Paash: Past, Present, and Punjabi Poetry

The following is a review of the biography of Paash written by Prof Tejwant Singh Gill.

Pash — past, present and Punjabi poetry
by Akshaya Kumar

Pash by Tejwant Singh Gill,

Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Pages 108. Rs 25.

AT a time when the Indian literary space runs the risk of being appropriated by the Rushdie-clan of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, etc., the publication of a monograph on Pash, a Punjabi poet of the seventies and eighties, by the Sahitya Akademi under its project of “Makers of Indian Literature”, comes as a welcome relief against this on-going cultural politics of representation. It is recognition of the contribution of regional poetry to the making of India as a nation.

The monograph also undoes another fallacy. In the name of Indian literature, the translations of ancient Sanskrit texts are fed to the international gazer as specimens of the ancient Indian wisdom. Most of the writers included in the series of “Makers of Indian Literature” also happen to be the writers of the ancient and medieval Indian past. The very fact that a writer as recent as Pash has featured in this Sahitya Akademi project goes to vindicate that contemporary Indian native writer is intensely alive and alert.

Pash’s poetry has the potential of a counter-discourse within the canonical Indian literature, as it does neither harbour the false consciousness of his brahmanical ancestors, nor does it tread the safe and sophisticated quotidian line of his contemporary Indian English poets. To Pash, poetry is neither a speculation into the fictional infinite, nor a playful flirtation with reality. It “is no feast or play/Or river flowing leisurely away”. It is a discourse of protest against the politics of the sublime and subliminal both.
The cooption of an overtly leftist poet like Pash into institutionalised frame of the Sahitya Akademi is rare and unprecedented. The repositories of pure culture seem to have conceded the genius of Pash.

The monograph combines elements of biography with the critical estimate of the creative output of the writer under study. The author of Pash’s monograph, Tejwant Singh Gill, lives up to this challenge very diligently. In the first chapter entitled “Pash: Life and Experience”, Gill accounts for Pash’s revolutionary bent of mind in terms of his “village background”, “peasant upbringing”, “commitment to human relationships”, “impeded schooling”, “unimpeded learning” and, finally, a “full-blooded encounter with the world at large”.

The ideological underpinnings of Pash’s protest are explained in terms of how Trotsky’s views on permanent revolution helped Pash in reconciling his intellectual pessimism with wilful optimism. Surprisingly, there is no reference to the possible influence of the homespun marxism of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Kriplani, etc. on the poetry and persona of Pash.

As a commentator, Tejwant Singh Gill keeps his intellectual mediations to the minimum level. The poems quoted in the course of the argument speak for themselves. Pash undergoes three distinct paradigmatic shifts: (i) the “elementary” phase “drawn from Mao”, (ii) the “innovative phase under Trotsky” and finally (iii) the “productive phase of cultural immanence”.

Such a model of evolution, based purely on the subtle ideological shifts in Pash’s poetry, should have been complemented by another model based on the categories of aesthetics. After all, more than simple ideology, it is the poetic transmutation that catapults Pash to the stature of a legend in the post-independent India.

The 13 poems anthologised in the monograph do represent a mature and accomplished Pash. But this entails exclusion of his relatively less poetical first collection “Loh Katha” altogether. The poems quoted at length in the chapter on “Loh Katha” nevertheless make up for this imbalance. Some of the other oft-quoted poems of the poet like “Jitthe kavita khatm hondi hai”, “Censor hon wale khat da dukhant”, “Dooshit bhasa de khilaf”, etc. could have been anthologised, but since the author quotes the substantial part of these poems in the course of his argument, he chooses not to repeat them.

Gill’s critical frame to evaluate Pash is heavily tinged with marxist jargon. The use of critical terms like “structure of feeling”, “ideogemes”, “subaltern”, “residual”, “dominant”, “commitment”, “alignment”, etc. reveals beyond doubt the author’s strong foregrounding in the idiom of cultural materialists like Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin or Gramsci.

The monographer, therefore, is more an involved sympathiser than a neutral empathiser. Such a critical stance does help in understanding the sublte paradigmatic shifts that the poetry of Pash undergoes, but it also backfires as it tends to gloss over or simply essentialise the possible discontinuities and fissures in the discourse under study.

Gill’s critical frame is so exclusively marxist that it even fails to place Pash in the post-colonial perspective of Franz Fanon, the Algerian revolutionary, who advocated the use of poetry as a weapon to disarm and expose the politics of comprador intelligentsia in the Third World. Fanon divides the literature of colonised nations into three periods: an assimilationist phase, a period of pre-combat literature and finally a revolutionary literature. Pash’s revolutionary poetry is the most apt illustration of Fanonian paradigm of post-colonial protest.

In his introduction to his “Saade Samian Vich”, Pash attributes his poetry to the living literary tradition of poetry in India. Surprising it might seem, but Pash begins from Kalidas’s Meghdoot. The poet is fascinated by Kalidas’s technique of ode whereby a wandering cloud is invoked to convey the sentiment of love and romance to the dejected lover. From Guru Gobind Singh’s “Mitr payare noon” to a contemporary Amitoz’s “Lahore de naam khat”, the ode has been an integral part of Punjabi poetry.

In the same introduction, Pash throws another surprise as he acknowledges the influence of a contemporary woman Indian English poet Kamala Das on his poetic output. Not only these references reveal Pash’s responsiveness to Indian literature as a whole, more importantly, they reveal the inclusive range of protest in his poetry.

Pash is not oblivious of gender discrimination. But Gill’s monograph is silent on the role of the tradition of poetry in India on the cultural make-up of Pash. Of course, he does mention the seminal influence of Pablo Neruda and Brecht on Pash’s radical outlook, but the indebtedness of Pash to Indian writers has been totally ignored.

Had Gill placed Pash in the larger Indian tradition of literature, it could have helped his own enterprise of projecting Pash as a maker of Indian literature. Tejwant Singh Gill does situate Pash’s death-defying radicalism in the spirit of martyrdom built into the discourse of Sikhism. The influence of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary anti-imperialism on the young mind of Pash has also been well spelt out. But Pash’s position within the rubric of contemporary Punjabi poetry has been left undefined. Pash’s poetry emerges almost as an alternative discourse vis-a-vis the romantic poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalavi, the realistic poetry of Mohan Singh, the experimental poetry of Harbhajan Singh, and the quasi-mystical poetry of Hasrat, etc.

The monograph on Pash would definitely generate a cross-cultural dialogue within India and abroad. Gill really redeems the position of an Indian teacher in English by way of channelising his knowledge of English in bringing forth the writings in his own mother tongue to a larger national and international perspective.


13 Responses to “Paash: Past, Present, and Punjabi Poetry”

  1. Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy they are excellent writers in their own being, there is no doubt about that.
    There politics is different then what Paash was involved with or influenced by It does not mean they are living or writing in falsehood.

    If you read “The algebra of Infinite Justice” by Arundhati Roy , she is as anti Empire as Paash would have been , embedding the message of revolution in your writing does not make it superior.

    Moreover , if one can talk about the poetry of ‘Lal Singh Dil”, he is far better poet in literary terms. But he is not held high in Punjabi leftist circles maybe his poetry did not contain embedded message of revolution or he was not born to a peasant ( landlord ) family.

    Personally, I do like Paash. But i am not fanatically attached to his poetry due to his politics and so i don’t have hatred towards other poets/writers who were not influenced by the leftist movement.

    Trying to doubt everything as told by Marx.

    This blog is really great.

  2. Thanks Jasdeep.

  3. How about contributing to
    I want to post a review of “Dastavej” if you find it suitable. Shoot me an email so that i can mail u back


  4. Sohan Sandhu Says:

    Dear Bhushan:
    I wanted to add one more English Translatio and compilation by Hari Singh ‘Mohi’ titled “An Anthology”. In fact this is the first translation published in 1992 by Ravi Publishers, Kot Kapura. I got the Book

  5. Hari Singh Mohi Says:

    It took me three years April 1986 to March 1991 to translate these selected 79 poems by Paash.It was due to my own revolutionary bent of mind plus the prodding inspiration of my chum Dr Subhash Prihar,the renowned historical researcher,who had been translating Paash into hindi,that I was fired to undertake this arduous but highly towering project of great literary merit.the first translated poem of this anthology also proved instrumental in getting me selected headmaster through the punab public service commission coz it was published in The Tribune a few days earlier. I am heartily grateful n indebted to my erstwhile genius student n lifelong friend Pawan Gulaty who stood by me day n night helping me in finding the most appropriate words nearest to Paash’s most colloquial punjabi dictum.I shall be most ungrateful if I do not register my indebtedness to my wife who being highly enamoured with this project of great importance all through kept providing me n Pawan the indispensable tea n eatable refreshments. of course I feel eternally guilty never to have been able to devote any time or attention to the academics of my daughters Ravinder nArvind during this period. National Book Trust of India once published a collection of Paash’s translated poems including thirteen poems from my Anthology n only one translated by Dr Tejwant Gill’s translations. Very humbly , I handover all the rights to S. Sohan Singh Sandhu to get this anthology reprinted n distributed among all world’s revolutionary readership who are enamoured with Paash n his utterances.The future reprints should also be dedicated to WINKLE as I have done in my Anthology ,Please -HARI SINGH MOHI

  6. pawan gulati, kotkapura Says:

    Mr Sohan Sandhu is right. The first english translation was undertaken and published by Hari Singh Mohi. I happened to assist him in this momentous venture.

  7. Hari Singh Mohi Says:

    Keeping in view bhushan’s wish to have a copy of Paash-An Anthology,I have decided to type the translated poems in this anthology word for word so that whosoever is enamoured with Paash n his poetry may have the opportunity to be able to walk by Paash’s side.
    -I am grass-
    I will grow over every heap
    whatever you do or get done-
    Although bombard u the university
    Turn every hostel to debris-
    Although buldoze our log- cabins-
    What will thee do to me ?
    I ‘m grass,I will cover everything-
    I ‘ll grow over every heap-
    Turn Banga into rubble
    -Devastate Sangroor
    -Reduce to ashes the district of Ludhiana
    -My greenery will do its bit
    Just after two years-ten years
    Some passenger will ask the conductor again
    “What is this place ?
    Drop me at Barnala
    Where there is a jungle of green grass.”
    I am grass, i shall do my job
    I will grow over whatever you do or get done.

  8. Hari Singh Mohi Says:

    All the readers avid to read Paash in English may very kindly visit to enjoy 81 selected poem of Paash translated by me during 88-91.Plz submit your valuable comments.

  9. balbir Says:

    i like to re read pash’s poetry once again, is there any soft copy that someone can provide in punjabi

  10. excellent review by Akshaya…thank you for this.
    Not very impressed by the English translations of Mr. Mohi though
    it is disheartening to read things like “u” in place of you!!
    but it is a mammoth effort indeed…so kudos for that

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