The Dawn: Mar 14, 2014

A classical poet with modern mind! –Part II

Mushtaq Soofi 

Our apparently educated but superstitious scholars generally treat the great poets of Punjab as saints turned poets. There is no doubt about their saintliness but what has inspired the people generation after generation is their creative expression, not the miracles attributed to them by their hagiographers. Whenever critics and interpreters wax eloquent about these personalities what they offer is little more than the detritus of worn out metaphysics dressed up as spiritualism. Sufism for them is something amorphous. Anything laced with exotic, esoteric, seemingly spiritual and religious tinge falls in this category. Poets with different, at times contradictory, world views are lumped together and branded as Sufis.

In order to get the perspective right whenever one refers to Sufism one must define the specifics of what it implies. Otherwise, surfeit of discussion on Sufism will cause nothing but intellectual nausea and spiritual inertia.

Khwaja Farid can safely be termed a Sufi while keeping in mind that he was foremost a poet. The salient aspects of his poetry for the sake of analytical understanding can be subsumed into a general statement that it combines sublime and mundane in an effort to grasp the holistic view of human situation. His poems with spiritual bearings have a metaphysical ring underpinned by philosophic concept of the divine which is absolutely free of duality and all pervasive. He is inspired by the ideas of Islamic monism and Vedantic non-duality. “That (Divine) is one and only one / whosoever seeks duality in that one is infidel indeed” testifies to his belief in the absolute monism.

Monism for him is not an abstraction, a mere concept or a metaphysical construct that negates the diversity and synthetic fabric of the material world. The divine presence, though light shrouded in light, in no way denies the empirical reality of our material world. It rather reveals the mundane reality by illuminating what lies beneath the appearances. Appearance, when seen as a pointer of ultimate reality, turns into a mirror reflecting what Khwaja Farid calls ‘real beauty and eternal light’. And where can one see the real beauty and eternal light except in the material phenomena one lives surrounded by day in day out. How can one discover the ultimate reality if it is completely removed from the materiality of our world? Matter is the veil of what lies behind. So the veil and what lies behind it are an inseparable unity that constitutes reality. Such are the origins of both mysticism and science. Matter is problematic for genuine mystics not in the sense of being unreal but being transitory because of its ever-changing nature.

Matter in all its forms affords us glimpses of the divine that has no other medium than the material one for its presence to be grasped and comprehended by human beings. Phenomena are masked manifestations of the divine. “My friend appears in forms innumerable with all the alluring charms—at times a beloved graced with beauty / and at times a passionate lover / in each manifestation animated by his presence he sees his own image.” The material for Khwaja Farid is an unmistakable signifier of the spiritual.

One feels that at times in his lyrics he looks more of a scholar/intellectual than a poet. He seems to be inclined to explaining the theoretical side of mystic vision rather than delving into the experience itself. He takes the notions from the tradition and changes them into philosophical concepts in a poetic fashion.

Khwaja Farid is at his best when it comes to love poetry. He employs the feminine voice to express the anguish of lovers adding poignancy to the experience. The legendry female characters like Heer, Sassi and Sohni stand as metaphors/symbols of what love entails and promises. They while graphically portraying the sufferings of lovers in a class-based patriarchal society that denies the freedom of choice to men and women in terms of forming relationships also epitomise the ideal of love at an abstract level.

But another female character sneaks into his poems whose significance has not yet been fully realised. It is local Cholistani woman; woman of flesh and bones with the dazzling ambiance of her habitat, the desert. This simple working woman, tending herds of goats and cows, does not expect what is not possible. Small gifts from her lover like ‘bangles from Jaisalmir’ and ‘red blouses from Ajmer’ can make her day. The most precious gift could be a new ‘Tobha’ (water pond) prepared by her lover where she would take her flocks to drink water in the hostile world of dry sands.

In Khwaja Farid’s poetry the image of this working woman opens up new vistas of vast but little known mysterious world of Cholistan desert. The desert with its ever shifting sand dunes, whirlwinds, herds, rain-ponds, shrubs, bushes, wild animals, reptiles and unbearable stillness sets readers imagination on fire.

The desert, a burning hell in summer and a natural arboretum in monsoon, in a process of destruction and regeneration emerges as a symbol of magical expression of life. “The Rohi desert, haunting and desolate, mesmerised my heart with its charm” says Khwaja Farid. Thus the physical landscape of Cholistan desert becomes an integral element of his poetry.

There are two poets in our classical tradition, Damodar Das and Khwaja Farid, who employ physical landscape as an aesthetic and literary device to enhance the impact of their poetic expression. The Damodar was fascinated by the river and Khwaja Farid by the desert.

It may be asserted at the risk of offending many that despite his unwavering commitment to mystic vision, Khwaja Farid stands out as a hauntingly distinguished poet when he explores the frequently chartered but ever-fresh realms of love; human and mundane. The rarity of mystic experience may win admiration but the familiarity of the mundane must not be allowed to breed contempt. What is authentically human ultimately proves to be sublime and sublimely human is what Khwaja Farid cherishes most in his search of shareable happiness in an otherwise unhappy world. “Farid, cheer up now / do not retreat into your sorrow induced reverie / the hamlets will hum again / and the waters will not flow in a single course.” —

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