Devinder Satyarthi: The Quest for People’s Soul
— by Amarjit Chandan
Devinder Satyarthi, the wandering dervish of the Punjab and a folklorist, died at the age of 95 in Delhi on 12 February 2003. A legend in his own lifetime, he was born in a Hindu mahajanfamily in 1908 in Bhaduar in the Sangrur district of undivided eastern Punjab. While a teenager, he came under the influence of Gandhi and Swami Shradha Nand, an Arya Samajist and changed his family name from Batta to Satyarthi (Seeker of truth) after the title of bookSatyarth Prakash (The Enlightenment of the Seeker) by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883), the founder of the sectarian Arya Samaj movement, which played a detrimental role in the development of Punjabi nationality.
Satyarthi joined DAV College Lahore in 1926, but left his studies the following year to start collecting folk – earlier known as village – songs and travelled for a couple of decades all over India with a Rolleiflex in his bag. Though the pioneering work of collecting Punjabi folklore had originally been undertaken by the British weekend anthropologists – padres. bureaucrats and their wives – besides Ram Saran Das and Bawa Budh Singh; no other person, before or after him, could match his dedication and commitment; notwithstanding the fact that the research methodology of folklore has changed for the better recently. He boasted to have collected 300,000 folksongs in all the languages of the Indian sub-continent, but published just three books in Punjabi on the subject. The first collection Gidha (Punjabi women’s folkdance) was published in 1936. A flood in his Delhi house in 1957 is said to have ‘destroyed his treasure of Indian folklore and photographs’. A bohemian in life style and with a long Tagore-like flowing beard, he attracted a lot of admiration as well as ridicule. One of the numerous jokes made about him sums up his popular image: On the day of Judgment, he will be called to the divine Court as Devinder Satyarthi, lokgeetanwala, the folksong-collector i.e. not as a writer.
With such a vast and rich experience of travelling with the word, what he could produce was obscure poetry and anti-fiction, which was alien to the Indian literary tradition. His most controversial abstract novel Ghorha Badshah - The Knight and the Castle – (1965) is perhaps the only masterpiece of the genre in the whole Indian literature. In the background of the disoriented narrative indifferent to social reality lies the loss of his first beloved daughter Kavita. His creative style was unique. His tools of the trade were – paper, pen, a pair of scissors and homemade flour-glue. He could read his laboured draft to even strangers and incorporated willingly the suggested revisions, usually more incomprehensive, by pasting up pieces of paper on top of each other. His manuscripts were described as the graveyard of words.
Satyarthi published 45 books of folklore, poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Meet my People, an anthology of sketches of Indian folklore, was his only book published in English in Lahore in 1945. It is interesting to note that he published more books in Hindi (25) than in Punjabi (15). Though he wrote four books in Urdu, he is acknowledged, in Qurtul Ain Haidar’s words, as ‘a writer who kept the Urdu culture alive’. The Hindi world thinks of him as the one ‘who added to the treasure of Hindi literature’. On his wanderings, he had made acquaintances with national leaders like Gandhi and Tagore and Hindi literary stalwarts like Prem Chand, (who was also an acknowledged master of Urdu prose), Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Jai Shankar Prasad. His rivalry with Saadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu author, who never acknowledged his literary worth, is legendry. They caricatured each other without malice in their short stories.
He was friends with all the big names of socialist-realist Punjabi authors writing in Punjabi, Hindi-Urdu and English, but unlike them he never took any stance on any socio-political issue, as East Punjab went through grave crises more than once in its post-1947 history. The massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 was the darkest period. He showed the same streak of his character in his personal life. His wife Shanti eked out her existence stitching dresses to bring up their three daughters. He was away in Assam when his first daughter Kavita was born in 1931 and was not there to perform her last rites, when she died in 1961. For this he never forgave himself.
Satyarthi did regular jobs briefly. Mohinder Singh Randhawa, the builder of modem East Punjab and an Indian Civil Service officer of the time, offered him the editorship of his magazine Indian Farming in 1946. The following year, he was appointed the editor of a state-run Hindi literary magazine Aajkal (The Present Times) published by Publications Division of Government of India. Its namesake sister publication in Urdu was edited by Josh Malihabadi, one of the major Indian-Pakistani poets of the last century. In 1956, Satyarthi resigned fromAajkal and travelled around northern Punjab collecting Pahari folksongs later published in 1961 under the title Punjabi Lok Geet (Punjabi Folksongs) co-edited with Randhawa.
He declined an offer to head a folklore unit in All India Radio thought out especially for him. In 1959, he visited Lahore and Nanakana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Baba Nanak, in a jatha – group – of Sikh pilgrims. Manto was no more; Bedi, Krishna Chander and Upendra Nath Ashq had gone to the other side long before. Satyarthi was welcomed with open arms by all the writers and they all reminisced about the good old days, though none of them had opposed the dismemberment of the Punjab. Ustaad Daman, Punjabi people’s poet, is said to have lifted Satyarthi up on his shoulders and made seven rounds in the hall. He did it again, when Satyarthi expressed his inability to take his turn and lift the heavy weight on his shoulders saying: This time I do it on his behalf; now I’m Satyarthi and he is Daman. Satyarthi had to return to Delhi reluctantly after some months after his wife had approached the Prime Minister Nehru to find her missing husband in Pakistan!
In 1949, Mehkma-e-Punjabi, the Punjabi Department of East Punjab included the name of Satyarthi in its honours list on the behest of other four distinguished Punjabi recipients – Teja Singh, Gurbakhsh Singh, Nanak Singh and Ishwar Chander Nanda. In 1977, the same department honoured him as the best Hindi writer of the Punjab. A year earlier, he was awarded the title of Padma Shree by the Government of India for his contribution to Indian folklore.
A soft-spoken person, Satyarthi was known for his austerity, self-effacement and compassion. For this reason, his friends had given him another name – Sharanarthi (asylum seeker). Sahir Ludhianvi, the Urdu poet, said about him: ‘He is a sanyasi (ascetic) and a thinker. Through him we see the soul of Hindustan’. Satyarthi never hankered after power or prestige and did not think that it was below his dignity to do translation and proof reading jobs for for the bare survival.
Teja Singh, the Punjabi prose writer, said of him: No body can tell from his appearance which religion he belongs to or where he come from. He looks like a Punjabi, but when you have a close look, he seems to be a Bengali, Avadhi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Sindhi and a Balauchi as well. When I see him, I see the soul of Indian folksongs.
Satyarthi is survived by his wife Shanti and two daughters Alaka and Parul. His eldest daughter Kavita predeceased him in 1961.
First published in “International Journal of Punjab Studies. Vol 10 Number 1 & 2. January – December 2003″