Studying Punjabi literature of the Past

By: Tejwant Singh Gill

Just a turn towards the study of Punjabi literature brings several crucial issues to the fore. They relate to (a) what, (b) where, (c) when, (d) who, (e) why and (f) how of its production, reception and effect. The first issue raises the problem of its definition. What is Punjabi literature after all? This concerns the specificity of Punjabi literature that apparently looks very simple. Delving into its interstices however, raises problems, which are quite complex. Its matter of fact answer may be that whatever was written on the terrain of Punjab, the land of five rivers popularly called, comprises this corpus. Intriguingly enough, identification of the five rivers is the first problem that, at this juncture, seems to stare in the face. For commonsense, empirical in the short but incoherent in the long run, they are Satluj, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jehlum. However good sense, for which coherence and thinking are the essential criteria, this nomenclature is not without a fault. Beas, as its etymological derivation from the Sanskrit word vipasha suggests, stands for seasonal stream and not a river at all. Thereby, the fifth river should be Sindh, of which the popular name is Attak, symbolizing resistance to marauders from the West. Sometimes the resistance it posed was quite stiff but at other times, it was inconsequential, to the despair of the Punjabi mind as expressed in the folklore. Raised to the level of good sense, this feeling was shared by the greatest Punjabi minds of the 20th century i.e. Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh and Sant Singh Sekhon. Even the Russian scholar of Punjabi literature, I D Serebryakov; Punjabi Sahit 1971(Punjabi literature) has lent credence to this feeling.

So the land that formed the terrain for the origin, beginning and growth of Punjabi literature had Satluj and Attak as its boundaries on the east and the west respectively. Thus it has seemed to people in general, in particular to those attuned to literary production, reception and effect. In other words, imagination and memory have reserved this name largely to this expanse that has not remained secluded from intrusions and influences in the long course of history. So much so, its identification, if not identity, has remained problematic. Since its terrain was more a borderland than a land with immutable boundaries, so even this determination of boundaries on the east and the west was not eternally provided. It is of the tentative nature, particularly with regard to Satluj because as borderland, it extended further to the east, if not all the way up to Jamuna. Bearing this in mind, Prof. J. S. Grewal, the present-day historian of Punjab, holds in “The Historical Geography of the Punjab” (Journal of Regional History, V. One 1980) that rather than five rivers, this land comprised five doabs, each in between two rivers. Since the land between Satluj and Jamuna does not comprise a doab, it is doubtful whether the modification suggested by Prof. Grewal provides a definite resolution to the enigma. There is another intricacy as well that is usually acclaimed but not pondered over. In the ancient Sanskrit classics, the term panch-nadd is believed to stand for this region. That in the medieval Persian chronicles, panj-aab stand for the same, seems more probable. So towards the end of the 16th century when Bhai Gurdas, the greatest Sikh intellectual of the time, used the term panjab for awarding a distinctive identity to this region, it must have been with the residual terms in mind. 

In a situation like this, it is fair to hold that as a borderland without immutable boundaries, it formed the terrain for the origin, beginning and growth of Punjabi literature. Holding overwhelming appeal to literary imagination, it was thus expounded by Sant Singh Sekhon in his autobiography, Jeevan da Pandh V. Two (journey of a life). In his view, on the west Indus formed its border whereas on the south it went far beyond Satluj. In the north it went right up to the hills of Jammu and on the east embraced much of the hilly area. This picture of Punjab, he contended, always lurked before the eye of his imagination. To a person believing in the immutable nature of boundaries, this evocation may seem transgressing the political identification. Even the geographical identification may to some extent seem of the same sort. Yet, it is this definition of the borderland that to literary imagination has served as a terrain for the origin, beginning and growth of Punjabi literature.

The terrain of Punjab it was that provided Aryans the
occasion and the urge to compose the ancient Indian texts.


The issue of when has also been variously projected. The juncture, at which Punjabi literature in its written form came into being, forms its crux, from which result the collateral issues, concerning its thrust, scope and disposition etc. Three contentions come to the fore when attention turns to this issue of the beginning of Punjabi literature in the written form. There is first the view that Principal Teja Singh sought to hold valid. It held out appeal to Sikh thinking which by reclaiming the distant past of Punjab on its own terms sought to strengthen fences against the revivalistic claims of Hinduism. Being one of the foremost Sikh intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century, Teja Singh had this thinking very much on the agenda. According to this view so feelingly put in his book, Sahit Darshan (philosophy of literature), Punjabi literature in the written form was there from the ancient times when the Aryans migrated to India. The terrain of Punjab it was that provided them the occasion and the urge to compose the ancient texts. In this regard, the Rig-Veda comes readily to mind in which oblique references are made to the rivers, flora and fauna of this region. Otherwise, it was composed in Sanskrit that preceded Punjabi by two millennia, with Prakrits of the earlier and later phases having held sway in an over-determining way. In the 15th century, Guru Nanak Dev incorporated Sanskrit words and expressions, largely in the ‘tadphav’ way. He employed the ‘tatsam’ way very sparingly indeed. No wonder, Prakrits of the earlier as well as the later era were essential sources for enriching his resources. His recourse to Braj, Arabic, Persian and other languages of the northwest India, including Sindhi, was not without a purpose. The result was that there came into being Punjabi that developed resources far richer than the sources providing material for its formation. Bearing all this in mind, it is valid, more so veritable, to hold that written Punjabi literature might have had its origin in the ancient Sanskrit texts. So far its beginning goes, it was from another juncture, altogether a different one. Whereas origin may hold out the occasion for definition, it is beginning that provides the promise for self-definition.

The second contention is of Dr Mohan Singh Dewana whose A History of Punjabi Literature(1100-1932) has so far been regarded as a path-breaking work both in the field of research and literary historiography. The result is that many historians of Punjabi literature to come after, Gopal Singh Dardi, Surinder Singh Kohli and Jeet Singh Seetal to name the famous ones, were so over-awed by his scholarship that they could not acquire the confidence to gaze critically at the nomenclature, methodology, explication and evaluation, provided by him. Dewana’s work, for which he earned the degree of Doctor of Literature and later on published it with elaboration, was beset with contentious formulations and conclusions. What impelled Teja Singh to come up with his contention about the ancientness of Punjabi literature, and much else that came to be written in Pali, Prakrit and Braj, he mentioned in a summary form to denote that it formed the background of Punjabi literature in the written form. How background may hold the vague promise of origin but not the definite and definitive sense of beginning, is not stressed any where by him. In stead, the perfunctory writings of Gorakh Nath and Charpat Nath, believed to have been composed in the 10th and 11th centuries, in his historiography, are flaunted to grab this credit. On sober consideration, not only their content seems frivolous, even their expression does not sound above the pedestrian level so characteristic of the spoken idiom.

It may not be without interest to know why he, in spite of his considerable academicism had recourse to such oddity. The blame is usually attributed to his haughty temperament that led him to deal arrogantly with his contemporaries. So much so, while dealing with the modern period, he had the audacity to ignore them altogether, and mention only those who wrote in the commonplace idiom and did not have claim to literary achievement worth the name. Ipso facto while giving credit for beginning the written form of Punjabi literature, it was natural for him to flaunt those Naths and Yogis. But there was another reason also which in this context deserve a mention. No doubt, Dr Dewana was a Sikh by faith but it was not Gurbani from which he derived impulses for replenishing his feelings and emotions, norms and values. For replenishing them, he had recourse to Yoga and Tantricism, which were related to the ancient Indian systems of thought expounded the

A literary language gets artificial, mechanical and even
dead when it ceases to draw sustenance from the spoken language.


Vedas and the Upanisads. At the same time, they departed from them by contending that not the mind but the body was the vehicle for salvation. In the body also, the focus was on sex, to be taken as the medium for mystical bliss and metaphysical illumination. Under the influence of studies conducted by Western scholars on oriental texts and these systems and thoughts, Indian intelligentsia, obsessed with the glory of the past, professed interest, particularly because it came as relief from ideological involvement in the present, and the issues, which either held it to ransom or promised hegemony over its labyrinth. By nature and nurture, temperament, profession and attainment, Dr Dewana belonged to such intelligentsia, so the aberration marking his historiography, was of the sort to which the epithet, “exception is the rule” applied naturally enough.

In this context for carrying the argument further, it is essential to underline the distinctiveness of literary language. Of course, distinction between literary language and the spoken idiom cannot be absolute. They are not identical either, though interplay between them cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, literary language is both distinct and distinguished from the general language of daily life by being selective, homogenous and stable. So far its being selective is concerned, apparently it may sound negative but its positive sense is no less valid. A literary language gets artificial, mechanical and even dead when it ceases to draw sustenance from the spoken language. But there is another side of the interplay between the two that makes literary language distinctive and distinguished without rendering it artificial and mechanical. It can be lofty without getting flamboyant. In other words, there is room for various levels and styles, lofty and sublime, middle and pleasing, and comic and low, in keeping with the genre the literary work may employ to acquire excellence. That Dr Dewana had scant regard for this distinctiveness of literary language, glares so sharply from his formulations, otherwise couched in academicism and verbosity.

The third view can be gathered from the three consecutive studies Baba Budh Singh forwarded of Punjabi poets in chronological order. The first Koel Koo,1949 ( koel’s song ) dealt with poets of the Mughal period with scattered attention paid to the English, more so the Urdu influences upon them. The next Banbiha Bol, 1925 ( Rainbird’s notes) took up poets of the Sikh period and awarded a similar treatment to them. He also recapitulated the contribution of the earlier period and tried to trace continuity between poets of both the periods. The last Hans Chog, 1950 (swan’s feed ) concluded with sympathetic consideration of poets during the second half of the 19th century. Again he did not fail to bring in mention of the poets of the earlier periods right from Sheikh Farid. Howsoever naïve, it was a secular and national perspective that Bawa sought to bear upon several hundred years of Punjabi poetry. Since he tried to award this poetic tradition integrity of its own, so regional awareness was not missing from it either. However, he failed to take note of poets who had by the time he came up with the third volume excelled themselves in the 20th century. His work was substantial though his strategy of inserting copious quotations was neither original nor capable to reveal the subtleties of form, technique and style in all their extent and depth. No wonder, he sought to establish the identity of Punjabi literature and to claim for it a heritage that was not in his view negligible. But he kept his scope narrow for it was only poetry that he took notice of though as a creative writer he tried his hand creditably at the writing of plays in Punjabi. No doubt, his historiography was chronological yet in visualizing periods and naming them, he avoided the beaten track as is quite evident from the titles of his volumes.

In Bawa’s view the beginning of Punjabi literature
lay with Sheikh Farid who composed his
Slokas in the first quarter of the 13th century.


Bawa Budh Singh did take notice of the contribution made by the Sikh Gurus and the Sikh savant Bhai Gurdas but it was perfunctory in comparison with the praise he showered on the Kissaskars of love-tales. Muslim by birth, those Kissakars were Sufis by faith. Apart from the secular temperament that Bawa came to inculcate under the influence, partly of English literature, it was his marriage with a Muslim woman that impelled him to flaunt this predilection to the chagrin of the religious custodians of his own community. Positive side of the whole thing was that literary merit, howsoever superficial, became the criteria of his appreciation and evaluation. Its negative side was that his fascination for the facile aspects led him to ignore the depth-delving, profoundly philosophical issues of the literary compositions. Popularity, rather than profundity it was, that determined for him the excellence of literature. If in the case of Dr. Dewana, the affiliative factor, like the orientalist scholarship and its fascination for Yoga and Tantaricism had a bearing on his historiography, then Bawa Budh Singh was not immune to the influence of affiliative factor such as the marital bond, matter of concern no doubt to orthodox members of his communities.

Dr Dewana found these volumes of Bawa Budh Singh “rather desultory” which from his pedantic pedestal looked likely so. What was affable in Bawa seemed desultory to Dewana for which another reason was also there on the anvil. In Bawa’s view the beginning of Punjabi literature lay with Sheikh Farid who composed his Slokas in the first quarter of the 13th century. Beyond the statement of this fact he did not go, nor could he because for substantiation, it required philosophical understanding of life, coupled with cultural and philological insights. It was left for Sant Singh Sekhon to fulfill this requirement in all its subtlety and sobriety. His was a multi-faceted genius that sought to excel in every literary field. He was a poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright of great merit. So far literary criticism goes, he was its founder in Punjabi and he brought to bear insights of past significance, present meaning and future value, on literature of the language in all genres and forms, right from Sheikh Farid up to the modern times. If there is any history of the Punjabi language with focus on the geography and culture of the region, it was also written by Sekhon.

So far him to determine the beginning of written literature and literary language on the terrain of Punjab that he visualized as borderland, was not an academic exercise, relating only to the past. It was a cultural exercise in which tradition, history, memory and imagination had a decisive role to play. Equipped with awareness in which Marxian philosophy and Freudian psychology had a central place, he felt that for literary language and written literature to grow, there was dire need of something more than the natural terrain. A social terrain, visited by cultural formation, religious conflict-cum-reconciliation and renewed civilization, was essential for the purpose. The intrusion of Islam from Arabia via Sindh, in the 8th century, coupled with invasions from Persia to continue for several centuries, turned Punjab, particularly the western part of it into such a terrain suffused with the possibilities of formation, conflict, reconciliation and renewal.


For Sekhon, this vision became a reality in the compositions of Sheikh Farid which written in a dialect “amply suggest a learned mind behind the sweet words, a mind that had steeped itself in the tradition of his age and creed and is capable of absorbing the influences of his environment as well as the deep thinking of his age.”(A H P L, p.18).At this juncture the rupture that occurred in life of the people defined by residual but local elements of Indian religions, caste-system, joint-family, must have been agonizing. The intrusion of Islam held out the prospect of conversion but the way the authoritarian custodians of Koran interpreted and preached it, sounded as the discourse of power, of the word. Along with survival, this discourse of power entailed lot of travail to the articulation of which only a person of Farid’s genius could do full justice.. As Sekhon was at pains to point out, Farid’s forefathers were from Persia but he had settled in the area where the intrusion of Islam had caused the greatest rupture from the way the people had been living from centuries. Closely related to the royal family, he chose to live like an ascetic and preach to the people the value of humility, simplicity, frugality and piety in their own dialect. Without recourse to terms from Koran, he employed the husband-wife metaphor, so universal in life to preach his teaching with all the poignancy at his command. As Prof. Attar Singh in his celebrated paper, “Farid Bani vich Dukh da Sankalp” available in Samdarshi 1982 (unbiased perspective) tried to show this poignancy resulted from his deep awareness of pain that, more than personal was universal, more than individual was existential. However, Sekhon perceived in it the element of expiation, a feeling of sharing the guilt of the rulers with whom he was identified not only by the factors of race and temporal power but also factors of religious and spiritual circumstances. Both the elements share concurrence in a far-reaching way perhaps. The existential and universal element seemed overflowing even to so pain-stricken a person as Waris Shah, the writer of the immortal Heer in the 18th century who had felt that Farid’s habitation in Punjab had obliterated all the pains and pangs of Punjab. On the other hand the expiatory element endeared him even to the people who looked with critical gaze upon this intrusion. This lay behind “the inclusion of his poetry in the scripture of the Sikh Gurus who were in their time and in their own way endeavoring to uplift the people and to give them the strength to stand up to oppression.”(AHPL, p.19)

It was after a gap of more than two centuries and a half that literary language and written literature made their presence felt on a scale far higher than the earlier one. Their absence during this period extending over two and a half centuries has been acknowledged by almost all literary historians but hardly any one has come up with convincing reasons of the historical and cultural sort to explain it convincingly. Their emergence at a scale so far unsurpassed in subtlety of thought and sobriety of feeling was such as cannot without the presumption that there had been prior to Guru Nanak a sufficiently mature literary tradition. This is what Sekhon presumed but to substantiate it he could mention only ballads meant to celebrate battles between local chiefs in Punjab. Finding in them the celebration of various facets of the feudal society, “illicit passion, famine, drought, breach of promise, treachery and clan rivalry,” he believed that on their score, “Punjabi people had found enough strength in their language to sing of their passions before Guru Nanak came upon the scene and lifted the language and culture of Punjab to a higher level.”(A H P L, p.20)

There is no reason to discount what Sekhon has claimed for folk literature, the Punjabi people had recourse to at the historical juncture. What remains unsaid is why no written literature and literary language flourished for more than two centuries. The tentative explanation for this can be that the experience of travail articulated by Farid was like a one-way street. Retreat from it was futile and could not provide subject matter for renewed truth content. To trudge along for finding some more veritable and viable opening ahead so as to equip themselves with a renewed vision of life could not be so soon on the agenda of the people. So more than two centuries were to elapse before such a possibility could arise, on the terrain of central Punjab where to accept the fate accompli was regarded below dignity and integrity of all sorts. This became the terrain for Guru Nanak Dev’s writings which became the basis for the Sikh scripture, first named Adi Granth, and then Guru Granth on the 1430 large-size pages which also incorporated the compositions of the next four Gurus, of Farid, Kabir, Ravidas and several other Bhagat-kavis from different parts of the erstwhile sub-continent.

During the last four centuries, the scriptural side of
Guru Granth has overshadowed its literary excellence.


During the last four centuries, the scriptural side of this magnum opus has overshadowed its literary excellence. No wonder, Sikhs in general have accepted it as dhur ki bani (revealed text) meant to put an end to all their worries, miseries and privations in this life and after. They regard it a privilege to bow before it for each recompense and reward. While listening to its compositions set to musical notations for recitation, they feel exalted and blessed in the bargain. Their exaltation is more if they themselves can read or recite them. Their anchorage to the higher purpose of life replenishes, each time they have the privilege of listening to, reciting or reading them. In the popular élan, their reading occupies a tertiary place, next to their recitation and reading. For all intents and purposes, recitation and reading are regarded as mirror images of each other. So in its study, hagiography has so far claimed a dominant place. Other studies have also appeared but they have not won general acceptance from the reading public. Partly the reason may be that they have dealt with only parts of the magnum opus. But the main reason is that their insights have yet to establish their efficacy and veracity with the thinking and feeling of the people.

Ranging from Udasis and Nirmalas in the 18th century to Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha in the first half of the 20th century and Professor Sahib and Principal Teja Singh in the second half, so many scholars have applied themselves to the hagiographical study of this magnum opus, compiled by Guru Arjan Dev with collaboration of Bhai Gurdas in 1604. Dispensing with its social, political, historical, cultural specificities, the advocates of this study read only spiritual, metaphysical, mystical message in this multiplex text. To explain the precise meaning of each word with focus upon their etymology, is the acme and essence of this study carrying around itself the aura of stupendous effort, rigor and unfailing knowledge of grammar.

Now etymology reveals only the origin of words while their semantic horizon remains outside its ken. Words also have intonations verging upon their alignment with the actualities of life. So their study has to get across hagiography if the social, political, cultural and ideological significance of this multiplex text has to be forwarded for explication, elaboration and evaluation. In this regard, first thing is to lay bare its compositional principle, the labor and ingenuity gone into it. Rather than acclaim it as revealed text and put a gloss upon the creative excellence, inter-textual acumen, auditory sensitivity and editorial skill, the compilers had recourse to ensure its originality, it is essential to reveal this originality not just in the metaphorical sense of being distinct but also in the etymological sense of going to the roots or origins of feelings, emotions, thoughts, values and visions emanating from the compositions comprising this multiplex text. Several studies are available both in Punjabi and English, concerned with the identification of the compositional principle underlying the compiling of Guru Granth. In Punjabi, Sant Kartar Singh did pioneering work though it was not marked by any systematic method. Professor Piar Singh’s work is more rigorous from this point view and due to this reason perhaps it invited the ire of the SGPC, in charge of the management of Sikh Gurdwaras. In English two works are available, of Dr Paushara Singh and Professor Gurinder Singh Mann, respectively. Pashaura Singh’s work (Guru Granth: Canon, Meaning and Authority, 2003) goes parallel with that of Piar Singh in showing the textual changes this magnum opus came to observe as distinct from the original Adi Granth. Gurinder Singh Mann’s work (The Making of Sikh Scripture, 2001) is more basic, concerned as it is with the compilation of Adi Granth itself, from the pothis in which the compositions of the first four Gurus were recorded.

Several studies are available both in Punjabi and English,
concerned with the identification of the compositional
principle underlying the compiling of Guru Granth.


In themselves, these works are not specimen of literary historiography or critical study meant to focus upon the past significance, present meaning and future value of Guru Granth, the repository of boundless motifs, concerns, techniques and styles. All the same, for a study of the sort, they are essential otherwise the authenticity of the text to be studied remains doubtful. Since hagiographical study has reserved disdain for compositional analysis, so to contest Ernest Trumpp’s bitter critique (Adi Granth: Scripture of the Sikhs 1886, reprint 1997) of this multiplex writing, its compositional principle, musicality, philosophy and aesthetics was never the concern of its advocates swearing by it as revealed text. So far its content went, it seemed extremely shallow to him for two reasons. One, all the categories and concepts defining it were not intrinsically its own. Derived from diverse systems of the past, their reliance upon the sources was so overwhelming that they failed to cultivate original resources of their own. Second, their presentation was too repetitive and monotonous. For contesting Trumpp’s objections, to allege that he was biased, disdainful and lacking in reverence, was not proper. The proper thing to do was to see how he measured the poetic motifs, required to be reiterative and have nuances, on the scale of narrative norms, borrowed from the Bible. Likewise, the language of Guru Granth, he felt, was labyrinthine, only of archeological importance, a real treasury of the old Hindi dialects, specimen of which have been preserved therein which are not to be found anywhere else. Sticking to the 19th century philological knowledge, this view of his only denoted the presence of other languages and dialects in this magnum opus. It failed to connote the process through which Punjabi was orientating itself in diachronic as well as synchronic affiliation with other languages of the present and past of the Indian sub-continent. Two linguistic paradigms operated to impart it distinct identity, namely Sanskrit-Pali-Prakrit-Punjabi that Guru Nanak Dev and the next three Gurus developed and consolidated and Punjabi-Prakrit-Pali-Sanskrit which Guru Arjan Dev, the compiler of the magnum opus had recourse to in his large compositions. It was a different matter that in his shorter compositions, he employed the first paradigm, and that too with great dexterity. Why the second paradigm he had recourse to, was perhaps to felicitate their reception by the people beyond Punjab, in the rest of the country, particularly the eastern part of it and enhance their effect upon the vast multitude of people, attuned to the Bhakti-Kav. Interestingly enough, Bhai Gurdas, who collaborated with the Guru in this magnificent task, stuck to the first paradigm in his own Vars, which rightly hold key to the subtleties of Adi Granth, later named Guru Granth. Rather he so refined the linguistic store of the first paradigm that his syntax came to connote the best prospect for Punjabi language in the future. That this prospect has remained unrealized is because history has played havoc with all that it stood for in terms of literary production, reception and its effect.

Without going into these subtleties and complexities, even the present-day scholars of this multiplex text have thought it better to discount its literary excellence by elevating it as Bani, distinct from Poetry. The earlier scholars, from Bhai Kahn Nabha right down to Sahib Singh would not entertain this distinction at all. However the present-day scholars, Haribhajan Singh in Mull te Mallankan (value and valuation) for his persuasive and Tarlok Singh Kanwar in Guru Nanak Dev da Kav-Shastra(poetics of Guru Nanak Dev) for his scholastic skill being the most known, have opted for hermeneutic analysis though they have not attained any results beyond what has been said in the West about the Bible as a sacred vis-à-vis Poetry as profane writing. However, Sant Singh Sekhon in Punjabi Kav Shiromini1964 (sublime poetry in Punjabi) and Kishan Singh in Guru Nanak: Sikh Inqlab da Modhi 1973(Guru Nanak: the founder of sikh inqlab) have initiated historical-cum ideological study. Whereas the latter sought to identify the cognitive perspective of Guru Nanak with the ideological framework of classical Marxism, the former employed only the categories of Dialectical and Historical Materialism to unravel the originality of Guru Nanak’s creative sensibility, its past significance, present meaning and future value. Since this study grapples with certain fond compositions of Guru Nanak and his predecessors, so with its quality it has not been able to displace the dominance, accruing to the scholastic one, largely on the basis of quantity. This is the dilemma that needs urgent resolution. 


In this dispensation, Kissa-Sahit, Sufi-Shairi and Var-Kav were regarded as the essential components of Punjabi literature till the end of the 19th century. Of them, the oldest was Sufi-Shairi that had its inception with Sheikh Farid in the first quarter of the 13th century. Due to the expiatory element inherent in it, Farid’s compositions obliterated the travail caused by the intrusion of Islam, at the same time that they rendered bearable the conversion to the new faith that came in its trail. So far the next two and a half centuries, the field of literary production remained almost barren. Farid’s successors relied on his compositions to disseminate their teaching, and if at all they composed any thing that was only in imitation of him, with out any experiential awareness and excellence of its own. Since Guru Arjan Dev showed the dexterity of incorporating those compositions in the Adi Granth, so the urge to compose any thing in imitation of Farid did not remain urgent.

Thus the field of Sufi-Shairi was all the more barren till the urge to disseminate the veracity, integrity and authenticity of life that Gurbani had claimed as its own, overpowered Shah Hussain. So much so, he was supposed to have approached Guru Arjan Dev for the inclusion of his Kafis in the magnum opus. So far as his independence from Shariat went, there was no reason for the Guru declining to do so. After all, it was the individual impulse of Love, shorn of all constraints, conventions and dogmas, which impelled him to compose his intensely lyrical verses. The way the rural landscape was invoked, along with its seasonal facets, natural aspects, rivers, fields, flora, fauna, bestiary and erotic attachment was extremely charming. But the essential reason that might have motivated the Guru to decline the inclusion, so far unexplained, probably was that this Sufi saint celebrated man-woman bond of the generic sort rather than the husband-wife relationship that Gurbani upheld for its generative orientation.

His successor, Bule Shah, was to uphold this element of liberty-cum-liberation with all the more urgency. He articulated how restrictions, prescriptions and precepts might lead a person nowhere close to authentic living, even with greater vehemence and defiance. For him, only Love was there to rely upon, but not till the human being entered into a state of trance so to dance like a lunatic almost. In this state, at one moment he felt as if he had taken poison and at the other that a blessing was knocking at his door. So dilemma staring Shah Hussain, persisted all the more vehemently to drive him into a position that rendered all assurances futile which the scriptural rhetoric held essential for human salvation. Even though certain Hindu and Sikh individuals could evince interest in this discourse, it was essentially of the Muslim intelligentsia, feeling estranged from the Islamic tenets on the soil of Punjab, but unable to forge an alternative vision of life. This was evident in Ali Haidar as well who regarded all instances of sexual love between Heer and Ranjha as emanations of the Divine but at the same time was anguished over the cowardly resistance, offered by the Delhi Sultanate, against Nadar Shah’s invasion over Punjab.

Within the field of Sufi poetry, reaction against this structure of feeling and experience was natural from the Muslim intelligentsia that was conservative and reposed faith in Islam. Of course, this reaction could not be of the fanatic sort, effort to direct the spirit of Love towards devotion was the best course for it to adopt. This trend began with Sultan Bahu who was of the same Sufi order to which Shah Hussain had belonged. It was this order that subsequently claimed Bulle Shah as its own. Descended from a family of Arab origin and endowed with considerable jagir by the emperor, he was of suave temperament for whom devotion and pathos were more crucial than love and passion. Though a believer in Shariat and Kalima, he would discourse on the Divine not as a lover but as a man of deep learning. At the same time, he was opposed to the vanity and hypocrisy of formal Namaz that could take a person nowhere. In the same category figured Shah Sharaf, Shah Murad and Vajid who extolled asceticism, meditation and fatalism in the same vein.

It goes to the credit of Haribhajan Singh in India and
Nazam Hussain Sayyad in Pakistan to judge Sufi-Shairi
in terms of its literary merit.


Studies relating to them are variegated but not much focused on their writings or the distinctions marking them from one another.. If Lajawanti Ramakrishna (Sufi Poets of Punjab 1938) went into their lineage, family-background and orientation, Mohan Singh Dewana was concerned with their genres and the influences imbibed from the Indian sources. Kapur Singh in Paras Bhag made the startling contention that to the detriment of Koranic influence, these Sufis were far more indebted to the Indian metaphysics. More appropriate was to name them the advocates of its Islamic version. In all this there was hardly any thing of literary appreciation, analysis and evaluation. It goes to the credit of Haribhajan Singh in India and Nazam Hussain Sayyad in Pakistan to judge Sufi-Shairi in terms of its literary merit. For a comprehensive grasp, it is desirable to juxtapose the points of view of both these critics who tend to elaborate them from aesthetic and cultural stand points.

In his two articles, “Punjabi Sufi-Kav” and “Kalam Sufian” available in Mull te Mulankan, Haribhajan Singh held that Sufi-Shairi, voicing the ethos of the Muslim society come into being after conversion, was essentially at peace with the new dispensation. As a result, the poets comprising this compositional practice stood for a new structure of feeling in which an alternative philosophy of life did not have any place at all. So they were under no obligation to grapple with tradition, to deconstruct or reconstruct it for propounding a philosophy of life, capable enough to replace or displace the way of living and the ethos brought into being by conversion to Islam. To celebrate what this new phenomena ordained, the employment of imagery drawn from the folklore was enough. Likewise there was no compulsion to have recourse to new syntax and diction. New stylistic strategies were also not required. From this it is not difficult to construe that the primary concern of Sufi-Shairs was to extol the ordinariness of life, even to the extent of upholding what, in the eyes of the custodians of authority, was deserving of ignominy. In this way they were poets in the first and last instance.

Likewise, in his books jointly published in Gurmukhi script as Sedhan Saran te hore Lekh 1980(directions, intimations and other articles) to which the writer of this paper contributed a detailed preface, Nazam Hussain Sayyad contended that Sufi-Shairs were essentially revolutionary by nature. The reason was that the new dispensation come in the aftermath of conversion had got bereft of all impulse for equality and consideration for humanity. So the whole social setup was characterized by inequality, authoritarianism and oppression. Professing alignment with the suffering humanity of which it was fully aware, Sufi-Shairs forwarded critique of the authority, the dominance it exercised, and superiority it professed through overt as well as covert means. The imagery drawn from the folklore, the language shorn of all ostentation and the devices natural and spontaneous to the overwhelming extent, served their purpose extremely well. Great poets they were of course, but the urge to advocate humanity’s cause and the values cherished for its emotional and experiential richness was not lacking in them at all.

Studied together, these insights seem to form two sides of the same coin. At the same time, they seem to suffer from the same lack. Though Haribhajan Singh does not say so, his observation draws only on those compositions of the Sufi-Shairs in which Love is the dominant theme. How in Shah Hussain and Bulle Shah, it incorporates layers of social critique does not concern him. In Bulle Shah this critique is explicit enough and sometimes may be missing to become integral part of the poetic text. But in both, it is no less implicit, especially when, the identification is sought with persons representing the low, excluded and condemned sections of the society, representative then of the vast multitude of the people. The difference marking them from others, as Sultan Bahu and his ilk, is set aside by both of them. Their indifference towards tradition and the absence of subversion, celebrated by Haribhajan Singh and ignored by Nazam Hussain Sayyad, is not altogether a blessing. This is another factor that attenuates the profundity of these insights, otherwise most far-reaching among studies done of Sufi-Shairs and their compositions.

Forged into literary form during the reign of Akbar,
Kissa assumed the narration, usually of a love-tale,
the elements of which were available in the folklore.


No wonder, the affiliation that Shah Hussain was said to have sought with Gurbani could not materialize. His affinity as well as of other Sufi-Shairs with Kissa-Kav and the Kissakars, whose literary production was prolific, got not only natural but poignant as well. Forged into literary form during the reign of Akbar, Kissa assumed the narration, usually of a love-tale, the elements of which were available in the folklore wherein Vars a forming the basis of musical pattern in Gurban also had their abode. These love-tales were of two types, autochthonous as of Mirza-Sahiban and those loaded with cultural content as of Heer-Ranjha. Later on, love-tales of Sohni-Mahival and Sassi-Punnu enriched this corpus to a great extent. In the reign of Akbar, were composed the first Kissas, Pilu’s Mirza-Sahiban that was fragmentary and Damodar’s Heer which was rounded and complete. In the times to follow this trend so much flourished that till the end of the 19th century, around two hundred Kissas were composed, only a few on the autochthonous tale but very many on love-tales of cultural content. Of them no less than thirty were on the love-tale Heer-Ranjha alone.

These Kissas had their beginning in invocation expanding into allegorical framework, provided by the Sufi doctrine. It would have bearing on the birth, upbringing, nature, nurture, life-experience, bewilderment, separation and tragic death of the lover and the beloved. Become all-encompassing surrogate of life, its purpose, meaning and value, Love, as ishaq-hakiki so defined their union that all social customs, ceremonies, rituals, prescriptions and precepts, proved not only futile but totally false as well. If at all there was any impediment that the lovers had to beware of, it was sexual union i. e. ishaq-mijaji before all opposition had vanished into thin air. In Damodar’s Heer, confrontation between the two sides is not relentless to the core, showing thereby that in the rural society of the time, authoritarianism had not got so well entrenched. It went on deepening to reach a dead end in the time when confrontation between the contending forces reached its climax in the 18th century and Waris Shah composed his Heer, without doubt the greatest masterpiece in this literary form. During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, new motifs, of travel to strange lands, across oceans, encounters with supernatural beings and destined joys and sorrows embedded themselves in the Kissas rendering them as compositions not so much of creative as professional Kissakars. In the colonial era, titillation became the norm that the Kissakars sought to achieve with eye on the vicarious tastes of readers and listeners drawn from their own communities and castes. This betokened the end of this literary form as a creative force, to be replaced by the novel with the appearance of modern writing in Punjabi literature.

This corpus of Punjabi literature has been studied from several angles but there are a couple of things common to them. These angles are of ideological, cultural, signifying and historical sort, propounded by Sant Singh Sekhon, Attar Singh, Nazam Hussain Sayyad and J. S. Grewal, respectively. In several articles from the fifties to detailed Introduction to his translation of this masterpiece into English published in the seventies as the Love-Tale of Heer Ranjha, 1976 , Sekhon held that explication of ideology was confined to the allegorical framework, suffused with categories and concepts drawn from the Sufi doctrine. Its excellence was somewhere else, in the elaborate description to which the social, historical and spiritual aspects of the life of the age were subjected in the text itself. So the masterpiece projected two structures, which were autonomous though not autarkic. Nazam Hussain Sayyad in Sedhan Saran te hore Lekh maintained that these two structures were like musical patterns voicing opposed feelings, emotions and values. The musical pattern voicing the significance of customs, rites, rituals, prescriptions and precepts was high sounding that caused more and more distraction to the readers and listeners. The musical pattern voicing the feelings of Love between the hero and the heroine, the eternal bond that they felt was divinely ordained, and their promise to fulfill it till death and even beyond was low-toned. Mysteriously enough, it went on exercising more and more sway on them as the narration of the love-tale went ahead towards its denouement. To establish the veracity of the allegorical framework by rewording it in aesthetic terms was the purpose of the scholar who in the Sufi content found no inadequacy or contradiction of the sort.

Carried away by the charm of the lovers’ rendezvous
in the jungle or their dalliance by the riverbed, ishak-mijaji
would seem raison d etre for description and narration.


Responsive to the contentions of both, Attar Singh in Dristkone 1963 (point of view) sought to conclude that the two structures, comprising the masterpiece, represented the desire for limitless freedom so essential for full self-realization by the individual being and the restriction that social organization has to impose for safeguarding it from dissolution. A sort of Freudian justification was that he awarded to the descriptive structure in which Sekhon read all the excellence of the masterpiece but for Nazam was inauthentic to the core. For J. S. Grewal, if the allegorical framework expressed Waris Shah’s understanding of the depth of life, its norms and values, the elaborate description forwarded the poet’s vast knowledge of its institutions and structures. His detailed paper, “The World of Waris” 1983 sought to extol all that could be gathered in support of the poet’s deep understanding and extensive knowledge of life. The problem with all this was that subject matter got identical with the truth content.

The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of asymmetry prevailing between the two structures in the text of this masterpiece. The allegorical framework does explain the Sufi doctrine but its dissemination in the text remains problematic that gets sometimes paradoxical even. In the course of description so much stress gets laid upon immanence that the central tenet of Sufism, of remaining steadfast on ishaq-hakiki, is not observed in letter and spirit. Carried away by the charm of the lovers’ rendezvous in the jungle or their dalliance by the riverbed, that ishak-mijaji would seem raison d’etre for description and narration. This renders the text oscillating that further becomes of the overreaching type as well. As a result of them, description, more so discourse get beyond the control of the writer just as Hamlet is believed to have done with Shakespeare. Is it not due to this that this masterpiece means something to all? Whether a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, of whichever lineage or affiliation, nothing comes in the way of reception and its effect. It is a different matter that unlike Gurbani, it does not mean every thing to some.

In counterpoint to Kissa Sahit, arose Var Sahit that also formed a trajectory. It had its origin in oral literature wherein figured fragmented narratives about battles between collaterals or Sardars of nearby states. Feelings of rivalry and jealousy locked them into internecine battles from which only death could deliver them. Remarkably enough, they suggested Raag set to which compositions of Gurbani were to be recited or sung. This led to the composition of spiritual Vars by the first five Gurus. Rather than the field outside, the terrain for fighting spiritual battles in them between the contending forces was the interior landscape. As Guru Nanak Dev’s Asa di Var made it quite clear the spiritual battles had intellectual, cultural, social and even political dimensions. To come into their own, their creators, Guru Nanak Dev to the incomparable extent, employed language pertaining to all aspects of life in a style holding background, struggle for articulation at several levels more important than foreground and rhetorical expression.

Key to Guru Granth as the oeuvre of Bhai Gurdas was believed to be, the next stage was the educative Var of which the best illustrations were his writings in this genre. Through pure and pristine expression, at the same time so supple and rich, Bhai Gurdas not only made the teaching of Gurbani easy to grasp but also put the whole diversity of life in perspective. No wonder, his Vars overflowed with references to the political, social and cultural aspects of life, to castes and sub castes, ranging from the most exalted to the most derided ones, to marital practices of polygamy, polyandry and divorce, to professions, vocations including their malpractices and the ignominy that resulted from them. Those references went across time and space, so as to be intellectual surrogates of spiritual meanings so remarkably upheld in the spiritual Vars. By asserting the interchangeable position of the Guru and the Sikh, they proved indispensable for grasping as intellectual what was essentially spiritual.

In bitter struggle against the Mughal rulers as the
Sikh community was locked, these Vars were
composed by writers belonging to it.


The next stage was of actual struggle; to cover it martial Var was written of which the best example was Chandi di Var by Guru Bobind Singh. In this type of writing, language was employed as if to wage a formidable war, so words got conspicuous for their sounds and their phonetic aspect got the better of their semantics. Related to it was Var of Martyrdom in which the steadfastness of Sikh martyrs in face of death by execution was described. As against the phonetic aspect of words, this type of writing stressed their emotional content through the abundant employment of assonance, alliteration and consonance. In bitter struggle against the Mughal rulers as the Sikh community was locked, these Vars were composed by writers belonging to it. By this time, there occurred a change in dispensation that forced the Muslims, particularly those inclined towards Sufism to reconsider their position and redefine their identity. As invasions from across the border became more current and rulers of Delhi left them to their own plight, they realized that their regional identity was primary and all else, pertaining to religion etc was secondary in comparison.

This reconsideration, coupled with redefinition, impelled them to compose patriotic Vars of which Nadar Shah di Var by Nijabat was worth mentioning. If the writer could not close his eyes to the fearlessness with which the invasion was launched, he also could not overlook the desperate resistance put up by native rulers. Its excellence was attained in Shah Mohammad’s Jangnama Singhan te Frangian that entitles the writer to be acclaimed the national poet of Punjab, not only in retrospect but prospect as well. Written in the aftermath of chaos prevailing in Punjab as a result of the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, it narrates the battles of the first Anglo Sikh War. Not only as an observer of the turmoil prevailing first in the court, then in the army and last of all in the life around, is the poet remarkably dispassionate, he is no less so of battles fought against the enemy in a spirit of oscillation and overreaching, defeat in spite of display of resistance, shameful submission of the entire population to the foreign rule and the uncertainty to prevail in Punjab for a long time to come. Going above and beyond the Var genre, what the writing of it achieved, may not be possible to specify in full. But there can be no denying of its past significance, present meaning and future value.

Except occasional articles on individual Vars, on Shah Mohammad’s Jangnama in particular, nothing perceptive has been written so far on this branch of Punjabi literature. Scattered comments made here and there by Sant Singh Sekhon, Attar Singh, Haribhajan Singh are available but they do no justice to the trajectory of this form and the acmes of its achievement. So far consideration of its trajectory goes, not more than a couple of articles are available. Even at the cost of seeming immodest, the writer of this bibliographical paper, can not do without referring to his articles to be found in his three books, Punjabi Sabhiachar: Praman te Pratiman 1986 (Punjabi culture; evidences and signs), and Punar Samvad 1994 (renewed discourse) and Madhkali Path te Samkali Chintan 2005 (medieval text, modern thinking). 


Attar Singh, Drishtikon, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1963.
Attar Singh, Secularization of Modern Punjabi Poetry, Punjab Prakashan, Chandigarh, 1988
Budh Singh; Bawa, Bambiha Bol, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1950(reprint)
Budh Singh; Bawa, Koel Koo, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1948(reprint).
Budh Singh; Bawa, Hans Chog, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1950(reprint)
Ernest Trumpp, The Adi Granth: Sacred Scripture of the Sikhs, Munshi Ram & Manohar Lal, New Delhi 1997( reprint)
Gopal Singh, Punjabi Sahit da Itihas, Punjabi Academy, New Delhi, 2nd Ed. 1950
Gopal Singh, Punjabi Sahit da Itihas, Panjab University Publication Bureau, Chandigarh, 1962.
Gurinder Singh Mann, The Making Of Sikh Scripture, Oxford University New Delhi, 2001
Haribhajan Singh, Mull te Mullankan, Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar, 2002(reprint)
Kishan Singh, Sikh Inqlab Da Modhi Guru Nanak, Punjabi Sahit Akademy, Ludhiana, 1973
Mohan Singh Dewana, A History of Punjabi Literature (1100-1932), Bharat Prakashan Jalandhar, 1971.
Mohan Singh Dewana, Punjabi Adab di Mukhtsar Tareekh, Part 1-From AD850 to 1708, Publisher not mentioned, 1932.
Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth Sahib:Canon, Meaning and Authority, Oxford University, New Delhi, 2003.
Ravinder Singh Ravi, America di Navin Alochna Pranali, Sedh Prakashan, Patiala, 1982.
Sant Singh Sekhon, Punjabi Boli da Ithas, Language Department Punjab, Patiala
Sant Singh Sekhon, Bhai Veer Singh te Uhunan da Yug, , Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1964.
Sant Singh Sekhon, Punjabi Kav Shiromni, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 2nd Ed. 2001.(1964)
Sant Singh Sekhon, Bhai Gurdas, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1993
Sant Singh Sekhon, A History of Punjabi Literature, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1993
Sant Singh Sekhon, A History of Punjabi Literature, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1995
Serebryakov. I., Punjabi Sahit, New Age Book Centre, Amritsar, 1971.
Tarlok Singh Kanwar, Guru Nanak Dev da Kav-Shastra, Gurmat Gyan Sagar, Ludhiana, 1990
Tejwant Singh Gill, Punjabi Sabhiarchar :Praman te Pratiman, Sahit Kala Parkashan, Ludhiana, 1986
Tejwant Singh Gill, Punar Samvad, Waris Shah Foundation, Amritsar1994
Tejwant Singh Gill, Region/ Country Configuration in Punjabi Literature, Echo Publishers, Ludhiana 1995
Tejwant Singh Gill, Punjabi Bhasa te Sahit, Waris Shah Foundation, Amritsar, 1997
Tejwant Singh Gill, Madhkali Path: Samkali Chintan, Chetna Parkashan, Ludhiana, 2005

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