A Punjabi saga of timeless, tragic love: 250 years of Waris Shah’s Heer

  • Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 20, 2016 14:07 IST
Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s portrayal of Waris Shah’s Heer and Ranjha in his paintings. (Courtesy Chughtai Museum, Lahore)

In 2016, Waris Shah’s Heer completes 250 years. Heer, as you might have guessed, is the protagonist from the legend of Heer-Ranjha, a story we have heard in songs, read in books or seen on the silver screen. Sayyed Waris Shah, as the 18th century Sufi poet was known, composed the most popular rendition of the epic love story of Heer-Ranjha.

Not much is known about Waris Shah. The story, however, goes like this and is mostly told by Shah in Heer itself. It was the year 1766, in ancient Malka Hans, a historic town in Punjab (that lies in today’s Pakistan), and Waris Shah was a man presumably in his 40s, living in a room next to a mosque. He was an outsider. He writes: ‘Waris Shah vasneek Jandialray da’. ‘Waris Shah is a resident of Jandiala Sher Khan’, a small village in Sandal Bar, also in Pakistan now.

So, why did this stranger from Sandal Bar choose to stay in Malka Hans? No one knows, says Lahore-based poet Mushtaq Soofi in a tribute to Shah in Pakistani newspaper Dawn; all we know is that he was a learned man, had paid his homage to the great Sufi saint Baba Farid Shakarganj and was often seen writing. In 1766, he finished composing the tragic story of Heer Sial, poisoned by her family for wanting to marry Dheedo Ranjha against their wishes.

The 18th century Sufi poet Waris Shah, as imagined by Chughtai. (Courtesy Chughtai Museum, Lahore)

“What Waris Shah wrote 250 years ago in a small village has stood the test of time. Rather it has proved to be the best creative expression of Punjabi genius,” writes Soofi. To celebrate this, as Hindustan Times had reported earlier, several programmes have been planned across the world. UK’s SOAS South Asia Institute will hold a discussion on the significance of Shah’s work next month, while Panjab University’s Department of Indian Theatre has planned a grand revival of its play Heer this year. There has also been a demand for a celebratory Indo-Pak literary event at Shah’s tomb at Malka Hans in Pakistan’s Pakpattan district.

In the capital, a music festival will bring the audience closer to the verses of Heer. The two-day festival will focus on the richness of traditional folk melodies as well as more recent interpretations of the story to an urban audience. Day one will bring together four musicians of Chaar Yaar: The Faqiri Quartet, and day two will be star-studded with performances by Rabbi Shergill and Jasbir Jassi.

Read more: 250 years of Waris Shah’s Heer: Writers, artistes set to celebrate epic

“In the 18th century, there was widespread political turmoil in the region. Two of these transgressive poets happen to be from that time – Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah,” said Chaar Yaar’s Madan Gopal Singh, who credits the poets for breaking away from perceived norms.

Singh also feels that the story of Heer-Ranjha is a kind of reworking of the Radha Krishna myth. “There is this flute player, who meets Heer and her 60 friends on a river bank and he falls in love with her and so on. This is also, in a way, a celebration of the point where religious boundaries are blurred,” says Singh.

Waris Shah wrote 250 years ago in a small village has stood the test of time and has proved to be the best creative expression of Punjabi genius. (Courtesy Chughtai Museum, Lahore)

Historian Fatima Hussain had written in an article that Waris Shah borrowed the plot of Heer-Ranjha and restructured it . There are earlier versions of Heer written by Punjabi poets Damodar Das (around the time of Akbar’s rule), Ahmad Gujjar and others. However, it is Waris Shah’s work that stands out. Apart from the literary merit of his poetry, Heer meticulously documents anthropological details of that era, its language and customs.

In their 250 years of existence, Shah’s words have transcended generations and cultures. When poet Amrita Pritam wrote about the horrors of partition, she addressed these lines to Warish Shah:

Today, I call Waris Shah, speak from your grave
And turn to the next page in your book of love
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Warish Shah,
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab

What: IHC Lok Sangeet Sammelan
When: 7 pm, August 21 and 22
Where: The Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road
Call: 24682002

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