The Contours of Punjabi Poetry

Author: N. S. Tasneem

Publisher: Jaswant Printers, Ludhiana

Year of Publication: 2005

Pages: 160

Price: Rs. 200; $ 15


Book Review


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


            N. S. Tasneem is a prolific writer and critic who has written 24 books in Punjabi, English and Urdu. The Contours of Punjabi Poetry, the 25th and latest, is a work of both literary criticism and translation. The book is divided into two sections. The first is a selection of his articles on Punjabi poetry and poets that he has written over a period of some thirty years. The second is a selection of Punjabi poems in translation, including two by Tasneem himself.


Tasneem’s principal strength as a literary critic is that he reads with taste and kindness. He is entirely free from the cultivated prejudices of many ‘enlisted’ academic critics. You never find him straining to prove a point by a complicated argument. Regarding his reader as an intellectual equal, he shares his experiences of literature with modesty and grace. To read him is, therefore, always pleasant. And it makes you nostalgic for the kind of criticism that has almost entirely receded into the past.


            But the old style criticism has its problems also. For instance, it easily succumbs to platitudes, often cherishes a limited literary sensibility, and is frequently impressionistic. The sheer pleasure of reading, in other words, often gets in the way of critical judgement.


Tasneem’s book serves its purpose quite well insofar as it is intended for the lay reader who wishes to acquaint himself with the Punjabi poetry. There are the required biographical notes and descriptive accounts in addition to critical readings and translations. But there is one conspicuous shortcoming: in spite of their wide range in terms of the historical period, the “contours” are not quite comprehensive. The reason lies, probably, in the nature of the project; it is a collection of individual articles written as personal responses to the work of various Punjabi poets at different points of time. Indeed Tasneem has carefully avoided the temptation to revise the articles for the sake of fitting them into the uniform project of a book. Yet one wonders why he has not given, in either section of his book, any representation to the long and powerful tradition of radical and revolutionary poetry of Punjab. No selection can be representative, for instance, without Pash who gave a new idiom and force to Punjabi poetry.


            Punjab’s women poets are, however, well represented, even when some of them are of the radical feminist kind. Tasneem’s observations on the poetry of Manjit Tiwana and Amar Jyoti are particularly insightful and introduce the reader to the strong feminist voices in Punjabi. The sweeping generalizations on the nature of women and men, though, betray the disadvantages of a position that has not been theoretically worked out:


Perhaps woman is by nature reticent to express her thoughts and feelings. . . . Whereas man easily identifies himself with woman, she rarely does so with the opposite sex. The main reason appears to be that woman is generally obsessed with her own longings and deprivations. She has not a single thought to spare for the aspirations and frustrations of man.


Obviously, the discipline of criticism has little room for such judgements.


There is also an article on Punjabi poetry across the border which helps to enlarge the scope of the book. It is one of the best articles in the collection, the others being on Qadiryar, Mohan Singh, Shiv Kumar, Ishwar Chitarkar and Suba Singh.


Tasneem’s accomplishment as a translator of poetry is uneven. His style can be stilted and vacuous, as in the translations of Qissa Puran Bhagat, Bhai Veer Singh’s three poems, Dewan Singh Kalepani’s The Storm, and Surjit Patar’s A Duologue. But at its best, it is precise, understated, and unobtrusive like invisible glass, as in this translation of Harbhajan Singh’s The Nondescript:


My door opens like a yawn

I sweep myself inside from the street.

The humidity covers me up,

as in the open air

I always find myself naked.


Other delightful translations include Gurbhajan Gill’s That Poem Was Not Mine, Harbhajan Singh Deol’s Coffee House, Amrita Pritam’s I Say unto Waris Shah, and Dr. Vanita’s Yashodra. The translation of Yashodra masterfully captures the irony and the poignancy of the original, as it is evident in the very first stanza:



            Not you but Yashodra

            will seek Nirvana this time.

            No longer she wants to remain cooped up

            in your palace with decorated walls.


            With the talent at his command, Tasneem would have served his readers and himself better had he cast his net wider and retained only the finest fish. But perhaps his gentlemanly kindness did not let him exercise the necessary ruthlessness.



April 2005



Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002