On August 31st, the literary world honours the birth anniversary of Amrita Pritam, a towering figure in Punjabi literature. Pritam, who was born in 1919 in the Gujranwala area of Punjab (India), has had a tremendous influence on literature that continues to reverberate with readers and authors alike.
Pritam was often referred to as the “first poetess of the Punjabi language,” and her creative journey spanned all genres, leaving an enduring legacy. Her oeuvre spans over 100 works, including poetry, short tales, novels, and her celebrated autobiography ‘Rasidi Ticket’. Pritam’s ability to go from amorous poetry to profound societal critiques demonstrated her flexibility as a writer.
Notably, her participation in the Progressive Writers’ Movement influenced her work. Her 1944 collection ‘Lok Peed’ (People’s Anguish) boldly criticized the post-war economics and addressed the horrific Bengal famine. Pritam’s social involvement was also visible in her partnership with Guru Radha Kishan to create the first Janta Library in Delhi following India’s independence, demonstrating her dedication to societal improvement.
Pritam’s legacy is best shown by her emotionally charged poetry “Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu” (Today I summon Waris Shah). This heartfelt elegy honours the 18th-century Punjabi poet while reflecting on the anguish of the 1947 Partition massacres. Pritam’s capacity to transfer personal and social grief into vivid lyrics is captured in this work, among others.
Pritam’s greatest work as a novelist, ‘Pinjar’ (The Skeleton, 1950), is a dramatic story that covers brutality against women, the degradation of humanity, and resignation to existential fate. This piece was eventually transformed into the award-winning film ‘Pinjar’ (2003), which increased its effect even further.
Pritam’s literary achievements have received widespread acclaim. Her poem ‘Sunehade’ earned her the 1956 Sahitya Akademi Award for Punjabi literature, making her the first and only woman to receive the honour. Following that, she received the coveted Bharatiya Jnanpith award in 1982 and the Padma Shri in 1969 for her efforts. In 2004, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, as well as the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship for lifetime accomplishment, demonstrating her continuing impact.
Pritam’s words, “Mujhe wo samay yaad hai jab dhoop ka ek tukda, sooraj ki ungli thaam kar, andhere ka mela dekhta, us bheed mein kahin kho gya” (I remember when a piece of sunshine, holding the sun’s finger, watched the fair of darkness, lost somewhere in that crowd). Amrita Pritam’s literary corpus encompassing ‘Pinjar’, ‘Suneray’, ‘Nagmani’, and her folk songs, reflects her enduring resonance with readers across generations.
Her contributions have not only enriched Punjabi literature but also left an indelible imprint on the global literary landscape. As we celebrate her birth anniversary, we honor the legacy of a writer whose words continue to kindle hearts and minds, fostering a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling.