Amrita Pritam, from Punjab, was one of the best known female authors and poets. She wrote fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays. Spanning from the 18th century to the Partition of India, till her death in 2005, she has over 100 works to her name and was honoured with some of the highest awards in the country including the Sahitya Akademi, Bharatiya Jnanpith, and Padma Vibhushan. Here are 15 interesting facts about her life that would interest her fans:
Amrita Pritam: 15 Interesting Facts About The Poet
1. She was leading 20th century poet of the Punjabi language:
Indian novelist, essayist and poet, Amrita Pritam, was fluent in both Punjabi and Hindi. Considered as the first prominent female Punjabi poet, novelist, essayist, she was the leading 20th-century poet of the Punjabi language! No wonder she had a career spanning over six decades, where she produced over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, and a collection of Punjabi folk songs. All that and an autobiography too, were all translated into several Indian and foreign languages.
Most cherished for her poignant poem, Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu (Today I Invoke Waris Shah – “Ode to Waris Shah”), an elegy to the 18th-century Punjabi poet, Amrita was an eternal expression of the anguish over massacres during the partition of India.
As a novelist, her most noteworthy addition was Pinjar (“The Skeleton”, 1950), in which she created her memorable character, Puro showcasing an epitome of violence against women, it featured loss of humanity and the ultimate surrender to existential fate. This novel was made into an award-winning film, Pinjar in 2003.
2. She has bagged some of the highest awards:
Amrita Pritam was credited with the Bhartiya Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, in 1982 for Kagaj te Canvas (Paper and Canvas). She was awarded the Padma Shri (1969) and Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, and Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, India’s highest literary award, in 2004. She was awarded D.Litt.honorary degrees, from many universities such as: Delhi University (1973), Jabalpur University (1973) and Vishwa Bharati (1987).
She was also globally recognized after receiving the International Vaptsarov Award from the Republic of Bulgaria (1979) and Degree of Officer dens, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officier) by the French Government (1987). She was nominated as a member of Rajya Sabha 1986–92. Towards the end of her life, Amrita was awarded by Pakistan’s Punjabi Academy, to which she had remarked the following sentence: Bade dino baad mere Maike ko meri Yaad aayi.. (My motherland has remembered me after a long time); and also Punjabi poets of Pakistan, sent her a chaddar, from the tombs of Waris Shah, and fellow Sufi mystic poets Bulle Shah and Sultan Bahu.
3. She is equally loved on both sides of the India–Pakistan border:
Amrita Pritam was born in British India in Gujranwala, Punjab (which now falls under the state of Pakistan). In fact, when she was being cremated, her partner received a message about the distraught people of Gujranwala (her birthplace, now in Pakistan) who were hoping to see her return back there soon. “She will turn into seeds and be scattered there as well,” her partner once replied about the lady who made rotis for him as he made the endless cups of tea.
Coming back to the story of her roots, Amrita moved to Lahore in Pakistan with her father when she was 11, after her mother died. When the British Raj of India was divided into Independent India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Amrita Pritam moved from Lahore in Pakistan to New Delhi. Her poem ‘Ajj akhaan Waris Shah nu,’ expresses her sorrow and horror over the violence accompanying the partition. Even after India was partitioned into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947, she remained equally popular in Pakistan throughout her life, as compared to her contemporaries like Mohan Singh and Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
4. She once worked at a radio station in Pakistan:
Back when Indians in Pakistan were not persecuted, before the partition of India, many Punjabi’s would coexist with Pakistanis. Amrita Pritam first started working in radio in Pakistan and would later shift to ‘All India Radio’ in Delhi India, where she worked until 1961 in the Punjabi division.
5. She got married at the age of 16:
Amrita Pritam had been betrothed to Pritam Singh at a very young age. Unlike current times, childhood arranged marriages were common as she was set to marry him even before she turned 16. So, she married him in 1936, at the age of 16. Pritam was the son of a leading hosiery merchant of Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar and he was an Editor as well. However her marriage wasn’t a happy one, and she left him in 1960.
FUN FACT: Half of her famous name comes from her husband. Indian culture dictates that a woman carries her husband’s name no matter how young you marry. Amrita Pritam is an amalgamation of her (then) new life with Pritam mixed with her old name and old dreams, as she would forever be linked to this name when she first got published. Bollywood actress Saira Banu was also sixteen, she entered into Bollywood industry, which would change her life.
Amrita’s mother died when she was eleven. After her mother’s death, Amrita found solace in writing. Although she wrote her first book of poems at 12, she was recognised globally by the time she turned 16. Amrita Kaur would take on her new husband’s name Amrita Pritam and publish an anthology of poetry titled: ‘Amrit Lehran’ (Immortal Waves).
She was an only child, making the death of her mother, a leading factor in her early career. Confronting adult responsibilities and besieged by loneliness following her mother’s death, she began to write at an early age to vent. Perhaps this was inculcated in her by her father to express grief. Her father was Raj Bibi, who was a school teacher and Kartar Singh Hitkari. He was a poet, a scholar of the Braj Bhasha language, and the editor of a literary journal. Aside from that profession, he was a pracharak meaning a preacher of the Sikh faith.
7. She went political:
Although the novelist began her journey as a romantic poet, Amrita shifted gears as a direct byproduct of her environment and became part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and its effect was seen in her collection, Lok Peed (“People’s Anguish”, 1944), which openly criticised the war-torn economy, after the Bengal famine of 1943. She was also involved in social work to a certain extent and participated in such activities wholeheartedly, after Independence when social activist Guru Radha Kishan took the initiative to bring the first Janta Library in Delhi, which was inaugurated by Balraj Sahni and Aruna Asaf Ali and contributed to the occasion accordingly. This study centre slash library is still available to the public at Clock Tower, Delhi.
8. Her verse on the Partition is considered the best of poetry pertaining to 1947:
In lieu of millions of people: Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims under the same sky died from communal violence that followed the partition of India in 1947, Amrita Pritam was left a Punjabi refugee at age 28, when she left Lahore and moved to New Delhi. Later on in 1947, while Amrita was pregnant with her son, and travelling from Dehradun to Delhi, she expressed her deep sadness on a piece of paper like the poem, “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” (I ask Waris Shah Today); this poem would later immortalize her forever and it became the most poignant reminder of the horrors of Partition. The poem is addressed to the Sufi poet Waris Shah, author of the tragic saga of Heer and Ranjah and with whom she shares her birthplace.
9. She went feminist:
Although Amrita and Pritam had two children together, a son and a daughter, in 1960 they divorced. After her divorce in 1960, her work became more feminist. Many of her stories and poems drew on the sadness of her failing marriage.
10. She was the first to get the Punjab Rattan Award:
Amrita Pritam was the first recipient of Punjab Rattan Award conferred upon her by Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh. The Punjab Rattan Award by the government of Punjab is awarded to achievers in the field of art, literature, science, technology, culture, and politics. Amrita was the first to receive it.
11. She was the first woman to get a Sahitya Akademi Award:
Amrita Pritam was the first female recipient of a renowned award in the 18th Century. In 1956, she was the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award. She was awarded in 1956 for her poem ‘Sunehade’ (Messages). The poem is considered to be her magnum opus as she expressed her passion for the poet Sahir Ludhianvi. During the pre-Partition days, she had framed a poem he had written for her and she had given him a Parker pen. Sadly, the Partition robbed them of both. The poem was left behind in her Lahore home; Ludhianvi’s pen was stolen by a pickpocket at a railway station. “In our relationship, I was the more passionate one,” she said. “My book of poems, titled Sunehre, was full of messages for him. But they did not melt him. However, my love was not wasted. I got the Sahitya Akademi Award for the book.”
12. A number of her works have been translated:
Amrita Pritam’s works have been translated into foreign languages such as French, Danish, Japanese, Mandarin, and other languages from Punjabi and Urdu, including her autobiographical works Black Rose and Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp).
Black Rose was once used as a Google doodle on August 31st to celebrate Amrita Pritam’s 100th birth anniversary. The accompanying write up read as, “Today’s Doodle celebrates Amrita Pritam, one of history’s foremost female Punjabi writers, who ‘dared to live the life she imagines.’ Born in Gujranwala, British India, 100 years ago today, Pritam published her first collection of verse at the age of 16”
The doodle was drawn by artist Vrinda Zaveri. In the doodle Amrita Pritam is seen sitting in front of a bunch of black roses as she writes in a diary. The doodle carries a reference to Amrita Pritam’s autobiography ‘Kala Gulab’ (Black Rose).
Meanwhile, Raseedi Ticket was about how Amrita felt distressed at the influence of hate. The Punjabi writer encourages writers by showing how a writer should not be afraid of criticism. It also describes the times between her intimacy with the poet Sahir Ludhianvi and deep friendship with Imroz, her partner.
13. Her work was made into films:
In the beginning, Amrita Pritam’s first book to be filmed was Dharti Sagar te Sippiyan, as Kadambari (1965). Then followed Unah Di Kahani, as Daaku (Dacoit, 1976), directed by Basu Bhattacharya. Next was Pinjar.
Pinjar (The Skeleton, 1970) was her novel which narrates the story of partition riots along with the crisis of women who suffered during the times. The Punjabi novel follows a Hindu girl, Puro, who is abducted by a Muslim man, Rashid. Puro’s parents refuse to recover the defiled girl when she manages to run back to her parents from Rashid’s home. Considered to be one of the best literature works written with backdrop of Partition of India, Pinjar was adapted in Hindi film in 2003 of the same. The book was translated in English by Khushwant Singh and Denis Matringe translated Pinjar in French.
Pinjar was made into an award-winning Hindi movie by Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, because of its humanism: “Amritaji has portrayed the suffering of people of both the countries.” The film Pinjar was shot in the border region of Rajasthan and Punjab. Rajasthan is a state in India, which has a shocking amount of haunted houses.
M. S. Sathyu, who is renowned as the director of the partition film Garam Hava (1973), also paid a theatrical homage to her through his rare theatrical performance ‘Ek Thee Amrita’ to honour her work.
14. She met the love of her life after sorrow:
Amrita Pritam is said to have had an unrequited affection for poet Sahir Ludhianvi (see number 11). Their love is narrated in her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp). When another woman, singer Sudha Malhotra came into Sahir’s life, Amrita Pritam found solace in the companionship of the artist and writer Imroz who she would spend the last forty years of her life with. The artist/writer first met Amrita when he designed the cover of her book. He not only designed most of her book covers, but he also made her the subject of several paintings. He was all set to leave for Mumbai to join an ad firm but he tore up the appointment letter and moved in with her. Considering that this happened way back in 1958, it shows how Amrita was always ahead of her times and lived life on her own terms. Imroz and Amrita’s life together is also the subject of a book, self titled as: Amrita Imroz: A Love Story. Amrita also edited Nagmani, which she ran together with Imroz for 33 years. Nagmani is a monthly literary magazine in Punjabi though after Partition she wrote prolifically in Hindi as well.
After Amrita Pritam died in her sleep on 31 October 2005 at the age of 86 in New Delhi, she was survived by her partner Imroz, her daughter Kandala, her son Navraj Kwatra, her daughter-in-law Alka, and her grandchildren: Noor, Taurus, Aman and Shilpi. Navraj Kwatra, her son, was found murdered in his Borivali apartment in 2012. Three men were accused of the murder but were acquitted due to lack of evidence.
15. She was into OSHO:
Later in life, Amrita Pritam turned to Osho and wrote introductions for several books of Osho, including Ek Onkar Satnam, and also started writing on spiritual themes and dreams, producing works like Kaal Chetna (“Time Consciousness”) and Agyat Ka Nimantran (“Call of the Unknown”).