Of Sacred and Secular Desire
A Review by Gajindar Singh
Author: Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh
Publisher: I.B. Tauris @ Co. Ltd., New York (USA)
Pages: 252; Price. not mentioned
The book under review is an anthology of Punjabi poetry and spans a period of almost nine hundred years, the oldest poet-philosopher being Sheikh Farid Shakarganj and the latest being Amrita Pritam. The author is a celebrated scholar and researcher, Nikky GK Singh, who has many publications to her credit, superb translations of the Sikh scriptures and is regarded as an original theorist. She is the daughter of revered Prof. Harbans Singh of Sikh Encyclopedia fame, who was also author of many well known research papers.
It is difficult to squeeze authentic and representative literature of a language as old, rich and reflective of a violent history as Punjabi has had the occasion to experience. There were constant raids across the Hindukush range and fast changing fortunes of a people who never had respite from aggressors from times of Alexander of Macedonia to Timur to Abdali, who saw in the people of the land of Punjab easy prey for rape and rapine. There were the Sufi poets who sang of their love of God in the midst of all the turmoil around them, Hindu bhaktas, away from the scene of carnage, deeply involved with their rosaries and otherworldliness and the Sikh savants who felt the pain in the first hand experience of atrocities of the invaders on a hapless populace, equally discontented in treatment from their rulers.
Nikky had to restrict her choice in the selection of poetry from Sikh scripture to 'Jap' of Guru Nanak, (this has already been published in her earlier book, 'Verses of the Sikh Gurus'), the famous Arti, and the three pieces of Guru Arjan Dev which perhaps does not do adequate justice to their poetic vision and role of saviors of the downtrodden masses, for the Sikh Gurus were not only highly inspired poets but motivated spiritual leaders with a very difficult task to rouse the dormant energies of a vanquished race. The selection could be little more representative keeping this fact in mind.
It may be mentioned in passing that she has stated on page 15 that Guru Nanak "worked at the local grocery shop", which suggests he was a petty grocer's assistant. On the contrary, he was employed by the powerful satrap Daulat Khan Lodhi, as Modi (in charge) of the government granary, where functionally the wages-in-kind of the state employees were disbursed regularly besides storage and sale, due to his honest references.
The Sufi poets of Punjab have a special flavor of their own. It is understandable that the author had to contend with only two of them for want of space. She has mentioned other outstanding Sufi poets in the Introduction (Page 6) and it is indeed hard to choose one and drop the others. Her Introduction is vivid about the scope of her work.
Among the modern poets, she could have included Puran Singh for his ecstasy and easy flow, blank verse as the first venture in Punjabi, keeping in view limitation of space. The section on Amrita Pritam (28 pages) is well represented to create an aura of the great poetess.
Nikky's translations are superb and retain the aura of the original texts in Punjabi. Her commentaries on different poets, sacred and secular are revealing and the flow of the narrative is easy and informative.
In all, Nikky has presented a very interesting thesis, which obliterates the political and narrow ethnic boundaries drawn across the land of five rivers by over ambitious politicians in haste who had no clue to the deep cultural affinity of the Punjabis spanning beyond religious limits. Political borders are never permanent and cannot be the last word. Her bold bid to bring in fusion the people of Punjab residing on either side of the border by drawing upon the similarity of the emotional and poetical thought, envisions of a composite culture which cannot be easily laid aside. This book should appeal to Punjabi enthusiasts on both sides of the border.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All