All of 23 and soulfully into music, Amrit Kaur Lohia will sing Amrita Pritam’s poetry at a special session titled ‘Hamari Amrita’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in January. The session has been designed to celebrate the life and work of the pioneering writer over a decade after her death on October 31, 2005.
For Amrit, a student of history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, this is something after her heart. Besides, the ‘Hamari Amrita’ session scheduled for January 24, she will also give a musical recital at the opening of the festival on January 21. “It will be a musical journey to my roots,” says Amrit in an online interview. “My mother was born in Patiala and my father in Rajasthan after his family migrated from Sialkot during Partition. They had lost everything, so my grandfather moved to London in the 1960s and the rest of the family followed later.”
Born in Tottenham and raised in Edmonton in north London, Amrit is a sarangi player and self-taught vocalist in genres of Punjabi folk, jazz and soul. Based in London, she tours internationally as a performer, composer and workshop facilitator. She is a youth worker, mentoring youth offenders, children in foster care and those least advantaged.
The young musician says, “My performance at JLF was possible as its director Namita Gokhale heard me perform at the SOAS in May. There, I performed my compositions of Amrita Pritam’s poetry that I had originally composed for a sold-out play at SOAS, based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ interwoven with oral histories from 1947, for which I was the music director and producer.”
Amrit started learning to play the sarangi when she was 13 and in a year was touring internationally to promote and revive musical instruments like the sarangi, dilruba and the taus among the diaspora.
Studying South Asia brought her closer to India, the land of her ancestors, and roots of Sikhism. Amrit says, “My experience at the university redefined my identity as a member of the South Asian diaspora. I learnt about Amrita Pritam, Manto and the Progressive Writers movement at the university. Their work humanised historical experience, and for me it not only provided an alternative narrative to what was written in history books following Partition, but Amrita’s poetry and prose spoke frankly of the women’s experiences, largely silenced in our culture, let alone history books.”
Amrit has since been working on ways to revive and preserve Punjabi culture as well as other cultures that were colonised through immersive workshops using music and drama to humanise culture. The musician says that she may come for a performance in Chandigarh in early February. So it’s back to a lost ‘homeland’ with the sarangi on her knee and songs in her soul.