. The poems including, 'Pachhon te Purvaiyya' - Eastern and Western Breeze'; 'Gharar, Gharar - Incoherent Word'; 'Budhi Jadoogarni - The Old Witch' and, 'Chaunk Shahidan - The Square of Martyrs' attracted critical acclaim for Patar's effective and subtle mix of the declamatory and dramatic elements in expressing challenging themes:
Mere Punjab ne taan bahut chir hoeya, Khud Kashi Kar layee si…
Te meri maut da maatm karan da haqq hai kewal havavan nuun…
My beloved Punjab committed suicide long ago…
Only Breezes (East-West) are entitled to mourn for me…
The excesses under the rule of Emergency and its democratically dramatic overthrow by the people of India and the Great Shia Islamic Revolution in Iran could be considered for Punjab the two defining events of the seventies. Meanwhile in 1979, Patar brought out a comprehensive collection of 51 Ghazals - the celebrated Perso-Urdu poetic form comparable to Sonnet - with the title, 'Hava vich Likhe Harf' - Words Etched in Air. Patar proclaimed, "the Ghazals have kept me attuned with my deeper attachment with music … they are written in conjunction with the totality of my poetic creativity … they don't denote some sudden impulse or toeing the tradition" - the couplets below would indeed attest his assertion:
Asan tan du-bb ke khoon vich likhi eiy Ghazal
Oh hor hovange, likhde ne jihre behir andar
I composed Ghazal delving deep into my blood
Others may compose it sub-merged under rhyme
Kadi bandian de vaang saanoo milia vi kar
Aiven langh jaanai, paani hava di tarah
Meet some time, like a person of flesh and blood
Don't pass by, sometime like water, then like wind
In the eighties, Punjab had started slipping deeper into a complex tragic abyss with continuous killings of the innocent blamed on the Sikh militants. The Operation Blue Star, the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi and the triggering of mass killings of Sikhs all over India created the worst imaginable situation in Punjab. The real culprits of letting loose the engines of evil, as it happens in such colossal tragedies, will never be clearly identified - one may be tempted to pick up a piece of truth one likes. Surjit Patar dared to take on the monster of hatred and meaningless violence with his piercing poetic utterances. To the immense delight and satisfaction of Patar's discerning readership, the two anthologies of his poetry were published in 1992, titled respectively ,'Birkh Arz Kare - A Tree Implores' and, 'Hanere vich Sulghadi Varanmala - An Alphabet Simmering in the Dark.'. Patar shared with the readers:
Meri Kavita mere har mausam di vithia hai
Bahuta mera, thora thorha samian da itihaas vi hai
My poetry describes various seasons of my own tale
Mostly it is personal, here and there bits of history of my times
The poem 'Dhukhda Jangal - The Smoking Forest' is an extended metaphorical narrative of Patar's poetic perceptions of the crippling pains of the body and the soul of the present 'One-Fifth' of the original (British) Punjab - attributed by perspicacious Marxist critic Tejwant Singh Gill to political paranoia as well schizophrenia. The Varanmala has a number of poems which have indeed acquired the status of classic commentary on the crisis of Punjab.
Lafzan di Darghah - The Ultimate Court (Kartar di Katcheri) of Words' published in 1999 - the Tercentenary year of founding of the Sikh faith - which I had set out to share with the readers in this column. Patar introduces the book saying, 'To mould my anguish into a song / is my way of salvation / if the other doors are shut / here is the door of a court of words.' He is at gentle satirical best in poems like, "My Poem - My mother could not make any sense of my poem, though it was written in my mother-tongue"; "Here Came Nand Kishore … How intimate is the relationship / between language and livelihood" and, "Meri Jaat - And stating my caste, I felt tongue tied."
Enjoy reading and reflecting over this anthology of 73 gems of vintage Patar - poetry.
Video of Surjit Patar with his collection Udas Dosto - Melancholic Friends