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Poetry of the People’s Poet: The Art and Importance of Reading Lal Singh Dil in Contemporary Times

Poetry has been and continues to be a significant part of the culture of resistance as well as an empowering instrument in the hands of the marginalized and the oppressed. At the same time, the process of literary canon construction oftentimes tends to incline itself towards privilege, thereby obscuring the literary importance of the poetry written by and for the marginalized. Lal Singh Dil, a people’s poet in the true sense of the word, has for long been obscured in the mainstream literary world. And yet, the immense importance of his poetry in understanding the world today and in challenging the societal structures as they exist, cannot be stressed enough.

Written in the backdrop of the Naxalite Movement in Punjab in the late 1960s, Lal Singh Dil’s oeuvre embodies the hopes, aspirations as well as disillusionments about a more egalitarian society in the context of the Naxalite movement. His poetry is grounded in the agrarian life and captures in raw and real terms the everyday, personal and societal conditions, of those who have faced constant marginalisation and oppression. His poetry also asserts his Dalit identity and challenges the dominant discourse of caste and class.

The poetry collection entitled Satluj Di Hawa, written by Dil during his time in prison following his participation in the movement, carries within it poetry that is at once both radical and hopeful, revolutionary and grounded, embodying the lives, experiences and voices of those who have been denied their voice and identity and dignity. The poems included in the collection continue to hold relevance even today, more so in the context of how India has come to be defined by those in power, a definition which blatantly excludes Dalits, farmers, religious minorities and the labouring and working classes.

Lal Singh Dil’s poem Desh (Nation) becomes relevant in this context as it seeks to define a nation not in the language of the ruling class but in the language of the common people- a definition that does not seek to homogenise identities rather one that explicitly articulates the inequalities inherent in the overall make-up of the nation. Dil, through the poem, establishes his affinity with that face of the nation that has for the longest time been neglected, abandoned and exploited. In the poem, Dil writes,

There is another face of my nation

There is another community that I call my own

Wherever, any locality

Is half-asleep with a half-empty stomach,

Wherever, the labourers divert their hearts

Away from the aching body

By counting the stars

Beyond my country,

Wherever they are, they are my nation

Wherever they dwell, they are my community.

Whenever I pick up my sitar

To sing the song of my nation

From across the seas, emerge reflections

Who will welcome them?

Who is it that brings about seas of blood

At the frontiers, each year?

There is another face of my nation

There is another community that I call my own.

Dil’s approach to the marginalized and the oppressed is not one of a distanced, detached observer, observing the oppression from the upper echelons of the society. Rather Dil’s affinity to them is based on him being one of them, of his belongingness to the community that has lived through oppression and exploitation. In his poem, “Sheeshe Di Kaid” (The Glass Prison), Dil, as a voice of the Dalit community, asserts that his community would never allow for an appropriation of their narrative and identity and that anything done for them out of pity would be unacceptable to them. He writes,

We refuse to accept anything

Given out of pity

No heaven

Not even the rule of Dharma raj

Or the promise of socialism

Tell us, who are you

To do anything for us?

You say you feel remorse

For our blood that was shed

And the glass jars that you talk about

To store our blood in

Masses will break those jars

With their feet’s knock

Shining behind glasses

Is not acceptable to us

Any hue of the light

Any dream from anywhere

Is not acceptable

At the behest of someone’s pity.

Dil’s poetry is marked by a striking closeness to the agrarian life and the land as well as to the labouring classes. His faith in the potential that land holds in terms of livelihood, as well as natural resources, is accompanied by his faith in the people of the land. In his poem “Vishvas” (Faith), he notes,

The way there is everything in soil—

Wheat, sweetness, iron and gunpowder

There is everything in the mass of citizens—

Waves, Floods, Storms, Pride, Respect and Revolution.

His faith in the land, its soil and its people is also to be associated with his faith and hope in the idea of revolution. His poem titled “Mukhatib” (Addressed to) brings forth Dil’s faith in revolution brilliantly. He writes in the poem,

How pleasant are these words

Addressed to the Almighty

My wish

My last words should be

“I have full faith in you”

I want to take away these lines

And address them to Revolution.

Dil’s poetry articulates the potential of revolution from within the grassroots. His faith in the idea of revolution, though shattered later on with the disillusionment caused by the outcomes of the Naxalite movement, is firm in his collection of poems- Satluj Di Hawa. In his poem Alvida (Farewell), Dil writes,

Adieu to the setting sun

Do rise again tomorrow

I will bow

But I will not perform the pretence

Of touching water to your lips

I will hoist weapons

Don’t come-

Masses will raise weapons

Hide away the moon too

I will raise weapons

You do not know

That humanity itself is the fire of the sun

Your light, one of the lamps of its song


Oh! The setting Sun!

Dil’s poetry talks about revolution but is not limited to it. Rather it also captures and presents the living conditions of the marginalized who have been exploited, thrown out of jobs and forced to migrate. His poem “Shaam Da Rang” (The Shades of Evening), masterfully encapsulates the everyday lives of the labouring classes. The poem continues to resonate even today, especially in the context of the migrant crisis that was an outcome of one of the most stringent nationwide lockdown in the country. In his poem, “Shaam Da Rang”, he writes,

The shade of the evening is like many before

The footpaths are leading towards the settlements

A stream is flowing away

Thrown out of job

Some stream is drinking away the thirst of water

Some city has started to move to the countryside

Someone is going away,

Leaving behind their entire wages

Someone is wiping away the blood off from

the feeble bodies of their animals with their clothes

The shade of the evening is like many before…

They have moved on,

Leaving behind another stranger’s land

There goes the long caravan

Carrying the weight of reproach

As it moves abreast the long shadows […]

Lal Singh Dil is a significant poetic figure in the Punjabi literary world. The greatness of his literary compositions lies in his ability to speak truth to power, to portray the human condition, especially that of the land, the labourers and the practice of labour. His aspirations for equality and revolution are not individual aspirations, rather they are collective aspirations that spring out of disillusionment in the way the society is structured and the way it functions. These collective aspirations that his poetry articulates resonate with us still today and provide ideas and a space to reimagine society while at the same time being aware of the realities of oppression and exploitation. His poetry needs to be read today more than ever when political forces are deliberately attempting to further disempower the already marginalized and delegitimise the legitimate struggles for rights and dignity. Dil’s poem “Shabd” (Words), very deftly registers dissent, asserts the importance of literature in registering dissent and challenges those in power, and therefore becomes important in understanding the depth of Dil’s poetry as well in order to challenge the current political dispensation. In Dil’s words,

The words have been uttered

Long before us

And the words have been uttered

Long after us

Cut off our tongues if you can

But the words have already been uttered.

Note: The Translations of the poems from Punjabi to English are the original work of this author.

Hunardeep Kaur is an undergraduate student at Lady Shri Ram College For Women, University of Delhi. She is pursuing a Majors in English Literature and a Minor in Sociology.

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