Who does not know of Heer and her beloved Ranjha in Punjab and even outside? She remains the unparalleled female protagonist of the land of the five rivers celebrated in words and visuals like none other till present times. Many poets have penned the story of this medieval beauty of Jhang, a town in Pakistan’s Punjab, and her courage to love, defy, challenge the clergy and be a winner even in death.
However, her fame reached its zenith when Waris Shah (1722-98), the most popular of Punjabi poets, completed her legend in verse in 1766. Now, there is a cross-border campaign by writers and artistes for a splendid celebration of the epic that has withstood the test of centuries and has been translated into English, German, French and Italian.
Popular singer Jasbir Jassi, who led the contemporary revival of singing Heer Waris and also did a mix for Coke Studio, is all set to hold a mega concert in Delhi singing poetry from the epic. “Heer Waris Shah is the gospel, life and soul of Punjabis. I tell newcomers who wish to be initiated into music to read and sing it. With that alone they will be ready to face the audience.”
Here in the city, theatre director Rani Balbir Kaur, who had done a memorable production of ‘Heer’ for the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, is planning a grand revival of the play this year. “I have done a production for the Punjab government and when I reminded chief minister Parkash Singh Badal that he had seen the play with his late wife, who had to be smuggled in from the backdoor because of the rush, he asked me to do the play again,” she says. Rani adds that her family came from Jandiala Sher Khan Ghazi, the birthplace of Waris Shah, so the legend flows through her veins.
London-based Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan calls for a celebratory Indo-Pak literary event at Waris’s mazaar at Malka Hans village near Pakpattan in Pakistan. “Postage stamps commemorating ‘Heer Waris’ should be issued by both countries,” he says. An effort has been made on Kitab Trinjan, a platform to share themes related to Punjabi language, literature, art and culture on Facebook, to collect the Heer Waris memorabilia.
Lahore-based Punjabi writer Zubair Ahmad says, “Waris was loved across borders and is one of the most significant poets of Punjabi who stood for unity and assertion of women’s identity. It was not without reason that celebrated modern poet Amrita Pritam called out to him in her immortal poem on Partition, ‘Ajj akhan Waris Shah nu.’”
Epic in translation
Punjabi writer Sant Singh Sekhon’s English version is considered the best. Published in 1978, it is called ‘The Love of Hir and Ranjha’ (Waris Shah). Khushwant Singh wrote, “What I believed to be untranslatable (in Waris Shah’s immortal epic) has in fact been translated by Sekhon.” Charles Frederick Usborne also translated it into English, Denis Matringe into French, Doris Buddenberg into German, and RK Kuldip into Italian.
The legend of Heer-Ranjha has been played out in Indian films since 1928. Yesteryear heroines as diverse as Zubeida, Anwari Bai, Swaran Lata, Bahar Begum, Firdaus, Priya Rajwansh and Sridevi have played the Jhang girl. Most recently, Neeru Bajwa played Heer to Harbhajan Mann in a Punjabi film in 2009. The only film that attracted critical notice was Chetan Anand’s ‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) which was scripted in verse. Though it did not do well commercially, it had memorable songs written by Kaifi Azmi and composed by Madan Mohan like ‘Yeh duniya, yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahin’.