Amrita Pritam at 100: Political, progressive and a true pioneer


A 1948 photo of Amrita Pritam. PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons

‘There was a pain
I consume silently
Like a cigarette
There are some poems
Which I have shaken off like ashes
From the cigarette’

Amrita Pritam, who was born 100 years ago in Gujranwala (now in modern-day Pakistan) was one of those brightest personalities of the Progressive Writers Movement, of whom we can justifiably be proud.

She was a true pioneer of our age. She suffered the cultural and political ambiences, springs and autumns of this unfortunate century, meaning all its pleasures and pains, upon herself and deeming its ashes to be sindoor, dressed and preened the parting of her hair. Even after being burnt in the fire of our hellish society, this woman full of spring, youth and dignity did not get scorched or wither away; but emerged before us, clean and pure like the finest gold. As some poet said, ‘The eternal fragrance of our garden of beauty and love.’

This poetess full of spring adorned and refined our lives with her prose and poetry throughout the 20th century – levelled our rocky paths and gave us a lesson and a knack for living life, gave us love.     

Amrita Pritam, of course, found fame as a poetess of the Punjabi language. And the circle of her poetry’s fame is as wide as that of the Punjabi language itself. It is a reality that till the Independence of India and formation of Pakistan, she did not have the popularity and fame which she achieved after moving to India. In Pakistan, her self and poetry became famous after the appearance of her legendary poem Aj Aaakhan Waris Shah Nu (‘I say to Waris Shah today’). This poem – rightly acclaimed as the dirge for Punjab –  was written as a natural reaction to the division of Punjab and the riots and bloodshed which occurred here. This poem greatly affected the people and it became Pritam’s identity in the 20th century:

‘I say to Waris Shah today, speak out from your tomb
And let a fresh page unfurl from the Book of Love’s womb.
Just one daughter of Punjab’s woes caused your laments to flow
Today a million daughters weep, and thee they do implore
Arise you chronicler of pain and witness your Punjab
Where corpses sprout in the fields and blood flows down the Chenab.’

However, nearly 14 years after Pritam’s death, it can be said that the circle of her poetry’s fame would have been even greater on the condition that the mutual relations between Punjabi and Urdu were more cordial. Till the time that the relations between these two languages are not cordial, a poet of one language cannot attain the popularity in the circle of another language to which he or she is entitled. One should hope that as the veils will gradually be lifted, it would become easier to be acquainted with each other.

It is true that while Amrita Pritam was alive, on a few occasions, a reflection of her poetry would indeed appear on the screen of Urdu journalism; but poetry is nevertheless poetry.

To transfer it into the words of another language – as a few individuals like the great Urdu poetess Fahmida Riaz had also attempted with Pritam’s poetry – is first of all, itself very difficult; but even were it possible to do so, the most we would say would be that the words of one language were transferred to the words of another language – the real is meaning; to transfer the meaning from one language to the other in a way which renders the entire sense perceptions of the poet is realistically impossible.

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