Stitching words together, in language of love

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Pritpal Singh Betab | TheDispatch

Pritpal Singh Betab is a well-known name among the fraternity of Urdu poets, famous world over for his poems. That, despite Punjabi being his mother tongue, he has managed to make a name for himself in Urdu poetry, speaks for his greatness in the field. Having written hundreds of poems collected in 10 books, the huge respect he commands in the contemporary literature is further accentuated by a plethora of awards and honours conferred upon him. This renowned poet is also respected in administrative circles of the state as he has served in administration in various capacities. Let’s know his story.

Natively belonging to Kharhi Dharamshala, a village in Poonch which presently stands exactly on the Line of Control across the river Betaar, Betab was born in Ambala. He tells about his early life, “In 1947, Poonch was affected badly because of clashes between forces supporting India and Pakistan. With the fear of Pakistan taking over the area, my family migrated from our village Kharhi, with two of my elder siblings. Since they had the hope of going back to Poonch, they couldn’t settle at one place and stayed at different places during this period. We were in Ambala, then in Punjab and then in Haryana, when I was born in 1949.” He adds, “As soon as the things become normal, we came back to Poonch where I did my initial schooling before coming to Jammu for higher studies.”

It was during his college years that he developed the habit of writing poetry. His friends in college and then in University encouraged him to write and Betab started to give it proper attention. During his Masters in Political Science, Betab came in touch with Dr Gayan Chand Jain, the then Head of Urdu Department in Jammu University and Thakur Poonchi, a renowned short story writer and novelist, both of whom Betab consider friends, philosophers and guides, who further polished his talent. In no time, Betab was a known name among the prominent members of the world of Urdu literature.

Despite coming from Sikh Community and Punjabi being his mother tongue, it was his sheer magic of words that saw him getting recognised as a prominent modern Urdu poet, the world over. “Ever since my birth, I spent a good number of years in Poonch. True, my mother tongue was Punjabi but Poonch has Urdu as its main language. Moreover, the sophistication of Urdu got me intrigued to no end and I adopted the same language in my poetry also,” tells Betab who has emerged as a very strong symbol of the linguistic, social and national integration of Indian intellect.

While Betab’s writings, in form of ‘Nazms’ and ‘Ghazals’ were regularly being published in publications like Shab Khoon (Allahabad), Shair (Mumbai), Subh-e-Umeed (Bombay), Alfaaz (Aligarh) and many more, his dedicated studies saw him qualifying Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) examination and joining as under Secretary to government of Jammu and Kashmir in 1977. It was then that Betab decided to write his first book. Published in 1980, ‘Pesh Khyma’ was his first book, a collection of his ‘Nazms’ and ‘Ghazals’, the preface of which was written by famous by Shams-ur-Rehman Farooqi. The book was widely acclaimed by critics and enthusiasts of Urdu poetry and became a huge success. Deservingly, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture & Languages recognised the excellent work of Betab and rewarded his work with the Best Book Award for the year 1981-1982.

The appreciation only worked as fuel to his fire and Betab wrote many poems, which became very famous among Urdu poets fraternity. He followed the success of ‘Pesh Khyma’ with ‘Saraab-Dar-Saraab’, a collection of his Ghazals and ‘Khud Rang’, again a collection of his Nazms and Ghazals. His popularity rose to new levels as he became a regular part of all the prominent seminars, also called Mushiara’s, all over the country including those organised at all India level by Radio Kashmir, Jammu; Radio Kashmir, Srinagar; Doordarshan Jammu and All India Radio, Bombay.

Belonging to the genre of Urdu poets originated in the 8th decade of 20th Century as a second line of modern Urdu literature in Indo-Pak subcontinent, Betab has managed to carve out his place amongst the predecessors as well as the contemporaries. Betab has so far written 10 books in total, comprising of hundreds of Urdu poems. Besides the above mentioned, other work of his is published in ‘Mauj-e-Reig’, ‘Sarsabz’, ‘Nazm Ikiswin Sadi’, ‘Falak – Aasaar’, ‘Shehr-e-Ghazal’ and ‘Cactus Aur Gulab’. While the majority of these are in Urdu script, two among these, ‘Shehr-e-Ghazal’ and ‘Cactus Aur Gulab’ are written in Devnagri script. For ‘Shehr-e-Ghazal’, Directorate of Hindi, Government of India (Ministry of Human Resources Development) awarded Betab with Hinditar Bhashi Lekhak Puruskar for the year 2009, carrying an award price of rupees one Lakh. Prestigious Writers Workshop Calcutta translated his Urdu Nazms in English which were published in a book by the name ‘The Third Strand’.

While Betab was shaping up as a great poet, he was doing exceptionally well in his profession also. He was appointed as the Under Secretary to the state government in 1977, and was later promoted to hold various positions in the administration such as Additional Secretary; Secretary to Government in Civil Secretariat; Labour Commissioner; Relief Commissioner; Director, Food Supplies; Director, Libraries; and much more before retiring as Commissioner- Secretary to Government, ARI & Trainings Department in IAS Cadre.

Betab feels that his job as a civil servant is also to be credited in his success as it provided him the opportunities to develop and polish his poetry skills. He recalls, “During my services in Civil Secretariat I had to move with Darbar Move to Jammu during winters and to Srinagar during summers. I used to reside in Government accommodation, 9-C, Government Quarters in Gandhi Nagar. In the adjacent house, 8-C lived Hakim Manzoor, an Urdu poet who was also a colleague. Professor Jagan Nath Azad used to reside in 25-A. Abid Munawari, another local Urdu poet, used to live in Gandhi Nagar only. So, we used to have literary interactions, almost daily, which helped a lot in my progress as a poet.”

Betab’s poetry has been published in scores of literary magazines in India as well as Pakistan and some other countries also. He is also known for his critical articles on a variety of subjects published in various newspapers and magazines. Some Urdu Magazines like ‘Shair’ (Mumbai), ‘Sabaq-e-Urdu’ (Allahabad) and ‘Sarsabz’ (Dharamshala) have also published special issues in connection with Betab’s poetry. There is a long list of achievements in Betab’s portfolio. Apart from being awarded the best book award by the J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Language, he has been conferred upon with many awards some of which are Best poet award by J&K Urdu forum, RashtraBhasha Samman (J&K Rashtra Bhasha Parchar Samiti), UP Urdu Academy Award, J&K Saadique Memorial Award for literature, Bhasha – Bharti Sammaan by Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, Mohammad Din Banday Award by Mohammad Din Banday Trust Poonch, Muhsin-e-urdu Award by Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu Hind, Jammu Kashmir Rattan Award and Subhadra Kumari Chowhan Janam Shatabadi Samman by Gemini Academy, Panipat Haryana.

Presently working as the chairman of the Writers’ Forum Jammu, an organization of writers of Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Dogri, Pahari and Gojri, registered with J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, Betab is still very much enthusiastic about poetry despite not keeping good health of late. He is working on his Autobiography to be published in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English, which is likely to comprise among other factors, political & social upheavals of J&K during the second half of the twentieth century. A collection of latest poems of Betab under the name and style of “Nuqta-e-Nau-Gurez” is also under consideration, which he says will come out after the release of his autobiography.  Work on translating another collection of his poetry in English is also going on.

Betab bids us bye with his message for aspirant poets and writers of the state, “It is always very heartwarming to come across a youngster who wants to be a writer or poem, especially from our state. I would like to advise them to read as much as they can. There is a treasure hiding in our traditional literature. Only when you read a lot, you can be able to develop and write in your own distinctive style.”

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