The Sufi Legacy in South Asia


Written by Randeep Singh

On September 13, 2014, the Hari Sharma Foundation in association with a number of arts and cultural groups, presented the conference, “Spirituality, Humanity and the Marginalized: The Sufi Legacy in South Asia” and a musical concert “Songs of Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Lalon Fakir and Rabindranath Tagore.”

One of the musical highlights was the husband-wife team from Bangladesh, Farida Parveen (on voice and harmonium) and Ghazi Abdul Hakim (on flute). Ghazi on the bamboo flute turned music into poetry, filling the concert hall with the colour of Bengal, taking us beyond the streams and paddy fields.

Farida Parveen sang the songs of Lalon Fakir with a gusto and a tenderness in her earthy tones. The concert also featured Enakshi Chatterjee from Calcutta who opened with songs of Tagore and Madan Gopal Singh from Delhi who sang songs of Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah and others.

The highlight of the conference was Dr. Nile Green (UCLA) and the ensuing discussion. Green’s presentation, “Mazaars for the Marginalized” underlined the pluralistic, cosmopolitan dimensions of Sufism, of its journey across trade routes by caravans from Khurasan eastwards to Turkey and southwards through the Khyber Pass into Hindustan.

That plural and cosmopolitan spirit, Green spoke, is heard in the tradition of Sufi poetry and music which filtered into India from Khurason. It is in words like “Auliya” (Arabic), “Pir” (Persian) and “Baba”(Turkish), epiphets for Sufi masters and in the shajars (genealogical trees) of Sufis tracing their ancestry to Samarkand or the Hejaz. Sufi shrines included Greek Christians in Turkey as they did Hindus in India.

The appeal of Sufism to the marginalized according to Green was in its creation of a space where social power was redistributed more evenly. Sufis also acted as important intermediaries between the ruler and the common man in economic, political and legal matters and Sufi institutions provided food and medical care to the poor.

The piety and inclusiveness of the Sufi was questioned during the discussion period. Sunera Thobani mentioned how the Sufi pirs themselves had vast estates and wealth, whereas Habiba Zaman pointed out how Sufi spaces often clearly excluded women. Green himself pointed out today how Sufis became kings of Libya upon that country’s independence or how those of Sufi lineage sit in parliament in Pakistan. Green also reminded us of the hierarchy within Sufi orders, no where more uncompromising than in the relationship between the murshid and the pir.

One member of the audience asked whether Sufism or “Islam-lite” was a way of making Islam more acceptable and congenial to a post-911 West. Whether it is remains a topic for further discussion. But what Green reminded us is that Sufism has always had an appeal beyond just Muslims and the shariat and the importance of its role in shaping culture, Islamic or otherwise.

Rich Heritage of Punjabi Dalit Literature and its Exclusion from Histories

By Raj Kumar Hans
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

Exploring histories of Dalit literature in different languages of India is to encounter the deserts of neglects, silences and exclusions. The ‘Progressive Punjab’ is no exception to this sub-continental reality despite claims that Brahmanical ideology and its resultant social structures had considerably weakened in the Punjab due to the impact of long waves of religious egalitarianism of Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism. The virus of Brahmanism had so afflicted the Indian mind over the millennium that it would spring back the demon of untouchability from time to time even in the areas of its weakest linkage. After the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule and more so after the British conquest of Punjab the Sikhs became easy prey (or conversely speaking, the ‘high-caste’ Sikhs themselves became hunting partners) to the hovering vulture of Brahmanism and its cardinal practice, the ‘untouchability’. The making of Punjabi society, a frontier society, for at least last three thousand years, has been a story of complex paradoxes though the elitist historiography of all hues has denied it its colourful multiplicity. If dalit saint poets as part of this tradition offer paradoxical response of devotion and dissent till the first quarter of the twentieth century, the next eight decades yield a rich harvest of Punjabi dalit literature with clear dalit consciousness. Indeed, the established and dominant literary and historiographical tradition is hardly aware of this rich array of dalit intellectual practice and even when it is known, it is not recognised. The first section of this brief article surveys Punjabi dalit writings while the second part looks at the historiographical practice from a dalit perspective.

The Punjabi dalit literary tradition begins with Bhai Jaita alias Jeevan Singh (c1655-1705) who was very close to Gurus’ household as he was the one who had carried the severed head of Guru Teg Bahdur from Delhi to Anandpur and in his late years composed a devotional epic ‘Sri Gur Katha’ around Guru Gobind Singh’s life somewhere around 1699-1700. Historical significance of this epic lies in the fact that Bhai Jaita provides an eyewitness account to a few centrally important events in the life of Guru Gobind Singh and Sikh history. That he was not just a poet but a thinking poet is attested from his composition when he says:
Jal bin jeevan hohe na kabhun,
Garab maih jeev kau gyan na hohe hain.
Jiv chintan bin cheet na hoye hain,
Ar chintan bin janam na koye hain.
Iv janani dharni chintan ki,
Chintan jeev kai chit ki loye hain.
Ar sab chintan dharan te hoye hain,
Ta kar dharni janani hoye hain.
(There can be no life without water and a human being cannot have knowledge while in mother’s womb. As there cannot be any knowledge without thinking, there can be no life without ‘thinking’. As this earth gives birth to all knowledge, thinking is the light of the living being. Since all thinking grows from the womb of Earth that is reason it is called the Mother.)

Our second dalit saint-poet Sadhu Wazir Singh (c1790-1859) attained the status of ‘Brahmgyani’ and prolifically composed philosophical and cultural poetry, both in Punjabi and Braj bhasha. A small part of his published poetry as selected by Shamsher Singh Ashok in ‘Siharfian Sadhu Wazir Singh kian’ is a window to a wide range of his knowledge, from religious and spiritual to social and political. He questions all religious establishments and argues for a non-dualistic approach to life. Since he was engaged in deep thinking and in giving creative expressions to his thoughts numerous disciples including poets joined his dera. All the five of his identified poet disciples including two young widows came from the high castes. One of them is veer Singh Sahgal while Nurang Devi turns out to be the first Punjabi poetess groomed under his tutorship. His assertion on going beyond the established religions is well captured in his 12th Siharfi where he says:
Kaaf- kade Koran di lod naahin, vekh pothian thothian paarde han.
Rehras namaz di khahash naahin, dharamsal masit nun saarde han.
Gang, Gaya Pryag nun tiyag keeta, gor marhi niyaz na chaarde han.
Hoye aap nirpakh Wazir Singha, pakhan dohan di khed nun taarde han.
(We don’t need Koran as we also tear the empty granths. There is no desire for Rehras (referring here to Guru Granth Sahib), as we burn temples and mosques. We have abandoned the Ganges, Gaya and Pryag as we also do not worship the Dead. As we have become non-sectarian O! Wazir Singh we keep a watch over the game both sides play.)

The next dalit intellectual writer Giani Ditt Singh (1852-1901) emerged as a poet, teacher, polemicist, journalist, orator and ardent Sikh missionary who turned out to be the pillar of the Singh Sabha movement. Ditt Singh’s scholarly talents came in handy for the Sikh movement. Lahore Singh Sabha floated a weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar in 1886. He assumed editorship of the paper in 1887 that he continued till his death in 1901. Meanwhile, he was also appointed as a professor of Punjabi at the Oriental College, Lahore. He wrote more than fifty books and pamphlets on wide-ranging subjects, from love-lore to Sikh traditions, from history to ethics, from heroes to charlatans as he also produced polemics. Even being a leader in the limelight he could not escape the overt and covert assault of untouchability from his fellow and follower Sikhs.

Our next dalit intellectual poet is Sadhu Daya Singh Arif (1894-1946) who came to master the Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit scripts and languages with the help of several non-formal teachers who were stunned by his sharp intellect. Not only that he had studied Vedas, Puranas, Smritis, Granth Sahib and Quran during his teenage, he also had read wide range of secular literature and as also reached the stage of ‘Brahmgyani’ through meditation and contemplation like Sadhu Wazir Singh which is apparent from his assuming the title of ‘Arif’. His first poetical work ‘Fanah-dar-Makan’ was published when he just turned 20. This was written in sadh bhasha and emphasised the quintessential element of mortality in human existence. Due to somewhat difficult language and style of composition he was advised by Baba Sawan Das, his Sanskrit teacher, to revise it and write in simple language. He was bursting with so much of creative energy that he altogether produced another kissa entitled ‘Fanah da Makan’, first published in 1915, which became very popular throughout the Punjab while a household reading in his own region of Malwa as it was sold in several hundred-thousand copies. The work which made Daya Singh a household name through the width and breadth of the Punjab was Zindagi Bilas which was completed on 23rd August 1916. It is in this work where his vast religious, spiritual and secular knowledge is manifest. Following the ancient wisdom that average human life is of 100 years, Daya Singh composed lyrical poems on each year. Overall it is a touching didactic poetry that caught masses’ imagination which became the most published, read or heard poetic creation next only to Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’.

Daya Singh comes to the theme of prevailing communal division again and again. Listen! What he says in his discourse on 56th Year in ‘Zindagi Bilas’:
Unity I see all around, wherever my eyes rove
Superior claims of faith, Hindus and Muslims fight over
Mere jugglery of words, Essence of Ram and Rahim the same
Of Castist belief untouchability born, both made of the soil same
Children of same parents, if they just see Origins
Forsaking God, they worship false objects, get astray into aimlessness
Give up evils for salvation, devils you remain sans praxis
Daya Singh has left partisanship, in every sector, every deed

Daya Singh was aware of all the competing revivalist tendencies and religious polemical wars around the turn of century as he says in the ‘Fanah da Makan’:
Varnas and religions all, exclusive claims of purity
Hindus with Har Narayan, hold their principles True
Pastors and Dayanandi Aryas pronounce, no deliverance without them
Exclusive rights in Heaven say Muslims, no place for Hindus there
God has no enmity with Hindus, keeps no exclusive place for Muslims
Fight they all over religion, without knowing the Unknown
Filthy n empty sans good deeds, paupers they are, without a penny
Daya Singh false claims the world may make; no recognition without actions

He holds Brahminical ritualism with same contempt as did bhagats and Sufis. He is deadly against idol worship. The Islamic influence on his mind is quite obvious as he has used 18 aayets in his 3 kissas. Similarly, Sufi influence is manifest in his insistence on murshid, guru without whom the seeker cannot reach the Divine. The concept of ishq is present at several places in Daya Singh’s works. Towards the close of ‘Zindagi Bilas’ in ‘Uttam Updesh # 39’ he says:
Creator is happy loving his Creation, be happy in the service of that creation
No knowledge without guru, beseech murshid for the purpose
Death is premium for lovers’ union, emboldened you be like true lover
Be reformed thoroughly before counselling others with confidence
Elated be not with worldly joys, be soaked in ishq’s spring
Reads He your heart’s letters, send your sweetheart an urgent telegram

The importance of Sadhu Daya Singh is manifold. First and foremost, he is the first Dalit Punjabi poet to attain the widest possible popularity, the kind of popularity enjoyed by Waris Shah, in the undivided Punjab. Secondly, he reinforces what was moral and what was ethical when it was desired most. Thirdly, Daya Singh’s poetry is free from any kind of sectarianism and is thoroughly secular in the prevailing communal environment. His concern and message was universal in content; it is libertarian rather than restraining. Lastly, Daya Singh not only produces good poetry but emerges as an intellectual of his age. Through the study of scriptures and traditions of major religions of the land, he arrives at his own understanding of human existence that he corroborates from his practical life and keen observation. He lays great stress on practice than theory, on deeds than the scriptural knowledge. Here his background of labouring class provides him insights.

The rise of Ad Dharm movement in Punjab in the 1920s unleashed the most virulent opposition to caste under the leadership of the Gadharite Babu Mangoo Ram Mugowalia. The autonomous movement drew inspiration from the Dalit poet-saints Ravidass, Kabir, and Namdev and assailed the brahmanical structures of social inequality and domination. The Ad Dharm movement aimed at securing a distinct identity for the Dalits, independent of both the Hindu and Sikh religions. In addition to political mobilization, the Ad Dharm movement brought about cultural transformation in the lives of Untouchables in Punjab by its emphasis on moral principles for bringing a sense of self-respect among them. It also attempted to forge unity among the different Untouchable castes by bringing them under one banner of Ad Dharm emphasising they were the original inhabitants of the region. Two weekly newspapers played a significant role in raising Dalit consciousness in Punjab: Adi Danka in the 1930s and Ujala in the early 1950s. Gurdas Ram Aalam and Chanan Lal Manak set the trend of radical Dalit poetry in Punjab via Adi Danka’s prestigious columns.

Gurdas Ram Aalam (1912-1989), who was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district, happens to be the first Punjabi poet with dalit consciousness. Aalam was not able to go to school and learnt basic Gurmukhi letters from his friends. Even though illiterate, Aalam emerged as one of popular folk-poets of stage before the Partition. All the four books of his poems were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. No wonder, even Pash (who has become symbol of Punjabi revolutionary poetry) considered Aalam the first revolutionary poet of Punjab.

Hazara Singh Mushtaq (1917-1981) was different from his predecessor dalit poets. He was an ardent nationalist, flag-bearer of Indian National Congress and was also jailed a few times during the late-colonial rule for his nationalism. Of his seven books published, Kissa Mazhbi Sikh Jodha (1955) directly reflected his dalit concerns. Though he does not chide ‘Independence’ in the context of the poor dalits like Aalam, he expresses his disillusionment with the post-Independence developments, brings in socialist ideology to disparage the social and economic disparities, and calls the dalits for a revolutionary rise in his 1977 Noori Gazal.

The revolutionary rise that Punjab witnessed in the form of Naxalism in the late 1960s produced two dalit poets with revolutionary as well as dalit consciousness. These were Sant Ram Udasi (1939-1986) and Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007). Sant Ram Udasi was born in a dalit Mazhbi Sikh landless labour family. He grew up with a strong dalit consciousness and had tried to see dignity in Sikh religion, but soon he experienced that caste discrimination and untouchability had struck deep roots in the Sikh religion. During 1970s he emerged as one of the powerful radical poets and published three books of poetry, viz. Lahu Bhije Bol (Blood-soaked Word), Saintan (Gestures) and Chounukrian (the Four-edged). He was arrested, jailed and tortured for his Naxal connections. The tortures to him were far more severe than were meted out to the high-caste Jatt Naxals only because he happened to be a dalit. Another dalit Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil was born in a Ramdasia Sikh (Chamar) family in 1943. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari sucked him in. In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Dil saw a new dawn for the oppressed. He was arrested, incarcerated and tortured, more tortured because he was a dalit, while his tormentors belonged to the dominant high castes. Dil was a sensitive poet and his poetry was true to life and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and told so well that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. A great poet he was undoubtedly, and his collection of poetry Satluj di Hava (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982), and Sathar (1997) as well as his autobiography Dastaan (1998) enjoy an exalted place in Punjabi letters. It is remarkable that Dil’s Dalit consciousness and identity was free from feelings of hatred, vengeance and malice. Though he remained and died a faqir, Dil has come to be acknowledged as the one of the few best Punjabi poets of last half a century.

The two powerful revolutionary dalit poets were an upsurge on the Punjabi literary stage which had remained dominated by the upper-caste, upper-class litterateurs and they became a major source for the bursting of dalit literary energy in 1990s. If their poetry was looking for a revolutionary class change, it had the vivacity of dalit identity which was capable of challenging the hegemonic discourses. Sukhdev Singh Sirsa puts this change in perspective:
The question of dalit identity has given a new ideological context to the contemporary Punjabi literature. The new Punjabi poetry has given a new expression to the dalit concerns of existential and social identity. This new perspective disentangles itself from the class-conflict approach to the understanding of dalit identity in the varna system and looks at the changing dalit philosophy. Hence, this poetry does not only reject the established assumptions and hypotheses but also produces an alternative. (“Dalit Punjabi Kavita: Itihasak Paripekh” in Hashia, I, 1(Jan-March 1908), p. 27 (my translation)

Contemporary poets include Balbir Madhopuri, Siri Ram Arsh, Sulakhan Mit, Gurmeet Kalarmajri, Madan Vira, Manjit Kadar, Bhagwan Dhilon, Buta Singh Ashant, Manmohan, Mohan Tyagi, Mohan Matialvi, Jaipal, Iqbal Gharu, Harnek Kaler, Sadhu Singh Shudrak. They are assertive about their dalit identity as dalit political assertion in the past few decades has empowered them to re-read historical traditions and situate themselves by providing a pride of space in the otherwise historical trajectory denied to them. This is obvious from the following lines of two contemporary dalit poets.

Manmohan in ‘Agaz’ raises his voice:
It is said to me
The colour of your poem is black
Flat features
Tattered dress
Full of patches
Asymmetrical rhythm….
Sorrow appears before pleasure does
Pains peaks before peace….
Tell me now
If i don’t write poems like this
What should i do?

Listen what Balbir Madhopuri has to offer in his ‘Bhakhda Patal’ (Smouldering Netherworld):
For smoked skinned people like me
I do want
My poems
Should be part of that anthology
That contains
Stories of Eklavaya and Banda Bahadur
Struggle of Pir Buddhu Shah
Sensitivity of Pablo Neruda

The Punjabi short story had remained a story of the dominant Jatts or the urban elite for long time, although stray empathetic notes could be seen in the second generation of story-writers in the 1950s-60s. It is only in the 1970s with Attarjit’s ‘Bathlu Chamiar’ that Punjabi short-story weaves a complete dalit character from dalit perspective. His collections of story ‘Maas-khore’, ‘Tutde bannde Rishte’, ‘Adna Insan’, and ‘Anni Theh’ construct the assertive dalit consciousness. Similarly if Prem Gorkhi and Bhura Singh Kaler bring vitality to the dalit short story, Lal Singh and Nachhatar’s stories give a distinct personality to dalits. During the 1980s and 90s dalit story consolidates itself with Makhan Maan, Bhagwant Rasulpuri, Ajmer Sidhu, Des Raj Kali, Jinder, Gurmit Kadialavi, Sarup Sialvi, Gulzar Muhammad Goria and Mohan Philoria who declare themselves as dalits with pride and élan as they are inspired by Ambedkar’s ideology.

The Punjabi novel was the product of the early twentieth century and its nature was religious in context and content. It is only after independence that its scope gets widened. From Gurdial Singh’s dalit character Jagsir who is still seen in the dominant-subordination landed relations, the novel enters into different terrain of dalit consciousness. Gurcharan Singh Rao’s ‘Mashalchi’ (1986), Karnail Singh Nijhar’s ‘Sarghi da Tara’, Surjit Sokhi’s ‘Aurat te Aurat’ (1983), Karamjit Singh Aujhla’s ‘Ooch Neech’ (2000), Nachhatar’s ‘Buddhi Sadi da Manukh’(1988) and ‘Nikke Nikke Asman’ (2004), Gurmel Madahad’s ‘Dulla’ and Des Raj Kali’s ‘Parneshwari’ (2007) have chartered a speedy journey of producing the fulsome dalit novels. Gurcharan Rao’s Mashalchi holds untouchability practiced by high castes responsible for educational backwardness of dalits. Nachhatar’s weaves a progressive story of dalit march onward as compared to some of the jatts who sometimes come to them to borrow money. Even on the question of sexuality one finds role reversals where girls from upper castes fall in love with dalit boys especially the educated ones. Madahad’s protagonist in ‘Dulla’ is a dalit woman Tej who does not consider herself less than any man. Not only that she adds to the meagre family income but by igniting the dead body of her mother to cremation, otherwise prohibited to women by social practice, she raises the status of women in general. Tej emerges as a courageous, strong and intelligent woman who shows independence of character. She is conscious of good living, struggle to progress in life and does not succumb to anybody. In Parneshwari, Des Raj Kali looks deep into the Dalit past, seeking to lend them an identity when the contemporary social realities fail to respond to their aspirations. His work is rooted in Punjab’s legacy of Sufism and Buddhism and challenges the cultural hegemonies of Sikh religion. The novelist creates his own style of writing and one needs to discard the old practises of reading Punjabi literature when one reads Kali.

One important genre used by dalit writers that becomes an explicit expression of dalit consciousness is autobiographical writing. It authenticates the real world of exclusionary orders and practices; of social ostracism, caste discriminations, economic and sexual exploitation, and political subordination; of wants, miseries, insults, humiliations but also the world of dalit dreams, aspirations, struggles, sacrifices and rise. Understandably, the dalit autobiographies appeared late on the Punjabi literary horizon. The first such work happens to by Pandit Bakshi Ram’s Mera Jeevan Sangharash [My life Struggle], hardly known and referred to as it was not published by any established publisher but by Punjab Pradesh Balmik Sabha, Jalandhar, a caste-community organization, in 1983 and Balmiks happened to be the lowest of the low, mainly working as scavengers in the towns and cities. Lal Singh Dil’s Dastan is a poignant account almost poetic (essentially being a poet, his prose in Dastan reads like a poem) of his life as a dalit, as a revolutionary, as a person on the margins of every facet of life. He goes into those issues of everyday life where he felt humiliated, neglected, ignored, despised, dismissed and tortured as he also records those who befriended, encouraged, stood by, helped and consoled. Balbir Madhopuri’s autobiography Chhangia Rukh (The Lopped Tree) appeared in 2003 and stirred the Punjabi literary world by baring the real rural social life the way it was not done before. It is a powerful portrayal of dalit life-world. Equally important is the 2007 autobiography by another dalit writer Gurnam Aqida called Kakh Kande: Nij ton Haqiqat Val [Blades of Grass and Thistles: from Self towards Reality]. Said in a novel stylistic prose it is a poignant account of rural-urban continuum as far as the dalits’ position is concerned. It challenges the dominant strains and takes dalits’ story forward in a progression. He looks at the changing times with a positive glare where a silent ‘revolution’ seems to be taking place with the dalits’ movement from villages and getting free from the upper-caste’s day-to-day exploitation and oppression. His account hints at the steady rise of dalit consciousness and assertion. Being an upright and honest journalist he had to face the caste prejudice and attacks where he came to be considered as a kanda (Hindi kanta-thistle) by his corrupt superiors and jealous colleagues. The autobiography of Attarjit adds another dimension to the dalit life-world of Punjab where dalits match the dominant jatt community on the question of self-respect even engaging them in fights including murders. It was known in the surrounding villages that people should be careful confronting dalits of Attarjit’s village especially his own family. Thus, the dalits have come a long way.

The essay had begun with a comment on state of literary histories that how the elitist approaches in history writing have systematically excluded dalit writers only because of their caste and social marginalisation. We have seen above a rich heritage of Punjabi dalit writings, the vitality of dalit creativity and the best informed in Punjabi literary circles and historians are either just ignorant of these fascinating figures or they feign ignorance. Even when one can understand ignorance about writings of Bhai Jaita and Sadhu Wazir Singh as they came to light only in the last three decades how one makes a sense of this neglect when one talks of Daya Singh Arif’s poetry which ruled the Punjabi minds for a century? This section would take account of writings on histories of Punjabi literature even while focussing on Daya Singh’s case.

The first ‘path-breaking’ ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ in English was written by Dr Mohan Singh Dewana in 1932. Dr Dewana was a sound scholar with facility in Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Hindi and English languages besides being a creative writer. Sadhu Daya Singh was Dr Dewana’s contemporary and by the time the latter wrote his history the former had made a mark as one of the most popular poets of his times. It is unlikely that Dewana would be ignorant of Daya Singh’s work, and yet he does not mention his name even in his chart of minor poets of the British period. One can give him the benefit of doubt in his first edition. But omitting Daya Singh in the second edition of his history published in 1956 is not easy to understand. Here, Tejwant Singh Gill’s observation seems to be apt about “his haughty temperament that led him to deal arrogantly with his contemporaries.” (“Studying Punjabi literature of the Past” in Muse India (e-journal), In the case of Daya Singh, Gill’s further assessment of Dewana appears to be problematic when he continues: “So much so, while dealing with the modern period, he had the audacity to ignore them altogether, and mention only those who wrote in the commonplace idiom and did not have claim to literary achievement worth the name.” One does not know whom he has in mind when he talks about Dewana’s ‘ignoring them altogether’ because Dewana talks very highly of Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957), Dhani Ram Chatrik (1876-1954) and Puran Singh (1881-1931) and celebrates them as ‘three pioneer Lyricists-Intellectualists’. He surely accommodates several such who to Gill ‘did not have claim to literary achievement worth the name’. Daya Singh could surely be counted among ‘those who wrote in the commonplace idiom’, and yet he does not even get mentioned in Dewana’s list where only writers’ names and their works are given.

Dr Mohan Singh Dewana was a pioneer, the trend-setter in the historiography of Punjabi literature. While he wrote in English, the English the English would write, those following him in this respect and writing in Punjabi followed him literally as a revered authority. If Dewana included or excluded someone in/from the history, his successors would not do otherwise. This is remarkable for the culture of history writing in Punjab. After a decade of Dewana epitome, Gopal Singh came up with ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ in 1942, Surinder Singh produced the same title in 1950, Piara Singh Bhogal wrote ‘Punjabi Kavita de Sau Saal (from 1850 to 1954)’ in 1955, Heera Singh Dard came up with the tried out title ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ in 1976 while Jeet Singh Seetal produced ‘Punjabi Sahit da Alochnatmak Itihas’ in 1979, to count only the major ones. And host of scholars of Punjabi literature paid their attention to the developments in the history of Punjabi literature. Most of them have followed the Master of the genre and have not bothered to look at poor Daya Singh in their histories. Tejwant Gill says that they “were so overawed by his scholarship that they did not acquire confidence to gaze critically at the nomenclature, methodology, explication and evaluation provided by him.” Selection, of course, is a necessary methodological device and also a prerogative of the author that could also be called ‘subjectivity’ which incidentally is in abundance in literature. Dr Dewana quotes Andrew Lang of ‘History of English Literature’ in the first edition of his history:
The writer would indeed have willingly omitted not a few of the minor authors in pure literature, and devoted his space only to the masters. But each of these springs from an underwood, as it were, of thought and effort of men less conscious whom it were ungrateful and is practically impossible to pass by in silence. (History, 1956, p. V)

Dewana adds to what Lang was saying: “The reader has his orthodoxies and heresies; so has the writer and it will be much good if both recognize…” Surely, Dr Dewana had right to his ‘orthodoxies’. But if he was pitching in Lang as an authority on history of literature one would expect him to follow the master of the game in spirit if not in details. Even if Daya Singh was a ‘minor’ poet in Dr Dewana’s eyes, which he was not as highlighted above, Daya Singh certainly wielded capacity to ‘spring from an underwood of thought’ not to be bypassed ‘in silence’. Yet Daya Singh was indeed silenced as if popular lips who sang him in bazaars and in the fields were being stitched together.

It is in 1971 that Kirpal Singh Kasel in the 2nd volume of his ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ takes some note of our neglected poet. At least he writes 3 lines about Sadhu Daya Singh. The historian admits that Daya Singh wrote so well that he has been very popular among common people. But even in these 3 lines Kasel errs on the titles of both the works that he cites. He writes ‘Jindagi Bilas’ as ‘Jindagi Vilas’, a minor error, and ‘Fanah da Makan’ as ‘Fanah da Muqam’.

Dr Diwana’s exclusion is carried through decades to an authoritative work of historiography of Punjabi literature produced by Sahitya Akademi in 1992. Sant Singh Sekhon and Kartar Singh Duggal like Dewana do not mention Daya Singh even as a minor poet in their ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ although in the interregnum a well-researched monograph on the poet had appeared in two prints (Atam Hamrahi’s Sadhu Daya Singh Arif was published by the Publication Bureau of Punjabi University, Patiala in 1970. The book was out of print in the late-1980s; hence a second print was brought out in 1990).

There should be no doubt that Sant Singh Sekhon was a towering Marxist figure of Punjabi literature. In the last phase of his life, he also turned to writing history of Punjabi literature. There is a gap of nearly 60 years between Dewana’s and Sekhon’s histories. Much water had flown in the river of Punjabi literature in the interregnum. Sekhon in his 2nd volume of ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ (1996) shows no less generosity than Kasel had done in 1971, a gap of 25 years towards our poet under discussion. It is another matter that he seems to have just picked up from Kasel and commits the same errors in the titles of two works of Daya Singh. It is surely an improvement on the 1992 volume jointly edited with Duggal produced by a national body on Indian literatures, viz Sahitya Academy. A slightly better space is given to Daya Singh in the most recent work in this trail of histories on Punjabi literature since the appearance of Dewana’s path-breaking work. Rajinder Pal Singh in his ‘Adhunik Punjabi Kavita da Itihas’ (2006) (which is 8th volume in the ‘series of History of Punjabi Literature’ brought out by Punjabi Sahit Akadmi, Delhi) gives 8 lines information on Daya Singh. It is a remarkable correction over the earlier histories in the sense that he gives full name of the poet, viz. Sadhu Daya Singh Arif and that also with correct dates of his birth and death and also with correct titles of all his works including ‘Sputtar Bilas’.

This in short, is the history of ‘coverage’ of Sadhu Daya Singh and his works in the 70 years of historiography of Punjabi literature. Indeed, it is a history of selective ‘silence’, of neglect and above all of exclusion. Not that Daya Singh’s contemporary ‘minor’ poets and writers get the similar treatment at the hands of historians. In the first place, Daya Singh is not a minor poet as discussed in this paper. He is one of the most popular poets of the first half of the twentieth century. But obviously he gets shadowed by the much lionised and valorised trio of Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh, and Dhani Ram Chatrik. Undoubtedly the three were towering literary figures, and are held at high pedestal not without foundation. But all of them also happened to be very rich as also they hailed from ‘upper castes’. On the other hand, Sadhu Daya Singh was born in an ‘untouchable’ poor family of labourers where social stigma and heaps of insults in daily life were surely detrimental to any comfortable creative activity. Being born a Dalit was a sufficient reason to be excluded from the charmed circle of high-caste writers. And surely, this treatment was not only ‘reserved’ for Daya Singh alone. Another popular Dalit poet chronologically following him has also been treated in the same cavalry fashion, in this respect without discrimination. Gurdas Ram Aalam was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district. Even though illiterate, Aalam had emerged as one of popular folk-poets of the stage before the Partition. He used to share the stage with the better known names in the Punjabi literary circles, viz. Kartar Singh Ballagan, Vidhata Singh Teer, Nandlal Nurpuri and Dhani Ram Chatrik. Unlike Daya Singh who focussed on moral and spiritual crises confronting the universal man, Aalam clearly grew up with Dalit consciousness and composed his poems and lyrics on the working people. All the four books of his poetry were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. He wrote with commitment and convictions and publicly presented his poetry powerfully on stage. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. Such a widely known, popular poet like Daya Singh was also written off from the pages of histories. There must be social structural and psychological reasons for their exclusion. An attempt needs be made to unravel the sources of such silences, neglects and exclusions.

First published in

    Beyond Borders: the SAARC Journal

, Vol. 6, No. 1-2 (2010)

Raj Kumar Hans

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