The Contours of Punjabi Poetry
Author: N. S. Tasneem
Publisher: Jaswant Printers,
Year of Publication: 2005
Price: Rs. 200; $ 15
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
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.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English