Today is Shiv Kumar Batalvi‘s 33rd death anniversary. The Bohemian Punjabi poet died at the age of 36 on this day 1973. It would not be incorrect to say that there has been no comparable romantic poet in Punjabi after him.
In the Bohemian aspects of his personality, he brings to mind the urdu poet Majaz who too died young. Shiv has often been termed the Keats of Punjabi poetry.He is a somewhat incongrous personality- a Punjabi poet of Brahmin origins who reached his pinnacle when Punjabi language was becoming the bone of contention in Punjab with Punjabi increasingly identified as a language of the Sikhs in the state and the Hindus called upon by the Jana Sangh, the ancestor of today’s BJP, to disown Punjabi language.
Shiv’s poetry is characterised by longing and desolation, a melancholy that also surrounded Sahir Ludhianvi. One wonders if this has something to do with the times, partition and the confusion of ideas and identities that reigned.
The most important poets in Punjabi after Shiv have been Paash and Surjit Singh Pattar. Both were influenced, at some time during their career by Leftwing political ideas- Paash was killed by Khalistani terrorists while on a short trip from UK (where he migrated after the violent State repression following the failure of “Spring Thunder over India”) to India in the eighties.
Paash’s poetry was overshadowed by his political commitment. Pattar’s poetry is more sophisticated and tends towards a philosophical reflection on the human condition without disowning his political commitment.
In this context, it is an engima that Shiv’s poetry, except some of his very late poems, did not show the impact of the Progressive Writer’s Movement or the Naxalite upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s that had a major impact on the youth in Punjab.
A very lyrical poet, Shiv has been sung, and popularized by Jagjit Singh’s album based on his poetry. Mahendra Kapoor has also sung some of Shiv’s poetry very well. Apnaorg has some renditions available online, though I could not get them to play on my computer. Bhupinder and Mitali have sung Loona, the poem that won him the Sahitya Akademi Award. Along with the Sufi poet Bulle Shah, Batalvi is a must sing for any major singer in Punjabi.
The language that Shiv employs is notable for its idiomatic usage of small- town Punjabi and also by his effusive usage of words of Persian origin, a trend that has over the years been discouraged just as Hindi has tended to borrow more heavily from Sanskrit than Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Sikh symbols are strikingly missing even as he brings the usage of urban Hindu rituals and symbols in his characteristic poetry.
My own favourites are many, but certainly those that first come to mind are Shikra, Maye ni maye mere geetan de naina vich, Ghamaan dee raat lami hai, Ae mera geet kisey na gaunan. All of these have been sung by Jagjit Singh.
I may end with a warning to anyone envisaging an overdose of Shiv: he can be terribly Wagnerian- effusively dark and deeply sombre.