Punjabi is an ancient language, which embarked on a literary career rather late. Its script Gurmukhi, is based on Devanagri (the script in which Sanskrit was originally written).
Punjabi has two distinct streams: Hindi in West Punjab and Punjabi in East Punjab.
During the middle ages, Punjab repeatedly bore the brunt of Afghan invaders and internal battles, which proved detrimental to the growth and development of literary works. Despite the political turmoil, Punjabi continued to evolve slowly and Guru Nanak (1469 ─1539), the founder of the Sikh religion, gave a new lease of life to the language although it did not achieve its pure form. The fifth Guru, Arjun Dev (1563─1606) compiled the Sikh scripture, the Adi Grantha or Grantha Sahib, which was not strictly in Punjabi. Guru Gobind Singh (1666─1708), the tenth and last Guru, composed several of religious works mainly in old Hindi, except Candi-di-Var which is in Punjabi.
During the 1600─1850 period, the Hindu and Sikh writers wrote in Punjabi, but the Muslims surpassed them in terms of creativity. The best-known Hindu Punjabi scholar and Persian poet of the 17th century was Chandar Bhan, originally from Lahore. In the 17th century Punjabi split up into three scripts ─ Perso-Arabic, Nagari and Gurmukhi. Gurmukhi (derived from Nagari) is claimed by Sikhs as the authentic script for Punjabi A Muslim poet named Abdullah’s (1616─1666) Bara Anva (Twelve Topics) is a thesis on Islam. During this age several Muslim Sufi poets came into the limelight; their compositions, purely Punjabi in spirit and content, form an integral part of Punjabi literature. Bullhe Shah (1680─1758) is the most renowned Sufi poet whose Kafis ( short poems of about six stanzas) are very popular. Ali Haidar (1689─1776), his contemporary wrote a large number Si-harfis or poems of 30 stanzas, each stanza beginning with a letter of the Persian alphabet.
About the same time, Jasoda Nandan wrote a poem containing 88 stanzas on an episode from the Ramayana. Ballads based on popular romances form a special genre of Punjabi literature. The tragic love story of Sohni-Mahiwal, Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, et al became the source of many long poems by various writers. However, the most extensive and popular version was composed by Waris Shah in 1766. Shah is regarded as the greatest poet of Punjabi literature prior to 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 were enshrined in verses written by poets like Arur, Rai, Isar Das, Kisan Singh Arif, Hidayatullah and Muhammad Buta. After the British took over Punjab, and following Hindu reform movements like the Arya Samaj and the Sanatan Dharma, the Hindi language gained prominence, in Punjab and Punjabi in the Gurmukhi character was taken up and used only by the Sikhs.
Modern Punjabi literature commences with the works of Bhai Vir Singh and Padmabhushana (1872─1957). The latter is famous for Rana Surat Singh ─ a long narrative poem of 13,000 lines in blank verse. Puran Singh (1882 ─1932), another great poet of this century, has been given the title ‘Tagore of Punjab’. Indeed Puran Singh’s poetry was considerably influenced by Bengali as well as English.
The other fairly well-known writers were Kirpa Singh (who wrote Lakshmi Devi) and Dhani Ram Chatrik (his works include: Himala, Ganga, and Raat). One of the most popular poets of the `modern’ age is Mohan Singh who occupies 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, the first and the most prominent woman poet and author in Punjabi. She was the first woman recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the first Punjabi woman to receive the Padma Shree (1969). Her famous works include Kagaz te Kanvas (Paper and Canvas), Pinjar (the cage), to name a few. Finally she won the Jananpeeth Award in 1982 for her lifetime contribution to Punjabi literature.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poetical talent was born out of the literary conjugation of Amrita Pritam and Mohan Singh, to whom he dedicated his most important creation ─Birha too Sultan (Separation, you are powerful king). Throughout his brief poetic career, his poetry shows a continuous progression from the early pangs of birha (separation from a loved one) to increasingly complex emotions and different reactions to his inner sufferings and towards society at large. His sense of his own identity also underwent transformations at various points of time. Indeed, he travelled a long way from his first collection of poems Peeran Da Paraga (A Handful of Pains), published in 1960, to his last major work Mein Te Mein (Me and Myself) published in 1970.
A closer look at his poetry reveals that the success and popularity of Shiv’s poetry, to a large extent, lies in his following the centuries old traditions of classical Punjabi poetry. Not merely in its purpose, content or message, (especially of Sufi and religious poetry), but also in skilfully adopting the diction, vocabulary and symbolism.By imbibing the essential elements of classical Punjabi poetry, Shiv articulated an acute historical sense and combined it in the most aesthetically pleasing way in his otherwise contemporary poetry.
In the modern period, mention must be made of Nanak Singh, an eminent novelist and short story writer, besides Gurbakhsh Singh and I. C. Nanda, two reputed dramatists.