The Dawn: Oct 31, 2014

PUNJAB NOTES: Celibacy and our great poets

Mushtaq Soofi 

Anybody who is familiar with our classical poets surely knows a bit about their lives; the lives as penned down by scholars and devotees in historical and hagiographical accounts. An important fact though rarely discussed and analyzed is that four of our greatest classical poets had been celibatarians.

Imagine what the history of Punjabi literature would have looked like if Shah Hussain alias Madho Lal Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah and Mian Mohammad had not been there. All the four share a uniquely common feature, celibacy. None of them married or raised family. Why did they choose the life of celibacy?

What is the connection between celibacy and creativity if any? There is no easy answer. It’s not that they could not find spouses for themselves. Being highly educated and well-placed in social hierarchy they, one can imagine, must have been among the most sought after bachelors of their times.

Their refusal to raise family seems to be a conscious choice. This can be inferred from their philosophical position underpinned by their visceral hatred of the given social order based on inequality. Family is the rock bed of hierarchy based social order and such an order while protecting the family structure, adds a sacred dimension to its otherwise profane existence.

Family prepares individuals who are going to run the social order which in return enables them to keep the family going. What the family invests in individual is paid back to it in the form of what it gets by being a clog in the ever-grinding social machine.

In this context we will have a brief look at the lives of Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah. Shah Hussain (1538-1599) who introduced the famous literary genre ‘Kafi’ (a lyrical form) and never married exposes how individual is manipulated to be an earning machine.

While deriding the concept of so-called productive individual he says about himself that ‘he is the capital that yields no mark-up’. The image from banking employed by Shah Hussain in his verse lays bare the hollowness of family and the social order which complement each other.

Raising a member with all the pretentious display of parental care is in fact an investment done by the family in the hope of reaping profit. By refusing to ‘settle’ Shah Hussain in fact refuses to part of the structure that envisages man little more than capital to be used as grist for the social mill.

Being celibate he gets rid of social obligations which may compel him to be integrated into the system that dehumanizes what is human. Thus he gains a distance from the system to look at the things as they actually are. Joyless toil prompted by socio-economically motivated family compulsions has its counter in his poetic notion of life lived in a state of playfulness. Work per se is not abhorrent but drudgery in the form of alienated labour imposed from above certainly is. As to the emotional side, friendship takes the place of family. His intense emotional relationship with Madho Lal who later became his disciple is the sublimation of instinctual craving for human intimacy.

His lack of formal relationship with woman is in no way a sign of misogyny. He himself steps into the shoes of woman and experiences the world from the female perspective. He very clearly expresses himself in the female voice.

Bulleh Shah (1680-1758), the most defiant and the eternal doubter, lived unencumbered by the pulls and pushes of married life. Like Shah Hussain he meditated, composed poetry, sang and danced to what is described as cosmic rhythm (anhad/anhatt), hearable but heard by some who are one with nature.

It was extremely difficult if not impossible for such a fiercely independent minded artist to have a traditional household. He questioned all the accepted truths and doubted everything given.

He even doubted his doubting. He debunked all the traditional myths. His attitude towards hierarchy based family is best reflected in his renunciation of his noble pedigree.

His rejection of institution of marriage is in reality is the rejection of the social structure that reduces it into a private limited company that strives to increase the value of its shares at social stock exchange in a system whose raison d’être is profit regardless of nature of the profit and the means employed to ensure it.

“Whatever my parents earned is of no use to me” he declares in one of his verses. We see a metamorphosis on imaginative level. The voice that we hear in a large number of his poems is a female voice. Male experiencing the world as female is a phenomenon that holds many a secret and needs to be decoded.

Family for both Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah is not extended or nuclear family. It’s rather the whole humanity, free of gender bias. Their abstaining from entering into marriage is the rejection of the gender bias that inbuilt in the traditional family structure. Their practical lives and creative endeavor aim at humanizing what has been dehumanized in our age old family structure born of stratified society. —

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