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Literature Subtle and spiritual (a Review)

Discussion in 'Punjab, Punjabi, Punjabiyat' started by spnadmin, Mar 1, 2010.

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    Subtle and spiritual
    Amarjit Chandan's essays are imaginative, interpretive and speculative

    By Nadir Ali

    Genius in the arts -- visual, performing or literary -- is different from the Mensa variety. It is about sensitivity and sensibility. These two sterling qualities -- along with being a restless soul -- are Amarjit Chandan's forte: what else would make a creative genius?

    He does not adhere to form and format in his poetry, like all other modern poets, but he often quotes from folk, classical and most often from Granth Sahib, where meters and rhymes are a rule. Why did he choose to put the title "Light Essays" i.e. Komal Lekh in Punjabi? Komal in Sanskrit means soft, tender, young, delicate, immature, fragile, brittle, sleek, supple, placid, mild, gentle, pleasing, agreeable, sweet or low (as in a musical note) etc. Chandan has all of those qualities, but he is also a serious, earnest, vital, robust, perceptive and knowledgeable writer. He is a veritable one man bridge between East and West Punjab writings in Punjabi and also between the old, classical and modern writings in Punjabi.

    Light essay or Komal Lekh is some silly Punjabi professor's idea of fixing a format, which may be akin to "causerie" (babble in French) format. Occasionally, Chandan does tip his hat to the format, but since he wears a pugree, he does not quite stoop to that level. These essays are -- imaginative, interpretive and speculative -- often profound and poetic.

    Chandan's experience and subject matter is quintessential Punjabi history. He was a Naxalite leftist activist in the 1970s, and also edited an underground magazine Dast?vez. After suffering solitary confinement, harassment and constant threats to his life, Chandan fled to England in 1980 and has lived there ever since. He is a professional full-time writer and photographer. He worked in the related fields in Punjab and England. He is a renowned and very prolific poet in Punjabi and his poetry as well as prose books have been published in India and Pakistan. The books under review have been published in Pakistan. He visits Lahore often and has many friends there.

    The first major essay "Rut Lekha" in the first book, and repeated in the second book, is an essay about a poem of Najm Hosain Syed, arguably the best Punjabi writer of our times. Chandan obviously wants this essay to be highlighted. Najm says: "Kattain charh gaya aye. (The month of Kartik -- mid October till mid November -- is here.). Chandan's interpretation is subtle and spiritual, which is the essence of poetry writing and reading. But criticism/interpretation has to be more. The poem seems to hint at the Soviet October Revolution. "In this month I heard cranes used to come" and "City is once again on edge" and the lines are political statements. "Two, rain drops – tears? – falling on window pane joining and moving on…" is a very obvious lament and hope of a revolutionary. I do hope Chandan is not a renegade Marxist. Or am I a zealot?

    There is a long definitive essay on political poetry and on Pash, one of the best poets in Punjabi of the last century, again a Marxist. Pash was also an admirer of Najm's. When a friend, Ijaz Syed, told Pash that he had met Najm's at Lahore, Pash kissed the hand that had touched Najm's.

    Be that as it may, for a believer like me, I liked best, an unknown widow Satwant Kaur's interview in Nukta -- a lady who saw her husband after more than eleven years, with an eleven-year-old son. I would make that a must read for every Punjabi. It encapsulated the Punjabi history and experience of a century. Only Chandan could give such a gift to us.

    Apparently, the sensual writings and pieces celebrating the human body are Chandan's favourites. He calls writing one of his favourite love poems among dozens of long and short pieces, a "Ghatna." (Happening) It is a very simple, down-to-earth love poem of Santokh Singh Dheer, --Prem Sum?rg (Path of Love) -- is a fine poet and short-story writer of Punjabi. But down-to-earth and simple is the most complex exercise in poetry.

    How do I cover more than twenty-nine many layered essays and photos that are essays too, in a thousand words? I will wind up the first book with trivia, a piece on Raj Kapoor. No, Chandan is a serious fan. Only I am being trivial when correcting him that Nargis (my favourite) and Raj Kapoor appeared in fifteen and not eighteen movies together, as Chandan wrote. Raj Kapoor is not a Punjabi. He belongs to and was born in Peshawar. His grandfather was a tehsild?r of Samundari (district Faisalabad), where Prithvi Raj was born. Films are my "Ghatna" too. We shouldn't take away Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor from Peshawar; two of the brightest stars in the film firmament.

    In the second book Likhtam Parhtam, he has repeated his piece on Najm Hosain. The opening long piece is about Dheer's poem, already mentioned above. There is an essay on a short story by Zubair Ahmad, a good upcoming writer of Punjabi from Lahore. He is a friend of Chandan's and mine. Why not? RL Stevenson said: "Our writings are secret letters to our friends. Public is just a generous patron that (hopefully) defrays the cost of mailing". Knowing Zubair Ahmad's work, these are the best pieces that were ever written about him.

    Chandan is open and candid about everything. His quotes from Punjabi folk are too risqué to be quoted in a newspaper. Chandan criticises both the priests and Marxists for being hung up about sex. Not quite! Lenin said when someone complained about peccadilloes of a comrade: "What are we fighting for in our revolutionary struggle?" Mao ditto, "I haven't looked at a woman without lust in my heart". That won't impress a Naxalite like Pash or Chandan. Even the books of religion have some very explicit passages, so have Rumi and Waris. Pash too showed some naïveté when he said that cadaver of Waris Shah should be removed from Punjabi. Or did he, as well as Chandan, only read the old admixture versions of Heer Waris Shah or some version in which, like Dr Baqir's edition, they removed the risqué passages of Waris Shah?

    The best and longest piece in the second book is "Dhee" (Daughter). He condemns Punjabis' preference for having sons and female foeticide and glorifies daughterhood. He quotes some of the best poetry on the subject. The longest poem is "Parul" from the great folklorist of the South Asian sub-continent, Devinder Satyarthi. "Parul" is a Bengali name of girls, which among other things means a sister of seven brothers.

    Amarjit Singh Chandan is a true "daughter" of the soil, "A son like seven daughters" as they say in Punjabi. He is a militant feminist. There is a rite in the West Punjab called "Dheean" (a rite of daughterhood). Here we have frequent cross marriages among villages. "Dheean" means gifts from a bride to all the brides, old and young, from the paternal village. As an honorary "daughter of Lahore" (hereby conferred) Chandan in these two prose books and two previous books of poetry has paid his "Dheean" to fellow "honorary daughter" and real daughters of Lahore. We two, Chandan and I, belong to this sorority of Punjabi writers. I only quote a brief piece from a poem "G?rgi" by Puran Singh about his daughter:

    Naked is the water lily ,
    Naked is the sun naked am I,
    naked is the sky.
    This is the Land of Spirits,
    Only nakedness becomes
    Naked is all beauty and naked (Manifest) is God
    Naked am I, the Whole Truth, the flood of fire.

    There is a long piece on a poem "Oorha Roti" by Surjit Paatar, who after Pash's martyrdom is a major poet in East Punjab. It is a very moving story poem, also very socialist. Story poem is characteristic of our epic poems and generally of Punjabi poetry; it sets it apart from the ghazal like poetry that only plays with rhymes. The story, briefly, tells of a Bihari immigrant labourer's daughter who is going to school to learn Punjabi, while the Punjabi village head's grand children are riding their car to go to the city English school. How language follows money. How the alphabet is related with the bread.

    There is also Ajmer Rode's beautiful poem "Surtie" in the piece on Dhee. But I feel Chandan's favourite would be "Wasal Pura" by Kailash Puri. "Wasal" is lovers meeting, physically and spiritually consummated.

    Yesterday we two had died.
    Our lips our breaths joined and played the flute...

    You may find difficulty with the Sanskrit words. The language of the Sikh scriptures uses the same idiom. You will miss some the best poetry in the world if you are daunted. Read on and it becomes easy. Chandan helps with referring Bhai Kahn Singh's Encyclopaedia Mah?n Kosh in foot notes.

    There is a short poem of Chandan's that has been put on a 40-foot granite in a public square in a London suburb by the Poetry Society of England:

    Far far away on a distant
    There lies a stone unseen
    It can only be seen with
    closed eyes
    As you see your loved ones.

    Courtesy J.S. Tiwana ji
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