Amrita Pritam

Punjabi poet and novelist

For over five decades, Amrita Pritam was a household name across Punjab province, partitioned between India and Pakistan. She was known for her ability to portray the essence of its robust people, their turbulent lives and, above all, their deeply entrenched pathos. In simple but delicate and creative prose and verse, she expressed the poignancy of India's division by the colonial administration in 1947, when millions were uprooted, with bloodshed and tragedy on either side of the new border.

Written a few months after Partition, the opening lines of Pritam's "Ode to Waris Shah", an elegy to the 18th-century Punjabi poet - "I want Waris Shah to speak from his grave / And turn today in the Book of Love, to love's next beloved page" - capture hauntingly the essence of the moving times. The poem remains immortalised in the hearts of millions of Punjabis.

In the novel Pinjar (1950, later translated as The Skeleton), Pritam depicts the political and human tragedy that subsumed Punjab in the months of sectarian rioting that preceded the sub-continent's partition into a Muslim Pakistan and a broadly secular, but predominantly Hindu India. Pritam focused on the lives of young Muslim, Sikh and Hindu women who became the victims of abduction, rape and other untold miseries during the fury of the chaos and mindless killings, in a cameo that was eventually made into a successful film in 2002.

Pritam's poignant poems also publicised the plight of Punjabi women, who had woven their suffering in a conservative milieu into folksongs, sung softly behind voluminous veils and in the privacy of the kitchens to which they were perpetually doomed.

She was born Amrita Kaur in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, in 1919, the daughter of an orthodox Sikh schoolteacher and poet. Her mother died when she was only 11; the ensuing loneliness made the pretty and petite Amrita reclusive and she sought solace in poetry, publishing her first anthology in 1935 at the age of 16 in Lahore, the cultural and political capital of Punjab and the city where she lived until partition.

The same year, desperately in search of emotional succour and stability, she married Pritam Singh, a Sikh journalist who was much older than her. But it was an unhappy and highly turbulent union that eventually ended in divorce in 1960, rendering a strong feminist flavour to Pritam's later works.

Thereafter she teamed up with Imroz, an artist based in Delhi, where she had lived since independence, and their relationship survived for over four decades. In one of her recent poems, penned from her sickbed and knowing that her end was imminent, she consoled Imroz by declaring that they would meet again.

After independence, Amrita Pritam (she continued to use her married name throughout her life) joined the state-run All India Radio, and worked there for 14 years until 1961 when she left to take up writing full-time. Her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (The Revenue Stamp) in 1976 courted controversy for its candidness, as did the volume of poetry Kagaz te Kanvas ("Paper and Canvas") four years later.

In a literary career spanning seven decades, Pritam wrote 24 novels, 15 short-story anthologies and some 23 volumes of poetry, greatly enriching the Punjabi language. She was the first woman to be conferred with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, for Sunehray ("Golden"), her anthology of Punjabi verse, in 1955.

Pritam was also the first Punjabi woman to be awarded the Padma Shri, one of India's higher civilian awards, in 1969 and the Jnanpith Award - the country's highest literary honour - 13 years later. "I have just returned what I absorbed from reading the great poetry of the great Sufi and Bhakti poets of my land," Pritam said modestly.

A diehard romantic, Pritam was constantly in search of freedom and lived life on her own terms. She was also down to earth and possessed of a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour that helped her make light of personal tragedies.

Kuldip Singh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a world leader ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future