Punjab, Punjabi, Punjabiyat2This short essay presents material published in scholarly form in Anne Murphy "Writing Punjabi Across Borders," in South Asian History and Culture 9, 1 (2018): 68-91.

Understanding language, geography and belonging
By Anne Murphy
20: Rachita Burjupati, Untitled (detail), 2018, installation of sand, wood, mesh, and fabric, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Rachita Burjupati, Untitled (detail), 2018, installation of sand, wood, mesh, and fabric, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

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Editor’s Note: This article is one of two parts that form Rungh’s engagement with Dūje Pāse Toñ (From the Other Side): Art from the Two Punjabs, we urge you to also listen to the Conversation in relation to the same exhibition.
Punjabiyat means “Punjabiness”: it represents an aspiration, an aesthetic, a call for accommodation, and a ground for meeting. It is a response, too, to the international border laid down at decolonization in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were formed. That border divided the cultural and linguistic region of Punjab into two parts, and into parts of two nations, defined by religious identity in accordance with census returns. In these times of radically reduced mobility across borders around the world, even before Covid-19 emerged to intensify this dynamic in dramatic terms, the hardness of this border has been normalized. Yet, with the new uses of technology associated with Covid-19, we also have seen a new way to cross this border, through online meetings of artists, writers, activists, and scholars from both Punjabs – and the other Punjab, the Punjabi Diaspora. (J. Singh 2020, Julka & Zafar 2021).
09: Krishna Luchoomun, Muffled Stories, 2018, various textiles and thread, 90 x 215 in. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Krishna Luchoomun, Muffled Stories, 2018, various textiles and thread, 90 x 215 in. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

We see this sentiment animating the works of art in Dūje Pāse Toñ (From the Other Side): Art from the Two Punjabs. The works in the exhibition were created in a series of artists’ residencies in the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs in 2018 and 2019. Artists were brought together and invited to consider the legacies of a shared pre-Partition past, and Partition itself, in the Punjabs today. The works were able to come together in Canada through the exhibition; the intention was also to bring the artists together to meet in this third space, since it is so difficult for Indian and Pakistani nationals to travel to each other’s countries. Covid-19 made that impossible. The works themselves, however, travelled, and came together to create a kind of record of the idea of Punjabiyat, of Punjabiness, in all its diverse forms, in all its diverse voices.

The Punjabi language is written in two scripts: Gurmukhi, which is now used in the Indian Punjab, and Shahmukhi or Urdu/modified Persian script, which is utilized on the Pakistan side. To choose to write in the Punjabi language today is in some way to write against a border: the border of the international boundary that divides Punjabis from each other, as well as the border of script. We can see the complexity of the “script divide” in a specific example from British Columbia: in April 2011, Fauzia Rafiq, a Pakistani Canadian writer living in BC, released the English-language version of her novel Skeena in Vancouver. The Shahmukhi Punjabi version of the book was released in 2007 in Pakistan; it was later released also in Gurmukhi. This example of both translation and transliteration – between different scripts – demonstrates a self-conscious effort to bridge the division of the border that is characteristic of modern Punjabi literary work as a political and cultural intervention, as much as a linguistic one. The content of the novel – with its focus on the trials and triumphs of a Muslim Pakistani Punjabi woman in Pakistan and Canada – also speaks to the political commitments common in modern Punjabi literature: to progressive and secular politics and the portrayal of social exclusion and hierarchy. This, too, is Punjabiyat, in capacious, progressive terms.

10: Gavati Wad, Auzaar, 2018, single-channel colour video with sound, 14 minutes and 33 seconds. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Gavati Wad, Auzaar, 2018, single-channel colour video with sound, 14 minutes and 33 seconds. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
While these examples are recent and enabled by the increased communication across the border, and meetings that are possible outside of South Asia, the spirit of “Punjabiyat” has longer historical roots, and more varied forms. Farina Mir's 2010 monograph, The Social Space of Language, describes in beautiful detail the history of what she calls a ‘Punjabi literary formation’ in colonial Punjab: a way of being, writing, and reading that coalesced outside of direct state control and expressive of a local and yet cosmopolitan vision of being Punjabi. It was a cosmopolitan vision, steeped in a non-religiously inflected sense of Punjabiyat that ran counter to the logic of religiously defined identities that figured so profoundly in the Partition of the province in 1947. As Mir shows, Punjabi literary production flourished in the colonial period despite, and indeed because of, not benefitting from patronage by the state, where “communalism was promoted, wittingly or unwittingly, by state and civil society.” Instead, “other community affiliations” flourished in the world of the qissā – that is, the world of narrative story-telling – because of “the relative autonomy that colonial language policy itself produced for Punjabi literary and print cultures.” (Mir 2010, 15, 24) In this period, before Partition, there was fluid use of Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi to produce a remarkable array of literature.
12: Manvi Bajaj, I Lost My Corner of the Universe (detail), 2018, drawing, ink, collage and thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Manvi Bajaj, I Lost My Corner of the Universe (detail), 2018, drawing, ink, collage and thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
Punjabi, as a language, has been expressed in diverse forms - and the historical evidence for it as a language does not easily map to contemporary understanding of the language and its scripts. (Murphy 2019) For example, Sikh cultural production in Gurmukhi is generally seen as being “in Punjabi,” yet Sikh texts are linguistically diverse. Many Sikh texts in Gurmukhi are written in Braj, a language associated with the region around Mathura, south of Delhi that is often called “classical Hindi” but is in fact a different language, with its own literary history. (King 1994, 127, 152) That is the general character of the language of the compositions of the later Gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib, for example, as well as the historiographical literature associated with the Sikh tradition that emerges in the eighteenth century, the gurbilās literature. As the late scholar of Braj courtly literature, Allison Busch, noted, “during the seventeenth century [Braj] became a language that travelled vast distances, and along the journey, it encountered a range of courtly contexts and regional linguistic practices, to which the poets adapted.” (2010, 106) Punjab was one of its many destinations, and there Braj flourished in Gurmukhi; this demands, as the doctoral work of Julie Vig reveals, that we consider how Sikh literature written in Braj “relates to Brajbhasha literature produced in other courtly and religious contexts, as well as in other social milieux.” (Vig 2020, iii) Yet, at the same time, Punjabi did emerge, most prominently in Sufi texts, with Waris Shah's mid-eighteenth-century composition Hīr as a renowned example. But Punjabi also emerged in other locations; as Imre Bangha and Heidi Pauwels have found in studies of Rasik Bihari and Anandghan, respectively, there are Punjabi registers to devotional poetry written in diverse locations across north India in the 18th century, demonstrating that Punjabi was a recognized mode of literary production across the region.1Communication with Imre Bangha and Heidi Pauwels at the Seventh Early Hindi and Braj Bhasha Workshop, 13-25 July 2020. https://earlyhindibrajbhashaworkshop.wordpress.com/seventh-workshop/ Accessed 26 July 2020. There is therefore much merit, as Francesca Orsini (2010, 2) has advocated, in moving beyond the "constraints of teleological narratives of Hindi and Urdu," to understand Punjabi within a ‘more spacious framework of “north Indian literature”’, where we can then appreciate the complexity of Punjabi’s emergence alongside other early modern vernaculars, often referred to with the umbrella term bhākhā, which simply means “language,” or “Hindavi.”
25: Raghavendra Rao K.V., Heritage, 2020, ink and acrylic on canvas tarpaulin, 96 x 63 in. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Raghavendra Rao K.V., Heritage, 2020, ink and acrylic on canvas tarpaulin, 96 x 63 in. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

The shape of what we understand as "Punjabi" is similarly complex in the modern period. Christopher Shackle has noted that modern Punjabi exhibits complex affinities with and differences from other New Indo-Aryan languages, this being the family of languages that bear the closest genetic relationship with it in the Indo-European Language family. (1988, 105). It is also commonly written in two scripts, as has been noted: Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi.

Gurmukhi is very often seen as definitively "Punjabi," but it must be recognized that the great majority of Punjabi speakers live in Pakistan, and Shahmukhi dominates in that context. In the early modern period, Francesca Orsini and Samira Shaikh have argued, "Script was an indicator of circulation rather than of the intrinsic nature of the text"; they have therefore argued that "for north India in this period, it is vital to decouple language from script." (2014, 22) This complexity is often not apparent to modern speakers of the languages in question; today the term ‘Gurmukhi’ is often used for the Punjabi language by many Sikh Punjabi speakers in the Diaspora, effacing the difference between script and language. Thus, it is not surprising that Punjabi literary histories have tended to be defined by religious community affiliations. (A. Singh 1988, 23–4; Shackle 2012, 2013 [2001]) At the same time, Shackle notes some exceptions to this, such as in the historical account produced by Budh Singh in the early decades of the twentieth century, which provided an enduring model for subsequent Sikh literary historical imaginaries, in which we see ‘a dual reliance … upon Sufi poetry as well as Sikh scripture long [continuing] after the disappearance of a living Muslim presence from an Indian Punjab.” (2013 [2001]), 116).

Reach_FROM_THE_TWO_PUNJABS
Sayera Anwar, Bachpan Ka Mela (Childhood Street Festival), 2020, installation of embroidered textile and single-channel colour video with sound, 3 minutes and 24 seconds. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
We can see a much more recent version of such a formulation of Punjabi literary and cultural history in the ‘Mā Bolī’ or ‘International Mother Language Day’ celebration I attended in Lahore on 21 February 2014. There, as a rock singer roused Punjabi language enthusiasts with his electric guitar in preparation for a parade, he declared among the features of Punjabi that it was the language of the people and the Sufi saints, but was also ‘Gūrūāṅ dī bolī’, or the language of the Gurus. With this statement, the Punjabi language was imagined as an integrated whole, across religious community definition, across border, and across script.
Raghavendra Rao K.V., From the Other Side (Dūje Pāse toñ), 2018, installation of textile and video projection, 6 minutes and 18 seconds. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
Raghavendra Rao K.V., From the Other Side (Dūje Pāse toñ), 2018, installation of textile and video projection, 6 minutes and 18 seconds. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
While languages in the modern period have been strongly tied to nation-building projects, the Punjabi language and “Punjabiyat” operate in broader, more progressive, and less nationalizing terms. (Murphy 2018). The existence of the international border, perhaps, makes the national so much of an impossibility that it frees Punjabiyat from such moorings. To embrace the Punjabi language, then, can mean to take part in something larger, across borders both religious and national. International Mother Language Day is thus celebrated by Punjabi language advocates with as much passion in Lahore, Pakistan, as it is here in Vancouver. This UNESCO day of recognition was founded on the date in 1952 when students were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, then East Pakistan, during a demonstration in recognition of the rights of Bangla speakers. Those who celebrate it in Punjabi’s name today do so out of a commitment to their ‘mother tongue’, from Lahore to Patiala to Abbotsford, BC.
11: Manvi Bajaj, I Lost My Corner of the Universe (detail), 2018, drawing, ink, collage and thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography
Manvi Bajaj, I Lost My Corner of the Universe (detail), 2018, drawing, ink, collage and thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
Activism for Punjabi thus goes across script and border, as much as these work against its cause. The choice for Punjabi can, in short, speak to the crossing of borders, not their formation. Punjabiyat here functions as a view of the world. It invites us in. The works in Dūje Pāse Toñ: Art from the Two Punjabs work in these terms, as well.

Works Cited

Busch, A. 2010. “Riti and Register: Lexical Variation in Courtly Braj Bhasha Texts.” In Before the Divide: Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture, edited by F. Orsini, 84–120. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

Julka, Amit and Usman Zafar. 2021. “Across the Fence: Cyber Solidarity Between India and Pakistan.” https://www.9dashline.com/article/across-the-fence-cyber-solidarity-between-india-and-pakistan 9dashline online magazine 18 June 2021. [Accessed 29 August 2021.]

King, C. R. 1994. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

Mir, F. 2010. The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Murphy, A. 2018. “Writing Punjabi Across Borders,” in South Asian History and Culture 9, 1: 68-91.

-------------. 2019. “Punjabi in the (Late) Vernacular Millennium.” In Early Modern India: literature and images, texts and languages, edited by Maya Burger & Nadia Cattoni, 305-328. Heidelberg, Berlin: CrossAsia-eBooks. Open Access. https://crossasia-books.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/xasia/reader/download/387/387-43-84778-1-10-20190502.pdf

Orsini, F., ed. 2010. Before the Divide: Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.

Orsini, F., and S. Shaikh. 2014. “Introduction.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, 1–44. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rafique, F. 2011. Skeena. Surrey, BC, Canada: Libros Libertad.

Shackle, C. 1988. “Some Observations on the Evolution of Modern Standard Punjabi.” In Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century, edited by J. T. O’Connell, M. Israel, W. G. Oxtoby, W. H. McLeod, and J. S. Grewal, 101–109. Toronto: Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto.

-------------. 2012. “Punjabi Sufi Poetry from Farid to Farid.” In Punjab Reconsidered: History, Culture, and Practice, edited by A. Malhotra and F. Mir, 3–34. New York and New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

-------------. 2013 [2001]. “Making Punjabi Literary History.” In Sikh Religion, Culture & Ethnicity, edited by C. Shackle, G. Singh, and A.-P. S. Mandair, 97–117. London: Routledge.

Singh, A. 1988. Secularization of Modern Punjabi Poetry. Chandigarh: Punjab Prakashan.

Singh, J. 2020. “Arts sans borders: How the pandemic has brought the two Punjabs closer through literature.” https://scroll.in/article/973761/art-sans-borders-how-the-pandemic-has-brought-the-two-punjabs-closer-through-literature 23 September 2020. [Accessed 29 August 2021.]
Vig, J. 2020. “Participating in Other Worlds: Locating Gurbilās Literature in the Wider World of Brajbhasha Traditions.” University of British Columbia. https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0388227.

Dr. Anne Murphy
Anne Murphy teaches in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.
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