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Shiv Kumar Batalvi

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Punjabi 74

Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s biography

Introduction

Shiv Kumar (born July 23, 1936) in Bara Pind Lohtian, Shakargarh Tehsil, Punjab [now Pakistan], died May 7, 1973 in Kir Mangyal (Pathankot), Punjab in India) was a Punjabi poet.Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a young man of barely 20 years of age, appeared on the scene of Punjabi poetry in East Punjab. By living a brief and intense life that was devoted to writing deeply profound, passionate and enchantingly lyrical poetic expressions of the pathos of his time, and dying young at the age of 36, a fate that he had predicted and romanticized throughout his poetry, he attained the charisma of a modern day saint and a fallen-hero in the eyes of many of his admirers.

Early Childhood

Shiv belonged to a middle-class brahmin family that lived in that area for many generations. His father, Pandit Krishan Gopal, was the second-born among his three brothers and two sisters. He started his career as a Patwari(land recorder and surveyor) and eventually reached the post of Qanoongoh (a mid-level supervisory position in the Revenue Department) and retired as the principal of Patwar School, Batala. Soon after passing the exam of patwar in 1931, Krishan Gopal married a tall and beautiful girl, Shanti Devi, from a nearby village. Shanti Devi was known for her melodious singing voice that Shiv inherited from her. Their first son, Davarka, was born during the second year of their marriage followed by Shiv a couple of years later.After the partition of India, his family moved to Batala from Pakistan. As a child Shiv is said to have been fascinated by birds and rugged, thorny plants on the Punjabi landscape. Shiv was exposed to the 'ramlila' (a dramatised version of Hindu mythological epic) at an early age, and it is to be expected that he received what was later to become his instinctive understanding of drama from these early performances. By all accounts, Shiv had a happy and carefree childhood. He was known for his peculiar habit of wandering around in the village and its surroundings alone. Many times his father would have to search for him, finding him lying down under the trees at the banks of Bassantar nala, local irrigation canal or near a temple on the south side of the village.At other times he would be found watching with fascination the tricks of snake charmers or absorbed in listening to the singings of raas-daharis (a folk verse-play based on religious songs) . He was very fond of taking part in Ramlila and other plays during religious festivals, usually in a female role. Even today, the old folks in the village remember that ‘patwari's son’ was known as a sheedai (obsessed) and a malang (wanderer).

Education

Shiv’s family settled down in Batala in Darussalam muhalla (section of a city), now re-named as Prem Nagar. Shiv attended the Salvation Army High School and passed his matriculation examination in first division in 1953. That is about how far he would go as far as formal education was concerned. To the utter disappointment of his father who wanted him to get a good education and start a successful career, he spent the next few years getting in and out of three colleges without getting a degree. He spent two years in the Baring Union Christian College, Batala, in the F.Sc. program but dropped out without sitting in the Board examination. He next joined R. D. College, Nabha, but left it after a few months. He then got admission in S.N. College, Qadian, a small town near Batala, in arts subjects but dropped out again after a couple of years. Finally, his father forced him to join the Revenue Department as a patwari. After joining the service, Shiv took little interest in the work and for a while made an arrangement with a retired patwari to take care of his official responsibilities in exchange of one-third of his pay. Even that didn’t last for long and Shiv resigned from his job in 1961.

It was during the final year of his unsuccessful college career at Qadian in 1957 that Shiv started writing poetry in Punjabi. Among his student friends in the colleges he had attended, he was already very popular as a talented singer and he had developed a large following of fans. Now, instead of singing folk and film songs, he started singing his own poems. He soon got introduced in the literary circles of Batala. Some senior writers of Batala, including Jaswant Singh Rahi, Kartar Singh Balgan and Barkat Ram Yumman, as the saying goes, took him under their wings. Among them, Barkat Ram Yumman played an important role in introducing him to the kavi darbars (poetry recital functions, also called mushairas) outside Batala.

Personal life

He met a girl named Payal at a fair in Baijnath, near the town of Jammu in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. When he went to look for her in her hometown, he heard the news of her death and wrote his eulogy Meena. This episode was to prefigure numerous other partings that would serve as material to distill into poems. Perhaps the most celebrated episode is his fascination for Gurbaksh Singh's daughter who left for the US and married someone else. When he heard of the birth of her first child, Shiv wrote 'Main ek Shikra Yaar Banaya' (I have befriended a wild fowl), perhaps his most famous love poem. It's said that when she had her second child, someone asked Shiv whether he would write another poem. Shiv replied 'Have I become responsible for her? Am I to write a poem on her every time she gives birth to a child?' Sounds much better in Punjabi (Main ohdaa theka leya hoyaa? Oho bacche banayi jave tey main ohdey tey kavita banayi javan?).

Shiv's wife Aruna was a Brahmin from Kir Mangyal in district Gurdaspur of Punjab. By all accounts they had a happy marriage: they had two children, son Meharbaan (b. Apr. 12, 1968) and daughter Puja (b. Sep. 23, 1969) whom Shiv loved immensely.

By 1968 he had moved to Chandigarh, but both Batala and Chandigarh became soul-less in his opinion. Chandigarh brought him fame, but scathing criticism as well. Shiv replied with an article titled 'My Hostile Critics'. Meanwhile his epilepsy worsened and he had a serious attack while at a store in Chandigarh's sector 22....

Both children are in Patiala these days living a happy married life.

The Decade of Shiv’s Poetic Miracle

The next decade, after Shiv left S.N College, was the most prolific period of his poetry writing. It was during this time that he composed most of his masterpiece poetry that he was destined to write during his brief lifetime. Once he discovered his poetic genius, the writing of poetry became his primary passion and overshadowed all other considerations. He practically dedicated his life to writing poetry as the only objective of his life. He extensively studied Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English literature. Shiv also developed friendships with a large number of well-known Punjabi writers and started moving in their circle. Between 1960 and 1965, he published his first five collections of poetry. One of the only two other collections that he published later contained poems that were mostly written during this period. He was awarded the coveted Sahitya Academy Award for his verse-drama, Loonan, published in 1965, becoming its youngest ever recipient.

By the end of this period, Shiv had become a living legend and most sought after Punjabi poet. The organizers of kavi darbars all over the Punjab had found out that inviting Shiv would guarantee a large audience and success of their functions. They also began to break the longstanding tradition of seniority by inviting Shiv to recite his poetry after some well-established and senior poets knowing well that the audience will not stay around to listen to other poets after him. He was the star attraction of kavi darbars and was famous for his unique and passionate style of singing of his poetry that could spellbind his audience into pin-drop silence. Many who had listened to Shiv’s recitations of his poetry found it as one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.

Shiv’s extraordinary hold on his audience has been noted by all of his biographers. A typical example is Balwant Gargi’s description of a kavi darbar that he attended with Shiv:

This mushaira was organized by Principal O. P. Sharma on a very large scale on the occasion of Guru Nanak’s 500th birthday … As soon as we appeared on the stage, a wave of excitement ran through the audience on seeing Shiv. They welcomed him with a loud round of applause …When he stood up to recite his poetry, a trance-like silence dominated the hall. He read his poem, Safar (a travel) … The vibrations of his enchanting and soft tunes touched the hearts of everyone present. Suddenly he raised the pitch of his voice. He was challenging Nanak. A poet was addressing another poet. He was saying to Guru Nanak: “See how far your nation has travelled after you. Today they have travelled from your name to the sword” … Shiv’s voice was resonating in the hall. He was standing tall and there was a prophet-like grandeur in his voice … when the poem ended … the girls started shouting for him to sing “Kee puchdey o haal faqeeran da (What is the point of asking us faqirs how are we doing?) … Shiv smiled and switching his mood he then sang the poem that he had sung hundreds of time and each time it had won the hearts of his audience … When Shiv left the microphone after reading three poems, no other poet could get the attention of the audience. The spell had broken and people had lost their interest in the kavi darbar.

Shiv In Bombay

In the early 1970s Shiv came to Bombay for a literary conference. In keeping with Shiv's outrageous behaviour there is a story about his trip to Bombay. Part of the conference involved readings at Shanmukhananda hall. After a few people had read their work (one of whom was Meena Kumari), Shiv got on the stage and began "Almost everyone today has begun to consider themselves a poet, each and every person off the streets is writing ghazals". By the time he had finished with his diatribe, there was not a sound in the hall. This is when he began to read Ek kuri jeeda naam mohabbat. gum hai, gum hai....(This song has been sung recently by Rabbi Shergill in his Album Bulla Ki Jana.) There wasn't a sound when he finished either.

The Years of Bitterness and Disappointment

Shiv had come to Chandigarh with many hopes but after four years when he left this city he was bitter and disappointed. Although his stay in Chandigarh initially brought him more fame, his growing popularity had already given rise to many detracting voices in Punjabi literary circles that became more loud and stronger during his time in Chandigarh. This eventually became quite distressing for him. So much so that he retaliated against the criticism of his poetry in an article published as the preface of Dardmandan Deean Aheen, a selection of his poetry, under the heading ‘Mere Nindak’ (My Critics).

Shiv hardly did any work at the State Bank in Chandigarh where he was employed. For a while, he was given the charge of some books lying around in the bank. Shiv simply kept a register on his table and let everyone know that whoever needed a book could make entry in the register and take the book. Similarly, he was also assigned other light duties on different desks, including of public relations. He would go to the bank only once or twice a week. Shiv lived in a house in Sector 21.

His favourite place in Chandigarh was the watch shop of Preetam Kanwal Singh, close to a liquor shop in Sector 22. It was a small booth type shop. Shiv would arrive there early in the day and would hold court until evening. He would sometimes lie down behind the counter to get some rest in the afternoon. In the evenings, he could be found at the ‘Writers-Corner’ in the square of Sector 22. On the same day that Shiv shifted to Chandigarh, he met some fellow poets, Mohan Bhandari, Bhagwant Singh, Bhushan Dhyanpuri and some others, standing by the railing on the side of the road at 22 Sector. They immediately decided to name this corner ‘Writers Corner’ to celebrate the occasion. A young boy was sent to get a small board painted with the inscription ‘Writers Corner’. They hanged the board there and got it inaugurated by Shiv. It is also called Battian Wala Chowk (the square with traffic lights) of Sector 22-23, since it is just in the first corner of Sector 22 from the main road and Sector 23 begins across the road. This Sector was the main centre of literary activities in Chandigarh. About 25-30 writers were living around in that area and other close by Sectors. Sector 22 was their main meeting place in the evening.

During the last couple of years of Shiv’s stay in Chandigarh, his health had started declining. He had a few attacks of epilepsy. The harsh criticism of his poetry from some quarters had started taking its toll on his mental and physical health. Until then, Shiv’s social persona had never exhibited some of the deep sorrow reflected in his poetry. He was known as the delight of social gatherings of his friends and admirers where he was always a witty, sharp-minded and very intelligent conversationalist. From serious discussions about literature or recitation of his sad or serious poetry, he would effortlessly turn to telling jokes or other light and entertaining topics.Now, a growing bitterness was often noticed in his demeanor. He started talking more openly about his impeding death. He also started drinking on a regular basis.

The Trip to England

In May of 1972, Shiv visited England on the invitation of Dr. Gupal Puri and Mrs. Kailash Puri He had been looking forward to his first trip abroad as a welcome relief from the drudgery of his life in Chandigarh. When he arrived in England, his popularity and fame had already reached a high point among the Punjabi community. His arrival was announced in the local Indian papers with headlines and pictures. He spent a busy time in England. A number of public functions and private parties were arranged in his honor where he recited his poetry. Dr. Gupal Puri arranged the first large function in Coventry, near London, to welcome Shiv. A large number of his fans and Punjabi poets, including Santokh Singh Santokh, Kuldip Takhar and Tarsem Purewal and many others attended this function. Another large gathering was organized at Rochester (Kent) in his honor. The famous artist S. Sobha Singh was also present who had traveled on his own expense to see Shiv. His engagements in England were regularly reported in the local Indian media and the BBC Television once interviewed him. While Punjabi community got their opportunity to listen to Shiv on various occasions, his stay in London proved to be the last straw for his failing health. He would stay late and continue to drink until 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning at parties or at home engaged in discussions with his hosts and other people who would come to visit him. He would wake up after a short sleep around 4:00 A.M. and begin his day by again taking a couple of sips of Scotch.

Shiv Kumar-A Mystical Master Of Words

Shiv's phenomenal approach towards the meaning of solitude makes him stand at the top of all those poets who have ever described loneliness. Shiv as the traditional poetical phenomenon was born out of the literary conjugation (kalmi sanjog) of Amrita Pritam and Professor Mohan Singh, to whom he appropriately dedicated his most important creation, Birha Toon Sultan(which means Separation thou art The King). Both Amrita Pritam and Professor Mohan had personally suffered in their respective love lives on account of circumstances beyond their control. In their romanticism therefore, a personal tinge of desperation was inevitable. Punjabi character is far more emotional, both in happiness as well as sadness, than all other peoples of the Indian subcontinent. To succeed as a poet, therefore, one must succeed in making people cry as well as bursting into hilarious laughter with the flow of the lines. In contradiction to Amrita Pritam and Mohan Singh, Shiv therefore, developed the most superb art of recitation. He will be long remembered, like Waris Shah, for this emotional rendering of whatever he wrote. I was deeply impressed by his exposition of this vivid magic in the very first poem that he gave at our house - -"Kee Puchhdey 'O Haal Fakeeraan Da" (What art thou inquiring of a sage?). This rendering had the touch of Sehgal's voice.

Shiv - the Phoenix

Shiv was a very versatile and supremely gifted poet. In one of his live interviews during visit to england he was described as Phoenix.

His poetry includes poems written on many different subjects and a variety of styles. He could write traditional Punjabi folks songs, as well as, poems in post-modern diction and in many other verse forms. The only labels that may properly apply to Shiv’s poetry are humanism and Punjabi-ism. The deep pain and sorrow of some of his poetry can best be understood in the larger context of a Punjabi’s reaction to the crisis of human identity in modern times. He articulated the tragedy of breakdown of Punjab’s traditional society under the onslaught of modernization. He had lived his childhood in a traditional village social set up that offered the poise, equilibrium, stability, tranquillity and self-assurance of Punjabi culture. Early in his adolescence, he experienced the sudden death of this centuries old way of living. For a large part of his versatile poetry, Shiv embraced the identity of a Punjabi folk storyteller and viewed the massive disruptions around him from the historical perspective of someone deeply immersed in Punjabi folklore. He became the passionate voice of millions of others who were, and still are, going through the same crisis. His poetry became a vast treasure of the fond memories of sights, sounds and symbols of the way of living and the scenery of rural Punjab, never so beautifully recorded in such breathtaking details except by the Great Master of Punjabi poetry, Waris Shah. Ultimately, his permanent place among great Punjabi poets is affirmed by his ever-growing popularity. He seems to have passed the test for determining the status of faqirs, equally applicable to poets, laid down by Sultan Bahu as:

         Naam faqir tinhan da Bahu, qabar jinhan dee jeevay hoo.

(Bahu, only they deserve to be called faqirs, whose graves live forever after their death).
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