It was the dead of the night in November 1947, and winter had decided to be at its vengeful worst. Traveling on a train from Delhi with her two small children wrapped in a red shawl, she looked at the shadows of the trees outside. They were like sentinels of sorrow. The darkness, the icy winds, the sound of the train moving on the tracks… and the first draft of ‘Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu’ was born.
The famous address that immortalized poet Amrita Pritam is about the horrors of the partition of Punjab during the 1947 Partition of India. Addressed to the historic Punjabi poet Waris Shah, who had written the most popular version of the Punjabi love tragedy, ‘Heer Ranjha’, it appeals to him to arise from his grave of him, record Punjab’s tragedy and turn over a new page in Punjab’s history.
Written in November 1947, it was the first major poem on the biggest tragedy that the sub-continent had witnessed and most writers, poets and artists stress that it is the most powerful one on the Partition — on both sides of the border.
“It was a time when everyone was depressed, shamed and haunted. All you could hear was silence. It required a woman to write the first address on the tragedy. After all, what happened to women on both sides during the Partition was disgusting and criminal — humiliated, killed, raped and sold as prostitutes. Amrita came out to scream in that silence. Of course, many critics from our side of Punjab had a problem — ‘why was the poem addressed to Waris Shah and not Guru Nanak’. The leftists thought it should have been addressed to Lenin. Now, Waris Shah was the symbol of the composite culture of Punjab, she had to call upon him and nobody else,” says poet and critic Nirupama Dutt.
Adding that it enjoyed immediate following in the newly formed Pakistan too, with the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz who read it inside his jail cell and coming out to discover people carrying it in their pockets and reciting it at tea stalls and other addas, she asserts, “Many good poems emerged later, but this one will always enjoy a special space. Also, it towers over all her other work from her.
Theater director Neelam Mansingh believes that poetry is like any other classical text — the catalyst may be a certain terrible event that gives birth to the poem, but it becomes something that travels through time. “When you see a massacre, brutalization of women, sexist or misogynist behaviour, one goes back and finds a thread. ‘Heer’ represents the essence of a Punjabi woman. She ceases to be a person but becomes an archetype. In that context, ‘Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu’ is a poem that connects and resonates every time you read it. It never seems dated,” says this Padma Shri awardee.
“Herself a great poet of her times, she added another dimension of the female point of view of Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’ by underlining the fact that she has to pay the price of bloody ventures of the male ego. By connecting 1947 with Waris and then Heer, Amrita has immortalized the senseless sufferings of all of us. While celebrating the anniversary of the freedom of the country, it is important not to forget the slavery of our hatred, diplomatic immaturity and political selfishness,” says playwright and author Atamjit Singh, recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Sahitya Akademi honors.
Believing that an artist–a poet, painter or filmmaker must talk and record the issues of her/his times, National award-winning Punjabi filmmaker Rajeev Kumar feels that whenever massacres, wars or any other tragedy strikes, the worst sufferers are women. “With this poem, she responds not just as an artist but also as a woman. Just like Paash wrote in the 1970s that ‘we are living in the era of Vietnam'(US intervention in Vietnam).’ It is the way that she has articulated the tragedy and brought forth the suffering of all sides that makes it special.”
Well-known critic Yograj Angrish, who has written over 10 books on Punjabi poetry and is the Vice chairman of Punjab Kala Parishad feels that some poems become evergreen and we tend to go back to them whenever history is repeated. “During the Khalistani movement, poet Surjit Patar wrote ‘At that time Waris Shah was divided, now it is Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s turn. Amrita was a poet of cultural tradition. When a crisis came, she looked and addressed a secular poet from her tradition of her. Remember, Waris Shah was a Muslim. If the madness in civilization ends, this poem will also vanish. But are we naive enough to believe that?”
Even as it remains of the most talked about poems on the Partition, poet Desraj Kali, who has written extensively on Dalit issues and was published and praised widely by Amrita Pritam in her magazine ‘Nagmani’ believes that this is the poet’s worst work. “Reading this poem, one feels she has no clue about Waris Shah’s works, especially Heer. Shah’s Heer is a revolutionary character, she didn’t cry or get emotional. No father in Punjab even now dares to name his daughter from him Heer. She is anti-establishment, anti-system — both politically and socially, for her tradition means nothing. I fail to understand why Punjabis from both sides are so obsessed with this work. Don’t they look within? Are they trying to say that all the killings were just in frenzy? Let us not forget many were calculated ones too.”
Poet Sudeep Sen feels that we all know what happened in 1947, but the poem is a humbling reminder of the past and a fervent cry to rise up and hold firm. “There are echoes here that one can relate to current-day politics – but a poem elicits much more, both at the level of history and emotion,” he concludes.
(Sukant Deepak can be reached at email@example.com)