Punjabi Poetry on War – Amarjit Chandan
I hail from a cursed land – partitioned land of five rivers – the Punjab. Since 1947, the East Punjab is in India, and the West Punjab is in Pakistan. Being the gateway from the northwest to the Indian sub-continent, for three millennia foreign invaders played havoc to its natives. First came the Aryans about fifteen centuries before the birth of Christ and occupied most of northern Hindustan. Other races – the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, Bactrians, Scythians, Mongol Huns, Mughals, and Afghans, followed them. In the end came the British. They occupied the Punjab in 1849 ruling over it for a century and left in 1947 dismembering it.
Summing up Punjabi people’s centuries old catastrophic history in just five sentences may seem rigorous, but even volumes will betray inadequacy of language to express the loss. A royal throne looted from Delhi and gifted to the Sultan of Turkey by Nadir Shah of Iran lying in the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul is a URL [universal resource locator] link to the troubled history of the Punjab.
After a brief discussion of poetry that is integral to Sikh religion and Punjabi folklore, I will focus on the twentieth century’s anti-war poetry that saw the involvement of Punjabis in several campaigns including the two World Wars.
Over the centuries, following the literary traditions of the two great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, a poetic genre Vaar (lengthy poem) evolved in Punjabi literature glorifying the just war as opposed to the unjust one – good versus evil and so on. Evocative imagery of battle scenes in mythological stories is created with the sound of words by bard singers in Sikh temples and village carnivals even now. The most notable is Chandi di Var (Ode to the Sword) by Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru (1666-1708).
We have access to a handful of classic writings and folk songs referring to contemporary events of medieval history of the Mughal period. An undated song tells the typical story of women’s oppression connected to war. A Punjabi woman is abducted by a Mughal soldier. All sorts of pleas by male members of her family – her husband, her father and brother – fall on the Mughal’s deaf ears. In the end she asks the abductor to fetch her drinking water and immolates herself with a burning earthen lamp. The song ends without any grandiose wording.
Four famous hymns by Nanak (AD1469-1539), the founder of Sikh religion, on the invasion of Babar in 1521, are recorded in the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs. In his own words, Nanak ‘uttered the word of truth and proclaims truth at the right moment’.
The age is like a knife.
Kings are butchers. Religion hath taken wings and flown.
In the dark night of falsehood I cannot see where the moon of truth is rising.
Having conquered Khurasan, Babar has terrified Hindustan.
The creator takes not the blame on Himself, and has sent the Mughal as death's myrmidon.
So much beating was much beating was inflicted that people shrieked.
Does not Thou O God, feel compassion?
Thou, O maker, art the equal master of all.
If a mighty man smites another mighty man, then the mind feels not anger. [pause].
If a power tiger falling on a herd, kills it, then its Master is to be questioned.
The Sikhs recite the hymns every day and their history of resistance against the foreign invaders is repeated in their daily prayer glorifying martyrdom and honour in defeat. Guru Nanak has been the role model of modern Punjabi poets writing about national and class struggle.
After Guru Nanak, it was Naj?bat who poetised the terrific destruction caused by the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1738-9. Shah Mohammad (1784-1862) in his var of ‘Hind-Punjab Jangnamah’, voiced the deepest anguish of all the Punjabis as a nation over the fall of the sovereign state of the Punjab to East India Company’s army in 1849.
A corpus of folksongs of the early 20th century, when a large number of Punjabis were made to serve in the British army, is available. The colonial state on its part was impelled by its own considerations of strategy and security to narrow down its recruiting base mainly to the Punjab. The best Indian material for the British army was identified mainly in the province under the cover of a well-crafted socio-biological ideology of martial races.
At the outbreak of the WW1 one half of the Indian Army was drawn from the Punjab. In the Punjab one man in 28 was mobilised in the war, the corresponding figure for India was 1 in 150. Out of a population of 2.5 million, the Sikhs supplied 90,000 combatant recruits. During the war 1 in 14 of the Sikh population in the Punjab served in it: a proportion ten times greater than that contributed by the population as a whole. The price was high: 61,041 dead and 67,771 wounded.
The maximum number of men from Punjab, around 120,000, was recruited from the Rawalpindi division and majority of them were Muslims. There was hardly any household in Pothohar which was unaffected by the wars. This very region of the division produced most of the folksongs on world wars which are recorded by folkloreists.
How it works?
Historical records of tragic events can never express or reflect the suffering, pain and grief of a people as a folksong can do. Though the inadequacy of language remains even in a song. A folksong, unlike a propaganda piece, is least manipulated; it remains vulnerable even after the lapse of time since it was conceived and sung to oneself or in a group of people. Now, thanks to the efforts of collectors and compilers, the folksongs on the wars lie printed on paper. But nobody sings them, nobody even talks about them.
In the folksongs, womenfolk – mothers, sisters and wives – are the protagonists. They show total frustration, despair, but a faint ray of hope keeps them alive. The wife persuades the man not to leave home for the front. (Stay back. I promise, I’ll never go to see my parents). She taunts him for going to the job for a few bobs. She anticipates the pain of separation. [In every parting there is an image of death. Thus wrote George Elliot (1819-1880)]. The protagonist in the folk songs curses the firangees (foreigner whites) for the suffering. She hates war and the warmongers, whether the British or the Germans. She wishes and prays for the safe return of her man. There is nowhere any hint of martyrdom in these songs. The women knew their men were mercenaries and not fighters in the Sikh or Rajput or jihadi tradition.
The man leaving is lost for words. No song of the known songs shows the anguish of the father whose son has gone to the front. All available photographs of the Indian soldiers in the British army show stern faces with cold and sad looks.
It is not a coincidence, that the Punjabi poetry of the early 1950s’ Peace Movement resembles very much in form and content the folksongs composed half a century earlier. In retrospect it appears less genuine, as it was not experiential. Never the less some memorable poems were written by poets like Mohan Singh (1905-1978), Harbhajan Singh (1920-2002) and Santokh Singh Dhir. The jingoistic poetry and gramophone records produced during India’s wars with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965 and 1971) do not deserve any serious comment.
War is basically an armed conflict about power which breeds destruction and death. Its essence never changes, only its means do. Plato said: Only the dead have seen the end of war.
The poetic creative process is turned on only after the event has taken place. It is as a private journal sharing the collective fate. It documents human response in the face of a catastrophe. The future [Picasso’s Dove] keeps the acute sense of hopelessness of the present and the past bearable [Picasso’s Guernica]. In that sense it is therapeutic. The latter will be out place if hung in a home unlike the image of dove. It is private versus the public. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony performed during the siege of the legendry city was more of a live theatre, a historical moment. The folksongs are the voice-overs of the historical events.
A folk song by its nature is a collective pursuit of toiling masses initiated by an individual. It is an epigram. It is rarely rhetoric; it is understated, subdued, truthful and honest. Be it Nanak or an anonymous author of a folk song, their words are prophetic.
Even a single word uttered against war and for peace is the talisman of survival. Call it anything – a defence mechanism, a shock absorber, a safety valve.
The question is: what purpose, if any, serves the anti-war poetry?
Performing 'Panjab Mera'
By its very response, the war poetry is determined by socio-political conditions. But it cannot impact the war, cannot affect the political climate. It cannot stop war and establish peace. Poetry makes nothing happen, said Auden. ‘I know that all the verse I wrote, all the positions I took in the thirties, didn’t save a single Jew. These attitudes, these writings, only help one self. They merely make people who think like one, admire and like one – which is rather embarrassing…The social and political history of Europe would be just the same if Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe had never written. The only people who affect the political climate are journalists who try and produce the truth.’ (WH Auden. A tribute edited by Stephen Spender. 1974.)
Wilfred Owen, another English poet killed in WW1 wrote: All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.
Doesn’t a peace poet preach to the converted? Do the warmongers read the poems addressed to them? Has there been any change of heart on their part by reading Pinter’s recent war poems and his Nobel speech?
At least a good ‘peace poem’ creates a sense of solidarity of the like-minded. It amplifies their emotions into an echo and legitimises their moral stance. A poem can’t do wonders like the genie of Aladdin’s lamp. Isn’t it enough that it holds one’s hand in the hour of need?
No Dylan song stopped napalm bombs falling on Vietnam. All it could do was to keep the flame of hope burning in the total darkness. John Cornford, an English poet who laid down his life in the Spanish civil war, wrote: We can do nothing to ease that pain.
But prove the agony was not in vain.
Sources: Punjab da lok sahit (Folk Literature of the Punjab), SS Bedi, Navyug, 1968; Punjabi Lokgeetan vich Sainik (The Soldier in Punjabi Folksongs), Devendra Satyarthi, Punjabi University, 1970; Communist Movement in Punjab, Bhagwan Josh, Anupama, 1979; John Maynard, The Sikh Problem in the Punjab 1920-1923. 1977). Guru Baba Nanak’s hymns translated by Khushwant Singh and Manmohan Singh, Poros & Alexander. Fresco. India House. London. c1955. Artist unknown.
Presented at the International Literary Festival, Didim,Turkey.
21-23 July 2006
Bringing the wedding party of sin, Babar has hastened from Kabul
and demands perforce the gift of our Land, etc O Lalo.