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A tribute to Amrita Pritam

March 28, 2013

REGARDED as the pioneer of modern Punjabi poetry and literature, Amrita Pritam got immediate fame when she wrote the poignant poem ‘Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu’. In this poem she had expressed her anguish on the massacre of about one million people in Punjab in communal violence following the partition of British India in 1947. The poem was addressed to the 18th century Punjabi Sufi Poet Waris Shah, author of the tragic saga of Heer-Ranjha. The following is the English translation of two opening verses of the poem: (a) Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from inside your grave”, and turn today, the book of love’s next affectionate page, (b) Once, one daughter of Punjab cried; you wrote a wailing saga, today, a million daughters cry to you, Waris Shah”.

(What is happening today in Pakistan and elsewhere is no less dreadful.)

Amrita is equally loved on both sides of the Pakistan-India border. She is the trendsetter for poets who wrote quality lyrics for the Punjabi films produced in Pakistan in the earlier days. They include Baba Siah Alam Posh, Hazeen Quadri and Tufail Hoshiarpuri. These poets also shared the same culture and surroundings with Amrita.

She was born as Amrita Kaur in 1919 in Gujranwala and was the only child of schoolteacher Kartar Singh Hitkari, who was a poet and scholar of Birj Bhasha and also edited a literary journal. Amrita’s mother died when she was 11 and soon thereafter she and her father moved to Lahore, where she lived till her migration to India in 1947.

Confronting adult responsibilities and besieged by loneliness following her mother’s death, she began to write at an early age. Her first anthology of poems, Amrit Lehran (Immortal Waves) was published in 1936, at age 16. She married Pritam Singh, an editor to whom she was engaged in early childhood and changed her name to Amrita Pritam.

In a career spanning about six decades, Amrita authored over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, a collection of Punjabi folk songs and autobiography. These were translated into several Indian and foreign languages.

As a novelist, her most noted work Pinjar (The Skeleton) came out in 1950, in which she created her memorable character Puro, an epitome of violence against women, loss of humanity and ultimate surrender to existential fate.

The novel was made into an award-winning film ‘Pinjar’ in 2003.

Amrita died on October 31, 2005. Known as the most important voice for the women in Punjabi literature, the Indian government bestowed upon her several high-ranking awards during her lifetime. M.S. Sathyu, a renowned theatre person and director of the movie on partition, ‘Garam Hawa’, paid a theatrical tribute to Amrita in ‘Ek Thee Amrita’.

The movie makers of Pakistan also did not lag behind their Indian counterparts in paying tribute to Amrita. The talented producer, director, poet and writer late Saifuddin Saif made a Punjabi film, Kartar Singh, in 1959, which depicted a true story of the atrocities and violence perpetrated by various communities at the time of partition. The theme song of this movie was none other than Amrita’s classic poem ‘Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu’.

The fact is that so much poetry and literature in the Punjabi language was never generated as in the post-partition era, credit for which goes to Amrita Pritum.