‘Shiv Kumar Batalvi’ by Amarjit Chandan

This thought-provoking appreciation of Shiv Kumar’s poetry and his contribution to Punjabi literature is rendered by another poet of note: Amarjit Chandan; and, is presented here to commemorate Shiv Kumar’s birthday on the disputed date of July 23 (Wichaar.com).

The Poet of Gloom and Doom was a Good Laugh
By Amarjit Chandan

Shiv Kumar. Southall. 1971. Amarjit Chandan CollectionShiv Kumar, Southall 1971. Amarjit Chandan Collection

Among the post-1947 generation of Punjabi poets, Shiv Kumar (SK) is perhaps the most popular poet. He has the same sort of following as painter Sobha Singh has for his kitsch paintings like Sohni Mahival and Gurdas Mann for his hollow songs. Sant Singh Sekhon, who once called SK as the Keats of Punjabi poetry, defined SK’s creative limitations in his introduction to his English rendering of SK’s Luna (1985):

‘When he [SK] first shot into prominence, he was at once noted for the peculiar charm of his diction and imagery and for his tone of decadent passion and existential despair. His favourite themes were the ache of desire, the melancholy of love and the fascination of death. …Young poets who make a startling initial effect by talking like disappointed old people are found generally to have walked into a dead alley. Shiv Kumar, with very modest education, seemed peculiarly to be such a poet.’
Luna, English version, MS, in my collection

Sekhon’s precise insight sums up the man and the poet. I am not the only person to be in total agreement with Sekhon.

It is a common view amongst Punjabi literary circles that SK’s poetry revolves around unfulfilled adolescent romance. It is all gloom and doom. Morbid imagery is recurrent in almost all his poems e.g. tears, pain, separation, poison, malady and death. He weaves words with pleasant lyrical sounds, which carry away the Punjabi reader without giving much thought to their actual meanings. A contemporary of SK said: Shiv’s poetry is like the stringed musical toy, which is music to your ears while the seller plays it. But in your hands it is just clay.

Though it is a cliché that poetry is impossible to translate, but most of the time the real worth of a poem is put to test when it is translated into another language; in this instance from Punjabi into English. This is another way of deconstructing the text. As an example I cite titles of two of SK’s poems: Vidhwa Rut (The Widowed Season) and HanjhuaN dee Chhabil (Tears dealt out gratuitously to slake thirst). The Punjabi word chhabil has no equivalent in English. It is a variation on the Arabic word sabil, especially a stall put up during Muharram to offer water or soft drinks to passers-by. In Punjab during the month of June, when the summer is at its peak, Punjabis of all denominations put up such stalls – chhabils. I quote a typical couplet from one of SK’s poems titled HanjhuaN de Gah (The Harvetsing of Tears):

jahi laRhi merey kaljey te birhoN dee dhamuRhi
merey jeriaN da arsh te pataal sujjia.
What a terrible wasp of separation it was, who stung my heart
The sky and the abyss of my heart got swollen.
Birha tu Sultan, 1975

The English version of the above lines is a faithful rendering of the original in Punjabi, though the wasp in Punjabi is not of neutral gender; it is she. I can testify that the couplet is as meaningless in the original as it is in the translation.

A random survey of Shiv Kumar’s fans would reveal that his popularity is based on just four or five poems. The top of the pop being mainu paiN birhoN de keeRhey ve (May I be infested with the maggots of separation). Him being handsome with wailing singing voice is another factor. He fits into the popular image of tragic hero, who dies young. He is the Devdas of Punjabi poetry. Unfortunately his later poems written during the rise of Maoist-Naxalite movement in East Punjab in the late 1960s especially Rukh nu fansi (A Tree Hanged) are little known. He tried in vain to be ‘modern’ and did write some prayogvadi experimental poems comparing bottles of beer lying on the table with ballistic missiles. Through Navtej Singh (d 1981), the editor of Preet Lari, SK flirted with the communists and read his poem Nehru de Varisan nu (To the Heirs of Nehru) in the Communist Party of India (CPI) congress held in Bombay in 1964. CPI’s and Preet Lari’s soft corner towards Nehru is well known. Even Navtej Singh found the poem politically naive and edited it before it was published in his magazine. I was close to Navtej Singh and worked under him for a while as an editor of Preet Lari. It all happened before my eyes, as it were.

Though SK borrowed some of his diction from Sufibani and titled one of his collection Birha tu Sultan after Sheikh Farid in the Adi Granth, he failed to take his work to the level of spirituality. Some recent academic studies claim that Shah Hussain was SK’s inspiration. It is worth noting here that Shah Hussain’s work was turned down by Guru Arjan Dev (1563–1606), when he had visited the fifth Guru in Amritsar to impress upon him to include his work in the Adi Granth. [As quoted in Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahankosh – Encyclopaedia of Sikh Literature, Bhai Kahn Singh, Reprint 1990; Ithas Sri Guru Granth Sahib (A History of Guru Granth Sahib), Giani Gurdit Singh, 1990]. If Shah Hussain was SK’s role model, then why he picked up his diction only and not his philosophy of Sufism? In my conversations with Sohan Qadri, a painter-poet and a close friend of SK has to say: ‘Shiv Kumar was a good laugh, but he was not deep.’ Hun-khin (The Present Moment in Time), Navyug 2000.

Contact Uddari

17 comments on “‘Shiv Kumar Batalvi’ by Amarjit Chandan

  1. Caroseen Tail says:

    Shiv kumar’s poetry with translation is available at https://lafznama.com


  2. Jasdeep Kaur says:

    Could avid readers of Shiv’s poetry explain “Karz- Ajj din chadeya” by Shiv Kumar Batalvi. Thanks!


  3. Jasdeep Kaur says:

    Could one of the avid readers of Shiv’s poetry explain “Karz- Ajj din chadeya” by Shiv Kumar Batalvi. Thanks!


  4. Initially, i only listened to 5-6 poems of Shiv . But after 1-2 years, when i accidentally read his other poems, e.g. “ਉੱਚੀਆਂ ਪਹਾੜੀਆਂ ਦੇ ਓਹਲੇ ਓਹਲੇ ਸੂਰਜਾ” and specially Loona. i realized, his each and every poem was like a fresh flower. It seemed that the words were already a poem and the poet never tried to create one by any effort or skill. I sometimes find this skill also in Surjit Patar’s poems.

    Poetry is something to enjoy the flow of life be it happiness, sadness, life or even death.I also doubt if Shah Hussain meeting Guru Arjan Dev story is anyway useful in this context or useful to anyone out of context. I have heard this story many times, only when people are trying to argue on some topic. Who are we to judge! Better judge our own poems.

    I would beg to disagree.


  5. amandeep says:

    I totally disagree with the article as the writer I think has either not understood the poetry of shiv Kumar or he is prejudiced against him.shiv kumar’s poetry immediately connects with u and takes u to another world.


  6. parentassets says:

    SK I read in college- some in school and still have the big book of all of his work. The poems read beyond the depth of my soul sometimes.. When i am upbeat I read his stuff – when i am down i readhis stuff.


  7. surendra mohan says:

    loved it Chandan !


  8. bawa says:

    I have to disagree totally with this analysis. An interesting review of his poetry and contributions and why his contemporaries persist in painting him as a shallow/romantic poet is discussed in a Wichaar Webcast discussion on youtube, Well worth listening to.

    If he were as shallow as this writer claims, and it all rested on him being struck with adolescent love only (not even the facts of the case are right), and his looks and singing ability, he would have faded fast.
    To give examples of his “meaningless verses” by providing a meaningless English translation is an amateur attempt. Any song, but more especially poetry, can be rendered absurd by a literary and deliberately idiotic translation into another language. That holds true of a Shakespeare sonnet, to Ghalib, Neruda, the list is as long as there are poets in the world. More especially true of poets who stretching the metaphors and limits of their native language beyond others.

    I believe that whatever his personal life may have been, Shiv Kumar will endure the test of time, simply because the sheer beauty and the layers of language of even his simplest poems, touch the mind and heart to places, even when we cannot articulate these.
    Perhaps it is precisely this which leads to such disdain among certain other poets. Sorry, I cannot remember a single poem of yours, but I can remember SK, or Munir Niazi, etc. with no problem


  9. sandip says:

    ਜਿੱਥੇ ਇਤਰਾਂ ਦੇ ਵਗਦੇ ਨੇ ਚੋ,
    ਨੀ ਓਥੇ ਮੇਰਾ ਯਾਰ ਵੱਸਦਾ
    ਜਿੱਥੇ ਲੰਘਦੀ ਏ ਪੌਣ ਵੀ ਖਲੋ,
    ਨੀ ਓਥੇ ਮੇਰਾ ਯਾਰ ਵੱਸਦਾ


  10. blair says:

    kindly email or post the meaning with lyrics of the same here, I love the song but not able to understand it


  11. Kirp Singh says:

    I’m looking for a rough tranliteration of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poem “Yaar Arya” from Birhon De Keede – I understand Punjabi thoroughly, but the words of this poem are so hard to understand, sometimes it doesn’t feel like Punjabi. Its very hard for me to catch the meaning, but from the little that I can make out of it, I know that its the most painful poem I’ve ever heard – I just need a rough translation of this entire poem which in song form is about 4 mins. Please, someone out there who knows the meaning of this poem, please e-mail it to me on devhira@hotmail.com
    Also, if there is a site with transliteration of his other poems, that’d be great.

    Thanks a million in advance.



  12. bhajans says:





  13. Manjul Bajaj says:

    Chandan Sahib,

    I’m a newcomer to Shiv’s poetry and a very recent fan but when you say “A random survey of Shiv Kumar’s fans would reveal that his popularity is based on just four or five poems.” it makes me laugh. I can count atleast 20-25 numbers whose raging popularity is indisputable even 36 years after his death and these are just the nazms and ghazals. Then there is his contribution to Punjabi literature in the form of longer pieces like Loona, Sheeshon, Main te Main…..works of sparkling brilliance which probe issues of gender, class, caste and modern existential despair with an intensity and lyricism that keeps the reader spellbound. My prediction is that your poet of gloom and doom will the last laugh yet over his critics.


  14. amol says:

    Jive k Paash ne Shiv bare likhya c,”Iss khoobsurat shayar da na kade jindagi te kavita bare nazaria saaf hoya te na usne ess layi koshish kiti,ehi asapashat-ta usdi bimari c,ehi asapashat-ta usdi taakat c.”


  15. Roop Dhillon says:

    I realise from what you once said to me on the phone that you did not think much of Shiv. But I would say to the average Punjabi Joe, he is good, and more accessable then the sublime stuff


  16. Ronki Ram says:

    Dear Chandan Sahib “The Poet of Gloom and Doom was a Good Laugh” is a befitting tribute to SK, the poet of the people of Punjabi world.
    To say that ‘Shiv Kumar was a good laugh, but he was not deep.’ is something like passing a judgement on the poetry while casting it altogether in a different context. Remember poets and Sufis are always the beneficial of His grace irrespective of their being loud or not about that.


  17. Jasdeep says:

    Very well said, thanks for sharing


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