At this juncture Punjabi literature is being written at several terrains. Earlier, it was only the terrain of Punjab at which its writing would flourish. After Partition, particularly from the sixties, England became the second terrain. Migration to England being easy, educated Punjabis went and settled their in large numbers. From the seventies, Canada and America became the focus of migration for the Punjabis. From then onward, Punjabis strove to migrate wherever they could, to the European countries, Australia and the other adjacent countries. Only the communist countries remained free from their migration. This was natural because the Punjabis had one end in view. They went in search of better economic prospects, which countries of the communist bloc could not guarantee. If now they are getting visible there as well, it is because the earlier system has collapsed. To say that now Punjabis are visible in all the countries of the world may be an exaggeration but it is exaggeration of the vital truth.
This global visibility notwithstanding, they have been able to mark their presence only in England, Canada and America. To the terrain of Punjab where literature in Punjabi began to be written from the first quarter of the 13th century, have got added these three terrains from the second half of the 20th century. Paradoxically enough, the Punjabis had migrated to Malay etc and to Kenya in Africa, and in those countries, their presence in the domain of odd jobs was evident enough. However, no literary activity even to express their helpless state seemed worthwhile to them. In the light of this state of affairs, it is reasonable to contend that at the present juncture, Punjabi literature is being produced at four terrains. Literary writings coming from these four terrains are distinct with regard to theme and style. Metaphorically speaking, both plants, standing for worthwhile writings and weeds denoting worthless ones are to be found on the three terrains. Where the former exceed and the latter are less, depends upon their past significance, present meaning and future value.
It was on the terrain of Punjab that modern literature came into being and is flourishing in all genres from the beginning of the 20th century. Bhai Vir Singh, its multi-faceted founder, wrote in several genres. The poetic was chief, of which the epical, lyrical and narrative were his creative modes. He tried his hand at the fictional and dramatic genres as well. If in them, he could not show much of a promise, at least, he brought them into vogue for later writers to discover their range and develop their horizon. In the narrative and dramatic genres Sant Singh Sekhon showed great excellence. If his novel began the trend of realistic portrayal at macro scale, his short stories excelled in projecting the minutiae of rural life in all their subtlety and sobriety. His historical plays sought not only to delineate but also to reveal Sikh history from the secular perspective. To him also goes the credit of laying the foundation of critical theory and literary history in Punjabi. There were several others, Puran Singh, Mohan Singh, Amrita Pritam and Siv Batalvi in poetry, Gurbax Singh, Nanak Singh and Kulwant Singh Virk in fiction and Balwant Gargi in playwriting who ensconced themselves at high pedestals. Though their range was not as universal but they further explored the horizon in the genres they employed to expand and explore the genres they employed for the purpose.
Historically speaking, modern Punjabi literature comprises two eras, of the pre-independence period that extends till the end of the fifties and the post-independence period that, starting from the sixties, comes up to the present stage. Approximately, both the periods comprise six decades each. The earlier one may look close-ended when viewed from hindsight but is open-ended in terms of history when its after-life is viewed from foresight. The later one is open-ended in terms of time but in terms of history gives the feel of relatively being close-ended for not showing the promise of after-life to that extent. This difference arises from the fact that for writers of the early era, affiliation with wider factors like culture, class, tradition, history, politics and ideology was of crucial importance. Filiation with family, profession, personal relation, identity and sexual attachment did matter but in a contrapuntal way. For writers of the later era, filiation with close factors matters the most, so much as to seem a categorical imperative. When they turn to affiliation, which is quite often, it is mostly to minimize its role in life.
The literature of the first era, seeking excellence in all the genres, was progressive in tone and tenor. All the residual factors, creedal beliefs, caste-differences, religious superstitions, social repressions and political oppressions, keeping the people ignorant and backward, were laid bare. Those works in which their depiction glowed with supreme skill were like plants. The use of imagination and memory through the prism of irony, rendered them not only significant but meaningful as well. Their reception has gone far ahead of their creation. The weed-like works, with recourse only to bland satire, were also in sufficient quantity, particularly because the progressive trend declined into its neo-progressive phase in the hands of those who reduced affiliation to political commitment. The poetic genre held sway but the other genres were as widely read and applauded by the reading public. The outstanding writers strove to project images of life hearkening above restrictions and obstructions marking life of the people. They kept themselves aware of not only social and political developments but also of literary and cultural trends defining the ideological domains of the Western and the Socialist countries. Most of them were intellectuals, generally of the non-academic sort.
The writers of the later era channelized their energies under a different dispensation. So they continue to do till now. Rather than a trend, as the prominent progressive writers strove to develop, they sought and continue to seek tendencies. As a result, various tendencies have come into vogue from the beginning of the seventies. Works come to the fore under the sway of different tendencies stress aspects of human experience most defined by the nature of its filiation. This results in more focus upon a particular aspect of the individual at the cost of human personality. The first is the feminist tendency that has displaced the earlier motifs, loving, dreaming, pining and sighing. Advocates of this tendency, Manjit Tiwana, Manjitpal Kaur Vaneeta and Simrat Gagan have concerned themselves with the gender-specific identity of the female. They focus upon biases and prejudices, forcing the female to be subordinate to the male. Marriage not as bond but contract and procreation as obligation lurk over their poetic selves. Of course, these motifs experientially define the female body than the earlier ones which gave voiced dreams and desires. Since the advocates of feminist motifs are educated women, invariably academic, their poems, for all the relevance, stay as specialized constructs. They have gender-specific influence overwhelming in certain cases but lacking in appeal to the reading public at large.
The other tendency, current among the male poets, economically privileged but deprived of social prestige, may be called disjunctive for enclosing the individual and the society into contraries of the absolute sort. They feel that their natural dispositions can realize themselves only if no social restrictions from without and emotional inhibitions from within obstruct their path. In all situations, whether brought to the fore by social and political circumstances or recalled by them from legends and myths, they find frustration staring them in the face. Relief, if any, is momentary to be sought in sexual union and casual liaison unencumbered by commitment of any sort. Not memory and imagination but shock and distraction are its ends and means. Its chief protagonists are persons like Jaswant Deed in poetry, Prem Parkash in fiction and Atamjit in playwriting. They have mattered in the domain of media, education and press. Several inward factors might have gone into its genesis. Terrorism, that stalked Punjab countryside for two decades, was the outward factor. If mobility in social life came to a dead end, the human mind, particularly of middle-class intelligentsia, got burdened with paranoia of which this tendency is the outpouring.
The third tendency, to come to the fore during this time, was of subaltern writing that continues with as much urgency. It continues and has flourished considerably in the realm of poetry. It draws motifs from the life of the lowly classes. In a contrapuntal way, it also had a lot to do with terrorism that stalked the Punjab countryside. The Sikh Gurus had preached equality and fraternity but its custodians had taken to terrorism. Under the pretext of eliminating it, the State took to it in a more brutal way. The common people got crushed like grains between two grinding stones. In this situation, the subaltern people felt as if from living beings, they were reduced to breathing creatures. The writers, particularly the poets composed picturesque outbursts to voice their state slightly better than of animals. Over and above form and style, it is concerned with depiction. Obviously, its prevalence seeks to evoke the unchanging past of existence as perpetually the same. Its significance and meaning cannot be denied but being so, its value seems uncertain.
Its opposite seeks abode in the tendency to project experience in a way that seeks to reduce experience and thought to their state of origin. The change, time, history, reflection and self-reflection introduced in them are altogether denied. The writers, particularly, the poets, advocating the incipient version of Sikhism, resorted to popularize this tendency, which has scaled down but has not disappeared. Harinder Maboob was the chief practitioner of such writing. Novels of inconspicuous merit have also been written under its aegis. During the past decade, its inspiration seemed to have petered out but at crucial moments it reappears under the pretext of seeking justice against the demolition of the Akal Takhat, symbolizing temporal power of the community. Further incentive accrues to it from the demand for punishing the guilty ones, instrumental in slaughtering the Sikhs in the wake of Shrimati Indra Gandhi's killing by her bodyguards of their faith.
All these tendencies keep on finding expression in works, some of which resemble plants and the others are like weeds. Without any doubt however, like flourishing plants are the poems of Surjit Patar, plays of Swarajbir and novels of Avtar Singh Billing. Responsive to the human and humane factors marking the progressive trend, they, in their respective genres, remain aware of what in the new tendencies stands for their richness. No wonder, Surjit Patar's poetry strives to evoke contemporary dilemmas with an eye on their native origin and general surge. While doing so, he creates a poetic discourse that relies upon the syntactical aspect as much as upon the pictorial and auditory ones. Swarajbir is a poet but more so a playwright. He draws subject matter for his plays from varied sources, mythical, legendary, historical and social. While delving into them for truth content, he does not restrict himself to deal with them as medium. He confronts them as a fraught mine, the cultivation of which is like ploughing the sea. Parallel to them is novel-writing for Avtar Singh Biling. His focus stays intact upon the rural life of Punjab. How new perplexities, national and international in sway, impact village life in Punjab, to unravel that remains his overwhelming concern. Not only in Punjab, abroad also where Punjabis are settled, all the three have readers eager to know what is in store for the land they have migrated from in search of new abodes.
The contribution of writings from abroad to the Punjabi literary corpus is secondary in merit but primary in determining the state of publication. In this regard, what first comes to mind is what is being written on the terrain of England. From the seventies of the previous century, writings have kept on coming to the fore not only in the poetic mode but in the fictional and dramatic ones as well. Earlier, the motif actuating the writings was of nostalgia in articulating which Jagtar Dhaa excelled the most. As the migrants settled, felt themselves in no way less than the English, nostalgia gave way to other concerns. These concerns are social and political, resonant with existential stresses and strains. In this regard, most notable is Amarjit Chandan's output in poetry and prose that is conspicuous for its excavating quality. As compared to writings in the poetic mode, those in the fictional mode are secondary, though not insignificant. In the dramatic mode, they are tertiary and seem to have come to a stop even. This should not be the case if we glance at the Punjabi youth there, striving to forge ahead in theatre and film.
Next to England is Canada from where a large number of Punjabi writings come. At this juncture, they exceed those coming from England and America, perhaps both put together. Since the vastness of land, opulence of natural resources, civic amenities and learning of Punjabi language are more pronounced in Canada than anywhere else, the writers are encouraged to articulate their concerns in almost all the genres. Of course, it was the poetic mode in which Ajmer Rode distinguished himself by writing introspective poetry. Surjit Kalsi has chalked out a place for her writings on female and feminist themes. Sukhpal has explored distractions and exasperations in store for the Canadian citizens, in language bare but not direct and subtle not obtuse. Shameel is another who, while dealing with such motifs, has forged an idiom more proverbial but not less cognitive, of reportage and retrospection at the same time. Fictional mode is as reliable and particularly in story-writing, Amarpal Sara showed a great promise, sadly enough cut short by some serious illness. Of late, Rachpal Kaur has won enough of recognition with her writings on problems being faced by the new generations of the Punjabi migrants. Quite exciting are plays, which keep on appearing, particularly about Komagata Maru, the ship, that brought about four hundred migrants to Canada. They were not allowed to land and on going back to India, they were put behind bars as criminals.
Punjabi literature, being written on the American terrain is of a different sort. Migrants, now settled even as citizens here, are faced with very pressing problems and challenges. They find themselves in a competitive situation that always keeps them on tenterhooks. They cannot afford to devote all their energy to this task. From their otherwise pressing engagements, they have to snatch moments either to deflect their minds from hurdles and dilemmas or reflect in retrospect upon relations and memories left behind. So poetic is their chief mode of expression. Those at technical, academic, professional and studious jobs employ rhetoric and polemics to express the odds to be overcome for swimming with the tide. Jagjit Brar and Gurumel are poets of this sort who also seek to measure the hazards posed by scientific and technological advances. Then, there are those who circumvent these challenges and hazards through lyrical outbursts. They have recourse to memory not as fraught field for posing challenges but as a medium for providing relief. Gazal and geet are the typical forms they employ, which hold out emotional relief when read and aesthetic pleasure when sung to the accompaniment of music. Harjinder Kang is the best of the lot. Of late, haiku is getting popular with such persons as are retired from jobs or are comfortable in life. They have the leisure to cast reflective look at the life around. Gurmit Sandhu deserves special mention in this regard.
What is heartening for the publishers but discouraging for genuine writers of merit in Punjab is the readiness, writers based abroad show to extend monetary help to the publishers. Conversion of pounds and dollars into rupees does not bother them but it causes lot of headache to writers based in India and Punjab. The impulse that to the relative extent, the publishers had earlier nourished to publish books of literary merit, has disappeared to substantial extent. So-called writers, prevailed upon by publishers to get famous, then coax academics to present papers on their books and the latter, under the garb of academic expertise, discover one thing or the other to shower vociferous praise upon them. The readers, several times students of such academics, get confused. They are not able to decide whether merit being attributed to such books is genuine or not.
The good dream of Haribhajan Singh, poet and critic of great merit, had to project academic light upon literary texts by employing formal, structural and deconstructive categories, was turned into a bad dream, if not a nightmare by his acolytes. When they eulogized him, he felt exultant but could not anticipate that subsequently they would demonize him. This bad dream got outward support from terrorism in the first instance. When terrorism was eliminated, it did not vanish, instead, it drew patronage from the authoritarian power that came to permeate every aspect and facet of Punjabi life. Now that this power is getting exposed, its contradictions are coming to the fore, genuine appreciation, the norms of which were devised by Sant Singh Sekhon and popularized by several other critics and historians of literature like Attar Singh and Ravinder Ravi, are on way back. They are not only being revived but are also getting enriched with perspectives hearkening to literary trends in foreign languages. In equal measure, they are responsive to such trends in Indian languages. To replenish them with renewed awareness of Punjabi language and literature, the first literary writing in which had appeared seven centuries back in the first quarter of the 13th century, is concern of overarching importance. Historical immanence is the guiding principle of this project.