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The new mystic poet

by Jaspal Singh

Cover Gurhti

AMARJIT CHANDAN has been writing poetry since the early seventies but could not make a headway at that time. His early Naxalite phase was mainly steeped in sloganism spawning haphazard doggerels; so were his actions as a political activist. It seemed as if he was suffering from revolutionary brain fever which had no cure except to quit or escape from the "dark tunnel". He did both and landed in the erstwhile capital of world imperialism, London.

The settlement pangs rattled him for some time which he tried to work through his early essays. Then he turned to poetry under the benign wings of the Muses. But this phase soon ended and he went on a backward journey. The literary product is not disappointing though.

The poet has a unique knack of naming his collection of poems — "Jarhan"(roots), "Beejak" (sower), "Chhanna" (bronze bowl with inward inclined edges), "Guthli"(pouch), "Gurhti" (first feeding of honey and jaggery to the new-born).
This paradigm shift in the case of Chandan has not only been caused by a change in time and place but by a change in perception of reality — from through red revolutionary glasses to ochre, mystic ones. This development is on expected lines.

This change is indicative of an immanent reshuffling of the existential categories. Spirit takes precedence over matter, the ideal over idea, the metaphysical over the corporeal, ontology over ideology, essence over appearance, ascetic meditation over political activism, penitence over power, solitude over multitude and silence over tumult.

For a man who is the product of the student turmoil of the late sixties of last century, this is a sea-change. The Indian revolution has petered out into a whimper without a bang. The passage from "motherland" to the "promised land" is really tortuous, replete with opportunistic escapades and facile compromises. When one cannot move forward, one has to look back; even staying at a spot in a moving world is a journey into the primordial recesses, where a multitude of odd artifacts are stored as antiques and curios for the posterity to marvel at. It is just like "primitive" crafts being exhibited in the most modern saloons of Paris or London. Chandan now behaves like a mini Aurobindo and London is a poor substitute for Pondicherry. In both cases the fiery revolutionaries "retreated" and sought refuge in "divine life".

And for the readers (audience) alienated from the roots of their native soil these poems appear like so many memory residuals buried under a thin layer of modern metropolitan kitsch. But for those who go through the maelstrom of life that creates language out of its gruelling praxis, this native diction is just run-of-the-mill.

In the famous preface to "Lyrical Ballads" (1798) Wordsworth and Coleridge had pleaded strongly for the language of shepherds and peasants as an ideal medium for poetic compositions. At that time it was a revolutionary contribution to poetic diction vis-a-vis the "gaudy and inane" terminology of the neo-classical age that preceded.

Inspite of all these observations, Chandan’s neo-romantic intervention has its own role to play. Some poems appear like a gentle shower on a sultry day. In a poem "Tere Andar" from "Chhanna" (Navyug 1999) the poet says, "Terian akkhan ’ch raat matak rahi hai/Tere sir te dhuppan di chunni/Suhagan akkhian har shai nu chumdian/Ajj mainu tera var milia hai/Raatan te dhuppan de nigh vich/ugg rihan mai teri mitti andar/Terian ragon ’ch mai weh rihan/utar rihan mai terian duddhian ’ch/Same di chattan simdi - koi nadi janam lai rahi hai/Tere andar lukia main tere vich zahar ho rihan/Terian akkhan vich." (In your eyes lies the enticing night. Your head wears the scarf of sunshine. Amorous eyes kiss everything around. I am blessed with your boon today. I am germinating in your soil in the warmth of nights and days. I am flowing in your veins and oozing through your breasts. The rock of time drips and trickles into a stream. Concealed inside you, I am revealed through your eyes.)

Such meditative poems show a deep influence of Latin American poets like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. In Punjabi they create a new idiom and a new poetic diction that go beyond the tradition of Prof Puran Singh and Bhai Vir Singh.

Strangely, two poems with the same title "Chupp" appear in both anthologies, "Chhanna" and "Gurhti". But at both places they are differently realised .The "Chupp" in "Chhanna" reads like this: "Chupp sundi hai/chupp/jo mahadhmake de bee andar hai/shabad de vich/neendar di kuuk de andar hai/Aad ton pehle/Anth de magron/Same ton bahar/har shai andar/chupp nahi sundi/shor barha hai/yadan da/sahwan da/lafzan da/kann vajde han/chupp di daat devo mere rabb ji/Jeevan di chupp da." (Hark! I hear the silence which is lodged in the seed of the big bang. Silence rules before the word is uttered. Silence is the language of the dead. Silence is in the sound of sleep. Silence is before the beginning and after the end. Silence is beyond time though within everything. Silence becomes inaudible as noise dominates — noise of memories, of breathing and of words. The ears vibrate — an aural illusion.OGod, bless me with silence — the silence of life!)

In the following poem "Chupp" from "Gurhti"(Navyug, 2000), the latest collection, the poet recites: "Chupp hai sare pase/Banda hi hai jo chupp nu bolan lagda/Shaian de nam rakkhan lagda/Phir kiyun kiyun karda/Chaldi gaddi chupp musafir/Kujh kharhka sunde han/Kujh nahi sunde/Aawaz jiyun chupp di mitti vich uggia rukkh hai/Aawaz chupp di khalrhi hai/Eh phal hai/Eh anda hai/Aawaz di chupp na’ has dandan di preet laggi hai/Aawaz chupp nu chhuh ke murhdi hai/Chupp sufne vich bole/Bagan de ghor anere andar/koi kise da na lainda hai dar ke/chupp hor duungi ho jandi hai/Bahut chupp hai chupp gungi hai/chupp hai sare pase."(Silence prevails all over the place. Only man breaks the spell of silence beginning with the naming of things around him and seeking answer to his queries. Some passengers in the moving train perceive the noise, others do not. Sound is like a tree grown in the soil of silence. Sound is the skin of silence — its fruit, its egg. Sound and silence have an intimate relation like laughter and teeth. Sound rebounds after having touched the soul of silence. Silence speaks through dreams. In the inky darkness of groves where somebody utters some one’s name with fear in the heart, silence deepens still further and dumbness prevails all over the place).

Sometimes Chandan does reflect on the destiny of the immigrants in the western world, a favourite theme of all Punjabi writers in Britain, Canada and the USA. In a poem, "Is mulk vich"(from "Chhanna") he says that the alien sheds memories in this land one after the other and silence becomes his speech, turning him into a deaf and mute. The wind then translates his silence into English.

From being a man the immigrant turns into being a dehumanised alien. He keeps owning what does not belong to him. He wears Punjabi shoes with English suits. It seems the wheel of time has broken one of its teeth here; that is why the watch does not move forward nor does the needle in the groove of the gramophone record.

While making an appraisal of the 20th century, the poet says that the winners lost after having won. The relentless battle between falcons and sparrows went on. The book was defiled by the monkey and the man armed with a nuclear bomb became the son of a bitch. Then he raises a toast in the name of those who came and departed and also to those who were to come but had not turned up. A toast to those who will come today or tomorrow and keep their word.

In an ode to Punjab in "Gurhti", the poet expresses his feelings thus:"My Punjab is as big as the world itself — infinite, limitless. All rivers flow through it. Everybody here listens to silence which appears in the form of a call by a hermit (fakir). Punjab is a drum as big as the earth itself — God himself beating it. Shiva does the dance of death (tandav) Krishna and Ranjha play on the flute. The azure horse neighs. Dhareja whirls in dance at the snap of fingers.Sohni, Heer and Sahiban sing bridal songs. Dulla chats with Puran and Bhagat Singh. Guru’s name is the pinnacle of glory. Then Punjab becomes a father without ttachment and a son separated from the mother (womb), always in search of excuses to stake his life.

With such ruminations the poet longs to go back to his primal stirrings. The loss of revolution is the gain of mystic meditation in Punjabi world of letters. "Chhanna" also carries a philosophical introduction by Satya P. Gautam of Panjab University, which succinctly summarises the thematic diffusion of the anthology with a very strong espousal of the cause of the Punjabi language and culture.

[ Courtesy The Sunday Tribune, Chandigarh , 27 Aug 2000]

Dr. Jaspal Singh is the Director of Ambedkar Institute, Chandigarh, Punjab.

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