Note: As Nate Rabe nurses a broken finger after a rough football game, this column, originally published in October 2014, has been updated as this week's replacement with the version of the song in Udta Punjab.
It is indeed a big deal if you can write Punjabi poetry that generates as much emotional resonance as that of Waris Shah or Ghulam Fareed. The lyrics of these and other mighty poets run as deeply as the panch nadiyan (five rivers) in the Punjabi consciousness and are championed by people of all creeds on both sides of that tragic line on the map. By that measure, the poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalvi is a heritage equal to that of the great Punjab poets of the past. His poems are embraced and beloved by Indians and Pakistanis and have been sung by qawwals, pop stars, folksters and ghazal maestros.
Batalvi lived a life that was short and that seemed to fit the popular perception of what a poet’s life should be like. Born near Sialkot in 1936, he was a child of the Partition. His father held various revenue posts such as village patwari and pressured his sensitive son to follow in his footsteps. Naturally, a boy taken by the song, theatre and soul of rural life was unlikely ever to last as an accountant. But his short time in the profession did hone his deep connection with the rhythms of the land, the voice of Punjab’s waterways and the essence of its people.
Considered Punjab’s first modern poet, he brought a sense of existential uncertainty and conflict into his work, even as his subject matter remained the eternal themes of poetry: love, land , the seasons. The 1960s saw a flowering of vernacular Indian literature. Novelists and short story writers created works of confronting honesty and moral ambiguity. The Progressive school’s clear vision, which had marked the run up to Independence, no longer had the bandwidth to accommodate the expanded reality and possibilities of a post-colonial society. Among the poets, Batalvi is regarded as one of the best of that era (and fans, of whom there are millions, would add, of any era).
His greatest work Luna appeared in 1965, but it was not his first. Among his audience around Batala, he was already beloved but Luna gave him a national and even international audience. He toured the UK on several occasions, setting halls and mehfils alight with his youthful vigour, drunken majesty and majestic recitations. One observer wrote of his UK years, "He was wonderful to his onlookers, a joke to his critics and an enigma to himself."
Many of his lyrics were made to be sung. Indeed, Batalvi himself usually sang his works, as he did in Mumbai at the Shanmukanada Hall in the early 1970s.
He arrived in a funk. Deeply upset that his inferiors were achieving relative fame and fortune while he struggled to get noticed, he began the evening with a rambling but passionate denunciation of these frauds. “Everyone is a poet these days” he cried. But then he began singing his new composition, Ik kudi jida naam mohabbat. The agitated crowd that he had just riled up fell silent and remained so when he was finished.
It isn't clear if the above is from the famous Bombay recital where he debuted the poem. But this powerful simple sung recitation of the poem is pure gold. The way the creator imagined the poem should be: full of passion and immediacy.
The poem has become one of the most popular in all of Punjabi literature and has been interpreted thousands of time, most recently in the film Udta Punjab in June 2016.
Jagjit Singh Zirvi
Jagjit Singh Zirvi recorded an album with Neelam Sahni of Batalvi’s poems in the early 1980s from which this version is taken. Produced to sell in the style that was popular at that time (a sort of ghazal-lite) the song still transcends with Zirvi’s lovely silken voice. I get the feeling this is a man looking back to a time long gone, as opposed to Batalvi’s version which is raw and intense.
Shergill, the rock guitarist from Delhi, places the poem is a very contemporary pop ballad setting complete with strings, harp and electronic keyboards. With a lushness that would not be out of place in a Nelson Riddle or AR Rahman arrangement, the song comes alive for an entirely contemporary globalised audience.
A girl whose name is Love
She is lost.
Her beauty, ethereal
Virtuous, like Mary,
Her laughter, blossoms falling,
Her gait, a poem.
Tall as a cypress,
Yet she understands the language of a glance.
It has been ages since she was lost
Yet it feels like yesterday,
It feels like today.
It feels like now.
She was standing beside me just now,
She is beside me no more.
What deception is this? What trickery?
I am bewildered.
My eyes examine every passerby,
Scanning their faces,
Searching for that girl.
When evening descends upon the bazaar
And perfumes erupt at every corner,
When restlessness and tiredness
Collide with leisure,
Isolated in that noise,
Her absence eats at me.
I see her
Every moment I feel as though –
Every day I feel as though –
From this throng of people,
From this crowd of doors,
She will call out to me,
I will recognize her,
She will recognize me.
But from this flood of noise
Nobody calls out to me,
Nobody looks toward me.
But, I don’t know why I feel
Every day, through every crowd,
As though her form moves past me
But I am not able to see her.
I am lost in her face
And stay lost in it
I keep dissolving in this grief.
I keep melting in this grief.
I beg this girl, for my sake,
I beg her for her own sake,
I beg her for everyones sake
I beg her for the sake of this world,
I beg her for the sake of God,
If somewhere she reads or hears this
Whether she be alive or dying
That she come and meet me once
That she not stain my love.
Else I will not be able to live,
I will not be able to write a song.
A girl whose name is Love
She is lost.