A passionate & lonely poet

I first met Shiv Batalvi when I was doing my graduation at Guru Gobind Singh Republic College, Jundiala (Jalandhar) in 1972. Sant Singh Sekhon was the principal and I was one of the members of the welcome committee organizing a festival of poets. Batalvi was the cynosure of all eyes: The venue was crowded just because of him. The festival started without Batalvi. Other poets came on the stage but the audience kept looking away from the podium and waiting intently for the poet of the day.

Batalvi came late and went straight to Sekhon, raised his eyebrows with an intoxicating smile signaling him to arrange some whiskey. As Batalvi was already tipsy, Sekhon advised him to drink after the function ended. But Batalvi told Sekhon that he would drink later as well. As soon as Batalvi came on the podium, the audience whose audience stood up to get a glimpse of the poet songs had struck a chord in all of Punjab.

A pall of silence enveloped the atmosphere as Batalvi started singing in his pensive mood: “Kee puchhde ho haal fakiraa daa/ Saada nadeeyon bichhre neera da”. After singing one song, he signaled and Sekhon asked us to arrange another shot of whiskey in the green room; Batalvi emptied the glass in a single draught and resumed singing his famous lyric:

“Bhathee vaaleye, chambe deeye daaliye,/ peeraan daa paraaga bhunn de;/ tainu diyaan mein hanjooyaan daa bharra”.

That night, the police had a tough time controlling the crowd, which was keen to look at Batalvi from close quarters; an old woman kissed Batalvi on his forehead.

The art of poetry exists in sitting, selecting and arranging words in order and embellishing them with meaningful thoughts. Batalvi’s selection of words and their placement in the context was superb. He resurrected the myths and symbols, and employed them in his poems in a strikingly new manner — the “collective unconscious” of the people of Punjab but now long forgotten. He gave them a local habitation and a name.

Batalvi’s verses bristle with words, symbols and myths that lend a unique complexion to his poetry. His imagery is strikingly novel and the way he transfers the epithet is fascinating as in “Maaye nee maaye, mere geetan de naina vich birho dee rarrk pavve”. In the same poem, he says: “Aakh nee maaye ehnu, rovve bulh chith ke nee, jagg kitte sunn na lavve.”

Only Batalvi could write so powerfully instructing all and sundry to keep one’s grief insulated from others. Often, he harks to the imagery of a bird, Shikra, which was seldom thought of as material of literature: “Mayye nee naaye, main ikk shikra yaar bamaayaa/ Ikk udaaree uss aisee maaree, oh murh vatanee naa ayaa.” Batalvi interweaves the folklore of Heer-Ranjha into his song by his subtle reference: “Churee kuttan ta oh khandaa nahee, assa dil daa maas khuyayaa”.

Like Allama Iqbal was obsessed with the imagery of “shaheen(falcon), Batalvi was fascinated with the imagery of “snake”. It seems he borrowed words like “Birha, Tu Sultan” from the scriptures.

Readers of Batalvi’s poetry would know that he wrote an inimitable orison (arti) on Guru Gobind Singh at the behest of his close friend. In this orison, one can witness the reflection of a civilisation looking at itself in a mirror and castigating the machinations of lesser mortals. Batalvi’s voice is one of self-effacement, in which he speaks about his inadequacy to rise to the pedestal of sanctity as exhibited by Guru Gobind Singh. This was also an articulation of a divine voice delineating the tragedy of an epochal moment — an age’s “weakness” in the face of “power” so much incapacitated and decimated that Batalvi (a “mask” for the dejected and defeated man) could not Approach the powerful Guru Gobind Singh, let alone worship him.

“Mein Kis Hanjoo Da Diwa Baalke Teri Aarti Lawaan/ Mera Har Geet Buzdil Hai, Mein Kehrra Geet ajj Gaavaa?

In the Kaliyuga, the honest few like Batalvi could comprehend that the bruised could be healed if purification of the word and the tongue is affected, weaning the misguided souls away from spewing venom of vilification with their darkened tongues:

Main Chahunda Ess To Pehlaan

Ke Teri Aartee Gavvan

Mein Maile Shabad Dho ke

Jeebh Dee Keelee Te Paa Aanwa

Te Maile Shabad Sukkan Teek

Teri Har Pairh Chumm Aanwaa

Teri Har Pairh Te

Hanjoo Da Ikk Suraj Jagaa Aanwaa“.

Batalvi’s melancholy verses invite close comparison with those of Bulhe Shah — the only difference being that Bulhe Shah found solace through his faith in God whereas Shiv yielded to Bacchus in the broken mirror of his tortured self:

Assan Ta Joban Rutte Marnaa

Tur jaana bhare Bhare Bharaye

Hijar Tere dee Kar Parkarmaa

Joban Rutee Ji vee Mardaa

Phull Bane Ja Tara

Joban Rutee AAshiq Marde

Jaa Koyee Karmaa Vaala

Such a strong fascination for death is perceptible in this poem that the inner desire to live is also quite visible as Shiv refers to “Joban” (Youth) many times in this poem.

In a scintillating interview with Batalvi, celebrated Punjabi playwright, Balwant Gargi has dwelt at length on the many aspects of his multi-splendoured personality. In that interview, Batalvi expresses his deep fascination for snakes and explains that snakes, for him, are “a symbol of death, poison and sex”. He explained that “a lot of poison exists in me and when this poison travels in my poetry, it becomes nectar. This poison tears me apart, and also stings me like an embodiment of the power of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.”

In a strikingly confessional tone, Batalvi asked Gargi, “Do you know why I drink? The girl I loved intensely had an aversion for alcohol and I drink because I visualized her while drinking; and, moreover, drinking is the only solution left for me to remember her!”

While elucidating about his magnum opus, Loona, Batalvi told Gargi, “It was 1963. On the clay roof of my house, I desired to write something which should be different from the writings of others. I wrote its first Canto of Loona in one go on a single day. I did not write it for three months; then I wrote its dialogues. While writing Loona, one Shiv was dying and the other Shiv was taking birth… Loona was integrated into my persona — torn, shattered and cursed. I modelled the dialogues of Ichhraan on my mother and those of Salvaan are modelled on my father who was a hard-nosed, cruel and callous parent.”

An “organic sensibility” is what differentiates the poet from lesser mortals; and Batalvi, like John Keats, possessed it in an abundant measure. A rarely-quoted anecdote about Batalvi goes that once he wrote an entire ghazal with a piece of coal on a wall. He was traveling in an auto-rickshaw in Chandigarh with one of his companions, when all of a sudden, he exhorted the rickshaw-puller to stop. Batalvi then asked for a pen and a piece of paper from his companion. When his companion failed to do, he turned to the rickshaw-puller. The helpless rickshaw-puller shook his head. Batalvi stepped out of the rickshaw and found a piece of coal and started to write on the wall. He kept on writing and when he finished writing, he called his companion and asked him to copy the transcript on the wall.

Shiv’s companion was thrilled. He noticed that his friend was probably lost in some thoughts, so he left him on his own. Next day, when he went back to note down that transcript, he was taken aback to learn that what Shiv had written on that wall the previous night was actually a ghazal. That ghazal became one of his finest piece of work.

In a 1970 interview available in the BBC’s archives, he said that “there was no dearth of love in his life as such but he could not paint its complete picture.”

Whatever reason we attribute to Shiv’s grief and anguish, the pangs of separation ceaselessly lacerate his heart as he laments:

Aseen kacheyaa Anaara deeyaa Tahneeyaa

Payeeaan Payeeaan Jhuk Vee Gayeeyaan

Aseen Kaceyaa Gharaa deeyaan Kandhaa

Payeeyaa Payeeya Bhur Vee Gayeen

Rarely does one find a grief-stricken person replicating his totally grief, transparently and, more significantly, so as Batalvi triumphs portrays his own anguish and grief:

Mein Te Mere Geet Dohaan Jad Bhalke Mar Jaana

BIrho De Ghar Jaayeean Saanu Kabree Labhan Aunaa


Kise Kise de Lekhee Hundaa, Enna Dard Kamaunaa”.

The recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award at the age of 30, Batalvi was a man in a hurry who rushed his way up the higher echelons of Punjabi poetry with a welter of intense couched in pregnant metaphors and similes garnered from the plethora of popular myths and symbols and went off the stage of life leaving both his admirers and Punjabi poetry orphaned., Batalvi lives on as an enigmatic poet who presents an “objective-correlative” to his love-lorn persona by calling his beloved”Shikra“.

Pallan is a Canada-based writer


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