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 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.