Preet Nagar is a village in Punjab that few people know about today.
Preet Nagar is a village in Punjab that few people know about today. Located 20 kilometers from both Amritsar and Lahore, it is reminiscent of love lost.
Preet Nagar, a unique colony created by Punjabi writer, poet and visionary Gurbaksh Singh, was once a thriving cultural center. Artists and writers would lie atop haystacks or take walks around the yellow mustard fields, discussing the scent of a flower described in their latest Punjabi or Urdu poem. Nobody judged, for there were no judgments to be passed. This was purely a community based on love and friendship, and what you did or where you came from simply did not matter.
The story of this utopia precedes the pre-Partition days, when a new kind of thinking and literary sensibility was being shaped by Gurbakhsh, a young engineering student who had recently graduated from Thomson Engineering College (now IIT Roorkee). His wife sold her jewelry to help him go to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and when he wasn’t learning or doing odd jobs to send money back home, he was discovering a whole new world and grappling with notions of what society could and should be. Conversations at the time were around love, positivity, self-cultivation, human growth and “intended societies.” And he was smitten.
Gurbaksh returned to India in the late 1920s as an engineer and joined the British Railways. But his idealism took over and the seeds of Preet Nagar were planted. Literally.
Gurbaksh had grown interested in modern agriculture and reputedly became the first Indian to import a tractor into the country. He even started tilling on gurudwara lands in the Pakistan frontier, but had to quit this job to flee for his life after enraging the Sikh community with his open-mindedness.
Through all this, he constantly harped on the notions of love and harmony, which eventually led him to establish the monthly Punjabi journal Preetlari in 1933. It was unlike anything produced before, especially since the existing journals were either preachy or religious while he wrote of love, hygiene, health and education.
In one of the first few issues, Gurbaksh mentioned his vision of a society based on love. Unprecedented as the proposal was, the response was even more astonishing — he began receiving envelopes full of money from people across the country who wanted to be a part of this social experiment. And thus began the 175 acre township of Preet Nagar in 1938, with some of the earliest residents including actor Balraj Sahni, painter Sobha Singh and novelist Nanak Singh.
The village carefully carved itself into a world of its own. There was a community kitchen, in which both men and women cooked by rotation. Women were free from homely chores and could be singing, acting in plays or playing badminton. A progressive Activity School, established in 1940, encouraged experiential learning and co-education. Every few months, Preet milnis (meeting) were held at which readers, writers, thinkers and enthusiasts of the magazine from both sides of the now separated countries met.
Samia Singh, the creative director of Preet Nagar Residency and great granddaughter of Gurbaksh, recalls the good old days: “I wish I could look back on time in Google Street view and see through windows of these old houses…. Gurbaksh Singh sitting and writing, my grandfather Navtej Singh writing his short stories, Balraj Sahni practicing dialogues for an upcoming film, Shammi listening to LPs in the verandah on a sunny winter day, my grandmothers practicing songs to go sing in the Communist Party show in Calcutta, people cutting vegetables together in the community kitchen.”
The community did not discriminate on the basis of caste or religion or gender. The ideals were so deep-rooted that Jawahar Lal Nehru, who would later become prime minister of the country, visited the dream township; Guru Dayal Malik of Shantiniketan was specially deputed by Rabindranath Tagore to visit Preet Nagar and thank Gurbaksh for creating its twin village in the West; even Gandhi expressed his desire to visit the village.
Samia adds that there was, and continues to be, a dreamlike clarity to the place. “I was studying in boarding school and as a kid, when I couldn’t sleep, I would imagine the entire drive from Amritsar to Preet Nagar. It’s like going into a burrow and taking whatever questions you might have with you into that burrow and coming out with an acceptance of these questions and sometimes, even answers,” she says.
That was the premise of the Village of Love, and with this ideology, Preetlari grew, with Gurbakhsh’s son Navtej Singh, a Punjabi short story writer, coming on board to share editorial duties and writing socio-political commentary on the times. Writers like Amrita Pritam, Sahir Ludhianvi and Mohan Singh contributed to the magazine and it was soon made available in four languages, creating a place for it even among the non-Punjabis.
But Partition hurt Preet Nagar in ways nobody could have imagined. Bombings forced residents to move to seemingly safer cities like Delhi and Amritsar, The Activity School children were all recalled and their carefree squeals no longer rebounded from the corridors. Without so much as a protest or transaction, the village became the Indian Army’s. What was once a safe haven for Hindus and Muslims alike was now nothing more than a barrack.
By the time India and Pakistan were added to the maps of the world, the wars began, and again, Preet Nagar was left loveless. First came the 1965 Indo-Pak War, followed closely by the 1971 Indo-Bangladesh War. Then came the force of Naxalism. Once again, the love that once filled the narrow lanes and bylanes were lost to the ideals of Naxalism, with a new generation of thinkers ridiculing the notions of love and harmony and finding them irrelevant for the changing times. In 1977, Gurbaksh passed away at the age of 82. His son Navtej took over as editor, but he too died soon after.
A personal blow came to the Singh family when on a particularly ugly day, Sumeet, Gurbaksh’s grandson and the young editor of Preetlari, was gunned down in 1984. Sumeet kept his hair short unlike a “good Sikh,” for which he was shot. Sumeet’s widow Poonam Singh, who had been contributing to the magazine, took over the editorial duties. His younger brother Rati Kant Singh took over Preetlari’s administration and finance and later married Poonam, who is currently its managing director. The two still bravely bring out editions month after month.
Recalls Poonam: “Those were the times when Tagore noted this effort in New Living, when Gandhiji was to visit, but could not, when Nehruji did visit. When forward thinking people from the Armed Forces invested in this township. That was the heyday, the 40s and 50s. In the 60s, the pace and direction of development in the country left many disgruntled, and artists began to vociferously and militantly support dissent and uprisings. The wars, the Partition and the all-debilitating atmosphere created by fundamentalist extremism for the two decades the 80s and 90s succeeded in making Preet Nagar more of a relic than a living force, even though the magazine never stopped publishing, and upheld the universal values.”
Today, a new generation is seeking to revive the dying embers of Preet Nagar, a beacon of hope for the future and an experiment by a bygone generation. The three siblings — Samia, Ratika and Sahej — are restoring the old houses, working with the modern-day equivalent of the Activity School, using storytelling as a means of sharing the rich history of their forefathers and running an artist residency program, a clear reminder of the pre-Partition days.
“We are lucky that the idea of spending time well has been the same in my family for four generations. I have lived the city life, and I have lived the country life. There’s a reset button that gets pressed in me every time I come back and stay at Preet Nagar,” says Samia.
Ratika, the middle sibling and co-creative director of the Preet Nagar Residency, calls it “an idea, a dream that has travelled through generations, transforming with each generation and each one who is inspired by a vision.”
“For us, it is a place of making dreams come onto real grounds. It’s been fantastic to see residents come and become a part of the village’s everyday life...getting the morning milk, cleaning, introducing new music to others, keeping the bonfire alive. They do all this while also working on personal projects, collaborations and community projects. The space has the collective energy of many great souls over the years, and as explorers and residents live here, there is an exchange of energies — leaving behind and taking something forever.”
Adds Poonam: “The world again in a flux and craving ideas, it is a good time for Preet Nagar too, and with the next generation of the family poised well to take this stride, a space has been created for replicating the earlier experiences of exchange of ideas and sharing of space, keeping the self sustenance of the effort in mind too.”
When you walk in the lanes of Preet Nagar and hear the stories of its past, it is hard to dismiss how much has been lost forever and can never be the same again. Yet, Preet Nagar still resembles the yellowed photographs on the walls of the foundation building for Gurbahsh Singh and Nanak Singh. The Preetlari printing press still stands firmly on land that was once a hunting enclosure for Jehangir when his begum visited the Sufi peer Shah Bakhtiar.
As Rati Kant Singh says: “We are born here, we have tilled these fields in our youth. Of course, this place means everything and more to us. But people who haven’t seen green fields or plucked vegetables straight from the fields and cooked with them, we enjoy seeing the joy on their faces. There’s a spirit left behind by all the people who have lived this place and I’m glad to see that spirit in my children and the people who visit us.”