"Know your mother tongue" - A lesson from Tagore to Balraj Sahni

Those days I was a teacher at Shantiniketan. One day I went to invite Rabindranath
Tagore for the annual Hindi SammeIan, when he started a discussion with me During the course of our conversation he asked, "Besides teaching what else are you doing over here?"

"I write stories in Hindi which are published in the leading Hindi magazines. During my stay here, I have written a lot and also earned a good name for myself."

'But your mother tongue is not Hindi. You are a Punjabi. Why don't you write in the Punjabi language?"

I felt that Tagore was a narrow-minded, provincial man; at that time I did not realise that an artist must first be nationally known in the true sense of the word, before he is internationally acclaimed.

"But Hindi is the national language. It is the language of the entire nation. Why should I write in any provincial language, when I can write for the entire country?" I said.

"I write in Bengali, which is a provincial language; yet, not only the people of Hindustan but people all over the world read what I write."

"I am not a great writer like you, I am just an insignificant writer."

"It is not the question of greatness or smallness; a writer has a relationship with his own birthplace, his people and his language. It is only from them that he can receive the warmth and feeling of being one of them."

"Probably you do not have much knowledge about the conditions prevailing in my State. In Punjab, we either write in Hindi or in Urdu. No one writes in Punjabi. Punjabi is a very backward language. If you want an honest opinion, it cannot be called a language. It is a sub-language, a dialect of the Hindi language."

"I do not agree with you. The Punjabi literature or the Bengali literature is very old. Can you look down upon that language and call it outdated or backward, the language in which great poets like Guru Nanak have written?"

And then he recited a few lines of Guru Nanak's, which I now remember by heart. But at that time, I was absolutely unaware of them. Those lines were:

Gagan mein thaal Ravi Chand deepak bane
Tarka mandal Janka moti
Dhoop Malyachal pawan chanwar kare
Sagal banraya phulanto Jyoti

Literally translated the four lines mean:
Nature in its own way offers arti (prayers).
To God the creator of the Universe
The sky is the thali (tray)
The sun and the moon are the diyas (candles)
The stars are the pearls
The fragrance from the Malyachal Mountain is the incense
The breeze sways like the chawar (fan)
And the entire flora blossoms luminously.

Rabindranath Tagore

Balraj Sahni-renowned actor and writer

After reciting these lines, Gurudev said, "I would also like to tell you that I am trying to translate a few parts Guru Nanak's great epic into the Bengali language. But I feel I will not be able to do justice to him."
"But this is the religious language of the Sikhs," I said. "I am referring to literature which is far above the religious communities and institutions. This kind of literature is not available in the Punjabi language. This is the reason why Punjabi is a decadent language."

"A century ago, the intelligent Bengalis who had been educated in the English medium used to say the same thing about the Bengali language. It is not so difficult to popularise your own language. Bankim Babu (Chandra Chatterjee) had given the Bengali language thousands of new words. Even I have enriched the language with another thousand words. I have established the Bengali language," he said proudly. "Today, this language has its own expressions and manifestations amongst the languages of the world. It is not in any way inferior to any other language."

Gurudev Tagore

I remained quiet, but I was not convinced by this discussion. As far as I knew, most of the Punjabi writers wrote in Urdu or Hindi. Punjabi was just Gurumukhi-a script, which was only used by the Sikhs, because it was connected to their religion. I did not even know to read or write it.

Balraj Sahni with S.Sobha Singh - the great artist

When Hindustan was fighting for Independence, it required one national language. The Congress was making tremendous efforts to make it the national language and encourage its growth and popularity. I did not think it proper to argue, so I told Gurudev the purpose of my visit. He accepted the invitation. I got up to leave.I had barely reached the door, when Gurudev spoke words which troubled my heart for many years. But one day, suddenly, I realised that these words had much truth in them. He said:

"A prostitute, even after amassing all the wealth of this world, cannot command respect, Similarly, when you spend your entire life writing in an alien language, neither your own people will accept you as one of them, nor will the people in whose language you have been writing. Before trying to win over outsiders, you should first win over your own people."

This was Gurudev's style. He would never lose his temper; he knew how to control himself. He was never afraid to speak the truth, knowing that one day, truth would win, bloom and flourish.

The History of Panjabi Printing

The Chinese have been known for their innovative genius in the ancient world. Many arts and crafts hail from the hoary past of the Chinese. From sericulture to printing a number of useful skills are attributed to their ancestral achievements.

There are hundreds of characters in main Chinese alphabet. Modern Tibetan, Cantonese and Mandarin etc. groups of languages stem from the Mainland Chinese. The ancient Chinese wandering monks brought the skills of printing to Eastern Europe. It was block printing and it is difficult to find any example of the original blocks. All such surviving blocks now embellish Printing Museums of the West or Japan. A few pieces of later period are still preserved in Chinese Heritage Museums.

William Caxton duly developed this folk orientated block printing into modern printing in the 15th Century. With the expansion of colonial Empire the art of modern printing assumed a global phenomenon. In India the East India Company established Fort William College in Serampore, known as Calcutta (now Kolkatta) where Prof. William Carey was appointed to develop provincial Indian languages. He chose for modern Indian Languages and Panjabi was one of these four. He used to write Panjabi as 'Punjabee'. He prepared letter foundry of Gurmukhi Alphabet, which was known as 'Painti' because of its thirty five letters, eleven signs and symbols and ten numbers from zero to nine plus a few diacritical marks. He embarked on this project at the turn of 18th century, worked very hard whereby produced its first ever Gurmukhi Printing Characters in 1808 AD and published his grammar of the Punjabee language in 1812 AD. Our research confirms that this book is the first ever printed in the Panjabi language.

A great treasure of knowledge on Sikhi's Mahankosh (The encyclopaedia on Sikhism) by an eminent author and scholar Bhai Kahn Singh has given a tribute to Ludhiana Missionaries for introducing Gurmukhi Press around 1850 after the annexation of the Punjab to British India. It is because of the fact that the government used to keep away many secrets from the newly governed masses otherwise the process of printing started at least half a century before it is recorded. This is one of the misleading elements in the history of Gurmukhi Printing. There are many other misconceptions as well.

Prof. Carey's Gurmukhi characters are based on the school of Patna Sahib calligraphy. This school was confined to the Granthi Bagh near the historical Gurdwara Janam Asthan Patshahi 10. It did not flourish because of the fact that the religious script of Bihari Sikhs was Gurmukhi while the nomenclature (day to day-spoken language) was Bhojpuri Hindi. The ultimate motive of developing Panjabi was colonial design to suppress the North (Sikh Punjab) and annex it to the Empire. Patna was the nearest centre to get the help from. Prof. Carey's team accomplished the project in due course of time and after the 'Grammar of Punjabee Language', the Bible (new Testament) was translated and printed in Punjabi (Gurmukhi script). These two works of great importance make a "Treasure beyond Measure" in the collector's world.

Here is the impression of the 'Painti' of Fort William College, Serampore (Prof. Carey):-.

It may be noted with great interest that Lithographic Printing in Panjabi came into being half a century after the introduction of Letter-Press. It is otherwise in other Indian Languages i.e. Lithography followed by the ease of the letter-press.

A sample of Lithography in Panjabi

The history of Panjabi-Gurmukhi lithography is also very interesting, which we hope to deal with another exclusive study. There aren't very many surviving examples of Prof. Carey's letter-press. Soon it was abandoned and some enthusiast created new typeface. A number of books were printed using this highly artistic letter foundry carrying the aesthetical calligraphy of its creator. Here is an example of this new Panjabi printing bonanza:-

The third and probably the last lettering style in Panjabi Printing was innovated in Lahore under the guidance of a great artistic genius J.L. Kipling, the first curator of Lahore Museum. His illustrious son, poet and author Rudyard Kipling is well known all over the world about his exploits in the central Punjab and Punjabi folklore. This letter-press foundry is prevalent to the present day. Lala Dhani Ram Chatrik (a great Punjabi poet and publisher) added the ITALIC form to this type. The brass moulds for the foundry were still prepared in England till recent times. Now the scenario is changed altogether. Type-writer followed by Very-Typer has now reached the versatile domain of computer, which is printed on offset press invariably.

It will be useful to record here the growth of Panjabi Press during the 20th century:-

1. Panjabi typewriter standardised by great character-actor and author late Balraj Sahni .

Panjabi typewrite with verityper

2. Example of verityper, which was invented during the World War 2 by the U.S.A missionaries.

3. Panjabi computer input after the millennium.

In the world of computer 'sky' is the limit - and many hands and heads are heading forward with leap and bounds. The future seems brilliant