Roundabout: Those were the days, my friend! - Hindustan Times
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Roundabout: Those were the days, my friend!

ByNirupama Dutt
Feb 25, 2024 09:08 AM IST

The legend of Lali, the learned one, has a way of returning time and again and so it was at a recent exhibition in town featuring his portrait as seen through an artist’s eyes

Who was Lali? Why do the lovers of art and literature hark back to him so often? These are the questions asked very often. The answer to these queries is never too easy. If one goes by the book, he was born to a rich landed family of Sangrur in 1932 and named Hardiljit, he was a professor of Anthropological Linguistics at Punjabi University, Patiala. He was married to Satwant Kaur and he passed away in 2014 at the age of 82. He had two sons and a daughter. Too simplified a biography and not worthy of a person revered as a legend by writers and artists.

A portrait of legendary Prof Hardiljit Sidhu, popularly known and remembered as Lali. (HT Photo)
A portrait of legendary Prof Hardiljit Sidhu, popularly known and remembered as Lali. (HT Photo)

To know Lali one required to spend a sleepless night with his writer and artist friends or have shared a cup of coffee with him outside the coffee house on the Punjabi University campus as he held forth on the arts in sync with the oral tradition of the past. My introduction to this one-of-a-kind person came somewhere in the late seventies from my brother who worked as a medical representative in Patiala. He happened to have rented some accommodation in an old haveli at the Sheranwala Gate and the kind of information he offered was not all too complementary. The landlady would complain that her son had been misled by a wealthy aristocrat called Lali who rode a bicycle as a fad and misled young boys into arts and literature instead of advising them to take up stable jobs. The young boy in question was her son and later a journalist colleague, Kamal Dhaliwal.

Flashback of memories

Last week, it was our Lali times again with an exhibition by one of the young artists who had the privilege of being a part of the inspirational nights awake with Lali at his eloquent best. The exhibition had a portrait of Lali and it inspired a poem from a young writer and a lecturer in a city college, Anju Bala. She writes that she had always wondered who Lali was and what he was about and today his ‘ghosts’ had shown her in words what it was all about. The word ghosts comes from the famous ‘Bhootwara’ in the old times which intellectuals had rented out and debates and discussions went on throughout the night with Lali as the most famous of ghosts.

A younger journalist colleague Sukant Deepak, who was then doing his Masters in Communication from Punjabi University, has vivid memories of Lali the Savant. Lali, who had retired by then, would sit outside the Coffee House every day, with a cup of tea in hand, only too happy to school anyone who came his way.

Deepak recalls, “It was just amazing to sit and listen to him talking. One would learn much more than one would in a formal classroom. Dedicated souls like Lali were so important to higher education and it is sad that universities are bereft of them now.”

With young artist friends: Raj Kumar, Sanjeev Soni, Sidharth Kanwal Dhaliwal and Lali in his village of Fatehgarh in Sangrur district. (HT Photo)
With young artist friends: Raj Kumar, Sanjeev Soni, Sidharth Kanwal Dhaliwal and Lali in his village of Fatehgarh in Sangrur district. (HT Photo)

Toast to old acquaintance

My acquaintance with Lali started in the mid-80s, in journeys to Patiala with my late friend Manmohan Sharma, often to get leads from stories for newspaper stories. We would listen to the Savant sharing his memories of Partition at his mother’s hometown Moga when he was but 15.

He would describe the talk in symbols, the looting and killing in the market square, the broken bangles and the scattered Punjabi juttis. These images were to remain with him a lifetime. I recall him sipping tea and saying: “It was 1947 then and now it is AK 47”. The pain of being a witness to an era of loss and longing was writ large on his face. One had not seen Patiala if one had not walked through the old streets of the town with Lali, especially the streets where the Muslims of Patiala had lived; or visited with him the home of a musician friend, whose younger brother, had never quite recovered from the trauma of the great divide drenched in blood. Dressed in a good suit, he would talk to no one but join every procession that passed the street, perhaps seeking some justice for what had happened. Of course, there was a witty and happy side to the Savant too. One recalls a woman friend asking him if so and so was happy in a marriage and Lali’s reply was: “Happiness is too strong a word for marriage. One can be happy in a friendship but in a marriage, you are adjusted or not adjusted.”

One stepped into the Lali circle unwittingly in 1990 when the painters he had mentored, Sidharth, Rajkumar, Sanjeev Soni and others, put up a very charming art show in the city dedicated to the Van Gogh in his centenary year. One wonders why no one switched on a recorder when Lali spoke. Perhaps, Lali would have found it obnoxious. But what warms the heart is that a Patiala publisher is all set to bring out a book of memories of the Savant as they remembered him.

Captions:

1. A portrait of the legendary professor of Patiala, Hardiljit Sidhu, popularly known and remembered as Lali.

2. With young artist friends: Raj Kumar, Sanjeev Soni, Sidharth Kanwal Dhaliwal and Lali in his village of Fatehgarh in Sangrur district.

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