A Short History of Punjabi Literature

Punjabi literature refers to literary works written in the Punjabi language particularly by peoples from the historical Punjab region of India and Pakistan including the Punjabi diaspora. The language is written in several scripts, of which the Shahmukhi, the Gurmukhī scripts are the most commonly used.

Early Punjabi Literature (11-15th centuries)

Although the earliest Punjabi literature is found in the fragments of writings of the eleventh century yogis Gorakshanath and Charpatnah, the Punjabi literary tradition is popularly seen to commence with Fariduddin Ganjshakar (1173–1266). whose Sufi poetry was compiled after his death in the Adi Granth.

The Janamsakhis, stories on the life and legend of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), are early examples of Punjabi prose literature. Nanak’s own poetry was fused Punjabi, Khari Boli and Braj Bhasha, with vocabulary from Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian as was much of the literature of the later Sikh Gurus.

Mughal and Sikh Periods (16th century to 1857)

Punjabi poetry developed through Shah Hussain (1538–1599) and the Sufi tradition of Sultan Bahu (1628–1691), Shah Sharaf (1640–1724), Ali Haider (1690–1785), and Bulleh Shah (1680–1757), pictured below. In contrast to Persian poets, who had preferred the ghazal for poetic expression, Punjabi Sufi poets tended to compose in the Kafi.

BullehShah1

Punjabi Sufi poetry also influenced the Punjabi Qissa, a genre of romantic tragedy which also derived inspiration from Indic, Persian and Quranic sources. The Qissa of Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah (1706–1798) is among the most popular of Punjabi qisse. Other popular stories include Sohni Mahiwal by Fazal Shah, Mirza Sahiba by Hafiz Barkhudar (1658–1707), Sassi Punnun by Hashim Shah (1735?–1843?), and Qissa Puran Bhagat by Qadaryar (1802–1892).

Heroic ballads known as Vaar enjoy a old oral tradition in Punjabi. Prominent examples of heroic or epic poetry include Guru Gobind Singh‘s in Chandi di Var (1666–1708). The semi-historical Nadir Shah Di Vaar by Najabat describes the invasion of India by Nadir Shah in 1739. The Jangnama, or ‘War Chronicle,’ was introduced into Punjabi literature during the Mughal period; the Punjabi Jangnama of Shah Mohammad (1780–1862) recounts the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46.

The Colonial Period (1858-1947)

The Victorian novel, Elizabethan drama, free verse and Modernism entered Punjabi literature through the introduction of British education during the Raj. The first Punjabi printing press (using Gurmukhi) was established through a Christian mission at Ludhiana in 1835, and the first Punjabi dictionary was published by Reverend J. Newton in 1854.

The Punjabi novel developed through Nanak Singh (1897–1971) and Vir Singh. Starting off as a pamphleteer and as part of the Singh Sabha Movement, Vir Singh wrote historical romance through such novels as Sundari, Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh, whereas Nanak Singh helped link the novel to the story telling traditions of Qissa and oral tradition as well as to questions of social reform.

The novels, short stories and poetry of Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), pictured below,  highlighted, among other themes, the experience of women, and the Partition of India. Punjabi poetry during the British Raj moreover began to explore more the experiences of the common man and the poor through the work of Puran Singh (1881–1931). Other poets such as Dhani Ram Chatrik (1876–1957), Diwan Singh (1897–1944) and Ustad Daman (1911–1984), explored and expressed nationalism in their poetry during India’s freedom movement.

Amrita Pritam

Modernism was also introduced into Punjabi poetry by Prof. Mohan Singh (1905–78) and Shareef Kunjahi. The Punjabi diaspora also began to emerge during the Raj and also produced poetry whose theme was revolt against British rule in Ghadar di Gunj (Echoes of Mutiny).

Post-Independence literature (1947- )

West Punjab (Pakistan)

Najm Hossein Syed, Fakhar Zaman and Afzal Ahsan Randhawa are some of the more prominent names in West Punjabi literature produced in Pakistan since 1947. Literary criticism in Punjabi has also emerged through the efforts of West Punjabi scholars and poets, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza (b. 1932), Ahmad Salim, and Najm Hosain Syed (b. 1936). The work of Zaman and Randhawa often treats the rediscovery of Punjabi identity and language in Pakistan since 1947.

Urdu poets of the Punjab have also written Punjabi poetry including Munir Niazi (1928–2006).

Eastern Punjab (India)

Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936–1973), Surjit Paatar (1944–) and Pash (1950–1988), pictured below, are some of the more prominent poets and writers of East Punjab (India). Pritam’s Sunehe (Messages) received the Sahitya Akademi in 1982. In it, Pritam explores the impact of social morality on women. Kumar’s epic Luna (a dramatic retelling of the legend of Puran Bhagat) won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965.

Paash

Socialist themes of revolution meanwhile influenced writers like Pash whose work demonstrates the influence of Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. Meanwhile, modern drama developed through Ishwar Nanda’s Ibsen-influenced Suhag in 1913, Gursharan Singh who helped popularize the genre through live theatre in Punjabi villages and Kartar Singh Duggal, and Balwant Gargi.

Diaspora Punjabi literature

Punjabi diaspora literature has developed through writers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States, as well as writers in Africa such as Ajaib Kamal, born in 1932 in Kenya. Themes explored by diaspora writers include the cross-cultural experience of Punjabi migrants, racial discrimination, exclusion, and assimilation, the experience of women in the diaspora, and spirituality in the modern world. Second generation writers of Punjabi ancestry such as Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon (Roop Dhillon) have explored the relationship between British Punjabis and their immigrant parents as well as experiment with surrealism, science-fiction and crime-fiction.

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