Shiv Kumar ‘Batalvi’
Shiv and Me
Shiv Kumar is perhaps the most poignant Punjabi poet of this century. In his short life he wrote poetry (and some prose) that could move a rock. My introduction to Shiv was through the disc of his songs sung by Jagjit and Chitra Singh. It took me a while to grasp why three fourths of the songs in a disc titled “Jagjit and Chitra’s Greatest Punjabi Hits” were written by one author whom I’d never heard of. After listening to the disc a couple of times it hit me that this writing had a texture that drew me to it. I searched for more information on him, asked my family and put together this page. I’m still looking for as much information as I can fnd, especially current publishing information so people can order his books if they wish to. I believe a volume containing his complete works was recently published.
I cannot pretend to provide criticism of any value since my exposure to Punjabi literature is very limited (I’m in the process of correcting that mistake). I am a little more conversant with the Urdu and Hindi canon and I can port some of the themes over to Shiv’s work, but by no means all. Shiv is original not simply for his metaphors (which are mind-blowing), but the twist he gives to the treatment of the poet in his work. Shiv’s poems are more “personal” than most other Indian work I’ve come across (perhaps reflexive is a better term). Some of his best work is about his poems themselves. His life was contextually parallel to his work in that he threw himself into the poetic discourse of his time (though the tone he adopted was very different from the one we find in his work).
Shiv is often compared to Keats, and in his biography of Shiv [“Shiv Batalvi: A solitary and passionate singer” 1979, Sterling Publishers, New Delhi LCCN: 79-905007] O. P. Sharma says as much. I can’t say I agree completely, I find a chasm between that portion of Shiv’s work that I am conversant with and what I know of Keats. Superficially though, their lives are mirrors of each other. One point on which there can be no disagreement is that both poets are masters of the lyric. Shiv’s poems have a rhythm that no poet in the English language except Keats can be said to have.
Shiv sang his own poems and his voice is quite affecting. A few recordings of him singing his own ghazals are at APNA’s web-page.
What follows is a series of biographical notes on Shiv Kumar, most of them are from OP Sharma’s biography which is valuable for its content, though its almost-pretentious academic style can be irritating at times.
Shiv Kumar was born on July 23, 1936 in Bara Pind Lohtian (Shakargarh tehsil), in Punjab (now Pakistan). His father was a Patwari by the name of Pandit Krishan Gopal. After the partition his family moved to Batala. As a child Shiv is said to have been fascinated by birds and rugged, thorny plants on the Punjabi landscape. Shiv was exposed to the ramlila at an early age, and it is to be expected that he received what was later to become his instinctive understanding of drama from these early performances.
Shiv passed his matriculate exams in 1953, from Punjab University. He went on to enroll in the F.Sc. programme at Baring Union Christian College in Batala. Before completing his degree he moved to S.N. College, Qadian into their Arts program. It is here that he began to sing ghazals and songs for his class-mates. Shiv never gave the final exams he needed to pass to receive his degree.
Around this period, he met a girl named Maina at a fair in Baijnath. When he went back to look for her in her hometown, he heard the news of her death and wrote his elegy ‘Maina’. This episode was to prefigure numerous other partings that would serve as material to distill into poems. Perhaps the most celebrated such episode is his fascination for Gurbaksh Singh’s daughter who left for the US and married someone else. When he heard of the birth of her first child, Shiv wrote ‘Main ek shikra yaar banaya’, perhaps his most famous love poem. It’s said that when she had her second child, someone asked Shiv whether he would write another poem. Shiv replied ‘Have I become responsible for her? Am I to write a poem on her every time she gives birth to a child?’ Sounds much better in Punjabi (main oda theka leya hoyaa? Oho bacche banayi jave te main ode te kavita likhda rehma?).
Shiv’s arrogance is legendary, but he had good cause to indulge himself. Frankly from the perspective I occupy, all is forgiven. To get back to his life, with some help from his father Shiv became a Patwari as well. This had been his father’s vision for Shiv. The period that followed his becoming a Patwari are the most productive years of his life. A brief listing of his major published works follows, the translations into English titles are from Sharma’s biography.
- A Handful of Pains (1960)Contains an introduction by Amrita Pritam. Contents:
- A song of seperation
- The fountain of tears
- A curse
- How long is the night still
- To Life
- On my birthday
- The threshed tears
- On my friend’s grave
- A song (addressed to the parching woman)
- Lajwanti (1961)Critical introduction by SantSingh Sekhon
- A song (Oct ’60)
- Expectant Woman
- Invokation to mother
- The skeleton
- The kiss
- The sparrows of kneaded flour (1962)AN introduction by Jeet Singh Seetal, contains approximately 25 poems including:
- My room
- The tinker
- Statue of Venus
- The Exile
- The falcon
- An evening
- The stranger
- The Masked One
- Ash Tray
- A locust swarm
- Loona (1961)A verse drama, considered to be Shiv’s most original work and most significant literary product. Loona won Shiv the Sahitya Akademi award in 1965, he was the youngest person to ever have won the award.
- Bid me farewell (1963)25 poems including:
- Bid me farewell
- I have to die young
- The fragrance of Chamba
- My life is passing
- This song of mine
- Bid me farewell, mother
- O mother, the fragrant one
- I will not live tomorrow
- The toys of clay
- The soul
- The vain life
- Speak with thy tongue
- The roots of life
- Invocation (1971)39 poems mostly written between 1963 and 1965, they include:
- O lord lend me a song
- What to ask of the predicament of the mendicant
- With full moon over my head
- The old house
- A face
- The wound (on the Chinese war)
- The Elegy (for Nehru)
- I and me
- 23 section
In 1965 Shiv won the Sahitya Akademi award for his verse-drama Loona. He married on Feb 5, 1967. His wife Aruna was a Brahmin from Kir Mangyal in district Gurdaspur. By all accounts Shiv had a happy marriage. He had two children, Meharbaan (b. Apr. 12, 1968) and Puja (b. Sep. 23, 1969) whom he loved immensely.
By 1968 he had moved to Chandigarh, but both Batala and Chandigarh became soulless in his eyes. Chandigarh brought him fame, but scathing criticism as well, Shiv replied with an article titled ‘My hostile critics’. Meanwhile his epilepsy got worse and he had a serious attack while at a store in Chandigarh’s section 22. In the early 70’s Shiv came to Bombay for a literary conference and my father spent some time with him. In keeping with Shiv’s outrageous behaviour there is a story about his trip to Bombay as well. Part of the conference involved readings at Shanmukananda hall. After a few people had read their work (one of whom was Meena Kumari), Shiv got on the stage and began “Almost everyone today has begun to consider themselves a poet, each and every person off the streets is writing ghazals”. By the time he’d finished with his diatribe, there was not a sound in the hall. This is when he began to read ‘Ek kuri jeeda naam mohabbat. gum hai, gum hai…’. There wasn’t a sound when he finished either.
Shiv has been called a Bohemian, and from what I’ve read and heard of him he seems like one. I’ve heard complaints about his drinking and some suggestions that his ‘friends’ had him drink so he would exhibit his outrageous self. I’m sure Shiv had no regrets about the life he led.
Shiv Kumar died in the 36th year of his life on May 7, 1973 in his father-in-law’s house at Kir Mangyal near Pathankot.
This is essentially a bibliography I’ve compiled from electronic catalogues. They’re in no particular order and some of the titles may be incorrect (the catalogue entries were odd in some cases). I’d appreciate a note if you think any corrections are in order.
- Shiv Kumar: Shiv Kumar, Sampuran Kav Sangreh; Lahore Book Shop, 2 Lajpat Rai Market, Ludhiana
- Jeet Singh Sitola: Shiv Kumar Batalvi, jiwan te rachna; LCCN: 83-900413
- Dharam Pal Singola: Shiv Kumar da kavi jagata; LCCN: 79-900386
- Amarik Singh Punni: Shiv Kumar, rachna samsar; LCCN: 90-902390
- Surjit Singh Kanwal: Shiv Kumar, kavi vich birah; LCCN: 88-901976
- Om Prakash Sharma: Shiv Batalvi, a solitary and passionate singer; LCCN 79-905007
- Jasbir Singh Sidhu: Shiv Kumar di kavi rachna; LCCN: 85-904839
- Aissa Kuldip: Birahom di massi, Shiv Kumar; LCCN: 81-900245
- Surjit Singh Kamwala: Shiv Kumar, Loona da dukhanta; LCCN: 95-90163
- Amara Komala: Shiv Kumar da kavi-lok, Luna de adare te; LCCN: 79-905531
- Pritam Saini: Shiv Kumar ek purana mulankara; LCCN: 83-906288
- Gurcharan Singh Arashi: Luna; LCCN: 92-900278
- Pritam Saini: Shiv Kumar, chintana te kala; LCCN: 79-904759
- Academy of the Punjab in North America has a lot of information on other Punjabi poets.
- Manreet Sodhi Someshwar has an interesting blog post on Shiv.