Did I ever leave Panjab? Growing up in the west, my earliest memory of Panjab is taking a train ride from Jhansi (UP) to Ludhiana (Panjab) during summer breaks to visit my nanke (maternal grandparents). There are also fond memories of trips with my family to mostly Eastern Panjab, and one to Western Panjab in June 1984. On an extended stay away from the homeland thereafter, as if in exile, my connection with Panjab came via books and songs in Kansas. Those were the yonder years of high school, university, and aviation career. Bhai Vir Singh, Prof. Puran Singh, Harinder Singh Mehboob watered my roots with the ‘land of five rivers,’ as did Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Kuldip Manak, Safri Boys. After a gap of more than a decade, a trip back to Eastern Panjab in 1997 brought back many silenced memories.
Staying back in Eastern Panjab for 5 years, I discovered the Panjabi layers: people, psyche, past. It was a ‘road less traveled’ winding thru pinds (villages) and saths (hangout), coming across folksingers like Sharif Uddu and incredible kirtania (one who glorifies the Divine) Bhai Balbir Singh, life-long friendships with founders of now famed 1469 and Panjab Digital Library, listening to stories of survivors and respondents of 1984 and their advocates, connecting with the youth on campuses and Barista, listening to the sounds of Vismaad Naad to Naad Pargaas, savoring Kesar da dhaba to golgappe. It was a powerful journey that moved me back to my origin and connected me with the land and its people. Not to mention, I met my life-partner in Panjab, while both of us volunteering at NGO FATEH attempting to intermix something like Sikh birthright with Panjab Peace Corps.
After returning from East Panjab in 2002, several trips to Western Panjab from Texas added to the color and vastness, for example, discovering Alam Lohar. Language, culture, music, food, literally and figuratively discovering missing dimensions of Lok Virsa (folk culture), where world’s largest Panjabi population resides on the other side of Wagah.
Panjab as a space has special place for me. As a foot-soldier in Guru Nanak’s revolution, I am on a continuous journey from Karatarpur to Anandpur with several stops at Sarhind, Amritsar, Lahore, Nankana, and Jamraud. An experiential journey through Prof. Puran Singh’s Desh Panjab, where the unions and separations are as grand as its rivers. Its youth, though stubborn, is always ready to give his life in love. This river is now dry, divided. How do I flow to become deep, wide, quite, yet intense? I long to go back to the unbound, undivided Panjab. I yearn to weave it into my being like a Phulkari; vibrant, colorful, diverse, embracing within itself myriad manifested shades of a woman’s rich emotions.
As a folk art, Phulkari was very personal, embroidered by Panjabi women for their familial use. It exemplified and externalized urge for creativity to make life more colorful. For me, Phulkari is an analogy to view the undivided pre-partition Panjab that looked like a titli (butterfly). How can a colorful titli take flight when its wings are clipped? In last 75 years, our creative instincts have slowly shrunk like a dying titli. Phulkari’s revival may propel us 120 million global Panjabi titlies to smell the fragrance of the flowers. And perhaps, implore us to revive the garden of diverse and rich life, our own Phulkari.
March (basant) 2015 is time to connect my two divine gifts (5 year old daughter and 7 year old son) in New Jersey to Old Panjab. My wife and I dream for them to become part of this Phulkari. Will my kids hear Dhani Ram Chatrik’s “damame” in celebration of life’s mela? Will my kids answer Amrita Pritam’s “kuk” for Panjab’s daughters? Will my kids relate to the “hu” of Sulta Bahu to become Divine lovers? I ask these and many other questions!
My Sovereign Guru Gobind Singh was not born in Panjab. His journey to Panjab from Patna is a reminder to me of my journey from the Diaspora to the Homeland. On this path, I long for the real panjabiat (Panjabi-ness), where diversity and multiculturalism were not mere slogans, but a reality. Now, they are seamlessly reminisced via dhol and bhangra, while gidda and jhumar elope.
“Long live the country of Five Rivers” – this was the official soldier salutation to greet army commander in Panjab kingdom under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. What’s my salutation to replenish now barren and poisonous land which our foremothers and forefathers inhabited? I ponder. With such thoughts and emotions, I let loose the titli in me to take a Phulkari flight!
Clockwise: A man dressed in traditional attire. Image Courtesy: Panjab Digital Library Childhood images. Image Courtesy: Panjab Digital Library
Scenerio at the Pind. Image Courtesy: Kamalpreet Singh
Harinder Singh is co-founder of Panjab Digital Library and Sikh Research Institute. As an educator and activist, he believes educational is fulcrum for social change. He tweets @1Force.