Not far from India’s border with Pakistan is a ‘town of love’. Situated just 20 km from Amritsar and an equal distance from the Pakistani city of Lahore on the other side of the border is Preet Nagar, now a small village, which was once an experimental township where progressive Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu writers, poets, artists, actors, filmmakers came for creative sustenance in the 1930s and 1940s.
At its height, the township drew creative luminaries such as Balraj Sahni, Achala Sachdeva, Sobha Singh, Amrita Pritam, Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nanak Singh and Noor Jahan. Brimming with ideas, debates and discussion, Preet Nagar was based on collaboration and community living. The objective was to promote the creative arts.
At its height, artists and poets here would gaze at the azure sky for inspiration, stroll through mustard fields while contemplating the storyline of their next film, and discuss ideas and scripts over steaming cups of tea and pakoras in the community kitchen. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru even described Preet Nagar as a “dream township” and its Preet Milnis or cultural meets were attended by the creative who’s who of the subcontinent.
Preet Nagar was founded by Punjabi writer Gurbaksh Singh, father of modern Punjabi prose and author of more than 50 books. Spread across 175 acres, Singh built homes in lush fields, a writers’ room, an open-air theatre, a community kitchen and a printing press, from where he published Preet Lari (‘Linked Through Love’), the first-ever Punjabi magazine.
Gurbaksh Singh was born in Sialkot (now in Punjab, Pakistan) in 1895 and after his schooling, acquired a diploma in civil engineering from IIT-Roorkee. During the First World War, he served in the British-Indian Army as an engineer before he went to the United States to acquire a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering.
While studying in the US, Singh was inspired by the writings of 19th-century American thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He realized that the common thread running through all their works was the idea of universal kinship. Thoreau’s novel Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), which focused on simple living in natural surroundings, impacted him so deeply that he aimed to do something, not unlike this himself. Also liberalism, scientific temper, love and happiness left a deep impression on him during his six years in the US. This was in sharp contrast to the situation back home in Punjab which was yet to achieve its liberty from foreign rule and people there too were perceiving things with an orthodox mindset. So he decided to return and change it all.
In 1924, Singh came back to India and joined the railways as an engineer. For the next six years, his job took him to different parts of the subcontinent. Interestingly, he always turned down spacious official accommodation in favour of simpler lodgings, and once even lived in a mud house.
Although his government job came with a handsome salary and good facilities, Singh felt that something was missing. So, in 1932, he resigned. Though the money he had received of his services in railway, and along with the government provided subsidy, he procured 100 acres of land in Nowshera (now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan), from an organisation that belonged to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the apex body which still manages many prominent Sikh Gurdwaras, and took up mechanised farming. He became the first Indian ever to import a tractor into the country!
He tried to introduce the farmers to this new technology but the Sikhs rejected this ‘innovation’. They argued that when the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev ploughed the fields with his bare hands, how could his followers be so lazy as to use foreign machines? The farmers were not ready to accept the ideas of an engineer who had studied in America.
In 1933, to share his vision and philosophy of life with others, Singh started the monthly magazine, Preet Lari from Lahore where he had started living by then. His journal carried translations and interpretations of Western thought and trends and it sought to reinvent indigenous institutions in a modern light. Through his magazine, Singh argued against outdated moral values like orthodox gender roles, caste system, intense focus on religion and communal thinking, and opposed exploitation and discrimination of all sorts.
The magazine struck a chord among progressive minds and sparked a cultural revolution. It became an instrument of socio-literary change, demolishing irrational beliefs and superstitions. Soon, it was being published in four languages and had subscribers overseas, in countries where Punjabis had settled. The publication was so popular that people fondly called its founder Gurbaksh Singh ‘Preetlari’, a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life.
During the same time, when Singh was living in Model Town, the poshest locality in Lahore at the time, but ideally he didn’t like the life in that area, and wanted a simpler life in natural surroundings as he was influenced in America. Thus, to give concrete shape to his ideas, he discovered many likeminded fellow poets and writers, with whom he wanted to create his version of Walden in Punjab.
Thoreau in his book Walden records his experiment with simple living in natural surroundings over two years. During this time, he lived in a forested area in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the US and embarked on a voyage of spiritual and transcendental discovery.
Gurbaksh Singh wanted to create a Preet Nagar or ‘town of love’, which became the first planned township in Punjab.
Despite having roots in Sialkot, he chose the location of his dream project at a point – equidistant from Lahore and Amritsar, at the time both powerful symbols of modern poetry and literature. That’s why Preet Nagar is exactly 20 km from each city.
Today to access Preet Nagar, which is today just a small village, from Amritsar city, one has to board a bus or taxi which shall take you to the town of Lopoke, via Ram Tirath Road, and a kilometre further is the destination of Preet Nagar. The journey ideally takes some 50 minutes today. Interestingly on the same road at just another 6-7 km, the village Rania can be accessed which is located exactly on the international border.
The Preet Nagar was created identical on the lines of Thoreau’s Walden, not only ideally, but also geographically! If Thoreau’s town had "bottomless" Walden Pond, Preet Nagar too had a pond, and likewise forested area around it, and peace from the outside world.
The township was officially inaugurated in 1936. Thanks to Singh’s contacts in the literary world, he was able to gain advance payments enough to buy the land and lay its foundations. The first settlers in Preet Nagar were luminaries like legendary Punjabi novelist Nanak Singh, renowned artist Sobha Singh, dramatist Balwant Gargi, actor Balraj Sahni, poet Pyara Singh Sehrai and many others. Uniquely, all the houses were identical, to foster a feeling of oneness. It is said that 125 of the 175 houses were sold in no time, thanks to Singh’s contacts in the literary world, and the rest were sold after advertisements were published in Preet Lari. Thus, by the next 5-6 years, the town was officially developed.
Preet Nagar was designed as a retreat for artists, writers and actors, who would visit it from time to time, without discrimination of religion, caste, class and gender.
Men and women would take turns to cook in a common kitchen, later inspiring a famous play Saanjha Chulha by Punjabi author Balwant Gargi. In 1939, the first-ever clean public toilet was designed here, which inspired the Sulabh public toilets found across India today.
In the initial years, a printing press operated out of an old but renovated Mughal-era monument that stood on the property. It was an aramgarh or resort once used by Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan when they broke journey en route to Kashmir. After the press moved, the aramgarh was used as the Preet Nagar clubhouse. The township also had a shopping complex, a rest-house for tourists, a dairy, a well and the Gopal Singh Preet Army Hospital.
It also ran a school spread across 8 acres. Called ‘Activity School’, this was a co-educational institution where the children of many locals were admitted. Although made of mud, the walls were plastered and although the ceiling was made of reeds, it was waterproof. As its name indicate, the school discarded the orthodox rigid classroom education and focused to teach students on the American pattern where the teaching is done through activities, fun and elaborative educational games and intensive focus on the practical.
The most popular event in this township was the ‘Preet Milni’ (‘love meetings’) or cultural meets, which were similar to mushairas that were popular back then. They were graced by famous poets and writers from all over, like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Upendra Nath Ashq, Kartar Singh Duggal, Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam, and playwright Balwant Gargi. Noted Punjabi poet Diwan Singh ‘Kalepani’ too attended these milnis till he was sent to the Andamans as punishment for his revolutionary activities during the Second World War.
Bengali poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore was so impressed by Preet Nagar that he considered it a twin to his Shantiniketan in West Bengal, both in ideas and approach. Since Tagore was getting on in years and unable to travel long distances, he sent an emissary from Santiniketan to visit Singh’s dream township. On Tagore’s death, writer Mulk Raj Anand, who also authored the book Poet-painter: Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore (1985) said that Tagore's legacy had been carried forward by four people in India, and Gurbaksh Singh was one of them.
Tagore was not the only acclaimed personality to compliment Singh on the township he had developed and nurtured. On 23rd May 1942, Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became the first Prime Minister of India, visited Preet Nagar to explore the village. He too was very impressed with it.
It was during one such Preet Milni in 1944 that two leading lights of the literary world in the subcontinent, poets Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, met for the first time. Although they had known of each other and both lived in Lahore, it was in Preet Nagar that they finally met and fell in love.
But Gurbaksh Singh’s dream didn’t last very long. Ironically, just when Preet Nagar, a symbol of love and oneness, was gaining momentum and attracting more visitors, it suffered a death blow – the Partition of India in 1947. While the town originally fell on the Pakistani side of the border, it was returned to India a week later, after the Radcliffe Line, which separated the two countries, was redrawn.
Since Preet Nagar was virtually a stone’s throw from the new international border, it was ravaged by the riots that broke out during Partition. This forced its residents to migrate to cities like Amritsar and Delhi. After tensions subsided, a few families including that of Gurbaksh Singh returned to live there. Then, during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, Preet Nagar was once again loveless as it housed barracks for the Indian Army during these two conflicts.
But Gurbaksh Singh wouldn’t budge from his beloved Preet Nagar. He continued to live there and he published his ideas in Preet Lari. Then, in 1977, he died at the age of 82. His samadhi or mausoleum is in the town. Gurbaksh was succeeded by his son Navtej Singh and grandson Sumeet Singh alias Shammi, torchbearers of the township and all that it stood for. They continued as editors of Preet Lari and tended to the town. However, the 1980s saw the rise of the insurgency in Punjab and Navtej and Shammi was gunned down for openly criticising the militant movement. Their samadhis lie near those of Gurbaksh Singh and his wife.
Their deaths dealt a crushing blow to Preet Nagar. Apart from Gurbaksh Singh’s family’s home, most of the other houses and buildings in the town fell to ruin and many even encroached. But the mid-90s brought hope, as Punjab returned to normal – the descendants of Gurbaksh Singh formed a trust called the Gurbaksh Singh Nanak Singh Foundation, to restart cultural activities in Preet Nagar.
In the year 2000, a building called Preet Bhawan was constructed near the samadhis of Gurbaksh Singh and his family, to host a library, an indoor conference hall and an amphitheatre. It was inaugurated on 16th June 2004. The family proceeded to slowly restore, not only the old houses but also restart cultural and creative activities such as storytelling, writing, poetry, music and theatre. They are also revising Preet Nagar’s unique principles of community service, education and innovation.
Uma Gurbaksh Singh, the eldest daughter of Gurbaksh Singh, was chairman of Preet Bhawan till her death at the age of 93 in May 2020. A well-known theatre personality in Punjab, she kept theatre alive at Preet Nagar, where under her guidance plays were staged at the amphitheatre every month, to entertain and educate the local people.
Punjabi playwright and theatre artiste, Kewal Dhaliwal, to has contributed to keeping the township’s creative wheels turning. Not only has he directed several plays at Preet Nagar, but he has also collected rare photographs of the town, which are on display in a local museum. Also, since 2009, artists and guests, the peace lovers from both sides of the border have continued to meet at this haven, taken parts in plays and other cultural functions, despite the antagonistic stance of their respective governments during the recent years.
Both the map and the people who visit Preet Nagar are very different from what they were in its heyday. But the literary and artsy feel and the vibe of love and oneness have remained constant even though so much has changed.
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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