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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First Indian Woman Sahitya Award Winner


Amrita Pritam (August 31, 1919 – October 31,2005) was an Indian writer and poet, considered the first prominent woman Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist, and the leading 20th-century poet of the Punjabi language, who is equally loved on both the sides of the India-Pakistan border, with a career spanning over six decades, she produced over 100 books, of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, a collection of Punjabi folk songs and an autobiography that were translated into several Indian and foreign languages.


She is most remembered for her poignant poem, Aj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I invoke Waris Shah - "Ode to Waris Shah", an elegy to the 18th-century Punjabi poet, an expression of her anguish over massacres during the partition of India. As a novelist her most noted work was Pinjar (The Skeleton) (1950), in which she created her memorable character, Puro, an epitome of violence against women, loss of humanity and ultimate surrender to existential fate; the novel was made into an award-winning film, Pinjar in 2003.


When the former British India was partitioned into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947, she migrated from Lahore, to India, though she remained equally popular in Pakistan throughout her life, as compared to her contemporaries like Mohan Singh and Shiv Kumar Batalvi.Known as the most important voice for the women in Punjabi literature, in 1956, she became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her magnum opus, a long poem, Sunehe (Messages),later she received the Bhartiya Jnanpith, one of India's highest literary awards, in 1982 for Kagaz Te Canvas (The Paper and the Canvas). The Padma Shri came her way in 1969 and finally, Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award, in 2004, and in the same year she was honoured with India's highest literary award, given by the Sahitya Akademi (India's Academy of Letters), the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship given to the "immortals of literature" for lifetime achievement.


Amrita Pritam was born in 1919 in Gujranwala, Punjab, now in Pakistan,the only child of a school teacher, a poet and a scholar of Braj Bhasha, Kartar Singh Hitkari, who also edited a literary journal. Besides this, he was a pracharak – a preacher of the Sikh faith.Amrita's mother died when she was eleven. Soon after, she and her father moved to Lahore, where she lived till her migration to India in 1947. Confronting adult responsibilities, and besieged by loneliness following her mother's death, she began to write at an early age. Her first anthology of poems, Amrit Lehran (Immortal Waves) was published in 1936, at age sixteen, the year she married Pritam Singh, an editor to whom she was engaged in early childhood, and changed her name to Amrita Pritam. 

Half a dozen collections of poems were to follow in as many years between 1936 and 1943. Though she began her journey as romantic poet, soon she shifted gears, and became part of the Progressive Writers' Movement and its effect was seen in her collection, Lok Peed (People's Anguish) (1944), which openly criticized the war-torn economy, after the Bengal famine of 1943. She also worked at Lahore Radio Station for while, before the partition of India.
Some one million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs died from communal violence that followed the partition of India in 1947, and left Amrita Pritam a Punjabi refugee at age 28, when she left Lahore and moved to New Delhi. Subsequently in 1948, while she was pregnant with her son, and travelling from Dehradun to Delhi, she expressed anguish on a piece of paper as the poem, "Ajj akhaan Waris Shah nu" (I ask Waris Shah Today); this poem was to later immortalize her and become the most poignant reminder of the horrors of Partition.

In 1935, Amrita married Pritam Singh, son of a leading hosiery merchant of Lahore's Anarkali bazaar. In 1960, Amrita Pritam left her husband for poet Sahir Ludhianvi (Abdul Hayee).The story of this love is depicted in her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket. When another woman intruded into the love life of Sahir, Amrita found solace in the companionship of the renowned artist and writer Imroz. She spent the last forty years of her life with Imroz, who also designed most of her book covers. Their life together is also the subject of a book, Amrita Imroz: A Love Story.


She died in her sleep on 31 October 2005 at the age of 86 in New Delhi, after a long illness. She is survived by her partner Imroz, daughter Kandlla, son Navraj, daughter-in-law Alka, and her grandchildren, Taurus, Noor, Aman and Shilpi.

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