When we look back at history, we often have so many role models to celebrate like freedom fighters, revolutionaries, political writers, journalists, and historians. But we rarely acknowledge the many artists and masters of the craft who lived in those ages.
Although they were not part of the mainstream movement of struggle and freedom, they did stand integral in documenting their voices. They shed light on aspects of life that did not cease to exist amidst the struggles for a republic nation.
Amidst all this galore, it has always been hard for women to keep their voices intact. Don’t agree with me? Well, let’s do an exercise.
Name any five famous women personalities of the independence struggles. But, but, other than Rani Laxmi Bai and Sarojini Naidu.
Did you manage to? If yes, great! I’m glad you have read multiple versions of history.
If not, don’t feel bad, because I’m guilty of that too.
It’s sad that many of our textbooks do not talk about women fighters other than a few, very prominent ones. And, for women artists to find a place in those restricted pages of history textbooks is too much to ask for.
So, today, we bring to you one of the most legendary poets, novelists, and feminists of early independent India, Amrita Pritam.
Today, we have censorship, talks on feminism, love, consent, sexual desires, and more. It is not that we do not have them in hush voices. We do, but we have progressed enough to let others freely choose what they want to speak and write and create.
However, imagine a woman from conservative Punjab. Growing up during the independence movement. She saw the partition and went on to write about topics, considered controversial even today.
Beginning of a Legend, Amrita Pritam
Amrita Pritam, born Amrit Kaur was a daughter of well-read parents. She resorted to writing at 11 when her mother passed away.
Writing became her companion, her coping mechanism, and her identity of solace.
Amrita was one of the many people who had to migrate from Lahore to India. On her way to India, the scenes she witnessed, the turmoils she was the part of, became a major part of her writings in the future.
In her poem, ‘Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah nu‘, she expresses her grief of the partition and captures the violence that ensued during that period.
Amrita was always inclined towards art and literature from a very young age. She published her first literary work ‘Amrit Lehran‘, an anthology of poems when she was 17. And, that was the start of a six-decade-long career, that made a place in the history of Indian literature.
She was part of Lahore Radio station before partition and then moved to All India Radio in India. She was the first woman to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi award. The first person to receive the Punjab Rattan Award and the first woman to receive the Padma Shri.
Amrita – The Feminist
While the feminist movement was gaining momentum across the west. Pritam in India was challenging patriarchy. She was the voice of the voiceless women of the country. She through her writings challenged the norms and was voicing out the necessity of giving women equal rights in all spectrums.
She juggled political and feminist writings throughout her career. She vocally talked about the sexual pleasures of women and believed in their sexual liberty.
She took the plunge to talk about taboo topics that people then did not even think about exploring.
“To fulfill our union,Virgin
I had to kill the virgin.
And kill her, I did.”
These are excerpts from her poem, Virgin, where she explores the idea of losing virginity. And, how it should be a liberal choice for women as much as men have. Through the course of her writings, Amrita discovers herself as a writer and feminist.
Her writings reflect the person she was. And, what she has been going through as a human being. Thus, mentions of love, sexuality, and sexual freedoms find their way into her writings seamlessly. She also brought this out in her interviews later.
Gender politics in terms of sexual liberty has always been a theme that has struck a chord in her writings. She talks about how a woman is supposed to oblige by the rules set by the patriarchal society. And, she subsequently becomes a wife or a whore depending on what they deem right.
While men are not questioned or held accountable for extramarital affairs. In her poem ‘Night’, and ‘Dr. Dev’, she delves into gender expectations in society.
Writer Vs. Female Writer
Amrita was also aware of the fact that gender politics extended beyond sexuality and had its very place in literature.
It was always a writer vs. a female writer.
As if, art only belonged to men.
She also pointed out how literature was (maybe, is) a so-called liberal space and a part of the patriarchal life the world had been and was living in.
She acknowledges how men often do not take women’s writings seriously. It is always taken that the writing lacked sincerity merely because it was penned by a woman. And, this was also what papers and media reported then.
She claims that an English daily called her fame based on youth and beauty and not her work. In an interview, she asks,
‘Why not talent? They can admire a beautiful woman, but not a talented one.’
Amrita was a fan of writers across the world, but she was always rooted to write in Punjabi and working with the literary scene of Punjab. She also brought out how it increasingly became difficult for Punjabi writers to publish their work for the audience.
She said that there were very few publishing houses and not many readers. And, attributes this fact to an apparent inferiority complex that Punjabi as a language gets, in front of Urdu, Hindi, or English. She believed this was the result of centuries of slavery under the British.
Thus, Pritam worked on giving space to more Punjabi writers. And, she herself wrote in the language before getting it translated into other languages.
She founded her Punjabi literary journal, ‘Nāgmañi’ in 1964 and gave a platform for Punjabi writers. Women writers and writers from marginalized communities became part of it.
However, that does not mean she ostracised herself from western writers. She also published translated versions of celebrated authors in the west.
Pritam also traveled vividly across the world, especially in Europe. She had her journal publish poems from Bulgarian, Hungarian, and many more countries. And, says language or politics don’t matter while you write. In one of her international meetings, she said,
“It makes no difference to me what a writer’s politics are; whenever I meet good writers, I am inspired by them.”
Liberty To Love
Amrita did not flinch to love and was honest about her relationships with the world as she was to the love(s) of her life. Amrita married Pritam Singh, the coveted heir of Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar.
Amrita has had multiple relationships and always stood for the liberty of a woman’s choice, which led her into writing more and more about the sexual liberty of women.
This caused uproars amongst people or even the Punjab ministers to stop ‘obscene’ writing, but Pritam stood by her stance.
However, the relationship turned sore when she started working for All India Radio. Pritam asked her to stay home, stating he will give her all the money she was getting from her work at AIR. But, Amrita retorted and went for a divorce.
“I was not doing that for money”, she said.
Amrita was also a huge admirer of Sahir Ludhianvi. And, their relationship was as intense and complex as Amrita’s writings were.
It is said, she moved in with artist Imroz aka. Indrajeet Chitrakar, who loved her and her work. He was also aware of Amrita’s admiration of Ludhianvi.
She also accepted her brazen love for Ludhianvi but was rooted in the love of Imroz as well. The complexity of the relationship was out for people to judge and comment on. But, Pritam believed that being honest about herself to the world is a choice she wants to make.
Similarly, she did not want to marry Imroz but stay in love, an eternal form of love.
Her couplets, ‘Main tainu Phir milangi’, were dedicated to Imroz.
Immersed in Controversies
Pritam was always controversial, be it her writings or her personal life. And, for one such reason, she could never be found in a common man’s library. She had an estranged relationship with the masses and wrote many times.
There have been books and analyses written against her, that said she justified her flawed way of living through her writings.
She was called out for ‘using’ men for her advantage.
Her work has always been found in clashes with critics and people who reviewed her work. She also remarked in her autobiography that she has had many critics over years. And how she was always questioned on why she chose to write something in a certain way.
Also read about: Dr. Tanu Jain: A Multitalented IAS Officer
The Revenue Stamp
The Scroll said in its ode to Amrita,
“She wove her autobiography around love.”Source: Scroll
Amrita was a fun-loving, candid person who wanted life to be happy and lived hers in a way that gave her joy.
Thus, the same has an eminent reflection on her autobiography, ‘The Revenue Stamp’ published in 1976. She recollects her life, her love, and her personal self, and delves deeper into her personality.
Presumably, that was a conscious decision to surround her autobiography around love. Because that was something Amrita always believed in.
There’s even a story behind why the book was called, ‘The Revenue Stamp’ or ‘Raseedi Ticket’. Once on a candid note, Khushwant Singh noted that her life had so few consequences that she could put her life’s story on the back of a revenue stamp.
Thus, she went on to call her autobiography this, as an ode to this conversation.
While the title has a backstory, you must know what you are getting into if you sign up for reading her work.
Still remembered and Loved
Amrita Pritam is still considered a pathbreaking writer by literary scholars and admirers. She finds a place in everyone’s heart as someone who has stumbled upon her writings.
She stood as an epitome of change and liberation for women who were not allowed to even make their own decisions about their life. She stood as a change and an aspiration for people who wanted to make a change in their own lives.
Amrita might be a flawed human, but that is what she wanted to stand for as well. Someone who leads life her way, even if that is flawed for society.
“Jahan bhi azaad rooh ki jhalak pade, samjh lena wahi ghar hai mera.”Amrita Pritam