Amrita Pritam: 1919-2005

Amrita Pritam never woke up on the afternoon of October 31, 2005 and the world is emptier without her musings. She embodied the fullness of poetic expression, creativity and the intensity of a woman in the perpetual state of love. Amrita’s voice was rooted in the South Asian idiom with all its contradictions, diversity and a faint recognition of fate. Her remarkable affinity with the depths of the Punjabi language adds to her iconoclastic status in India, Pakistan and wherever Punjabi is spoken and appreciated. Yet her audience has been global as well: her work was translated into dozens of world languages.

One of her poems makes the following confession:

Today I have erased the number of my house
And removed the stain of identity on my street’s forehead
And I have wiped the direction on each road
But if you really want to meet me
Then knock at the doors of every country
Every city, every street
And wherever a glimpse of a free spirit exists
That will be my home
(translation by author)

Through the course of her life, this free spirit generated controversy but she never concerned herself with the mundane. Outspoken, prolific and deeply spiritual, Amrita existed within self-defined, non-conformist parameters. She lived with her partner for 41 years, shunned religious and sectarian identities and rejected the political divide of the left and right:

No absolutes for something as relative as a human life
No rules for something so tender as a heart..

Amrita was born in 1919 in the Gujranwala district and educated in Lahore. Her first collection of poetry, Amrit Lehran (Ripples of Nectar) was published in 1936 when she was hardly 17. By the early 1940s, five collections of her poetry had been published. However, it was in the tragic turn of events during Partition that Amrita’s poetic genius found the real groundswell of expression. Her meteoric fame is often ascribed to the masterpiece poem “Aj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” when a neo-Heer emerged on the literary landscape of the Punjab during the 1947 trauma. This poem, addressed to Waris Shah – the author of the Punjabi epic of immortal love, Heer Ranjha summed up the anguish of millions, particularly women in the Punjab who suffered a disproportionate share of the tragedy.

I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love
Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;
Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:
Arise, o friend of the afflicted; arise and see the state of Punjab,
Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenaab flowing with much blood.
Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this same water now irrigates our soil.
Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?
And all Ranjha’s brothers forgot to play the flute.
Blood has rained on the soil, graves are oozing with blood,
The princesses of love cry their hearts out in the graveyards.
Today all the Quaidos have become the thieves of love and beauty,
Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?
Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love.
(Translation by Darshan Singh Maini)

Amrita’s childhood was marked by her mother’s death and later, during her adolescence, she faced stiff resistance from her father about composing poetry since he disapproved of her unconventional pursuits. Nevertheless, her rebellious nature resisted this pressure and continued to blossom, finding new meanings within her self. Amrita’s poetry represents a woman completely in love with the pleasure and suffering that follow in wake of the total surrender of the self.

It is in this context that her most well known passion for the famous Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi typifies her ability to feel with abandon and not be ashamed about it. Her obsession for Sahir intensified while she was living with Imroze, the eminent Indian artist who was Amrita’s partner until her death. By the early 1960s, Amrita had liberated herself from an unhappy marriage and found a complete companion in Imroze. Her post-modern autobiography, Raseedi Ticket (Revenue Stamp) details her love for Sahir and inspires any ordinary mortal to rise above his/herself. In fact, in her books, her son questions whether he was Sahir’s son. While Amrita tells him that his father was Pritam Singh, she also narrates how she used to look at the flower pots in her house and see Sahir’s countenance each time the plants moved. This honest expression of her desire for Sahir was a rare female voice.

Amrita precedes Fahmida Riaz, Parveen Shakir and other leading South Asian female poets by setting standards of candour and purity of feeling. In her autobiography, she mentions how she would collect the cigarette butts discarded by Sahir. Amrita would re-light them and smoke the leftover tobacco to sense Sahir’s touch. She wrote his name hundreds of times on a sheet of paper while addressing a press conference; after his death, Amrita yearned that the smoke-filled air would travel to the other world and meet Sahir! Confronted with this passion, Sahir appears to be a somewhat (emotionally) impotent despite being a great poet in his own right. Years later, Amrita wrote:

There was a grief I smoked
in silence, like a cigarette
only a few poems fell
out of the ash I flicked from it
(Translated by Jennifer Barber and
Irfan Malik)

After Partition, India gave much recognition to her creativity, starting with her being nominated for the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1956. Her poems are fresh, sensuous, spontaneous and present a modern sensibility on love. Amrita’s success and stature grew, with India and, in fact, the world bestowing upon her honours that unfortunately we in Pakistan seldom present to our great poets and writers. She won the Padma Shri in 1969; the Jnanpeeth Award in 1982 and was nominated for the Rajya Sabha (upper house) during the period between 1986-92. In the 1990s she also received the Padma Vibhushan and writer of the millennium award. In all, she wrote more than 75 books: her diverse literary ensemble consists of 28 novels, 18 compilations of verse, 5 anthologies of short stories and 16 publications of essays and articles.

Several of her stories were turned into Bollywood films; a recent Indian movie, Pinjar (skeleton), was based on her novel bearing the same name (Pinjar was translated into French and also received the La Route des Indes Literary Prize in 2004).The film was well-acclaimed and won several awards, while its central, human message remains valid as the plot revolves around the kidnapped girls of rival communities. Paro and Lajjo are characters symbolising thousands of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women who faced abduction and rejection by families since they stood defiled. In fact Amrita’s characters encapsulate the politics of female sexuality and question gendered identities in an immediate political context.

Remarkably, the narrative never gets ideological and reinforces the commonality of human experience. Written against the backdrop of common suffering, A Needle of Light echoes:

Our destiny has been tattered
There are torn patches in sight
My country now requires
A needle of the Light.
I was repairing my phulkari
With a needle to thread
But the earth shook
With a great fright
And broke my needle
The needle of the light.
(translation from

Amrita Pritam lived her intense life in dreams and inspired by them, composed her poetry. For her, dreams were a “contact with realities in another dimension.” Her autobiographical work Black Rose was the first chronicle of dreams and later, her essays and prose were replete with her intense travels within her self. Her spiritual reawakening was also guided by dreams. In many ways, the vividness and expanse of her dreams explains the range of her literary output as well as the continuous psychoanalytic exploration of the self.

Some years ago, the well known Indian critic Suresh Kohli expounded further in Amrita’s words: “Once someone asked me in the course of a television interview: ‘How will I define who and what Amrita Pritam is?’ I laughed and said it is the name of a yatra, a journey, a travelogue of evolution, an odyssey of inner growth . . . there are immense possibilities and various faculties in a human being. And whatever I have written has been an attempt to arouse those submerged feelings.”

Her odyssey has surely not ended. Despite her innate humility, one of her later poems written for her partner Imroze is a befitting vision of her immortality:

I will meet you again
Where? How? I don’t know
Perhaps as a figure
Of your imagination
I will appear on your canvas
Or perhaps on your canvas
Appearing as a mysterious line
I will keep staring at you.
(Translation by Outlook India)

Amrita Pritam is not dead; her dreams of peace, universal love and triumph of humanism will continue to shape our collective memories. This is not a time to mourn but to acknowledge that Amrita has crossed another milestone in her quest for self-knowledge and love. Au revoir, Amrita!

This piece was published by the Friday Times

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