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AMRITA PRITAM (1919-2005)

Amrita Pritam was a writer in Hindi and Punjabi. She was born in Gujranwala, Punjab, in 1919. Her parents were not well off; her father was a preacher of the Sikh faith while her mother was a poet. She lost her mother when she was eleven, and soon after she and her father moved to Lahore. These early experiences made a deep impression on her and she began writing in Punjabi while still in school. Her first collection of poetry, Amrit Lehran, was published in 1936 when she was only sixteen, and she produced five more collections till 1950 in spite of her father’s opposition to this ‘frivolous’ pursuit. Hoping to ‘steady’ her mind, he got her married in 1936 to Pritam Singh, an editor to whom her father had promised her in early childhood. She remained married to Pritam Singh till 1960, and they had a daughter and a son before they divorced.

Disturbed by the growing violence and unrest leading up to Partition, she and her husband left for Delhi in 1947. There Amrita began to write in Hindi, hoping to reach a new audience. She still wrote few poems in Punjabi, and the most famous of these is Aj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu addressed to Waris Shah, the author of the Punjabi epic Heer-Ranjha, and bewailing the savagery and waste of Partition. In 1950 she wrote her most famous novel, Pinjar (The Skeleton), which was published in 1970 and made into an award-winning film by Chandra Prakash Dwivedi in 2003.

Amrita got a job with All India Radio which she held till 1961. She also edited a Punjabi literary journal, Nagmani. After her divorce she had an infatuation with Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980). Best known for his film lyrics, Ludhianvi, born Abdul Hayee, was an atheist and a realist, deeply committed to social justice and a mordant critic of abuses, but incapable of looking after himself or dealing with the practicalities of life. She also had a long-standing relationship with the artist Imroz who nursed her through her final illness. With him she edited the literary journal Nagmani for three decades.

Amrita won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1956 for her long poem Sunehere (Messages) and the Padma Shri in 1969. She was awarded many D.Litt degrees honoris causa from universities including Delhi (1973), Jabalpur (1973) and Visva Bharati (1987). She received the Bhartiya Jnanpith award in 1982 for Kagaj te Canvas. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha between 1986 and 1992. She received the international Vaptsarov Award from Bulgaria in 1979. She was made an Officier des Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1987. Her work is equally popular in India and Pakistan. She won the Padma Vibhushan in 2004 as well as the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement.

She wrote more than 75 books: 28 novels, 18 compilations of verse, five anthologies of short stories and 16 collections of essays and articles. A number of her works have been translated into English, French, Japanese and other languages. Her autobiographical works are titled Kala Gulab (Black Rose, 1968) and Raseedi Tikkat (Revenue Stamp, 1976).
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