The Dawn: Dec 19, 2014

Punjab Notes: Legends: deciphering the undeciphered

Mushtaq Soofi 

All cultures have legends and the significant ones while retaining their local ethos may be universally sharable. Legend is culture specific in the sense that it signifies the unique historical experience of a particular society it is born in, embodying the real and the imaginative.

It expresses in some way the collective vision of a people in a mythopoeic fashion which can only be understood fully if deciphered. When deciphered, particularly by creative minds like poets, they acquire a universal dimension and become sharable. Genuine human experience has in-reach as well as out-reach.

The local and universal, the subjective and the objective are what constitutes a legend worth the name. Some of the Punjab’s legends have been haunting the people since ages and thus have huge popularity.

The popular legends such as Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, Sohni Mahinwal and Sassi Punnu are an essential part of Punjab’s cultural life.

References and allusions to these legends are usually found in the everyday life of the people. Bards, storytellers and folk-artists on special occasions such as festivals (melas) and Urs (annual celebrations at the shrines of Sufi/saints) narrate, sing and enact the tales enthralling the audiences.

The classical texts on these legends marked by a high-level of creativity and socio-spiritual consciousness are literary products of universal value. The unique feature of these texts is that they are accessible to both common people and intellectuals/academics.

So-called low culture and high culture both cannot conceive their cultural traditions in the absence of these products which reflect the high point of our classical era.

The legends have originally been part of folk repertoire which was appropriated by poets for their creative expression. In the classical tradition we see great poets, both epic and lyrical, employing the tales for evolving a universal humanistic vision sharable by peoples of diverse cultures.

The former are materialists in their approach and the later the spiritualists creating two distinct literary strands which at times converge and at times diverge.

The materialist tradition includes such luminaries as Damodar Das (the first one to compose the legend of Heer Ranjha), Muqbal, Waris Shah, Pilu, Hafiz Barkhurdar, Charag Awan, Hasham Shah, Qadir Yar and Mian Mohammad to name a few.

The exponents of spiritualist tradition are great mystically inclined poets like Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Ali Haydar, Sachal Sarmast and Khawaja Ghulam Farid who employed these legends in a symbolic fashion to express their world-view.

The intriguing mystique of the legends and consequently their immense popularity has fired the imagination of poets from 15th century onward. Allure has been irresistible simply because these tales are so richly layered that they yield to multiple interpretations.

That is the reason that they have been employed very successfully by poets of diverse visions for diverse creative purposes. They provided the materialist poets a stuff that inspired their powerful narratives which reflect the dialectics of the material life of our society, a society that has been a house divided due to caste distinctions, class contradictions and social stratification.

Their narratives invariably debunk the existing and reject the given which has been dished out as a gospel truth to the people.

They with their expose of the system arraigned against the people brought to the foreground the exploitative nature of economic, political and religious institutions in a dialectic manner.

On the one hand they discovered the real villains and on the other created immortal heroes and heroines who resisted the system and inscribed on the palimpsest of time the image of eternal defiance in search of human emancipation.

The legends also stirred the fecund imagination of mystic poets who constitute a highly significant element of our literary tradition.

They interpreted the legends at another level in mystic terms that created a new spiritual landscape. In their verses we come across the legendry protagonists as metaphors of unending spiritual quest aimed at discovering and experiencing the secrets of life at existential and cosmic level.

Lovers’ search for unity comes about as an arduous journey to everywhere and nowhere hinting at a knowable unknown world of uncertain individual destiny inherent in human predicament.

The moment of coming together, of unity emerges as Shiva’s cosmic dance shaking the mundane and the celestial in its reverberations.

The multiple interpretations of legends in our poetic tradition are not necessarily contradictory. Rather they complement one another in the sense that in the Punjab’s classical poetic imagination the boundaries between the individual and the social, the temporal and the spiritual, the ephemeral and the eternal stand blurred creating a unity of opposites which is the defining feature of life, human and cosmic. —

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