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Photo by Amarjit Singh Chandan, Preet Nagar, 1973.


Reviving Preetlari and Preet Nagar





Preet Nagar:  A Michigan-trained civil engineer, Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari had already made a mark on the region’s literary landscape by establishing the Punjabi monthly literary journal, Preetlari, in 1933, when he founded Preet Nagar, the first planned rural socio-cultural community in on June 7, 1938 -- in fact, the first of its kind on the subcontinent. Among the personages who lived and worked in the ‘artists‘ colony’ are actor Balraj Sahini, writers Kartar Singh Duggal and Balwant Gargi, painter Sobha Singh. The Partition of Punjab dealt a big setback to the utopia created by Gurbaksh Singh, from which it never recovered.

As Punjab remains oblivious to Gurbakhsh Singh Preetlari's 120th birthday today, three of his great granddaughters, all in their 20s, are thinking up new ways to keep his legacy alive in the 21st century.

From preserving Preet Nagar, India's first planned town for writers and artists, to introducing new artists at its residency programme, from digitizing Preetlari, the 82-year-old Punjabi magazine, to organizing festivals in town … there’s lots in the cards.

While 28-year-old Samia Singh has her focus on the magazine and its online presence, Ratika Singh, 24, is promoting the residency programme and Anuja Singh, 28 will be looking into upcoming festivals at Preet Nagar.

Established in 1938 by Gurbakhsh Singh, Preet Nagar was the first planned rural socio-cultural township of Punjab. Known as the Shanti Niketan of Punjab, it was initially inhabited by 16 prominent artists of various fields.

With the new generation stepping in, Preet Nagar is slowly coming to life again. The town is now host to a DUA (Dreams Unleash Action) Dream Factory, a residency programme where a few batches of people invited by Ratika Singh, Gurbakhsh Singh's great granddaughter, have come and stayed.

Her sister, Samia Singh, the new editor of Preetlari, says, "The idea is to invite visual artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and writers, etc. to come and spend time on their own projects as well as collaborate with the community."

Another initiative is setting up of a tailoring project called ‘Umeedaan’ started by Preethi Sundaram who is based in Australia, and has spent a year in Preet Nagar.

"Many people in Preet Nagar are skilled at stitching clothes, ranging from Patiala-style salwars to kurtas and more for men and women, so we will see Umeedaan grow in the future," says Samia.

Known to have introduced generations of writers through Preetlari, Gurbaksh Singh’s granddaughter Ratika is now bringing to life stories by Punjabi writers to screen through her films. She has just learnt to read and write Punjabi and recently she read her first story, Basheera by Navtej Singh, and then adapted it into a film.

"Basheera is where I met my grandfather for the first time. As I felt my instincts and intuitions resonate with his, I felt nearness," she says.

"It is my dream to bring his world to life again and open it up to more and more people through the language of film. Basheera is a collaboration between two storytellers -- my grandfather and I," says Ratika, who plans to make more films now.

Samia is meanwhile engaged in bridging the generational divide by being active on social media.

"Promoting Preetlari and Preet Nagar on Facebook connects me to people from many generations and lines of work," she says.

To celebrate the birth anniversary, the digital edition is being offered for free to all those who join the group on Facebook. In a couple of days, the number has crossed 7,000. Under Samia, who was a designer and illustrator at a leading national weekly magazine until recently, Preetlari is trying to don a new look.

She is also redesigning the magazine's website and working out ways to make the content available in Gurmukhi as well as transliterate it to Devanagari and English.

"Later, we hope to make it available in Shahmukhi too. For these and more initiatives, we will be doing some fundraisers as we go along," she says and adds that her cousin, Anuja Singh, is working on event management and logistics research for the festivals they are planning for Preet Nagar.

While Samia is exploring Preetlari's possibilities for today, Gurbakhsh Singh's son Hirday Paul Singh, who is general secretary of Gurbakhsh Singh Nanak Singh Foundation, says revival is a slow process but he is sure "Preetlari will rise from the ashes. Like a Phoenix."

[Courtesy: Times of India. Edited for]
April 28, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), April 28, 2015, 5:38 PM.

I was a regular reader of Preetlari as a student. Gurbakhsh Singh was alive. Later on, I realized that Preetlari was sowing seeds of atheism in slow doses. In my opinion, it was promoting Communism that ultimately resulted in the downfall of the journal. The Partition of Punjab in 1947 had nothing to do with its failure. I also read most of Gurbakhsh Singh's books. From an ardent believer in God, he had turned into a non-believer. I think he realized this towards the end of his life but the damage had already been done.

2: Bikramjit Singh (London, United Kingdom), April 29, 2015, 12:23 AM.

I agree with Gurinder Singh ji. The Sikh masses had rejected Gurbaksh Singh's Communist leanings. The legacy of Gurbaksh Singh is that people like him divided the Sikhs at a crucial period of their history prior to the Partition of Punjab and thus ensured that theirs was not a united voice and the Sikh demand for freedom went unheeded. I wonder if these relatives of Gurbaksh Singh may be seeking to flog the dead horse of Communism while the original masters in Moscow have long discarded this ideology ... or have they discarded it? If so, they should make it clear if they are to be successful in this new venture.

3: Roop Dhillon (London, United Kingdom), April 29, 2015, 9:47 AM.

I'll support such a venture from a literary point of view and even willing to send in my writings if they give me a contact email ... but I won't take an interest if I am expected to lean towards either left or right. I want a revival just to embrace everyman's view and stories ... being neutral in ideology, that great divider and thus killer of humans.

4: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), April 29, 2015, 12:07 PM.

When Sikhs were facing persecution in 1980s, the Preetlari family, along with other Communists, supported state terrorism against Sikhs. That was a most shameful stance and condonement of abuse of human rights. Gurbakhsh Singh's son-in-law who publishes the Communist newspaper, Nawan Zamana, wrote sarcastic editorials against Sikhs, ridiculing Amrit of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Sikhs will never forget their role during that period.

5: Roop Dhillon (London, United Kingdom), April 30, 2015, 12:24 PM.

Re #4 Gurinder Singh ... No wonder they went out of business!

6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 01, 2015, 6:35 AM.

I first heard the name of Preetlari in the mid-forties when my well-read sisters often discussed it when father was not around. That was my subliminal introduction. I also heard that Gurbaksh Singh was a Communist from my father and other Sikhs who had never read Preetlari. To me, at that age anyhow, it made no sense. I was far too busy studying hockey and playing with the books. It was probably in the early 60's that I first read Preetlari, and a good number of their books. I didn't notice any serious leaning of his being a Communist. His books and especially his autobiography were captivating and I found that he as a civil engineer also had a major hand in construction of the Punja Sahib Gurdwara. That made me think that if a Communist, he must be a good one. I also read the autobiography of Balraj Sahni who wrote in chaste Punjabi and nostalgically mentioned Preetlari and Preet Nagar, where he spent considerable time. There were other prominent artists from various fields, like Nanak Singh, Sohba Singh, Balwant Gargi, Kartar Singh Duggal. 16 of them. Just imagine the atmosphere when they all sat together. The phoenix to rise from the ashes may not an easy task, neither the attempt to resuscitate Gurbaksh Singh who held such a prolific pen. Good luck to them.

7: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), May 01, 2015, 5:49 PM.

Preetlari's Gurbaksh Singh writes about his staunch faith in God in his life story. He cites that while he was posted in Iraq, during the war as an overseer, he preferred to leave some of his belongings behind rather than part with his small, personal copy of Guru Granth Sahib which he carried with him. His belief evolved from that of a religious person to a die-hard Communist. He was on the US watch list and was not granted a visitor's visa after his return from Ann Arbor. He did get a visa once in the evening of his life when he was invited by a university for a get-together. He was reprimanded by Sikh religious authorities for writing a book on Guru Gobind Singh Ji titled "Param Manukh." Though he was posted as an engineer in the Frontier Province, I doubt the claim of his building the gurdwara at Punja Sahib, which I believe was in existence from well before 1920.

8: Balbir Singh Malhotra (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 03, 2015, 11:19 AM.

My father, S. Gurdit Singh, was a life member of Preetlari since its beginning in the 30's and I had the privilege of reading it regularly. It inspired and motivated us to be better human beings. I am glad for the revival of this great institution. I would like to offer my support to this cause. I had the honour of meeting S. Gurbux Singh when I was a kid. Preetlari's contribution to the Punjabi language and literature, and its rich heritage must be carried forward.

9: Bhagwant Mann (Canada), October 20, 2015, 2:52 PM.

Great magazine. S. Gurbax Singh and his writing were superb. I miss him. After forty years I want to subscribe again. Please tell me how?

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