Seventy years ago, Heer Waris Shah was “The Book” in the villages of Punjab. If you asked somebody “Do you have The Book?” it meant whether they had a copy of Waris Shah’s epic tale Heer. If you asked “Does anybody read The Book”, it meant if anybody could sing the verses of Heer. Singing Heer was an all-night affair that the villagers undertook in their leisurely time after the sowing of the wheat crop. The replacement of this original singing format by gramophone, radio and transistor literally killed that part of our folk music.
Heer singing groups, of which there were dozens in Lahore city alone, gradually faded. The last one, comprising mostly of old men over seventy, was closed after the fencing of Hazuri Bagh in the early 1980s. Heer Waris Shah remains the premier classic of Punjabi literature along with Baba Farid’s dohras, Heer of Damodhar, Guru Baba Nanak’s gurbani in the Sikh holy book Granth Sahib, poetry of Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Sachal, Sultan Bahu, Mirza Sahiban of Hafiz Barkhurdar, Puran Bhagat of Qadiryar, Sassi and Shirin Farhad of Hashim Shah, Sohni and Saiful Maluk of Mian Mohammad Baksh and Dastaan Ameer Hamza of Maulvi Ghulam Rasul. These classics fared no better in their near disappearance from the once-rich folk poetry repertoire of every Punjabi speaker.
Najm Hosain Syed, Punjabi literature’s guru, took it upon himself to teach all these classics in a Sangat (Study group), in what is a regular weekly reading session for the past more than forty years. I have learnt whatever I know of Punjabi literature in this class. Muzaffar Ghaffar has remained my fellow student here for over twenty years. But he was a uniquely keen and committed student, who used to take copious notes and could recall what had been discussed ten or fifteen years back.
Ghaffar simultaneously initiated the Lahore Arts Forum (Leaf) where this rich reading of Punjabi literature was brought to the public domain in programmes held at Alhamra Cultural Complex Qaddafi Stadium and at Model Town Library for almost twenty years. These and other Lahore Arts Forum programmes under Muzaffar Ghaffar hold tremendous import in the cultural life of Lahore and deserve a separate mention.
Here we turn to Ghaffar’s enormous contribution — his writings in his magnum opus ‘Within Reach’ series on the classics of Punjabi literature. These include Baba Fareed Ganjshakar, Shah Hussain (3 Volumes), Baba Nanak, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah (2 Volumes), Heer Damodhar (4 Volumes), and now this tome among tomes Heer Waris Shah in six volumes. These books, written in classical English, include translations of the original verse by Ghaffar, and detailed meanings and notes that explicate the poetry. Being an English poet par excellence whose four books of English verse have already been published, he was perfectly equipped to do it.
The value of these twenty plus volumes, in excellent print by Ferozsons Publishers, is beyond measure. They include the original Punabi poet’s verse in Urdu (Shahmukhi) script, Gurmukhi, and Roman, meanings of difficult words, detailed commentary of each verse/passage, followed by a translation in English verse.
We live in times when Punjabi is taught in just a handful of colleges as a subject, is not being taught or spoken in schools at all and is almost disappearing in homes. Its literature is neither published nor read widely. In the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of Punjabi qissas were published and sold all over Punjab. My wife’s great grandmother, a good poet had her “Si Harfi” verse published from Jhelum in 1901. Most literate old ladies until the 1970s knew popular Punjabi poets’ verses by heart.
Punjabi is the tenth major language among the five thousand odd languages of the world but is only taught in the South Asian Languages departments in a few universities of the world. And except in East Punjab, the medium of instruction is English. Hence, the value of Muzaffar Ghaffar’s English translations and notes is greater than ever. There are very few scholarly works in English on Punjabi poetry, and their standard is so low that it would be unfair to compare any of these with his work.
How we currently approach Heer Waris Shah is demonstrated when we euphemistically call him “Shakespeare of Punjabi” or “Tagore of Punjabi”. But these euphemisms are ridiculous. Bengali language is taught, read, sung and performed in both West and East Bengal/Bangladesh. Tagore gained world-wide recognition and the Nobel prize but his songs in Bengali echo almost all over India. Punjabi, with rare exceptions, is neither taught nor read in the West Punjab. Despite being the official language and medium of instruction in East Punjab, Punjabi suffers there, too, for other complex reasons. Moreover, its classics are neglected for the most part, other than those that have religious reverential status for Sikhs.
Muzaffar’s work is not the first drop of rain for the English-reading Punjabis of Pakistan, but a torrential downpour. With Heer Waris Shah he has outdone himself. To try and understand the significance of Muzaffar’s work, we need to delve a little into the history of Heer Waris’s text. Written in the mid-eighteenth century, its first printed versions appeared more than a hundred years later. Waris Shah is a phenomenon that was hidden from us even when we were singing him all over. Popular works resonate with the people of their time, but also suffer most from spurious additions by later poets, with the result that almost two-thirds of the Heer Waris being sung in the 20th century was from later additions of other poets. Half a dozen passages that I remembered from my childhood in the 1940s and would sing like all Punjabi birds were all inauthentic.
In Waris Shah’s case, these later versions added sentimentality and pathos which is the heart of mediocrity in every field of art. Add to it a bit of religiosity for the Hereafter, and you have the essence of what was ironically called “Asli tay waddi Heer Waris Shah” (The real and complete Heer Waris Shah”). This universally popular version has two thirds of the passages from Piran Ditta of Targad Wali. Upon the advent of the printing press in the mid-nineteenth century, spurious but popular versions of Heer Waris competed for a burgeoning readership. It was not until the 1950s that Shiekh Abdul Aziz, an unsung hero of Punjabi, meticulously edited these, based on authentic earlier hand-written texts, in an attempt to make available in print the authentic Heer of Waris Shah.
In the 1980s came scholar Sheikh Sharif Sabir’s edited version, officially funded by the Pakistan People’s Party government led by Hanif Ramay in Punjab. Sharif Sabir called himself “the new face introduced by Najm Hosain Syed” in Punjabi.
In four years of close reading of these two editions of Heer, and having made further study and corrections, Muzaffar Ghaffar’s monumental work makes available for us the most well-edited to date Punjabi text of Heer Waris Shah. This alone makes these volumes invaluable. Add to that the copious notes of detailed commentary on the passages, with each difficult word and phrase explained, and we are indebted beyond measure for years to come to Muzaffar Ghaffar.
In the spurious versions, Waris Shah’s Heer is interpreted as a romantic love story or as laden with hidden spiritual meaning or as a compendium of social history of times past. What these generalisations ignore is that Waris Shah has his tongue in cheek throughout. He was what Voltaire called a “Laughing Lion” — “Let the laughing lions come and laugh and roar so that the canker of ages may fall off!” Hence, grasping his subtle innuendo is essential to reading the text. This is a tough job for any translator to convey in verse, or in the literal meaning of words, but Muzaffar Ghaffar does hint at it in the commentary.
This is a pristine version of the epic of Heer and poetry of Waris Shah, with a comprehensive dictionary of the abundant vocabulary of Waris Shah, of Punjabi of all dialects, Bhasha, Sanskrit, words and references from Hindu mythology, and the historical experience of the Punjab.
Author: Muzaffar Ghaffar
Price: Rs 10,000 /- [ 6 volumes] Publishers: Ferozsons Limited