A Dalit poet’s ode to migrant labourers, narrated through brush strokes, touches thousands of hearts
The live painting by a Bathinda artist of Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil’s famed poem about a migrant labourers’ tale has gone viral on social mediaUpdated: May 24, 2020 00:47 IST
Along with the Covid-19 outbreak in India a parallel tale of sorrow is being narrated by migrant labourers walking hundreds or even thousands of miles to return to their homes for the cities they built had no way of sustaining them. This mass exodus with tragic repercussions for many who perished on the way has touched many creative souls. The poet Gulzar described this journey between life and death as the pandemic raged: They will go to die where there is life!
Life indeed was elsewhere for these people whose plight no one understood when the lockdown was announced. People were told to stay at home but these workers who were abandoned overnight by their employers had no home. Hungry, they first ran their own kitchens with meagre provisions, and when everything finished they queued up for charity meals. What could be the way out for them but to walk home even if it meant death?
The saga was going on for nearly two months till the government decided to step in and provide them transport and the exodus continues with parents marching with their few belongings, children in tow, tied to suitcases or carried on shoulders. On and on they go with broken slippers discarded and the journey resumed barefoot or discarded plastic bottles tied to their feet. Some walk on barefoot with the burning concrete roads claiming their share of flesh.
Dreams die first
The lost chunk of flesh from an old labourer woman’s bruised foot becomes the metaphor for an artist who paints it live with the recitation of the famous poem by Punjab’s Dalit revolutionary poet Lal Singh Dil. Written in the 1960s it describes a caravan of landless labourers moving on in the evening dusk. The artist, a self-taught painter of Punjab, who has adopted the name of his city as his surname, is Gurpreet Bathinda. His ‘live’ painting has gone viral on social media.
Bathinda, who comes from a family of mechanics, chose to be an artist and went about training himself the hard way. Born in 1976, he remembers how he would travel to and from Delhi to see the exhibitions and plays. “This is how I took lessons in painting and much later I obtained degrees in art and history of art”. Talking about this particular painting, Bathinda says: “As I watched the migrant labourers traverse highways, the lines of the famous poem by Dil kept playing on my mind in which he talks about the familiar colours of the evening against which the caravan of landless labourers moves on.”
The painter adds that while these times have shone the spotlight on the plight of the labourers, they have always lived like this in poverty, in full public view.
Dil (1943-2007) whose lines accompany the strokes of Bathinda’s brush, was truly a people’s poet. Born in a tanner’s family in Samrala, he was the first in his clan to complete his basic teachers’ training course when he was drawn towards the Naxalite uprising in Punjab. This poem brought him instant literary notice for its authentic portraiture of the lives of labourers: “The long caravan is moving on/ The brave tillers of the land walk away/ Long starved they are leaving/ the land that belongs to another…”
Gurpreet says he had heard Dil recite this poem in a documentary on his life and it had touched his heart. “I had not expected the warm response that would come to this live-painting and that it would be shared by lakhs of people. Some friends say that it has been shared without credit to me and my reply is, never mind it is people’s art and belongs to them,” says the artist.