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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Know your Poets: Devneet

Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in Discussion | 1 comment



I chose to write about a Punjabi poem titled “Kwai Temple,” from Devneet’s other wonderful poems in his poetry book ‘ Hun Stalin Chup Hai’ -meaning Stalin is silent now. I selected ‘Kwai Temple’ not only because it is one of my favorite poems but also to use it to serve another special purpose which I will explain further on. Unlike my other blog posts on Know Your Poets, this time I am saving his poem until the end of my post for reasons you will see.

I mentioned Enheduanna in my post, What is Poetry and What Makes People Write it. Poetry has come a long way since Enheduanna, the earliest known female poet in recorded history. She lived in Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq, 5000 years ago. It was here in Mesopotamia that the wheel is considered to have been invented, and the obsession human beings have with manipulating words. Making them rhyme, not rhyme, evoke a certain mood, intentionally using longer words, shorter words, all to convey a message the poet may or may not even know himself or herself. The story of poetry has evolved through the ages, cultures, and has survived all kinds of rough climates, including political ones! The journey of poetry has truly been amazing. Equally amazing is the fact that with all its excitement of experimentation and innovation packed into these centuries, the most recent 300 years of poetic history is  just about a match for the preceding 4,700!

But from reading the various articles in literary magazines in the U.S. India, Pakistan, and elsewhere, it seems fairly obvious that not everyone is pleased with its status in our time period and respective societies. For Punjabi poetry, in particular, readers aren’t buying poetry collections, and there is a lack of readers. The reasons, aside from the politics of language, is murky, but there are many who try to offer their analysis, some which is well reasoned, others that are all about doom and gloom.

Some claim it is the unprofessionalism of the industry that is partly to be blamed for this impasse. Even for a great story collection of collection of poetry – even for one story and one poem, there aren’t enough serious readers or  listeners in Punjabi, complains the writer, Trilochan Lochi one of the well known Punjabi poets and singers in Punjab. He laments this idea in his Ghazal , “ Be-surean de Shehr ‘ch Lochi, Kis Nu Ghazal Sunai Jai” meaning – in this unharmonious city, who should the singer, Lochi sing his ghazal to?” And this is the impasse we are facing today. The lack of actual readers. It is something afflicting the U.S. Literary scene as well, where there are more people who think they can write a poem than those who actively read poetry because of a passion for reading, which every poet worth their salt has at some point in their lives.

Through the debate running through literary circles, I am reminded of Waris Shah’s Heer, when Ranjha decides to leave Takhat Hazara, his ancestral home. The Hazara community pleads with him not to leave his birth place and his brothers even cast their turbans under his feet, the ultimate act of  begging him not to leave. Many believe that today the opposite is true, where instead of fostering an environment where the Punjabi language and its literature can flourish, people are being asked subtly and not so subtly, to leave for many reasons, including political, economic, and what have you. I have devoted a lot of energy towards being part of efforts to further Punjabi language programs here in California, and it is a stepping stone.

But as a poet, my job is not to assess the marketplace. It is simply to continue to create my poems. Someone made a comment on a Facebook post I wrote about why those who have emigrated out of Punjab continue to write in Punjabi and maintain a connection. The reason is not very difficult, and I will use a quote by a poet I have a lot of respect for, who understands this feeling well: Pablo Neruda. He writes, “I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” While the literal things that connect my poetry with Punjab may be different, the metaphors and feelings are very much the same.


Kwai ( shoemaker’s anvil -Three legged metal up stand seen in the middle )

Returning to what I had mentioned at the beginning of this post: Devneet’s poem, “Kwai Temple.” Before I offer any analysis or critique of this wonderful poem, I am pasting it below for you to read and make up your own minds. Kwai for those of you who are not familiar with the local term is a shoemaker’s anvil upon which he works on shaping the shoe sizes etc. So take a moment to make of this poem what you will. Below the Gurmukhi version is a rough English translation that gives you the meaning, but takes away the poetry:.

Kwai Temple
ਕਵਾਈ ਟੈਂਪਲ

ਪਤਨੀ ਦੀ ਜ਼ਿੱਦੀ ਸਵੇਰ
ਮੈਨੂੰ ਮੰਦਰ ਦੇ ਰਾਹ ਲੈ ਤੁਰੀ ਹੈ
ਪਤਨੀ ਚੌਕ ‘ਚੋਂ ਫੁਲ ਖਰੀਦ ਰਹੀ ਹੈ
ਮੈਂ ਸਤਪਾਲ ਮੋਚੀ ਦੇ ਅੱਡੇ ਕੋਲ ਹਾਂ
ਸੱਤਪਾਲ ਆਉਂਦਾ ਹੈ
ਜੁੱਤੀ ਦੂਰ ਲਾਹੁੰਦਾ ਹੈ
ਥੜ੍ਹਾ ਤਰੌਂਕਦਾ – ਸਵਾਰਦਾ ਹੈ
ਕੰਧ ਤੇ
ਰੰਗਬਰੰਗੇ ਫੀਤੇ, ਤਲੇ ਸਜਾਉਂਦਾ ਹੈ
ਛੋਟੀ ਤੋਂ ਸ਼ੁਰੂ ਕਰ ਵੱਡੀ
ਫਿਰ ਉਸਤੋਂ ਵੱਡੀ
ਰੰਬੀਆਂ ਦੀ ਲਾਰ ਲਾਉਂਦਾ ਹੈ
ਧੋਤੀ ਹੋਈ ਕਵਾਈ
ਥੜ੍ਹੇ ਵਿਚਕਾਰ ਰਖਦਾ ਹੈ
ਪਤਨੀ ਮੈਨੂ ਫੁੱਲ ਫੜਾ
ਅੱਗੇ ਤੁਰ ਪੈਂਦੀ ਹੈ
ਮੈਂ ਪਿੱਛੇ ਮੁੜਦਾ ਹਾਂ
ਕਵਾਈ ਤੇ ਫੁੱਲ ਰੱਖ
ਘਰ  ਵਾਪਸ ਪਰਤਦਾ ਹਾਂ “।

“Wife’s morning stubbornness takes me to the direction of the Temple.  On the way she buys flowers; I stand next to Satpal Mochi’s Schuhmacher-1568(shoemaker) empty shoe stand. Satpal arrives at his stand. Takes off his shoes. Sprinkles and sweep cleans the stand with water. He decorates the side wall with colorful ribbons and new soles. Holding scrapers big and small, he ducks them in a row size wise. He washes the Kwai and places the washed Kwai in the middle of the stand. Wife hands me half the flowers and proceeds forward to the Temple. I take a step back. I place the flowers on the Kwai and head home.”

To reiterate, please do ponder over this poem before moving on to the next paragraph.

I discussed this poem with my friend and well known short story and novel writer, Gurbachan Bhullar. The implication here according to him is that the shoe maker, Satpal performs all rituals and ceremonies in his Kwai Temple each morning like any devotee of any place of worshio does for whatever reasons associated to that faith. He takes off his shoes, sprinkles water, sweeps clean the place, and arranges all his tools of trade needed for his day’s work in the proper places. He bathes his God, Kwai, and begins his daily worship and devotion to day’s hard work ahead. The major theme echoing through this poem is one of hypocrisy. It is enough for the Pandit–Bhai with a two time attendance saying prayer once in the morning and another in the evening and the Mullah with five times of Namaz, which allows them to be recognized by the community as pious. Yet we as a community do not value other commitments or other people who are committed. Satpal’s recitation with hard work prayer continues uninterrupted from early morning till dark, late in the evening, even though he receives no recognition for it. Which begs the question: why does he do it? And the beauty of poetry, much like its twin, the short story, is that it doesn’t have to provide an answer. And I don’t have one. I simply enjoyed the language of the poetry and I hope you did too!

What did you make of the poem?

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What is Poetry and What Makes People Write it?

Posted by on Jun 3, 2013 in Discussion | 1 comment


Me and Gurbachan Bhullar talking about the craft of Poetry

I enjoy reading interviews with other poets and frequent websites on the craft of poetry. What is interesting to me is that inevitably someone will ask the question of what even constitutes poetry and what makes poets write it. While I am sure novelists and short story writers are asked this question from time to time, poets are asked this question much more frequently. These interviews, articles on poetry, and numerous books that have entire sections devoted to this aspect tells me how many times this question must have been asked before, with many answers in the past, yet the inquiry to get at the bottom of it all has not been diminished. Nor would it prevent the inquirer to ask and the poet to answer this question in the future. And I must admit, it is a question and answer I look forward to reading or listening to as well!

As many of you know, I am participating in Michelle Rafter’s blogathon (read my post on the 12 Reasons I Signed Up For the Wordcount Blogathon). I had originally planned on writing my #blog2013 on my favorite poems and introducing poets one at a time. It sounded like a strategic approach. And I started aptly with the poet, Amrita Pritam, who is my all time favorite. But after I wrote that post, I kept thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with Punjabi writer and recipeint of the Sahit Akademi award, Gurbachan Bhullar, and it dealt with this age old question: what is poetry and what makes people write it? But more to the point, why do I write it?  So I have decided to digress a little from my original plan and am going to add my two cents here:

The other day, I was at the local bookstore and bought a book with an amusing title: “Poetry for Dummies.”  Although it is not that I identify myself with dummies in the literal sense but being a poet and singer, who is always eager to learn and share my art with whoever is interested. Although poetry usually has a greater degree of attentiveness, concentration, experiment and form than one finds in  most other uses of language, still the general perception seems to be that short stories and novels are works of real art because it takes a lot longer in seeding, nurturing and grooming the characters to breath lives into them, and it seems that poetry is easier. Not counting epic poems like Homer’s Iliad or Waris Shah’s, Heer, poems are often thought of at first glance as a one night stand, compared to the novel or short story which are thought of as affairs, with wooing, and building of tension, plot development, etc. To that kind of perception write a few lines that rhyme or don’t, press enter a few times to arrange them some way on a piece of paper, and the poem is born. Easy!

A couple years back when Gurbachan Singh Bhullar visited California, I had the opportunity to attend a few Sahitik Meets and Kahani/Kavi Darbars with him that were organized in his honor by Punjabi American writers living in the Central Valley and the Bay Area California. Most people know him as a serious thinker, speaker, journalist and a distinguished Punjabi short story writer. Which, of course, he is. But he is also a man full of humor and biting sarcasm.

During the trip, we went to visit a good friend of mine, Jagjit Brar,  in Rio Vista, and were listening to him talking about the state of Punjabi literature in general. We were sitting on the sofa and having an enjoyable conversation, but as soon as the topic turned to Punjabi literature, I took a look around and saw I was surrounded. Jagjit is also a short story writer, and in her younger years his wife also wrote short stories. I braced myself for what was coming. Like lions, they did not immediately pounce, and instead circles their prey, in this case – me, the only poet in the room. Having read some of my poems in various magazines and journals, they were familliar with the written form, but asked to hear me sing some of them.

So, I sung them some of my poems, such as Umber di Shehzadiye, a poem about man attempting to colonize the moon after he has destroyed the Earth. In my poem, the point of view is Earth, who is writing a letter to her estranged sister, the Moon, warning her no to trust this man coming to her doorstep. Below is an audio image slideshow of me singing this poem in Punjabi, with English subtitles.

After I sung a few more poems at their request, interspersed with light banter, they both cooked a plan to tease me. So here it was three story writers against one poet, including Jagjit’s wife! When I finished, Gurbachan turned to me and gave me a backhanded compliment that to the uninitiated to Gurbachan Bhullar’s writing style will initially think is a real compliment!

“Pashaura Singh Ji,,” he began. And I knew something fishy was going on with the inclusion of the “Ji.” He then shifted his position and said in Punjabi, “We could listen to your poems all day. You have a nice voice.” With caution, I thanked him for the compliment. He continued with the buttering up. “I have no doubt that we are the only two people at the top of this artform, you as a Punjabi poet and me as a Punjabi short story writer.”  He paused and gave nothing away in his facial expression.

Then he ended with, “Come to think of it, writing a poem is nothing when compared to writing a short story or a novel. The reasons are obvious. Write a few lines. Doesn’t matter if they rhyme or not. Line them up on a piece of paper and call it a poem. So, really, when you think about it, there is only one great writer sitting here.”

Still, he gave nothing away in his face and both he and Jagjit sat with stone faced expressions. It was a diabolical compliment that switches so quickly at the end that it leaves the person for whom the compliment is intended scratching his/her head.

0069I looked at him, also seriously, and said, “Bha Ji thank you very much for drumming me and my fellow poets down to the ground especially a minute ago when you were saying I was great with my poems and with my singing. I’ve spent the morning entertaining you two. Now you sing me one of your short stories. Then we’ll see which is easier!”

And all three of us couldn’t help but let out a loud laugh as though we were school children, as our own children, who were on driving duty sat across the room perplexed at how the somber mood my poems usually create had been so drastically altered through this one comment.

Coming back to this book and reminded by Bhullar’s joke, the title prompted me as a poet to align with Dummies assuming this must be about drumming down on reading and writing poetry. But it turned out to be a very informative and useful book with valuable suggestions for people like me and others who are in the same boat and are eager to learn and share.  The book opens with a dedication:

“To our families and to everyone – from Enheduanna to the pair of eyes on these very words – who loves reading and writing poetry. Let Poetry for Dummies declare our lifelong thanks.”

Enheduanna, the “earliest author and poet in the world that history knows by name,”  according to a google search I did. According to this book she was a powerful, astonishing poet whose poetry was sung bearing a close connection with music, an imprint it still bears today. Since the art of singing is considered as the twin sister of the art of poetry according to this book, I think that the art of poetry is even older than that going as far back as when the human race evolved and first learned to cry when sad and sing when happy. Just as we are innate storytellers, so are we innate poets.

Much interesting and informative this book is as it is, and teaches some valuable hints on how people can learn to read and write poetry, it does not say much about what makes people write it. That brings me back to the same question I started this blog post with, and has probably been asked for the past 5000 years since Enheduanna. Below is a video to a live BBC interview from the 1970s (with English subtitles) with another one of my favorite Punjabi poets, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, another Sahitya Akademi award winner gives a glimpse of the mindset that created all the work we have come to love.

He is asked the question of how he became a poet and he gives one of the most honest answers I have heard. He talks about his upbringing and the class system in India he grew up with, but in the midst of his answer he states simply, “mujhe nahi pata ki mai shaer kaise hogia hun.” (I don’t know how I became a poet.). The interviewer still tries to get to the bottom of it and asks whether it could be that he had some trauma and pain in his childhood, unrequited love, etc. And his answers point to the same thing: sometimes, there is no reason. It simple is. And that is probably the best answer anyone can give on why we write poetry!


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Lohri Message 2013: Is Punjabi a Dying Language? It may well be!

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Discussion | 0 comments

Lohri 4In view of the intense debate started about the future of one of the most ancient languages and associated cultures i.e. Punjabi and Punjabiat  and as a concerned citizen who watches this debate closely, I wrote an article titled, “Is Punjabi a Dying Language? and posted it on April 2, 2012. As usual I received some very interesting comments. One of the most recent comments that I received in the new year a few days ago was by Jehanzeb Mahar from Pakistan and I quote, “A few months ago, in Pakistan, parliamentarians from Sindh forwarded a bill calling for giving the status of national language to Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Balochi, to a parliamentary committee. Amazingly, the members from Punjab, alongwith Urdu members, came out to be the most vocal opponents of the bill. So, the bill was rejected and couldn’t even be presented in the parliament for voting.” Vow! You should read that again and ponder!!
The question arises if the goodwill is any better on the eastern border of the Indus Valley?

Tradition has it that all Punjabis celebrate Lohri as a festival in their own ways, families get together and exchange good wishes. Not intending to water down the jubilations, I wonder how many of us really know the sober history behind it all. Reflecting on this and to bring it to the forefront of all concerned Punjabis living at home or in the Diaspora, I thought it appropriate to publish again the article as well as my Punjabi poem, ” Ma Boli Punjabie Tera Kon Vichara”, which I had written and posted on the website. Celebrating this ‘Lohri’ will not be complete unless it rekindles the spirit of ‘Dulla Bhatti’ of yesteryears who laid down his life saving the honor of a daughter of Punjab. From the ongoing it appears now the honor of Punjabi Ma is at stake!

On this note I leave you with the links to read my article as well as my poem and ponder :


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The year that was 2012!

Posted by on Jan 2, 2013 in Discussion | 0 comments

Dear Friends,
2012 has been a dramatic year, from Malala Yousafzai to Damini to mass murders and unrelenting violence, especially against women and children in places where they are most vulnerable. Having received a lot of good wishes for the new year, I was thinking hard how to reciprocate to all of my friends. Then came along an email written by Prof. Chaman Lal of Jawahar Lal Nehru University Delhi addressed to Kuldip Nayar, copied to me.  I could not have found better words than this to wish you with the year 2013 and I partly quote: “May the year prove to be little just, with less violence, reviving more humaneness. There would be no lasting peace till society becomes just with equitable distribution of natural and social resources to all human beings on earth without reference to class, race, caste, nation, gender or age. Where there are no crimes or fewer crimes with fast justice.”

I leave you my Punjabi Kavita,”Dheeaan” (Daughters)  and you can read the Kavita di Kahani if interested.


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Kavita Di Kahani: Dheeaan

Posted by on Oct 18, 2010 in Kavita Di Kahani, Punjabi Poetry | 0 comments

Dheeaan - Daughters - by Pashaura Singh DhillonI completed the final version of the poem ‘Dheeaan’ not long ago when the news of infanticide started to get worse in India, especially in Punjab and Haryana. It seemed that there were new stories more horrific than the last several times a day. The ratio between newly born boys and girls dropped from 1000 to 700 and was still going down. While I recently put the finishing touches on my poem, I had been thinking about it since the senseless India- Pakistan wars in 60’s and 70’s.

I wrote the first version of ‘Dheeaan’ after listening to Noor Jahan’s beautiful rendition of the popular Pakistani war song “Eh Puttar Hattan te Nahi Wikde” meaning “Our sons cannot be bought in the marketplace.” I heard this song during the 1965 India Pakistan war. I still remember watching fighter planes being consumed by flames and exploding in mid-air, unleashing heavy artillery fire and a sea of bombs in the unspoiled wilderness just outside our village before returning to their base,  and huge tanks colliding with equally massive tanks in the Khem Karan and the Wagha sectors. My ancestoral village, Jandiala is almost the same distance (10-15 miles) from Wagha border towards Lahore as the village Bhakna is on the Amritsar side, where I grew up under the auspices of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna.

Here is Noor Jehan’s video:

I have always liked Noor Jehan’s melodic voice and this was no different. But as melodic as Noor Jehan’s voice was, or how much I loved its tune, the tone and message of the song always irked me. It wasn’t because I did not understand what was being said of Pakistani patriotism; Indian patriotism or any other country’s patriotic songs are not so different either. It was because of what was left unsaid. If sons cannot be bought at the marketplace, what is being implied about daughters? Are they more expendable or replaceable?

The other obvious reason that I found the lyrics of this song hypocritical was that it was a song about the glorification of senseless wars. In addition to it being a colossal waste of human life, it was even more senseless because it involved brothers fighting with brothers over something that could have been taken care of at the dinner table. The whole world was laughing at them when they were at each other’s throats, not once, but three times. My family and other close relatives, who used to live in district lahore told me just how pointless it truly was. There are Dhillons, Randhawas, Cheemas, Gills, Virks, Chatthas, Bhattis,Ghumans and so on, literally brothers fighting against brothers on both sides of the war and for what?

Only the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who lost their loved ones or had them seriously wounded, maimed and incapacitated for the rest of their lives in those avoidable wars could understand the true meaning of the tone of the song.  So while it is a pretty song on the surface with the ever so beautiful Noor Jahan, who, along with Lata Mangeshkar, is one of my all time favorite singers; I wish if such a tone and tenor could be employed in campaigns against wars, the dowry system, infanticide, and in support of women and girl-child rights, both in India and Pakistan and every where else for that matter. There are some helpful organizations such as Nanhi Chhaan, that are making great strides in their activism, but there are some things only musicians, poets, writers, and artists can do.  Check out my write-up on the Nanhi Chhaan foundation at Khalsa College here.

Coming back to my kavita , I rewrote the final version of ‘Dheeaan’ as I watched the same song sung by Noor Jahan posted on the you tube after so many years. And it is my hope that it will provide the story left untold by Noor Jehan’s rendition. The story of the daughters. It has been published in some well known Punjabi magazines and here: Punjabi poem in Gurmukhi. It was only recently that I put this kavita to moving images set to my voice and posted on the you tube and my FaceBook. I would love to hear your comments and if the words of this kavita move you, become my fan on FaceBook where I can let you know when I have new content. After many requests, here is my kavita with English subtitles:

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