Surjit Patar (1945–2024): The poet who sang of Punjab’s collective consciousness

Published : May 14, 2024 13:14 IST - 6 MINS READ

Surjit Patar: Acclaimed Punjabi poet who sang of the region’s pluralistic ethos and captured its struggles through subtle yet powerful verses

Surjit Patar: Acclaimed Punjabi poet who sang of the region’s pluralistic ethos and captured its struggles through subtle yet powerful verses | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The celebrated poet, who passed away at 79, explored the region’s cultural richness and pluralism, giving voice to its struggles and aspirations.

As I think of Surjit Patar, this following verse, which I had first heard on radio during my college days, reverberates in my mind:

Je ayi pathjhar taa fer ki hai

tu agli rutt ch yakeen rakhin,

main labh ke lyona kalma kito

Tu fullan jogi jameen rakhin…

(Never mind even if autumn descends,

maintain faith in the forthcoming season;

I’ll seek out and bring a scion for you,

(till then) safeguard a piece of land as small as a flower)

In February 2022, I called the poet from Chandigarh to request a meeting. He invited me to his home in Ludhiana. I had to spend a few minutes looking for the address plaque, which had been obscured by plants. I came across an alley leading up to a room that was lined with hundreds of books stacked on both sides. Without a second thought, I rang the gate-bell. Someone showed me into the room. It was his workstation, a book house, a bibliophile’s haven, reflecting a vibrant tapestry of pluralism and cultural richness.

Soon the mild-mannered poet, with a flowing white beard, appeared. Wearing his trademark maroon turban, Patar greeted with a broad smile: “Jee aaya nu” (welcoming me with his heart). The books outside the room, he told me, were intended for dispatch to a local library. It was a practice that he performed regularly.

It was election time, and Patar dwelt upon the difference between khoti rajneeti (bad politics) and khari rajneeti (good politics). “Whether it is Punjab or India, we’re in the grip of khoti rajneeti,” he said, underlining the “politics of distraction” and “the nexus” of bureaucrats, politicians and the businessmen.

Even at 79, age hadn’t really caught up with him. He had attended a literary function in Barnala district on May 10, a day before his death. Undeniably, he was the most celebrated and critically acclaimed poet from Punjab after Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973). He sang about the indomitable human spirit and optimism and justifiably belonged to the cultural lineage of the Sufi saints and poets, who continue to influence Punjab.

Then-President Pratibha Patil presents the Padma Shri to Surjit Singh in 2012.

Then-President Pratibha Patil presents the Padma Shri to Surjit Singh in 2012. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Patar’s PhD thesis was on ‘The evolution of folklore in Guru Nanak vani’. During his literary career, he translated Federico Garcia Lorca’s Three Tragedies into Punjabi, Girish Karnad’s play Naga-Mandala, and poems by Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. After retiring as professor of Punjabi at Punjab Agricultural University, he went on to serve as president of the Punjabi Sahitya Akademi and later the Punjab Arts Council. In 2015, he returned his Sahitya Akademi award in protest against a series of targeted killings of rationalists and communal attacks on minorities. He returned his Padma Shri in support of farmers protesting at Delhi’s borders in 2020. 

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The foremost memory of his early childhood that remained etched in Patar’s mind was that of his father, Harbhajan Singh, leaving for South Africa in search of work. Later, he would write about it in one of his songs: ‘It was a foggy morning of a grubby winter, the dawn was yet to break, when my father left for the foreign land, there were tears and darkness in my mother’ eyes’.

In 1999, he wrote a poem, Aaya Nand Kishore, exploring the relationship between migration, aspirations, livelihood and language. He captured the contemporary paradox in Punjab’s society: The children of Purvanchali migrant labourers, who work as farm labour, learn uda, aida of Gurmukhi in the government schools whereas native children from well-off families go to convent schools to learn English. Patar would refer to Baba Sheikh Farid, a 13th century mystic poet, whose Punjabi poetry found its way in the Guru Granth Sahib, as a migrant. Farid’s parents had come to Multan from Afghanistan.

While Patar frequently engaged with historical and contemporary events, he explored Punjab’s collective consciousness and demonstrated a strong commitment to the arts as an instrument of social change. Whether delving into political issues, interpersonal relations, human struggles, or socio-economic hierarchies, his verses, of high aesthetic standards, abstain from sloganeering. His poetry appears to to be located between an urge to say something in an unoffending way and a keeping frustratingly silent. He has spoken about this dilemma: “Kuchh keha taan hanera jarega kiven, Chup reha taan shamadaan ki kehenge (How will the darkness endure if I say something? If I remained silent, what will the candelabrum say?”

Even when he wrote on sensitive subjects such as an ailing justice system, his ghazals resonated as contemporary folk melodies. Sample this verse: ‘In these court rooms, the petitioners have become trees, They have dried-up listening to the judgments/ Tell them to return to their ruined homes/ For how long will they stand here rooted?’

The partition of Punjab, the surge of the Naxalite wave in the State and the armed insurgency impacted him deeply. In his epic poem, “Laggi Nazar Punjab Nu (Punjab has fallen under an evil eye)‘, there is no direct reference or a loud cry but his anguish is apparent as he scrutinises every aspect of the turmoil with an great subtlety.

In another poem, which he wrote during the days of the anti-Sikh violence triggered by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, post Operation Blue Star, he talks with some sense of satisfaction about how a smirk on a poet-friend’s face brought tears of joy to his eyes. ‘My dear poet still understood the relation between my turban and my Guru. Those were the days when such relations were supposed to be forgotten. Those were the days meant to feign ignorance about such ethos’.

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Punjab derives its name from two words: Punj (five) and Aab (water) and is historically known as land of five rivers, Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum. Besides people, the partition also divided rivers between Indian and Pakistani Punjab. While Sutlej, Ravi and Beas rivers flow in India, the remaining two, Chenab and Jhelum, are now across the border in Pakistan.

Patar talks about an undivided Punjab in another poem, renaming the five rivers: Maatam (mourning), Hinsa (violence), Dar (terror), Bebasi (helplessness) and Anyaay (injustice). But the poem concludes with an optimistic tone as he expresses hope that the five rivers will come to be identified with Mausiqi (music), Shayari (poetry), Husn (beauty), Mohabbat (love), and Nyaay (justice) one day.

Avtar Singh Sandhu, the poet better known as Paash, had written in a letter to Patar: ‘Having read your poems, I’ve experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from shock and excitement to fear, on numerous occasions. Undoubtedly, you are the greatest poet of our times’. His words, infused with passion and love, remain relevant to date. Paash was assassinated by Khalistani militants in 1988.  

Patar concluded our conversation at his home quoting one of his iconic verses: ‘A seed will certainly listen to what I say/ The entire forest seems involved in the plot invented by the air’.

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