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High on aesthetics, this 'pro-Naxal' Punjabi poet shunned sloganeering

By Harsh Thakor* 

Surjit Patar, one of Punjab’s top progressive poets, whose life journey symbolised crusade against oppression, died of cardiac arrest at his residence on Barewal Road in Ludhiana, on 11 May 2024, at the age of 79. In Barnala, on June 9th, a gathering of around 10,000 persons for all walks of life was staged in his memory, by the Gursharan Singh Lok Kala Salam Kafla. An award was presented to members of Patar’s family.
Surjit Patar was born the village of Pattar Kalan in Jalandhar, in 1945, on January 14th. His father's name was Harbhajan Singh and mother's Harbhajan Kaur. He had four older sisters. His father had migrated to Kenya for work and would return home only every five years. He matriculated from a nearby village school. He was first admitted as a science student in a college in Kapurthala but later he went on to take up arts. 
Patar graduated from Randhir College, Kapurthala, and then obtained et a master's degree from Punjabi University, Patiala, and then a PhD in literature on "Transformation of Folklore in Guru Nanak Vani" from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. He went on to take up a job as a profressor and retired as Professor of Punjabi from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. He began his endeavour into writing poetry in the mid-1960s. 

Poems and writings 

Among his famous works of poetry are "Hawa Vich Likhe Harf" (Words Written in the Air), Birkh Arz Kare (Thus Spake the Tree), “Hanere Vich Sulagdi Varnmal” (Words Smouldering in the Dark), “Lafzaan Di Dargah” (Shrine of Words), “Patjhar Di Pazeb” (Anklet of Autumn) and “Surzameen” (Music Land).
In 1999, he wrote a poem, “Aaya Nand Kishore”, examining the complex interweaving relationship between migration, aspirations, livelihood and language. He portrayed the gross injustice 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.
During the Naxalite stir he composed poems expressing how revolutionary violence possessed a beauty of its very own kind and how the blood spilled inculcated a radical inner transformation, to create a new man. In one poem he most  conveyed the impact of a bullet fired on the chest and how the people attacked would do the very same. Quoting a verse of his poem: 
“I keep tracking sadness all the time,
Each time the track gets close to my mind,
 go where the blood-drops take me
And they end up in the same dungeon
In which prevails the darkness of my mind,
Many times I get hold of the culprit’s hand
And each time I see it as my own hand.”
(Hanere vichch Sulagadi Varnhmala, 120)
Patar also translated into Punjabi the three tragedies of Federico García Lorca, the play “Nagmandala” by Girish Karnad, and poems of Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. He also adapted plays from Jean Giraudoux, Euripides and Racine. He wrote television scripts on Punjabi poets from Sheikh Farid to Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
Patar’s PhD thesis was on ‘The Evolution of Folklore in Guru Nanak” exploring and expanding the scope of Punjabi poetry in Guru Nanak’s verses.
The partition of Punjab, the Naxalite wave in the State and the armed insurgency left a deep scar on him. In his epic poem, “Laggi Nazar Punjab Nu” (Punjab has fallen under an evil eye), there with bare emotion  he examines and delves into  every aspect of the turmoil with high sensitivity.
One of his famous poems “Odo Waris Shah nu Vandya si” illustrated the turmoil of Punjab’s partition and those triggering communal hatred in just four lines. In this poem he described how politicians exploit human problems to break people’s unity:
"Odo Waris Shah nu vandya si, 
hun Shiv Kumar di baari hai, 
Oh zakham purane bhul bhi gaye, 
naweya di jo phir tyari hai."
In another poem, which he wrote during the days of the anti-Sikh violence he narrated with some fulfilment 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’. 

Nature and impact of work 

Surjit Patar discovered new paths of poetic form, transcending zones unexplored, literally giving Punjabi poetry a new shape or dimension.  Few poets ever in history created such an unbreakable bond with human experience or as sensitively or artistically created a personal connection with the audience. 
At the deepest level he established the link between literature and poetry with people’s movements. Few were more adept or subtle in conveying complex messages ranging from human life to socio-political issues to Punjab’s past, present and future
No poet or writer in Punjab with such consistency and zeal dipped the pen to manifest spirit of justice. Patar’s poems and writings manifested the very soul of progressive Punjabi poetry.
It was simply incredible the manner he could navigate different worlds, reminiscent of probing the world through a 360-degree viewfinder with nothing left uncaptured . The main characteristic of Surjit Pattar’s writing was its lucidity, simplicity and   communicative depth. 
At the very core his writing manifested that poetry and literature was the product of people’s struggles and not isolated from them. He looked down on superficial writers with great scorn.
 Few Punjabi poets ever as illustratively projected the exploitative repression of the ruling classes or the misery of the toiling people. His writings in crystal clear form were anti establishment and encouraged people to launch a crusade against the establishment. 
Surjit asserted that all languages should represent the downtrodden. Tooth and nail he combated all electoral politics.
Patar’s outer and inner dialogue could not evade topic of death, appearing in Patar’s poetry, as an unavoidable concern. Although repeatedly the quest to die appears in his poems, it never expresses an escapist attitude, but in closeness with darkness, loneliness and melancholy it figures in his poetic discourse.
In his poems, Patar not only portrays problems, conflicts and predicaments, but also throws light on the world transcending them all.
Surjit Patar discovered new paths of poetic form, transcending zones unexplored, giving Punjabi poetry new shape or dimension
It was  Pattar’s  sheer genius that  unravelled the positive aspects of Guru Nanak, Ravidas, Kabir, Sufi works and other traditional elements. A common man could synthesise his day to day problem with the teachings of traditional saints.
When Patar dealt with historical and contemporary events, he explored Punjab’s collective consciousness and it was remarkable the manner in which he refrained from sloganeering, and resonating high aesthetic standards.
Poems he wrote on the dilemma that Punjab faced during the late seventies and the eighties is an abject witness of all the interplay between a wide range of contending forces, feelings, desires and despairs. In every juncture of his life, be it the suppression of the Naxalite movement of the 1970s, the dark days of Khalistani and the state terror of the 1980s, the selling of the nation to globalisation in the 1990s, and the Hindutva wave and farmers rebellion of recent times, he relentlessly ignited the spark of human emancipation or shimmered the spark of rebellion against injustice.
It was remarkable how his poetry or writings illustrated the intense heat or impact each period, untapping how it changed the face of humanity. It appeared as though his words literally spoke for the wave of movements, in every historical period in his lifetime. No Punjabi poet or writer as courageously withstood the dark days of criminal repression as Patar.
The leaders of revolutionary mass organisations in the memorial conference at Barnala l described Pattar’s contribution as a ‘Song of the Earth’, whereby he untapped the very essence of our planet. The rally gave a completely different orientation from ruling class sections, projecting Patar’s contribution to social transformation.
Overall Patar was not a revolutionary but a progressive, remaining entrenched to work wi8thin the fabric of the social system.

Views and morals 

Patar, above all, stood up for principles. 
Patar asserted that the conventional courts were organs of the ruling classes to perpetrate in justice and that the broad masses were capable of creating their own people’s courts to bring the guilty to the book. He loudly echoed these words after the Sikh massacre of 1984 and earlier the extermination of the Naxalites in false encounters in the 1970s.
In 2015, he returned his Sahitya Akademi award to protest a series of targeted killings of rationalists and communal attacks on minorities. He also returned his Padma Shri in support of farmers’ protesting at Delhi’s borders in 2020. 
Playing role of chairperson of the Punjab Arts Council, a position he occupied since 2017, he believed that culture shapes the conscience of its times and wished to create a parallel stream of progressive culture.
---
*Freelance journalist

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