Book Review – Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten


Written by Randeep Singh

Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi: 2013).

Gandhi’s Punjab surveys the history of the region from the decline of the great Mughals to the invasions of Afghan rulers and Nadir Shah to the reign of Ranjit Singh and the British Raj to the creation of independent India and Pakistan in 1947. The book is engaging, commendable for its scope and brings to the foreground figures like Adina Beg Khan, Ganga Ram and Fazl-i-Hussain who are otherwise passed over in Indian histories on the region.

From the outset, Gandhi underlines the importance of understanding a common Punjabi identity (‘Punjabiyat’) through centuries of foreign invasion and colonial rule. Unfortunately, his history, coloured by colonial and nationalist historiography, produce a distorted picture of the Punjabi.

In categorizing Punjabis before the 19th century as either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Gandhi replicates the colonial-era practice of classifying Punjabis (and Indians at large) solely by their religious identity forgetting that Punjabis before the colonial era typically defined themselves by their clan, village and caste. Such a categorization overlooks the diversity amongst and overlap between Punjabis and the extent to which they cooperated with one another across religious lines as under Adina Beg Khan, Ranjit Singh or in the Punjab’s Unionist Party.

Gandhi’s chapters on independence and partition moreover largely follow the contours of the Indian nationalist narrative. He adopts a critical tone towards the Muslim League in the making of the Partition without questioning in the same breadth the politics of the Indian National Congress and the British. Such a filtering of history is unlikely to advance understanding between Punjabis of India and Pakistan.

All this despite Gandhi’s reminder to us throughout of  a Punjabiyat symbolized by Farid, Waris Shah, Amrita Pritam and Shiv Kumar. His own history could have contributed greatly to that Punjabiyat and to Punjab studies. One can only hope that Gandhi’s Punjab will inspire more balanced histories on the region in the years ahead.





A Short History of Punjabi Literature

Punjabi literature refers to literary works written in the Punjabi language particularly by peoples from the historical Punjab region of India and Pakistan including the Punjabi diaspora. The language is written in several different scripts, of which the Shahmukhi, the Gurmukhī scripts are the most commonly used.

Early Punjabi Literature (11-15th centuries)

Although the earliest Punjabi literature is found in the fragments of writings of the eleventh century yogis Gorakshanath and Charpatnah, the Punjabi literary tradition is popularly seen to commence with Fariduddin Ganjshakar (1173–1266) whose Sufi poetry was compiled after his death in the Adi Granth.

The Janamsakhis, stories on the life and legend of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), are early examples of Punjabi prose literature. Nanak’s own poetry was fused Punjabi, Khari Boli and Braj Bhasha, with vocabulary from Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian as was much of the literature of the later Sikh Gurus.

Mughal and Sikh Periods (16th century to 1857)

Punjabi poetry developed through Shah Hussain (1538–1599) and the Sufi tradition of Sultan Bahu (1628–1691), Shah Sharaf (1640–1724), Ali Haider (1690–1785), and Bulleh Shah (1680–1757). In contrast to Persian poets, who had preferred the ghazal for poetic expression, Punjabi Sufi poets tended to compose in the Kafi.


Punjabi Sufi poetry also influenced the Punjabi Qissa, a genre of romantic tragedy which also derived inspiration from Indic, Persian and Quranic sources. The Qissa of Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah (1706–1798) is among the most popular of Punjabi qisse. Other popular stories include Sohni Mahiwal by Fazal Shah, Mirza Sahiba by Hafiz Barkhudar (1658–1707), Sassi Punnun by Hashim Shah (1735?–1843?), and Qissa Puran Bhagat by Qadaryar (1802–1892).

Heroic ballads known as Vaar enjoy a old oral tradition in Punjabi. Prominent examples of heroic or epic poetry include Guru Gobind Singh‘s in Chandi di Var (1666–1708). The semi-historical Nadir Shah Di Vaar by Najabat describes the invasion of India by Nadir Shah in 1739. The Jangnama, or ‘War Chronicle,’ was introduced into Punjabi literature during the Mughal period; the Punjabi Jangnama of Shah Mohammad (1780–1862) recounts the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46.

 The Colonial Period (1858-1947)

The Victorian novel, Elizabethan drama, free verse and Modernism entered Punjabi literature through the introduction of British education during the Raj. The first Punjabi printing press (using Gurmukhi) was established through a Christian mission at Ludhiana in 1835, and the first Punjabi dictionary was published by Reverend J. Newton in 1854.

The Punjabi novel developed through Nanak Singh (1897–1971) and Vir Singh. Starting off as a pamphleteer and as part of the Singh Sabha Movement, Vir Singh wrote historical romance through such novels as Sundari, Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh, whereas Nanak Singh helped link the novel to the story telling traditions of Qissa and oral tradition as well as to questions of social reform.

The novels, short stories and poetry of Amrita Pritam (1919–2005) highlighted, among other themes, the experience of women, and the Partition of India. Punjabi poetry during the British Raj moreover began to explore more the experiences of the common man and the poor through the work of Puran Singh (1881–1931). Other poets such as Dhani Ram Chatrik (1876–1957), Diwan Singh (1897–1944) and Ustad Daman (1911–1984), explored and expressed nationalism in their poetry during India’s freedom movement.


Modernism was also introduced into Punjabi poetry by Prof. Mohan Singh (1905–78) and Shareef Kunjahi. The Punjabi diaspora also began to emerge during the Raj and also produced poetry whose theme was revolt against British rule in Ghadar di Gunj (Echoes of Mutiny).

Post-Independence literature (1947- )

West Punjab (Pakistan)

Najm Hossein Syed, Fakhar Zaman and Afzal Ahsan Randhawa are some of the more prominent names in West Punjabi literature produced in Pakistan since 1947. Literary criticism in Punjabi has also emerged through the efforts of West Punjabi scholars and poets, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza (b. 1932), Ahmad Salim, and Najm Hosain Syed (b. 1936). The work of Zaman and Randhawa often treats the rediscovery of Punjabi identity and language in Pakistan since 1947.

Urdu poets of the Punjab have also written Punjabi poetry including Munir Niazi (1928–2006).

East Punjab (India)

Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936–1973), Surjit Paatar (1944–) and Pash (1950–1988) are some of the more prominent poets and writers of East Punjab (India). Pritam’s Sunehe (Messages) received the Sahitya Akademi in 1982. In it, Pritam explores the impact of social morality on women. Kumar’s epic Luna (a dramatic retelling of the legend of Puran Bhagat) won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965.


Socialist themes of revolution meanwhile influenced writers like Pash whose work demonstrates the influence of Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. Meanwhile, modern drama developed through Ishwar Nanda’s Ibsen-influenced Suhag in 1913, Gursharan Singh who helped popularize the genre through live theatre in Punjabi villages and Kartar Singh Duggal, and Balwant Gargi.

Diaspora Punjabi literature

Punjabi diaspora literature has developed through writers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States, as well as writers in Africa such as Ajaib Kamal, born in 1932 in Kenya. Themes explored by diaspora writers include the cross-cultural experience of Punjabi migrants, racial discrimination, exclusion, and assimilation, the experience of women in the diaspora, and spirituality in the modern world. Second generation writers of Punjabi ancestry such as Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon (Roop Dhillon) have explored the relationship between British Punjabis and their immigrant parents as well as experiment with surrealism, science-fiction and crime-fiction.

* First published by me in Wikipedia under “Punjabi literature”:

On the sale of Amrita Pritam’s House امرتا پریتم دے گھر ویچے جان تے اک نظم

A Punjabi poem by Hasan Mujtaba

وارث شاھ ایتھے کیہہ کیہہ وکدا
وکدا وچ بزار۔

قبراں وکدیاں
قبراں وچوں بول وی وکدے
یار وی وکدا
اوہدے گل دا ہار وی وکدا
عشق دا ورقہ ورقہ وکدا
وکدے قول قرار۔
وارث شاہ ۔۔۔۔۔

ہٹیاں وکدیاں
جٹیاں وکدیاں
رنگ وی وکدا
جھنگ وی وکدا
ہیراں وکدیاں
رانجھے وکدے
وکدا تخت ہزار
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔

کھیڑے وکدے
گیڑے وکدے
ساہواں وکدیاں
رکھ رکھ تے
چھاواں وکدیاں
مجھاں وکدیاں
گاواں وکدیاں
وکدے سارے کھوہ
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔

توں لبھدی پھریں بازار کڑے
ایتھے کیہڑی شے جو وکدی نہیں؟
تیرے دل دا جانی وکدا
راوی دا سبھ پانی وکدا
اکھاں دے سبھ اتھرو وکدے
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔۔

ایتھے شکر دوپہری وکدی
شاماں وکدیاں نیں
دن وی وکدے
راتاں وکدیاں
ایتھے جگر! جگراتے وکدے
نندراں وکدیاں
سفنے وکدے
سفنیاں دے وچ
سجن وکدے
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔

ایتھے جنگل بیلے وکدے
منگل وکدے میلے وکدے
ایتھے چن چنا وی وکدے
سوہنی وکدی
ماہی تے مہیوال وی وکدا
ایتھے موجاں موجاں وکدیآں
بیلے وچھیاں لاشاں وکدیاں
فوجاں وکدیاں
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔

اوہدے گل دی گانی وکدی
ہر اک پیار نشانی وکدی
وارث شاہ ایتھے۔۔۔۔۔

گور پیا کوئی ہور وی وکدا
بکل دے وچ چور وی وکدا
ایتھے تخت لہور وی وکدا
کیہ جاناں میں کون کوئی وکدا
وارث شاہ ایتھے….

تو لکھ لکھ مارے وین
وارث شاہ
لکھاں روندیاں دھیاں وکدیاں
ایتھے جیوندیاں ماواں وکدیاں
نی مائے میں کنوں دساں
ایتھے مرگئياں ماواں وکدیاں
وارث شاہ

وارث شاہ میں تینوں آکھاں
ہائے وے میں وی مر گیاں
فیر میں مرگئی ہاں

صوفی! تو کیویں کہندا سی
پتر ہٹاں تے نہیں وکدے؟
پر ایتھے پال تے پالنے وکے
پنچھی تے فیر آہلنے وکے
ایتھے گھر گھروندے وکے
ایتھے بند تے بوہے وکے
ایتھے میرا کمرہ وکیا
کیہہ کیہہ وکیا نہیں
کناں سنیاں بول نہیں وکیا
اکھاں ویکھے ویکھ نہیں وکے
ہر اک دل دا منظر وکیا
اندر وکیا باہر وکیا
کیہہ کیھہ رنگ رتول نئیں وکیا
اوہدا برش کنواس وی وکیا۔

ہر اک رت دی لیکھا وکی
تیری پیار بھلیکھا وکی
تیری سبھ اڈیک وی وکی

اوہدے میرے ہاسے وکے
اوہدے میرے اتھرو وکے

اوہدا ہر اک چتر وکیا
میرا ہر اک اکھر وکیا
مٹی دا ہر ذرہ ذرہ
میرے گھر دی اٹ اٹ وکی
میری رات تے دن وی وکیا
میرا اج اجوکا وکیا
تے ایک میرا سورج وکیا

ایش ٹرے توں سانبھے ہوئے
سگرٹ دے اوہ ٹوٹے وکے
ساحر دی اوہ حوشبو وکی
اوہدی کو‏ئی رسید نہ منگی

اندر دا بس بانبھن وکیا
اوہدا پر پرچھاواں وکیا
تے میرا اکلاپا وکیا
ہر اک ملن والا وکیا
نالے وچھڑن والا وکیا

ہر اک نظم کہانی وکی
میری ناگ منی وی وکی
ویساکھی تے ہولی وکی
ماں وکی ماں بولی وکی

سارے پھل کھڑ ن وی وکے
رکھ وکے تے بوٹے وکے
وا دے سارے جھوٹے وکے
میریاں ساریاں ہوکا ں وکیاں
اہ کوئل دی کوکاں وکیاں
اور میرا ٹرنا وی وکیا
میری اج اخیر وی وکی
میرا ہر ایک ویس وی وکیا
دلی وکیا دیس وی وکیا
ہائے نی میں لوڑھے لُٹی
میرا وارث شاہ وی وکیا
وارث دا پنجاب کیہہ تکنا
تک اپنا پنجاب نی مائے
تک اپنا پنجاب۔

وارث شاہ ایتھے کیہہ کیہہ وکدا
وکدا وچ بزار

New York
July 12, 2011

Poem sent by Ijaz Syed

Heritage havoc
By Nirupma Dutt
Punjabi’s grand dame of letters Amrita Pritam had willed that her house in the Capital should be preserved as a memorial to her and that her partner Imroz should live there. However, just five years after her death, it has been sold by her son to builders, who have lost no time in razing it to the ground. While writing an ode to the house that Amrita built, Nirupama Dutt recounts the insensitive attitude we, as a nation, have to our cultural heritage…

View Nirupma’s article at Tribune India

Inside Uddari Pages 2

The Punjabi Writers page at Uddari has been populated with Waris Shah Award winning writer of short fiction, Nadir Ali from Lahore; the winner of Massod Khadarposh Award and Waris Shah Award, Mansha Yaad from Islamabad; and, the recipient of many awards who was named by Khushwant Singh as ‘The Queen of Punjabi Literature’, Amrita Pritam from New Delhi.

Please do not wait to be asked, send information about yourself or other writers to Uddari for this page.

Modern Punjabi Literature at UBC: A glass half full!

Yes, a glass half filled with an invigorating and inspiring drink when it could as easily be brimming with it; despite falling short on the representation of over one half of Punjabis, and Punjabi women, it was still an important landmark in the development of Punjabi literary community.

The UBC Conference on Modern Punjabi Literature this past weekend was a powerful mix of literary criticisms, academic observations, poetic expressions and cultural activisms. So when the next morning, i was still grappling with the overwhelmingness of this pleasant experience, Amardeep Singh of Lehigh University had already written and published his Notes From a Punjabi Conference in Vancouver. And so, soon after meeting Amardeep at the Conference, i was happy to again experience his crisp, observant and ‘positive-interventionist’ presence through his blog, and it did bring things in perspective for me.

The discussions at the Conference were initiated by Sabina Sawhney of Hofstra University with her paper on Punjabi/Sikh identities where some of the points made by her led to issues put forward by Sadhu Binning about Canadian Punjabi literature . Though each paper presented and every thought expressed was valuable to me, I am most appreciative of ideas that tackled the work of individual writers because though we may find a sizeable body of work on Punjabi classical writers, there is a dearth of criticism on modern Punjabi writing. In that, we had Amritjit Singh of Ohio State University on “The Generational Challenges of Progressivism in the Poetry of Gurcharan Rampuri and Sadhu Binning“; Rana Nayar from the Punjab University on “Narratives of Dispersal: Stories of Raghbir Dhand” and “The Novel as a Site of Cultural Memory: Gurdial Singh’s PARSA“; and, the views expressed by UBC students of Punjabi on Ajith Kaur.

The organizers had created a safe environment where giving and taking criticism was the way to find solutions to various problems faced by Punjabi cultural and literary communities in Canada and elsewhere. “The Uncomfortable Residue of Dis-location: Fragment, Hybridity, and Panjabi Literature(s) in Canada” by Harjeet Grewal (University of Michigan), “The Cultural Politics of Crossing Boundaries” by Anne Murphy (University of British Columbia), and “Secular Sikh Writers” by Amardeep Singh pointed to some groups and individuals that are attempting to extend existing cultural, social or religious boundaries.

The Student Panel, Writers Panel, and Punjabi Poetry Readings were the highlights of this weekend of inspiration and togetherness.

Though Pakistani side of the Punjab, and the literature created by Pakistani Punjabi writers did not feature in any area of this conference on modern Punjabi literature yet the problems, needs and barriers faced by us are the same. The sad truth of the current state of Punjabi literary communities in India and Pakistan, in Canada, and in United States is apparent where we are swamped by the challenges of our immediate situations while our totality is being annihilated by our ignorance, and sometimes, our denial of each other. Let us see who we are then. We are Nanak, Farid and Kabir; Madhulal Hussain, Waris and Bullah; Amrita Pritam, Najm Hosain Syed and Ashu Lal Fakir; We are Ustad Daman, Gurdiyal Singh and Pash, Amarjit Chandan, Baba Najmi and Ajmer Rode; Mushtaq Sufi, Amarjit Pannu and Neesha Dosanjh Meminger; Nilambri Singh Ghai, Ahmad Salim and Sadhu Binning; We are Parveen Malik, Surjeet Kalsi and Baljinder Dhillon; more, and many more.

As was pointed out by presenters and participants from time to time, modern or classical Punjabi Literature is not limited to the writings of Sikh writers of Punjabi language; rather, it includes works of writers of all religions who write Punjabi maaNboli whether in Gurumukhi, Shahmukhi and Roman scripts; who live in India, Pakistan, Canada and elsewhere. As well, it must include works of writers of Punjabi origin using languages other than Punjabi because a literature is not just the keeper of a language but also of the culture and diversity of its people.

In other words, Punjabi literary community must be represented in its wholeness in Punjabi departments, language courses, educational seminars and conferences, and in text books. I was happy to note that the structure put in place by Sadhu Binning, Anne Murphy and others here at UBC already contains this capacity. The faculty members seemed proficient in both scripts; most students were aware that Punjabi uses two scripts; some senior students were able to read books in both scripts. That in itself is gratifying and encouraging; so, i came away from the Conference with the hope that steps will be taken to bring a sense of balance to our persepectives on and appreciation of Punjabi literature by assuring full representation at various levels of cultural and educational activity at UBC and in Canada.

Taking my own advice, i would like to express gratitude to Anne Murphy for the wonderful work she has accomplished for Punjabi in Vancouver by adding a title to an existing name given to her by Punjabi Sikh community so that it reads ‘Bibi Anna Kaur Murphy’ instead of ‘Anna Kaur Murphy’. The imperceptible change from ‘e’ to ‘a’ in the first name is optional but highly recommended as it will help create a beat that may appease all the diverse communities of Punjabi-rhythm freaks.

Another post will soon follow on the development ideas and strategies put forward by Sukhwant Hundal, Ajmer Rode, Darshan Gill, Baljinder Dhillon, and the Student Panel.

Fauzia Rafiq

(Update: Second Post:
“UBC Students of Punjabi Literature, Delightful Performers”

Punjabi Literature