The Poetic Legacy of Surjit Patar: A Tribute to a Punjabi Luminary

Patar's poetry often reflected the socio-political landscape of his times. He was deeply moved by the events that shaped Punjab and India, and his works mirror the joys and sorrows of his people. The turbulent period of the 1980s and 1990s in Punjab, marked by insurgency and strife, found a voice in Patar’s evocative poetry.

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Dr. Surjit Patar

By Dr. Devinder Pal Singh and Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal | Opinion |

On May 11, 2024, the Punjab lost one of its most revered legendary figures, Surjit Patar, a leading light in Punjabi poetry. Patar’s passing away marks the end of an era for Punjabi rhymes, but his manner of reciting will continue to resonate, inspire, and evoke deep emotions for generations to come.

Born on January 14, 1945, in Pattar Kalan, Punjab, Surjit Patar was immersed in his homeland’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage from a young age to the end. His early affinity for language and literature, a passion that would shape his life’s work, was unmistakable. He further honed this passion during his higher education at Panjabi University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. Patar completed his Ph.D. in Literature on “Transformation of Folkloric Elements in Guru Nanak Bani” from Guru Nanak Dev University. This academic milestone was a testament to his unwavering commitment to understanding and expanding the horizons of Punjabi poetry in Guru Nanak’s verses.

Surjit Patar’s journey into poetry began in the mid-sixties. His poetic repertoire included “Hawa Vich Likhe Harf” (Words Written in the Wind), Birkh Arz Kare (Thus Spake the Tree), Hanere Vich Sulagdi Varnmala (Words Smoldering in the Dark), Lafzaan Di Dargah (Shrine of Words), Patjhar Di Pazeb (Anklet of Autumn) and Surzameen (Music Land).

His poetry, a testament to his lyrical finesse, profound exploration of themes, and unbreakable connection to the human experience, resonated with a personal touch. His verses, a reflection of love, loss, pain, joy, and the myriad of emotions that shape our lives, are renowned for their simplicity and profound depth, inviting a personal connection with his diverse audience.

His contributions extended beyond his poetry; he enriched the Punjabi literary landscape by translating several works from other languages. Patar translated into Punjabi the three tragedies of Federico García Lorca, the play Nagmandala of Girish Karnad, and poems of Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. He also adapted plays from Jean Giraudoux, Euripides and Racine. He wrote television scripts on Punjabi poets from Sheikh Farid to Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

One of his most celebrated works is the poetry collection “Hawa Vich Likhe Harf” (Words Written in the Air), gnarring immense acclaim for its poignant exploration of love and longing. His ability to weave the delicate threads of emotion into a rich tapestry of words earned him accolades and a dedicated readership. Patar’s poetry often transcended the boundaries of mere words, becoming a bridge that connected souls and ignited a sense of shared humanity.

Patar’s poetry often reflected the socio-political landscape of his times. He was deeply moved by the events that shaped Punjab and India, and his works mirror the joys and sorrows of his people. The turbulent period of the 1980s and 1990s in Punjab, marked by insurgency and strife, found a voice in Patar’s evocative poetry. His verses from this era are a poignant commentary on the human spirit’s pain, loss, and resilience in the face of adversity.

Surjit Patar’s influence extended beyond the written word. He was an esteemed academic and a cherished teacher who served as a professor at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. His dedication to nurturing young minds and fostering a love for literature in his students was evident in his pedagogical approach. He was not just a teacher but a mentor who inspired many to pursue their literary dreams. Among his several visits to the West, we invited him to bless our associations in Texas.

A poem of his that still lives in my (HL’s) mind was about Guru Nanak, whom he imagined revisiting this world. When Guru saw processions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims thronging to welcome him, he asked his companies where the human beings elevated through his teachings were.

In addition to his literary pursuits, Surjit Patar vigorously participated in various cultural and scholarly organizations that recognized creativity in literature. He served as the President of the Punjabi Sahit Academy, Ludhiana, and the Punjab Arts Council, Chandigarh. His leadership and vision were crucial in promoting Punjabi literature and culture on regional and national platforms.

Numerous accolades and honors marked Surjit Patar’s illustrious career, each a testament to his exceptional contributions to Punjabi literature. In 1993, he was bestowed with the Sahitya Akademie Award, one of India’s most prestigious literary recognitions, for his collection ‘Hanere Vich Sulagdi Varnmala’ (An Alphabet Smoldering in the Dark). In 2012, he was honored with the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honors, further cementing his place in the literary pantheon. These recognitions solidified his status as a literary giant.

Patar’s humility and approachability endeared him to many. Despite his towering stature in the literary world, he remained grounded and accessible to his admirers. His home was often a gathering place for poets, writers, and artists. There, ideas flowed freely, and creativity was nurtured. He was known for his warm hospitality and genuine interest in the works of others, always ready to offer guidance and support.

Surjit Patar was a beacon of wisdom and compassion as a public intellectual. He was a staunch advocate for social justice and equality, using his poetry to highlight issues such as poverty, injustice, and the plight of the marginalized. His work transcended the boundaries of art, becoming a powerful tool for social change. In 2015, he returned his Sahitya Akademi award in protest against a series of targeted killings of rationalists and communal attacks on minorities. He gave back his Padma Shri to support farmers protesting at Delhi’s borders in 2020. 

Patar’s passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill. However, his legacy lives on through his extensive work, which continues to inspire and move readers across the globe. His poetry remains a source of solace and strength, a testament to the enduring power of words.

Surjit Patar is survived by his wife, Bhupinder Kaur, his two sons, and numerous students, colleagues, and admirers who will continue to cherish his memory and honor his contributions to literature and society. While mourning his loss, his family takes solace in the fact that his words will continue to inspire and uplift countless souls.

Reflecting upon Surjit Patar’s life and legacy, one is reminded of his own words: “Poetry is not just about words; it’s about the soul’s dialogue with the universe.” His life was a living testament to this belief. Surjit Patar’s poetry was a dialogue with the universe that will echo through time, touching hearts and igniting minds long after his physical presence has faded.

As we bid farewell to this giant of Punjabi literature, we do so with profound gratitude for his immeasurable contributions to the world of poetry and beyond. Surjit Patar may have left this mortal world, but his spirit lives on in every verse he penned, in every heart he touched, and in the timeless legacy he leaves behind.

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