The problems of Punjabi as a language can be summed up in three Ps — post-colonialism, Partition and Pakistan.
Initially, the British colonisers who were well-versed in Urdu implemented it as the official language and those seeking government jobs had to let go of Punjabi. Eventually, the Indian partition divided Punjab as a province and the language never overcame this division. And finally, the largest Punjabi population on earth was now in Pakistan and a vehement supporter of Urdu. Gradually, the ancient language of this region became endangered.
UNESCO has designated February 21 as the International Mother Language Day, and several events on Punjabi language, literature and culture are organised around this time every year in Pakistan. In this connection, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) recently organised what was their first International Punjabi Conference.
Nearly everyone we associate with Punjabi in Lahore was present. Mushtaq Soofi, Dr Tariq Rehman, Sarwat Mohiuddin, Iqbal Qaiser, Qazi Javaid, and Saeed Bhutta spoke on various panels. However, an eclectic group of Punjabi poets and writers had been flown in from all over the diaspora. Mushtaq Tirmazi, Dr Anne Murphy, Gurmeet Kaur, Mahmood Awan, Jameel Pal, Mansur Ejaz, and Amarjit Chandan brought their precious observations on Punjabi from all over the globe.
Soofi, a well-known Punjabi poet and music producer, gave the opening talk and explained Punjabi’s tragic journey through the empire to the present-day Pakistan.
Mahmood Awan, a historian and Punjabi poet based in Dublin, also a TNS columnist, recounted the tale of Punjabi recruits in the British Army who travelled far and wide during the two world wars. He also shared audio recordings of Punjabi soldiers in the 1920s. These soldiers had been taken as Prisoners of War in World War-I and were asked to record their voices and mother language for documentation’s sake. Some of them were shouting harrowing things like “If we stay here for two more months, we will die,” in the recorders.
Awan explained that the poetry from Punjab depicts the British in a positive light because the army recruitment gave many poor villagers an income, especially in those districts that didn’t have fertile lands. These were the districts from which a majority of the recruitments happened and no compulsion was required because people were very willing to join the armed forces. Ultimately, unlike the rest of India, the British army started meddling in civilian affairs and this started the civil-military conflict which is still prevalent in Pakistan today. The British also started allotting lands to soldiers on conditional leases, that could be inherited only by the elder sons and this eventually caused a social rift in these villages.
Gurmeet Kaur is a writer based in the United States who returned to her mother language in her twenties when she had a son. She had been living outside of Punjab for two generations. She started learning to speak and eventually write Punjabi. She taught her son to speak and read Punjabi while being surrounded by English everywhere. Her story is an inspiration for every parent today who wishes to teach his or her child Punjabi without compromising on other languages.
However, she also outlined the challenges of this endeavour and said it’s an entirely different mode of parenting from what we usually see. Now she is teaching her seven-year-old daughter Punjabi. Besides, she is learning and teaching the Shahmukhi script, to improve her access to Punjabi literature.
One of the main challenges Kaur faced was the lack of interesting children’s literature in Punjabi, which led her to start writing her own children’s’ books. She and Awan published a book together. Titled ‘Fascinating Folktales of Punjab,’ the book boasts some glorious graphics and fonts that are in English as well as in Punjabi. Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts appear together on each page.
Kaur is a very interactive reader. She rhymes the stories and invites the listener to finish the sentence. Awan later stated that their graphic designer is based in Hong Kong and he spent dozens of hours on the phone with her to fix the dots and spellings in Shahmukhi.
Dr Nadhra Shahbaz Naeem Khan, an architect who teaches at LUMS and focuses on the Sikh architecture, believes that the Sikh monuments in Punjab have been neglected, unlike most of the Mughal ones, because the former are seen as non-Islamic and the latter as “Muslim.”
Speaking on the occasion, Khan said that the Sikh architecture has indigenous designs and materials unlike some of its Mughal counterparts. Also, the common belief that some of the buildings constructed under Ranjeet Singh stole materials from Mughal monuments is correct but those buildings were actually dilapidated when the stones were removed.
She further said that Pakistan needs to acknowledge its rich Sikh architectural inheritance and work on saving this heritage before it is too late. She also showed photographs of pre-partition buildings all over Lahore that need maintenance and support.
The most interesting session was decidedly ‘Classical Literature and the Gender Question in Punjabi.’ In this session, Dr Anne Murphy from the University of British Columbia presented her case that the Punjabi literature has some very powerful women characters. Saeed Bhutta and Jamil Pal shared hilarious anecdotes of Heer fighting with her in-laws and Ranjha pretending to be a Jogi, and Sohni bravely crossing the Chenab while Mahinwal waits lazily for her on the other side and eventually fails to save her from drowning.
The man who stole the show several times was the poet Amarjit Chandan from London. He had some heart-wrenching poems like ‘Garlic’ and ‘Maa Boli’ in which he expressed his love for his mother language.
In a session called ‘Language and Identity,’ Chandan asserted that in his mind Punjab is still undivided. He imagined both the Punjabs as one and said it’s high time the Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus of Punjabi origin should recognise themselves as Punjabis first. Punjabis all over the world is one nation and he called this idea “Punjabiyat.”
However, this concept became controversial. Some people sided with him while others such as Dr Rehman opposed it as dangerous and potentially even bloody.
The first day did not attract many students, probably because it was Friday afternoon. But the next day, scores of them arrived from the Punjabi department of the University of Sargodha. They made the sessions more vibrant with their colourful dresses, and interacted with the panelists in their heart-warming Punjabi.
The second day was louder and jokes were exchanged every few minutes. You got a glimpse of the Punjabi humour that lights up the stage and screens across the subcontinent even today.
Syed Babar Ali and his wife were present throughout the proceedings, because of their personal interest in the language. Moeen Nizami, the Director of Gurmani School, and Kamran Asdar Ali, Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at LUMS, were also there. Their passion for Punjabi was for all to see. In his final remarks, Ali promised to not only organise this conference annually and also offer Punjabi courses at LUMS.
Every now and then, a moderator or speaker struggled to find words in Punjabi and some like Dr Tariq Rehman spoke in English alone. Others were amused to hear each other’s Punjabi for the first time.
But clearly, this is the start of a very rewarding journey and hopefully, all of us will get a chance to polish our Punjabi on the way.