Ishwar Chitarkar : The Painter Poet

Ishwar Chitarkar
By N.S Tasneem

Keats says: “Poetry comes to a poet as naturally as leaves come to a tree !” In the case of Ishwar Chitarkar, a renowned painter poet of Punjab, it can be said – ‘Poetry comes to him as naturally as colours come to a rainbow’. He does not think in words but in colours and does nor write in ink but in images. His paintings convey the thoughts of a seething, restless mind whereas in his poems one cannot but admire the colour, the imagery and the lilt they have. He has never bothered about the ill-conceived controversy of form and content as, according to him, it has been raised by those who are not creative artists. A creative artist, he tells us, aims at the revelation of Truth. Truth, if it is nothing but Truth, is invariably clothed in Beauty. Truth and Beauty, or what you call Content and Form, are and have always been complementary, and not in the least contradictory, to each other. Born on December 11, 1911 at village Paddi Possi in Garh Shankar (Hoshiarpur), Ishwar Chitarkar was orphaned at an early age and was brought up by his grandparents. After his Matriculation in 1929, he left Amritsar for Lahore where he joined the Mayo School of Arts. Those were the days of hard struggle. With a diploma in Arts, he could only manage to get the job of a Drawing Master in a privately managed school, first in Cambellpur district and then in Lahore. He had an ambition to obtain superior education in Arts but had no means to do so. This embittered him for some time but the confidence he had in his boundless mental and physical energies helped him regain his composure. He had learnt even in his childhood to be self-reliant. During his stay in Lahore, he came into contact with Abdur Rehman Chugtai, one of the most famed world artists of the day. He was greatly influenced by his art and learnt from him a few secrets of craftsmanship too. He has expressed his gratitude to Chugtai by dedicating his first collection of poems to him.
He joined the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 1945 as a senior artist and was posted at Shimla. In that congenial atmosphere, he saw himself in the true perspective of things. His genius flowered during this period of almost a decade. In 1954 he was transferred to New Delhi where he again found himself in the turmoil of life. He then realised that his ambition of adolescent days to absorb all the knowledge of the world and to see life in its entirety had too, in the meanwhile, grown up with him and could not be resisted any longer. At last he succumbed to the call of wanderlust and the goadings of his inquisitive mind and sailed for the United Kingdom in 1961.
A Self Portrait 1939
During the seven years he remained in London, he did paintings, composed poems, founded and edited a Punjabi journal Savera, worked as a gardener in the private estate of an Englishman, tried hard to get the job of a sorter in the Post Office, remained unemployed for a long period and suffered privation. He died broken-hearted on December 2,1968, after having been taken ill at a wayside railway station a day earlier.
Perhaps he would never have been a poet, or at least such a poet, but for his love for a girl from Chamba. He loved her so ardently and so devotedly that she lost her individuality for him and became an ideal—forever to be pursued and never to be realised. He could not marry that girl but continued his efforts to be worthy of her in the next birth.
Ishwar Chitarkar has two collections of his poems – SulSurahi and Bhakhdian Lehran – to his credit. Two more collections of his poems await publication. Besides the poems, he has penned short stories and character sketches which appeared in book forms- Gall Baat and Kalam di Awaz – before partition. During his life-time, he relegated his literary activities to the background and always took pride in calling himself, first an artist and then a poet. Primarily he is an artist, no doubt, and his literary activities can only be viewed as an extension of his artistic pursuits.
When he took brush or pen in his hand he could think only in terms of colours and images. In the words of Amrita Pritam -‘the excellence of his poetry lies in exquisite poetic images.’ His imagination is in fact kaleidoscopic. On meeting his beloved, after her marriage, in the Golden Temple, he composed his famous poem Pahari Pcmchhi (Mountain Bird). Here is an image rarely surpassed in the Punjabi language –

Dil di noori teh de andar
Aks os da aedanpainda
Amrit bhare sarovar vichjayon
Harmandar da soya

(On the lucent surface of my heart, her image is so ineffaceably cast as is the reflection of Golden Temple in the sacred water of the Sarovar that surrounds it.)

He is a poet always haunted by the thought of his beloved. This Ishwar Chitarkar painting1makes him sad and sometimes miserable but he never suffers from despair. The memory of his lost love, for which his beloved was not to be blamed, is too excruciating to be expressed in words. In his poem Yaad (Remembrance), he epitomizes his feelings in an incomparable image:

Yaad kise dee seem andar
Aes taraan nit tarfe
Paani vichjayon machhi koi
Kundi vichparoti hoi
Tut gyee hai dorijis di
Bahar khare shikari nun par
Tarfan us di nahin hai disdi

(The memory of someone writhes with pain in my heart like a fish caught in the hook of a fishing rod, the chord of which has been snapped. It suffers excruciating pain, unknown to the fisherman standing on the shore.)

And then, in another poem, the same sort of feelings have been expressed in an image which is fresh and original:

Yad os di khichchaan pave
Mele vichjayon bal gawacha
Bholepan vich khichchijave
Phar ke hath par ay a

(Her memory pulls at my heart just as an innocent child, lost in a fair, pulls at the hand of a stranger unknowingly.)

The poet, being sensitive, is all the time conscious of the void left in his heart by his love Ishwar Chitarkar painting2unfulfilled. The separation is too much for him. The crisscross of old memories, deeply ingrained in his mind, is for him a constant cause of anguish. Again, the expression is rich in imagery :

Andare andar birhon ne vee
Pachh ajehe laye dil the
Nikke nikke baal niane
Jayon shishe di tukri laike
Leekan ate jharitaan paunde
Buhe, kandh, dalijan, sil te

(The separation has inflicted innumerable cuts on my heart. They are like the handiwork of small innocent children who carve out numerous deep lines on the doors, walls, thresholds and sills with small bits of broken glass.)

Chitakar’s love for images is not something cultivated for the pleasure of it but is the spontaneous expression of a poet who is a painter too. He is not an imagist in the technical sense of the word. He is a poet with a message for mankind. His philosophy of life is, perhaps, best summed up in the following couplet:

Hey timtamaande maluk dive !
Hai maut balna sada ikalle
Rala he lataan hi kayon najagiye
Main aap vairi haner da haan

(O tiny flickering lamp ! it is so painful and tormenting to burn alone. Let us merge our flames for a blaze, since I too detest darkness.)

Ishwar Chitarkar is more akin to Sufi poets like Bulhe Shah, Shah Hussain and Asgar Gondwi than to Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam. He believes in the sublimation of his desires and makes an endeavour to transform his personality on the anvil of his rich experience of love unreciprocated. In his poem Ki Ishk Toon Kamaya, he says:

Ki ishk toon kamaya
Dil noon mill na tere Je dard di amiri

(What love is this ?)

If you have not wallowed in the luxury of sorrow.)
Chitarkar is not bitter when confronted with obstacles in the way of the realization of his dreams of love. He is contented with the sincerity of his emotions and the plenitude of his experience. He longs for the day when the dross of his existence will be turned into pure gold by the transmuting touch of his love-realized. Till then he is prepared to endure excruciating pains of separation, denial and frustration. At times he feels as if someone is pouring drops of acid on his heart. It is for him the test of the stoutness of his heart. But all this, he laments, is sheer wastage of time and energy. He is sometimes restless but usually he is in a state of trance. His life is pervaded with the ideas of love, with the thoughts of his beloved and he finds all the objects around him aglow with the radiance of beauty. A time comes when he finds himself a firm believer in the ‘Mighty abstract idea of beauty in all things’. But this is only a passing phase, a step towards maturity. Real maturity comes when he considers his own person the replica of his beloved’s personality. Not only this, he is himself the lover and the object of his love-

Ishwar Chitarkar painting3Aap hi jo husn banya Ishk hai oh kaamyab
(Love, transmuted into beauty, attains true consummation.)

Ishwar Chitarkar is all the time conscious of something amiss in his personality and that something is nothing else but his love unrequited. This tormenting void in his heart has arrested the movement of the rising curve of his emotional maturity. He longs for the moment when he will be in a position to say – ‘Ripeness is all’ At this moment, his mind is like a snake cut into two and both the parts, incapable of uniting again, are writhing in pain. There is no retreat and no advancement. The flux of his desires and longings has conglomerated. His imagination has taken the shape of an icicle and there are no signs of a thaw :

Teri udik naal eyon
Keeli gyee hai kalpana
Uthhke tarang koijeon Ikkojagha khari rahee

(In expectation of thee, O beloved ! my fancy is immobile like a wave held in the mid-air.)

In another image he describes the beloved’s half- hearted promises as the snow-flakes, blown down the chimney by the gusts of wind, that fall on the tongues of flames.
In his poems, Chitarkar achieves wistfulness that is poignant. But this wistfulness in not of a poet who is devoid of intellectual control on his emotional reasoning. His poetry can be summed up as felt thought. He is at all times arguing, like Shelley, with his innerself:
Why linger, why turn back, why shrink my heart ?
He strikes a note of optimism in his poetry but at heart he is sad, though not pessimistic. At times he is subject to feelings of profound gloom but outwardly he is always cheerful. He laughs and laughs till tears come to his eyes :

Rtfk ruk ke aas aksar
Rondi rahee hai aedaan
Bhijji hoi lagarjeon Panchhi hila gye nein

(Often, hope sheds tears intermittently like a rain-drenched bough shaken by the sudden flight of birds.)

One could repeat the words of Byron’s wife, addressed to Byron, in the case of Chitarkar too, without any fear of contradiction, ‘At heart you are the most melancholy of mankind, and often when apparently gayest.’


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