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Save the language

It is important to recall and remember the Punjabi poets, their lives and works because as it is, Punjabi has been pushed into a corner

Save the language

The urs of Waris Shah is supposed to be held on the ninth of Sawan. For one reason or another the date has been shifted in the past.

The present-day Punjabis find it difficult to understand the Punjabi written centuries ago. The language has changed and so has the way it is pronounced. It is thus important to recall and remember the Punjabi poets, their lives and works because as it is, Punjabi has been pushed into a corner. Unlike other provinces, Urdu was made the medium of instruction in the Punjab during the colonial era. So it has remained since independence. Much has gone into the language controversy, particularly regarding early education — should it be the mother tongue or other languages. Urdu and English have been used depending on the school and examination system pursued.

Punjabi has also been a casualty of the language divide associated with religion in the run-up to independence. Punjabi is an old language, with literature going back seven hundred years, and the mother tongue of the people living in this region. However, it got tagged with the Sikhs since their liturgical literature is in Punjabi and they developed a script called Gurmukhi. Most of the Muslims though wrote in the Persian script which is now called Shahmukhi.

Heer has been sung as well, and it would not be wrong to say that since Urdu became the medium of instruction, the Punjabis have mostly connected to their classics, including Heer, through its recitation or musical rendition. There has been a tradition in this part of the world, as indeed elsewhere, that poetical works have been made the song text in music compositions. Heer has been traditionally sung in the bhairaveen modal structure for centuries. It is hard to say who was the first to recite Heer in the bhairaveen raga. Suffice it to say that this has been so and any deviation from the practice is considered sacrilegious.

Bhairaveen with all komal surs (mellow notes) can be seen as a very accommodating raga in its character. Usually the compositions sung in the raga in the last two hundred years or so that have come down to us orally are of thumri and dadra. Very few kheyal compositions have survived. Some kheyal bandishes may have survived but are not known to many. And very few are known to have been sung by the ustads (masters) of yore. This modal structure is preferred for semi-classical compositions, kaafis, ghazals and indeed film compositions. The reason could be that there is no strict adherence to the use of designated surs (notes) as it is said that the ustads or pundits had sanctified the use of other surs in bhairaveen compositions.

Bhairaveen is called “sada suhagan” probably because most regions had their own version of bhairaveen like Bangla Bhairaveen or Sindhi Bhairaveen and also because it was more forgiving of poaching upon the surs of other modal structures. It can be said that it retains a more feminine touch than some of the other ragas that may have a more austere or sterner flavour to their exposition. For themes like love and agony of longing, bhairaveen has been effectively used in composing thumris, dadras, and in the twentieth-century ghazals and film compositions. Bhairaveen can also transcend the condition of time that has been imposed on other ragas for it can be sung at any time, though the time allocated is the morning.

But why was bhairaveen initially chosen over all else or became popular is any anybody’s guess. It was a common sight and a regular cultural feature that in some places like the Hazoori Bagh adjoining the Lahore Fort, Heer’s recitation sessions were held. People still connected to popular roots found their way to these mehfils and rejuvenated their link to their origins, so to say.

In literature, it is feared that much corruption has taken place over the years. The effort has been to verify and authenticate the text. Many scholars and poets have sifted through the texts to find the most authentic one. But where music is concerned does one have the same sanctified approach or attitude to the original composition? Perhaps not, because music existed orally and we still have the same attitude towards it that has characterised the oral tradition. The written text has been seen as something finished while music is perceived in a state of development. The effort now is to contemporise music, or at least the compositions; the intonation is made contemporary to sound palatable and the instrumentation tries to be in synch with today’s sonic sensibility.

It would be nice to use a multimedia facility in publishing classics. The printed text should also be accompanied by an oral version. The recitation of Heer by various exponents of the art should accompany the text. This will help identify the differences one finds between the oral rendition and the so-called authentic text.

A committee of the Punjab government a few years ago decided not only to celebrate the urs but had events planned for the entire year. Other projects included a number of books, including Heer Waris Shah, edited by Muhammad Sharif Sabir, that first appeared in 1985 and has since been out of circulation, research theses, written by PhD scholars on Heer Waris Shah and its impact on the Punjabi society after combining the research material in a consolidated form, to launch CDs of some Heer khwaans, a soft copy of Heer Waris Shah to be uploaded on Facebook and to approach the Punjab University to establish a Waris Shah Chair in the Department of Punjabi Language at Oriental College, Lahore. It was also decided to build a Bab-e-Waris Shah on the road to Jandiala Sher Khan. But nothing came of it. With the change of government the projects died their natural death.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • All good works about Waris Shah have been done by writers who were not professors of Universities. Like Najam Hussain Syed and Manzur Ejaz. Punjab university Punjabi Department has produced nothing about Waris Shah or any other poet.

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