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History and Origins of Punjabi Language

Punjabi is an ancient language, but like Marathi, started its literary career pretty late. The script of Punjabi language is Gurmukhi, based on Devanagri. Punjabi is the state language of Punjab. Punjab is divided into two distinct language areas: Hindki in West Punjab and Punjabi in East Punjab.



This Eastern Punjab dialect developed into a literary language around the beginning of the 17th century whereas Hindki still remains a group of dialects. During medieval times, Punjab repeatedly bore the brunt of Afghan invaders and internal battles, and these warring times were not exactly feasible for any sort of literary or cultural expansion. Punjabi literature as such came into existence only from the end of the 16th century when Punjabi was already in its Middle Period. Gurmukhi script, created from the Nagari script, is claimed by Sikhs as the only proper script for Punjabi. Punjabi was evolving and Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, gave a new lease of life to the language although it was still not in its pure form. The fifth Guru, Arjun Dev compiled the Sikh scripture, the Adi Grantha or Grantha Sahib, but this again was not strictly in Punjabi. Guru Govind Singh (1666-1708), the tenth and last Guru, wrote a number of religious works mainly in Old Hindi with the exception of Candi-di-Var which is in Punjabi.

The period between 1600-1850 covers the entire Middle Punjabi literature. Hindu and Sikh writers wrote in Punjabi, but it was Muslims were the most creative in producing rich literature in Punjabi. The best-known Hindu Punjabi scholar and Persian poet of the 17th century were Chandar Bhan of Lahore. In the 17th century, Punjabi split up into three scripts - Perso-Arabic, Nagari and Gurmukhi. Abdullah’s (1616-1666) Bara Anva or the ‘the Twelve Topics’ is a thesis on Islam. During this age, many Muslim Sufi poets came to the forefront, and their compositions, entirely Punjabi in spirit and content, form an integral part of Punjabi literature. Bullhe Shah (1680-1758) is the greatest Sufi poet whose Kafis or short poems of about six stanzas are very popular. Ali Haidar (1689-1776), one of his contemporaries, wrote a large number of Si-harfis or poems of 30 stanzas, each stanza beginning with a letter of the Persian alphabet.

In this century Jasoda Nandan wrote a poem containing 88 stanzas on an episode from the Ramayana. As an offering to Guru Granth, Guru Das wrote 40 Vras or stories in poetry form conveying moral teachings. Ballads based on popular romances form a special work of Punjabi literature. The tragic love story of Heer and Ranjha became the source of many long poems by various writers, but the most extensive and popular was the one rendered by Waris Shah in 1766. Shah is regarded as the greatest poet of Punjabi literature before the start of the modern age.

Poems on historical figures and stories formed the essence of the 18th century, with Hamid’s (1766-1776) tragic 5620-line Jang nama. Love, morality and Sufi mysticism crept into verses written by poets like Arur, Rai, Isar Das, Kisan Singh Arif, Hidayatullah and Muhammad Buta. After the British took over Punjab, Hindu reform movements like the Arya Samaj and the Sanatan Dharma strengthened the position of Hindi after which Punjabi in the Gurmukhi character was practised only by the Sikhs.

Study of Punjabi was established in the University of Punjab at Lahore and in colleges as late as 1915. Modern Punjabi literature begins with the works of Bhai Vir Singh and Padmabhushana (1872-1957). One of his extraordinary works in the language is Rana Surat Singh (1905), a long narrative poem in blank verse of 13,000 lines. Puran Singh (1882-1932), another great poet of this century, has been given the title ‘Tagore of Punjab’. Influenced by the Indian bard himself, Singh’s poetry was considerably influenced by English.

Puran Singh’s contemporaries were Kirpa Singh (Lakshmi Devi) and Dhani Ram Chatrik (Himala, Ganga, and Raat). One of the most popular poets of the `modern’ age is Mohan Singh who has been described as occupying ‘the central place in Punjabi letters today’. He brought in a modern outlook in life and everything related to Punjabi. Other noteworthy poets in Punjabi are Pritam Singh Safir and Amrita Pritam. By this time, several other forms of writing also evolved in Punjabi. Nanak Singh was the most famous novelist and short story writer while Gurbakhsh Singh and I C Nanda were eminent dramatists. After Hindi and Urdu, Bengali has played a major role in enriching the language. Tagore has always had an important influence on Punjabi. A few Bengali classics including the works of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay and Tara Shankar Bannerji have been translated into Punjabi, though not directly but through Hindi. English, Hindi and Urdu have always kept Punjabi a little aside from the mainstream languages. Even so, Punjabi is trying to establish itself on its own.

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