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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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Know Your Poets: Anwar Masood

Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in Featured, Know Your Poets | 1 comment

Anwar Masood

Anwar Masood

Many people think about Pakistani poet and singer, Anwar Masood as a very humorous poet and I must admit the first poem of his I heard, “Lassi te Cha,” I initially thought was really funny, but he so skillfully weaved the poem to be about very deep and dark societal issues of caste and privilege. He is a poet that has the rare gift of being able to take a very serious subject and make it light and entertaining. His background is also very interesting to me because although he has a Masters degree in Persian from Oriental College in Lahore and has written poems in Urdu and Persian, he is mainly known for his Punjabi poetry that cuts to the bone.

He made hijrat to Lahore, not across the border but back and forth from Gujarat in Pakistan. His poetry is in Punjabi I really like not only because of how he sings it, but because they always involves Punjabi culture and tradition, often things that either don’t exist or may very well be extinct in the coming years.

He wrote a deeply moving poem about mothers that was so rhythmic. Writing about mothers is the most emotional for us humans and other living creatures alike. Anwar Masood’s Punjabi poem titled as ‘ Maa Di Shan’ is the one which makes me cry every time I watch this  video clip with Noor Ul Hassan’s introduction in the ‘Visale Yaar’ presentation.

It is a very happy feeling to see that a Punjabi poet is able to draw in the crowds and write meaningful poetry as receives standing ovations from men and women, old and young when he reads or sings his poetry. There is little doubt why he is immensely popular in Pakistan and I hope his fame extends to India and more! One of my Pakistani friends tells me that Anwar Masood is perhaps the only well known Punjabi poet in Pakistan where Urdu poetry is systematically promoted, who stands shoulder to shoulder if not taller than Urdu poets in terms of popularity in Pakistan especially in Punjab. He uses metaphors that you wouldn’t think a learned scholar would use that he easily taps into what makes us all connect as human beings: banyan, chah, lassi (undershirt, desi tea, lassi is lassi). He uses these metaphors to press some red-hot buttons in a very poetic way.

Do you have a favorite poet, whose words you find moving? Who is your Anwar Masood?

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What Inspires a Poet?

Posted by on Apr 29, 2012 in Kavita Di Kahani | 0 comments

People often ask me what was it that made me a poet and how did I begin to write.

This question is not new or specific to me. People often wonder about what inspires creative types – actors, dancers, artists, musicians, and of course, writers and poets. The one question that is inevitably asked is how they became what they became. But the answer is not a simple one and there can never be only one particular reason for it. This question must have been around since the ‘Rig Ved’ was written 5000 years or so ago.

John Lawrence Ashbery, an American poet published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Raised on a farm, Ashbery was educated at Deerfield, an all-boys school. He read works by poets like W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas and started writing himself. When he was asked the question of what inspires to write his poetry, John Ashbery replied, “I don’t know really. I just want to.”

Sultan Bahu, the all time great Sufi stalwart poet, sums up his response in this way : “Allah Chambe Di Booti, Murshad Man vich Lai Hoo. Undr Booti Mushq Machaia, Jan Phulln te Aie Hoo. Jive Murshad, Kamil Bahhu, Jein Eh Booti Lai Hoo.” With the grace of God, there is a miraculous plant (Chambe Di Booti) growing inside you, and when it blooms its fragrance spreads all over, for which the poet is forever grateful to his spiritual master, who enabled him to do it!

Eminent Punjabi writer and Sahit Academy Award winner Gurbachan Singh Bhullar elaborates on the idea of “Chambe Di Booti” when he says that one has to have the mind and soul as a prepared ground to strike the roots of ‘Chambe Di Booti’ (Miracle herb) and that is if Murshad (Spiritual hand) wills it to plant it there. Otherwise, why is it that out of five siblings born of same parents, living under one roof, exposed to the same environment, living in the same culture, only one becomes a writer? In one of his interviews answering this question in a greater detail, Bhullar sums it up by replacing the word “Mohabbat” (true love) with “Sahit” (writing) from Bismil Saidi’s famous sher about the intense emotions associated with Mohabbat that not everybody is endowed with: “Sahit (Mohabbat) Ke Leeay Kuchh Khaas Dil Mkhsoos Hote Hain, Yih Woh Ngma Hai Jo Her Saaz Pe Gaiya Nhin Jata”

When renowned Punjabi writer, Jasbir Bhullar, was asked by Amrita Pritam why he writes, Bhullar answered that he wrote a long answer explaining every reason he could think of, and finally concluded it in a single sentence. When translated in English it meant,“I don’t know any other way to live.”

In Shiv Batalvi’s last interview on the BBC, which I watched live in London, Mahendra Kaul succumbed to the same curiosity and asked Shiv the same old question, “What was it that turned you into a shayer, a poet: was it a deprivation, lack of love, failed relationship, betrayal, frustration in life and or escapism from it all that drove you to write?” he asked Batalvi almost in one breath.  “I was the son of a Tehsildar (Revenue Officer), there was no depravation,” Batalvi replied. “Lack of love? No. On the contrary. There has been plenty of love around me.”  In fact he was the most loved and revered Punjabi poet of his time in that sense. “It is not just one or none of those things; it is more than that, perhaps all of them and more in some way.”  Batalvi struggled to satisfy Kaul the best way he could.  At the end of his lengthy answer, Batalvi looked Kaul in the eye ending it in a one liner: “Was my answer to your question a complete one or not”? Kaul simply smiled and moved on.

I find it hard to put my finger on any one thing that might have inspired me more than any other thing or one particular poet that I read who inspired me to start writing poetry myself. I believe there were many factors that contributed to it, but as someone once wrote in a poetry magazine: “We are born as poets from a wound that is inflicted upon us by other poets’ poetry.” This is the most eloquent way I have ever heard anyone describe it. And that is really how I see my own journey into being a poet: at some point I had that wound. For a more detailed answer to the question at hand, check out my About Page, or read Kavita Di Kahani.

In addition to my overall inspiration to being a poet, there are various sources of inspiration for all of my poems. Sometimes an image comes to my mind from my garden, or a newspaper headline, or simply from an image. My latest poem, for example, Kanwal Phull (Lotus Flower), was inspired by an image of a lotus flower posted to my FaceBook wall by photographer and writer, Janmeja Singh Johl. The image was striking, not just for its beauty, but because this particular flower grows in places where nothing that spectacularly beautiful grows: swamps, marshes, and mud ponds. To put it another way literally it grows out of mud or chikker in Punjabi language. It reminded me of an actual human being, who can flourish and radiate beauty, both inside and out, regardless of his or her environment. Please read my poem, Kanwal Phull in Gurmukhi and Romanized Punjabi. If you are interested in reading an English translation or Shahmukhi script, let me know through your comments and I will gladly oblige!

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Eleven of My Favorite Punjabi Poets

Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Discussion, Punjabi Poetry | 0 comments

There are, of course, many poets in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and English who I have read and been influenced by in some way over the years, but these eleven poets are perhaps the reason I am even a poet today. Their beautiful verses touched my soul from a very young age and helped me make sense of post-partition Punjab, as well as the world around me. It has taken me around 60 years to feel comfortable enough to pay homage to my all time favorite Punjabi poet, Waris Shah. This is my rendition of one part of his epic tragic love story,”Heer.” This particular scene is when Ranjha makes the difficult decision to leave Takhat Hazara.

Classic Punjabi Poets


Sultan Bahu (1628-1691) wrote in Punjabi and the Persian language, but is much more well known for his Punjabi poetry. What separates him from many other poets of his time (and indeed of any time) is that his verses are sung in a variety of genres associated with Sufi music.

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