Friday, February 21, 2014

Celebrating Sunshine: Spirit of Punjabiyat

This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, in the February 2014 issue. 

In an honest endeavour to ‘rediscover’ India and ‘regain’ my deeply umbilical roots with Punjab in the silver years of retirement since 2004, after spending 26 summers abroad, I have been assiduously making efforts to attune myself with the manifestations of literature and culture in my adopted home city of Delhi. The mythological and historic heart of Hindustan - from Indraprasatha to Lutyen’s New Delhi - could be interpreted as both an aggregation of hundreds of typically ancient villages and also a fast evolving cosmopolitan metropolis. Always keen to nourish my most cherished memories of early childhood enjoyed in smaller villages and education in a national school in a newly founded (in 1905) grain market town and later moving to Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Bathinda for education and short stint as lecturer in College, I remain in heart, soul and mind a quintessential Punjabi who has been luckier to live in Pakistani Punjab too. This strongly surcharged ‘Punjabi Identity’ - so apparent but also often elusive like a mirage - well harmonised with the happier citizenship of the world, has indeed found for me a partial but substantial fulfilment in my association with two staunchly secular and forward looking Punjabi literary and cultural forums in Delhi - Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan and Punjabi Sahit Sabha.

It was my childhood poet-hero Pandit Krishan Ashant who had firstly told me in 2005 about an annual open get together of writers and enthusiasts of Punjabi literature. Christened as ‘Dupp di Mehfil - A Merriment under the Sunshine’, the function was conceived and imaginatively implemented by the grand old gentleman of Punjabi printing and publishing, ‘Bhapa Ji’ Pritam Singh. The day chosen was to be Sunday falling after Lohri - the typical Punjabi folk festival heralding the beginning of the end of the severity of cold winter and an astronomical ascendance of Sun on its journey of the northern hemisphere. Bhapa Ji, gracious as ever for any cause of promoting Punjabi, offered his Navyug farm house in Mehroli to be the venue for this unique experience. Started in 1994, the event has been acquiring more and more popularity, participation and prestige, thanks to the dedicated team of office bearers of Punjabi Sahit Sabha and soulful commitment of Dr Renuka Singh, academician daughter of Bhapa ji. 

Adoringly addressed as ‘Bhapa Ji’ - dear elder brother - by generations of budding as well as established authors of Punjabi and his large circle of admirers including cultivated readers, Pritam Singh (b.1914 d.2005), was a remarkable self-made perfect gentleman who remained synonymous for five decades with the high quality Punjabi printing and publishing house - Navyug Prakashan - located in Chandani Chowk, the heart of historic Delhi. Amarjit Chandan has rightly said, “His life is arguably the history of Punjabi printing, journalism and publishing in the twentieth century.” Aarsee - Looking Glass - the literary monthly in Punjabi started by him in April 1958 indeed faithfully reflected his cherished ideals of beauty in nobility of creative writing till he decided to call it a day after issue of June 2000 when he might have felt, at the age of 86, that he could not physically cope with keeping up the high standards he had set for himself. The humility, sweetness, discipline and determination characterised this gentle colossus who indeed played a sterling role in ushering in a new era - Navyug - in Punjabi literary renaissance and thereby dressing and healing the devastating wounds inflicted by the catastrophe of the Partition of Punjab.

Dr Jaspal Singh, VC Punjabi University releasing Sukh Sunehe,

Dhupp di Mehfil - 2014 on 19th January indeed turned out to be the most well attended and the sunniest in atmosphere - Surya Devta played to be so kind and munificent on just that one day. Interestingly, the year happens to be the birth centenary of Janak - god father - of this festival - the beloved Bhapa Ji. President of Sahit Sabha, Gulzar Singh Sandhu, conducted the function in his authoritatively disciplinarian tone to ensure that program clicks according to clock. It opened with the old honey folk songs, including one on Pooran Bhagat, by the group led by Ninder Ghungianvi. Ashok Arora, a lawyer turned motivational speaker, seemed at a loss for words in Punjabi. He distributed a video CD of a documentary film dealing with the turmoil in the minds of the youth in the wake of the ‘Nirbhay’ tragedy in the capital. Dr Bhagwan Josh, a distinguished academic in the JNU, spoke about the angelic character of Bhapa Ji as brought out in his book, recently released by the National Book Trust. It were the scenes - with direction and songs, in his deeply melodious voice, by eminent theatre professional Wariam Mast - from Balwant Gargi’s celebrated play Kanak di Balli which impressed and mesmerised the large audience. My generation has strong reason to feel nostalgic about that golden era of Punjabi literature in the fifties of last century - before petty and vicious politics in Punjab on the false pretext of language resulted in further tearing apart and blowing away Punjabiyat. 

Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar being honoured with a special award

The function was utilised to honour six Punjabis for the valuable contribution by each of them to the cause of Punjabi language and Punjabiyat. It comprised an impressive plaque of the Sahit Sabha and cheque for 50,000. Shri Kuldip Nayar, the nonagenarian journalist and crusader-commentator on problems of Punjab who has recently penned his maiden novel in Punjabi, received a big applause. The list of others who were honoured included eminent poet scholar Dr JS Neki; Secretary of Punjabi Academy, Delhi, Dr Ravel Singh; historian Dr HS Chawla; Dr Baldev Singh Badhan of National Book Trust and UK based Punjabi author and activist Ranjit Dheer. Dr Renuka Singh, chairperson of the Sabha was honoured with mementos of Baba Farid and the long services of Piara Singh (b.1923) to Sabha were also recognised. Howsoever deserving such awards might be, the peculiarity of all the prizes and honours bestowed on writers and activists of Punjabi have also their share of side effects. A number of books published in 2014 were also released by the VC Punjabi University, Patiala Dr Jaspal Singh who gracefully presided over the function without inflicting any speech on the audience, apparently interested more in meeting new and old friends, all knit by the deeper but often neglected bond of mother tongue.

Dr Jaspal Singh releasing the book by eminent theatre artist Wariam Mast

‘Dhupp di Mehfil’ has certainly carved a place of its own in the calendar of the Punjabi literary community not only in the capital city but also globally. It is indeed astonishing how a white-Khadi clad simple person with devotion to the tongue of his mother could single handedly do so much for it. I am reminded of the prophetic and spontaneous dialogue with novelist Nanak Singh recorded by Balraj Sahni soon after the formation of ‘little Punjab’ with ‘officially’ proclaimed Punjabi language, “Balraj Bhapa, two evils are sucking our society like leeches - one is communalism and second is petty politics… 'sooba-prasati' - provincialism is a deadly new evil… we had better a stronger and larger Punjab… till there was no exclusive Punjabi speaking state, Punjabi was faring much better… Punjabi was never promoted by political leaders, it were persons like Varis Shah, Qadir Yaar, Bhai Vir Singh…” I may emphatically add, “A person like Bhapa Ji Pritam Singh”

Our world is witnessing an unprecedented epochal era - a revolution as never before - in the domain of human communication. All human expressions are being subjected to mightily challenging situation - presenting both the vast opportunities and posing serious dangers. The Punjabis have been the greatest survivors; they have risen again and again from dire adversity to great prosperity. As one them who was indeed luckier in this life to be taught and groomed by the best of ‘the un-partitioned’ minds of Punjab and having seen this wider world, I do hope that Punjabis would seek their destiny beyond the narrow confines and divides of creed, caste and community - as so nobly and beautifully enunciated by Baba Nanak, more than half a millennium ago!