(This story was first published on 31 October 2016. It is being republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Amrita Pritam’s birth anniversary.)
Her story is a dream of the bitter-sweet passion of unrequited love, a soul-searing portrait of yearning and loss. It is also the stuff that legends are made of – everlasting love, above and beyond the humdrum of social rules. But look deeper and one finds a woman who was much, much more.
Born in pre-independence India to a couple who found love in a fairy tale fashion, she carved her own love story too. Amrita Pritam was a woman who lived by her own rules.
Her work, drenched in her longing for love, is soaked in the pain of loss that marked her journey throughout life, connecting the loss of love in Sahir Ludhianvi and chronicling the loss of life and self-respect in Partition.
On her birth anniversary today, here’s looking back at Amrita Pritam’s incredible creative journey.
Having lost her mother at the age of nine, Amrita was brought up by her father, a fakir by nature but who remained a householder for her sake. An independent minded Amrita rejected God when he refused to answer her prayers on her mother’s death. She was growing into a wilful woman who refused to accept differential treatment of lower castes in her home.
A dreamer who listened to her own drummer, she chose to accept the partnership of renowned artist and writer Imroz for 45 long years, without marriage, in a society that would still see red at the prospect. She also grew into an honest and intense writer, whose works evoke beauty and pain through the sheer lyricism and transparency of her soul that reflects in her words.
Born and brought up in Punjab and having seen Partition very closely, impacted her writing and sense of imminent sadness that made her write the poignant Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu – a poem dedicated to Waaris Shah, the writer of the legend of Heer-Ranjha – pleading him to arise from his grave and infuse the world with love again.
Pinjar, a heart-rending rendition of a woman’s anguish, is perhaps one of the most touching and real accounts of Partition and the little spoken of collateral damage that was women.
Progressive values continued to inform her work as we see in the legitimacy she imbues in Puro’s search for freedom even as she casts a humane eye on the men, the Muslim Rashid and Puro’s estranged fiancé Ramchand.
Maybe, it was this innate understanding of love and its undefined quality that gave an impetus to her long, unrequited romance with Sahir Ludhianvi and 45 years of soul companionship with Imroz. Maybe, it was this honest acceptance of love as it is, without a need to define it, or restrict it in roles that gave her the prolificacy that saw her being feted with much-deserved national and international honours.
Sunehade (messages), her magnum opus poem, of messages she had written for Sahir won her the Sahitya Akademi Award, something she valued little because it was meant for Sahir and not the world.
She details her life and love for Sahir with a frank simplicity in her autobiography Raseedi Ticket, brimming with sadness but no self-pity.
She won the Bhartaiya Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, for her anthology Kagaz Te Canvas (The Paper and the Canvas) in 1982 and went on to become a Rajya Sabha member in 1986. All throughout, she continued writing about love and life with an insistence, as though she couldn’t survive otherwise.
Amrita Pritam survives today in all her works, as alive as her language; simple and lyrical, sad yet uplifting, honest and unpretentious, leaving us hoping the words she wrote for Imroz come true. When she writes, Main tujhe phir miloongi, suggesting the everlasting nature of soul connections, we just about nod in agreement. We would love to meet her again too, some day.