Unveiling the legacy of Sangat

May 21, 2023

A journey through Punjab’s literary revolution

Some members of Sangat at 49 Jail Road, Lahore, 1998. (From left to right) Amarjit Chandan, Samina Hassan Khalid Busra (late) Najam Hosin, Anwar Ch (late) and the author. ---- Image by Shahid Mirza
Some members of Sangat at 49 Jail Road, Lahore, 1998. (From left to right) Amarjit Chandan, Samina Hassan Khalid Busra (late) Najam Hosin, Anwar Ch (late) and the author. ---- Image by Shahid Mirza


n 1973 some students at the Punjab University decided to form a group to study the history of the Punjab. It was consequently named Sangat (lit. congregation). Most of the founding members had become disillusioned with the active Left politics of the time and thought that the revolution for which they had worked strenuously needed another kind of effort.

Since then, the Sangat has gone on. It was intermittently inactive between 1978 and 1990 but was revived in the 1990s. During the Covid pandemic in 2020, it went online. The founding members of the Sangat included Manzur Ejaz, Yasoob Tahir, Shuja Al-Haq, Azmat Qadir, Mushtaq Sufi, Fayyaz Baqir, Izzat Majeed and Akmal Husain. Many more joined later, like Akram Warraich, Mazhar Tirmazi, Zoya Sajid, Ruby Mehdi, Javed Ali Khan, Raja Arif, Nasir Baloch, Nadir Ali, Qazi Asif, Azra Waqar, Maqsood Saqib and Khalid Shahzad.

A book in Punjabi about Sangat has just come out. It is titled Va gârî’, which means ‘doing collectively with your own will’. Although the name of its editor is not given, it is presumed to have been put together by Huma Safdar, a street theatre activist and a diehard member of the Sangat. There are many pictures of the theatre group and several write-ups by its members about the Sangat. 51 members have written about the Sangat. These include people like Manzur Ejaz, Fayez Baqir, Akram Warraich, Zoya Sajid, Azra Waqar and Najm Hosain Syed. Rabia Nadir Ali has shared the memories of her father, Nadir Ali, who was a very active member of the Sangat.

No introduction to Sangat has been given in the beginning, so for the people who have never been a part of it or have never heard about it, it may be hard to get the context. However, it is left to the old members like Manzur Ejaz to fill in the gaps. He shares his memories about the formation of the Sangat while raising the question, “What have we achieved after 50 years?’ After giving a bird‘s eye view of the Left in West Punjab in the ’70s, he writes: “The revolutionary movement in the Punjab was very narrow-minded. The leaders used to worship Marxist ideology like a religion. Many had no understanding of the history of the Punjabi people or of Punjabi ethos. Only Ishaq Mohammad, leader of the Mazdoor Kisan party, connected the Punjab with the Harappan civilisation. He wrote plays like Mussalli and Quknus and supported the Punjabi language.”

Manzur Ejaz was an activist in the anti-Ayub movement in 1968-69. He also organised the National Students Organisation on the Punjab University campus and was with the YPF of Aziz-ul Haq. Some of the students who had been very active in the Left politics had turned to study the Punjab and its history, which is how Sangat came into being. History was discussed in the Punjab University, but classical poetry was interpreted at the Sangat. It was argued that the best way to study Punjab‘s history was through literature.

Ejaz writes, “It was an effort to start a new kind of revolution. So Najm sahib was also invited. Some meetings were held at the Punjab University’s New Campus, but when university authorities tried to obstruct it, Najm Hosain Syed invited the members to his home. The method to study Punjabi classical literature accompanied by music was adopted. The exhausted revolutionaries hoped that this path would also bring about a change in the society.”

Unveiling the legacy of Sangat

One of the differences between new and old members of Sangat is that the older lot had more political activists; among the new members, many are apolitical.
Unveiling the legacy of Sangat

Only Akram Warraich has written a little about the atmosphere in old Sangat in his typical lively style: “We were in the Punjab University in the ’70s. There was a clash everyday between the Leftists and the Rightists. Mushtaq Sufi told us that there was a man named Najm Hosain Syed. Punjabi poetry is read at his home, so let us go there. The young people who came to Sangat were armed with ideology and weapons. Afterwards, Najm told us: you lot used to chatter a lot; I have taught you how to be silent.”

Warraich writes: “Punjabi classical poetry was discussed, and big discussions took place. Everybody would have lit a cigarette before talking. So Najm sahib would also light though he was not a smoker. There was only tea and cigarettes but no langar food. Later, smoking was banned and langar started. Najm told us to pick our dice in the game of prevalent society. Many people were intelligent and good at studies but refused to become CSP bureaucrats.”

There are a lot of photos of new members, but they need a chronological order. There are half-page pictures of many people who joined Sangat during the Covid epidemic. There are no pictures of some of the members who are longer with us, e.g., Yasoob Tahir and Azmat Qadir. We know that Akram Warraich has an amazing archive of photos. Also, Amarjit Chandan, the writer, has a good photo collection of the Sangat and Najm sahib and his wife Samina, but they were either not contacted, or the editors did not know about it.

During the ’70s, Punjabi Adabi Markaz was opened in the Sanam building. It was run by Manzur Ejaz and Muneer Din Khalid and supported by the Sangat. Another milestone was publishing an irregular magazine, Rut Lekha, edited by Azmat Qadir and Shuja Al-Haq. The magazine opened new avenues in the Punjabi literature. No mention of it has been made in the book under review.

In the ’90s, Kitab Trinjan was established with Sangat’s support. Its members included Najm Hosain Syed. Nisar Khan, Huma Safder, Nadir Ali, Anwar Chaudhry and Sarwat Mohiuddin. It is still going on. Another activity was launched by Huma Safder, who has established a powerful theatre group and has staged hundreds of plays all over West Punjab, East Punjab and other places. Most of the plays are written by Najm Hosain Syed. The theatre group appears overrepresented in the book.

It would have been nice to have a piece written by Najm Hosain Syed on the history of the Sangat, as he has been with the Sangat from the outset. One of the differences between new and old members is that most of the older lot were political activists; many of the new members are quite apolitical.

Satya Pal Sehgal, a Hindi writer, has put some pertinent questions: “The question is that what is Sangat doing after all? Is it just sharing literature? Is it trying to create some kind of new truth? Is it just a habit or an addictive medicine that keeps one going?”

All said and done; the book should be welcomed as it records, though partially, an important chapter in the history of post-1947 Punjabi literature.


Editor: Huma Safdar

Pages: 224

Publisher: Suchet Kitab Ghar, Lahore, 2023

Price: Rs 400

The reviewer is a Lahore-based Punjabi poet, academic and short story writer. He was a Dhahan Prize finalist in 2014 and 2020 for Shahmukhi books

Unveiling the legacy of Sangat