New Delhi: Clad in red and yellow salwar-kameez, her head covered demurely, she sits on a white sheet in a courtyard engrossed in a book, a sprig of roses at her feet. The archways behind spell out Google as the global search engine honored Punjabi-Hindi novelist, essayist and poet Amrita Pritam on her birth centenary on August 31.
As The Guardian noted in an obituary, Amrita Pritam’s death in New Delhi on October 31, 2005, aged 86, was ‘mourned on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, for it was she who chronicled so movingly and passionately the pain of Partition in 1947.
‘Regarded as the leading 20th-century poet of the Punjabi language, Amrita Pritam wrote verses that are sung and recited in cities and villages by many who are illiterate; such is the hypnotic appeal of her poetry. She was, in many ways, the voice of the Punjabi people, for her poems gave utterance to their anguish. She enshrined the concept of Punjabiyat, the deep consciousness of being Punjabi — a child of the land of the five rivers — irrespective of religious or caste affiliation.’
Born in Gujranwala in what is now Pakistan, Pritam became the most important voice for women in Punjabi literature. She also became the first woman, in 1956, to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her magnum opus, a long poem titled ‘Sunehade’ (Messages). She received the Bharatiya Jnanpith, one of India’s highest literary awards, in 1982 for Kaagaz Te Canvas (The Paper and the Canvas).
But then such was her stature that it was Amrita Pritam who honored the awards instead of the other way round, including the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, in 2004, and before that the Padma Shri in 1969.
Also in 2004 she was conferred with the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement as an ‘immortal of literature’. She also received the Bulgarian Vaptsarov Award in 1979 and Degree of Officer dens, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officier) from France.
Nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament, for a six-year term in 1986, towards the end of her life, Amrita Pritam was honored by Pakistan’s Punjabi Academy, to which she remarked poignantly: “Bade dino baad mere maike ko meri yaad aayi [My mother’s home remembered me after a long time]”.
Beginning her journey as a romantic poet, Pritam soon shifted gears and became part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Its effect was seen in Lok Peed (People’s Anguish) (1944), which openly criticized the war-torn economy after the Bengal famine of 1943.
Working briefly at the Lahore station of All India Radio before the Partition of India, Amrita was also involved in social work and participated in such activities wholeheartedly after Independence when social activist Guru Radha Kishan took the initiative to bring the first Janata Library in Delhi, which was inaugurated by Balraj Sahni and Aruna Asaf Ali. This study center-cum-library still runs at the Clock Tower in Delhi’s old quarters.
Amrita married Pritam Singh, son of a leading hosiery merchant of Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, in 1935, but left him in 1960. For a long time, she was in love with the poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, the story being depicted in her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp).
When another woman, singer Sudha Malhotra, came into Sahir’s life, Pritam found solace in renowned artist and writer Imroz and spent the last 40 years of her life with him. Imroz designed most of her book covers and made her the subject of his several paintings. Their life together comes alive in Amrita Imroz: A Love Story.
In a career spanning over six decades, Amrita Pritam penned 28 novels, 18 anthologies of prose, five short stories and 16 miscellaneous prose volumes.
Such is the stuff immortality is made of.