Amrita Pritam: A provocative tapestry of love, longing, and liberation  

Published : Aug 31, 2023 20:25 IST - 9 MINS READ

Amrita Pritam expanded the scope of life-writings by eschewing their conventions.

Amrita Pritam expanded the scope of life-writings by eschewing their conventions. | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Pritam, an iconoclastic literary figure, and a woman who defied convention, comes alive in the anthology ‘A Writer Provocateur’.  

Much before one actually sits down to read her, the image of Amrita Pritam that emerges in the mind’s eye is of a woman who made difficult and progressive life choices; a larger-than-life persona who lived life on her own terms. Published as part of Routledge India’s “Writer in Context” series, Amrita Pritam: A Writer Provocateur edited by Hina Nandrajog and Prem Kumari Srivastava offers a comprehensive understanding of Pritam’s life and work, exploring as it does the connections between her radically lived life and how love, longing, and discontent formed the cornerstones of her writing.

Amrita Pritam
A Writer Provocateur
Edited by Hina Nandrajog and Prem Kumari Srivastava
Pages: 304
Price: £36.99

By way of an introduction, this book offers an eclectic mix of Pritam’s works—poems, diary entries, memoirs, short stories, and excerpts—in English translation with the editors’ caveat: “Extracts and poems offer a rich palette, but by no means are representative of her entire literary oeuvre.” The critical essays, articles (some translated from Punjabi), reminiscences, and interviews are divided into six sections.

Narrativising the self

The first section, “Deconstructing the Self”, turns to Pritam’s autobiographical writings to map her evolving creative self. In an essay titled “Love and Dissent: The Making of a Self in Amrita Pritam’s autobiographical writings”, Arti Minocha concurs that the tropes of love and dissent bind Pritam’s “disjunctive life experiences”.

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While critics have complained of a lack of temporality and chronology in Pritam’s life-writings, Minocha argues that Pritam expanded the scope of life-writings by eschewing their conventions, and further that the presence of dream sequences and nightmares “narrativise a gendered self torn apart by love and longing, romance and rebellion”. The essay reads the articulation of liberatory women enunciations in Pritam’s autobiographical writings and the development of gendered modernist aesthetics to conclude that they narrativise the self decentred by “the fissures of female discontinuity”.

Unlike Minocha, Yadwinder Singh, who explores the relationship between Pritam’s progressive outlook, feminist approach, and spiritual self, sees conflations of varied identities. Deploying a Lacanian framework, Singh detects an interplay of desire, love, and spirituality in Pritam’s creative self and a certain preoccupation with the “other”. Of these, the desire to feel validated and approved (by her father) marks the beginning of her creative journey.

On being castigated for writing romantic verse, Pritam’s resolve to cast her life against paternal and patriarchal dictums take centre stage. Later, unreciprocated love in form of either Sahir or Rajan (an imagined lover) brings about feelings of loneliness and incompletion. Her later-day spiritual idiom seeks the completion with the absolute in her life and writings. However, Singh also reflects on the failure of any such project. Pritam, too, realises the fate of all humans to “remain incomplete and lonely”.

Pritam’s novel Pinjar and epic poem “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah nu” are among the most referenced works in Partition literature. Ritika Verma and Anjali Gera Roy explore the cultures of honour and trauma in Pinjar. Building on prevalent scholarship on the gendered nature of Partition violence, the article delves into the complex connections between gender, patriarchy, and nation, primarily reading abducted women vis-à-vis overarching codes of ijjat (honour) that construe them as objects in the power dynamics between communities, and violence as a bio-political tool for disciplining.

The article is a layered analysis of the trauma of Puro, the protagonist of Pinjar who is abducted, by analysing her fragmented self, the liminality of her dreams, and the figurative device of metaphors. The gendered violence against women in the wake of Partition has its origin in the everyday violence inherent in patriarchy. The rupture that marked the scale of Partition violence was the mobilisation of the category of nation-state and multiple patriarchies.

In “Multiple Patriarchies and Syncretic, Gendered Voice of Amrita Pritam”, Tanvir Sachdev examines the neat folding of multiple patriarchies behind the gendered violence against women, arguing that even the reformists and nationalists merely placed women within redefined gender hierarchies. Pritam posits a syncretic and all-embracing Punjabiyat as the antidote to communal and divisive forces that vitiated Punjab. Sachdev writes: “Amrita created an alternate syncretic universe transcending the divisive formulations of class, community and nation.”

Undeniably, Pritam left behind a rich legacy for future generations of writers, artists and thinking individuals.

Undeniably, Pritam left behind a rich legacy for future generations of writers, artists and thinking individuals. | Photo Credit: DILIP CHAKRAVARTY

Moving away from Partition narratives, Bharti Arora investigates “patriarchal biases inherent in epistemological and institutional structure of nation-state” and explores the production of upper-middle class women’s sexualities. Post-Independence, multiple patriarchies were at play within the legal and social structure of the nation-state. Bharti reads Pritam’s select texts as critiques of embedded hierarchies in the institution of marriage and family that allow women only normative roles. These structural hierarchies, as Bharti argues, infest the “discourses of love, romance, intimacy and marriage” affecting women’s rights as equal citizens of the state.

Undying legacy

Undeniably, Pritam left behind a rich legacy for future generations of writers, artists and thinking individuals. But how will the present generation make sense of her vast legacy? Paul Kaur opines: “(Pritam’s) lasting legacy was the vision of a free world, free from all discrimination and injustice.”

Pritam envisioned a feminist utopia—devoid of any homogenous definitions of masculinity and femininity—that continues to inspire in a world writ with injustice. She left behind bold and self-confident heroines. In her poem “Mera pata (my address)”, she writes: “And wherever you glimpse an independent soul/ Think that is me.” The freedom with which she strode her chosen path, she wishes the same freedom for her heirs too: “…today this letter of mine is addressed to one who has to walk beyond the steps I have taken to go further.”

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In her provocatively titled essay, “Women out of Love”, Nirupama Dutt brings attention to Amrita’s depiction of women falling out of love, leaving behind the comforts of a settled life in the pursuit of self-discovery. Dutt recalls her meeting with Pritam immediately after the death of Simone de Beauvoir, one of her inspirations. The conversation drifts from de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins to women falling out of love. And Dutt agrees with Pritam that when women pick up their pens, they grapple with not only how to portray women in love, but equally how they move out of unequal, destructive, and abusive ties.

Pritam as editor

For 36 years Amrita edited Nagmani, a literary magazine that published new voices in Punjabi literature and established a wider cultural currency in Indian literature. Amia Kunwar enumerates the editorial practices and joint efforts of Amrita and her partner Imroz that cultivated a new idiom in Punjabi literature. It was considered prestigious to be published in Nagmani.

Her editorial ethics dictated carrying full responsibility for whatever work was published in her magazine. Works were selected on their own merit after careful and diligent reading. Pritam even published those who slandered her. The literary soirees inaugurated by Nagmani (every month, after the publication of the issue, an informal gathering convened at Pritam’s residence to hold critical discussions)continue to inform the aesthetic and social moorings of Punjabi literature.

Pritam’s poetics and politics

Pritam once described her poetic endeavours as “pain inhaled silently as a cigarette” from which she flicked off a few poems like ash. Sutwinder Singh Noor examines the nuances of Pritam’s poetic sensibility and how her poetics mimed her politics, and both underwent several phases of change.

“Pritam continues to enamour her audience—a fact that can be gauged by the renewed appeal of her literary works, or no dearth of documentaries, theatrical and cinematic productions either based on her personal life or her works.”

Before coming under the influence of the progressives, Pritam wrote poems in the old conventions of romantic poetry. Her views on women were informed by the traditional notions of womanhood and her initial poems sought to valorise and preserve these notions. The article also marks the appearance of “doubt” and Pritam’s gradual shifting away from romantic idealism to progressive thinking. In 1955, Pritam disowned much of her previously published works. She evolved as a self-reflexive artist throughout her life and later moved away from narrowly defined “progressivism” to experiment with modernist aesthetics.

Amia Kunwar focusses on the last ten years of Pritam’s published writing and discerns a mystical creative subjectivity emerging from the confluence of multiple religio-spiritual influences. In these writings, the dancer becomes the dance, and worldly pursuits give way to the ineffable. Kunwar thinks of these compositions as non-dualistic, inward-directed contemplations.

Manjinder Singh offers a study of interconnections between Pritam’s experimental language and changing discourse around women represented in her works. The constraints of language were constantly undermined in pushing women from the marginal space rendered in male-centric discourse. All her works bearing deep social commitment could be read as a “search for a language in which woman is not relegated to the margins”.

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In her essay titled “Demystifying the Legendary”, Guntasha K. Tulsi presents Pritam through her media interactions and representation in popular culture. Pritam continues to enamour her audience—a fact that can be gauged by the renewed appeal of her literary works, or no dearth of documentaries, theatrical and cinematic productions either based on her personal life or her works.

“Pritam envisioned a feminist utopia—devoid of any homogenous definitions of masculinity and femininity—that continues to inspire in a world writ with injustice.”

Tulsi attempts to understand Amrita the artist and woman through her image reproduced in media and popular culture industry. Apart from provocative reflections on writing and the abysmal contemporary state of Punjabi publishing industry, her interviews speak of a certain disenchantment with all ideologies. A radical, self-critical, and emancipatory humanism is palpable in her interviews. Tulsi’s article is further complimented by inclusion of interviews of Deepti Naval and Salim Arif, both of whom have presented Pritam on stage. It is an attempt to unravel the enigma of Pritam’s personality and understand the fascination around her works.

The book closes with a brief reminiscence by Aman Kwatra, Pritam’s grandson, of the many winter mornings spent with his Ammaji and Babaji (Imroz). We meet her writing down her dreams, reclining by her bed, waiting for her tea. We meet a Pritam comfortable in her own skin and detect the feeling of peace that eluded her throughout her life. She had found true companionship in Imroz. Her only complaint was “you (Imroz) met me in the dusk of my life”, to which Imroz would reply: “You are my morning!”

Abhishek Pundir is a Delhi-based writer.

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