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”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punjabi_literature

Satrangi Sangat – Classic & Modern Panjabi Poetry Readings – London UK – July 6/12

The exciting (re)launch of Panjabi Sangat, a reading and sharing group of Classic and Modern Panjabi Literature
Satrangi Sangat – The London Panjabi Literature Group
Launch and welcoming event
6-9pm on Friday 6th July
In the teaching room of Jas Musicals
14 Chiltern Street London W1U 7PY
(5mins from Baker St and 10 mins from Bond St Underground)

In this first session we’re are planning to explore texts by:
Baba Faridji, classic poetry of the originator of the written Panjabi Sufi cannon
Surjit Pattar, contemporary poet, recipient of Padamshree Award, the finest contemporary Panjabi Poet in India today
Fauzia Rafique, modern verse by radical Canadian based Poet, novelist and blogger (Uddari Weblog)
Shiv Kumar Batalvi, iconic Panjabi poet of the 20thC, work presented by Raja Junjua

Developing the traditional format
The London Sangat will explore and share Modern Panjabi Writing- indeed from a now global community and, equally, create innovative opportunities for people to improve their heard and spoken Panajbi. Eventually, we’d also like to encourage co-facilitation from you, to create a truly collective forum.

We envisage the initial session to be an exploratory one- many new members are attending and we’d like to share and discuss with you the form that this Sangat hopes to take.

The London Sangat will of course, include the traditional process of reading, singing (as appropriate(!)) and discussing text collectively, but we also intend to avail modern technology i.e. the Internet- to explore the increasing range of both Classic: Sufi, Guru, Bhagat Bani – and Modern Panjabi literature that is now becoming available in diverse written, and spoken form to us.

We’ll be serving refreshments and snacks: give you a chance to meet each other, and then spend some time leading you through a Sangat, and also telling you more about it’s sister event- the SATRANGI DARBAR.

The Satrangi Sangat used to take place annually in Southall, and was generally presided over by Professer Saeed Firanni of Rawalpindi University, West Panjab.
Some of you have editions of his groundbreaking series: Panjabi Sufi Wisdom, which presents classic texts of the Sufi Masters of Panjabi in accessible, multi-lingual texts with translation.

I’m now delighted to inform you that our long term intention- to establish the Sangat in Central London and so create a London wide accessibility- has now been realised as Jas Musicals have kindly let us use their London premises(nr Baker St) for monthly gatherings.

We hope that you’ll agree that as an important, collective (Sanjhi) venture, your contribution, and feedback is essential to us and to the Sangat’s continued success -so I really hope to see you there!

We’d be delighted for you to join us at this very special gathering.

Parminder Chadha
Raja Junjua

Email: pammykamli@gmail.com