Paash: Past, Present, and Punjabi Poetry
The following is a review of the biography of Paash written by Prof Tejwant Singh Gill.
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.