The Dawn: Sep 4, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Founders of Punjabi literary tradition and class oppression

Mushtaq Soofi 

The modern Punjabi literary tradition spanning over the last one thousand years is underpinned by core issues of class, patriarchy, spiritual quest and search for holistic vision of life which appear as recurrent themes.

The tradition is generally marked by historically evolved materialist outlook. So much so that even the spiritualists and saintly poets never lose the sight of material and historical forces at work and their inexorable linkages with spiritual life.

In fact it was a great spiritualist fondly called Baba Farid (1173-1265) who in his verses directly and indirectly raised the question of class reflecting the contradictions of exploitative socio-economic structure. Following him, Baba Guru Nanak (1469-1539), an intellectual and spiritual giant, not only strengthened Baba Farid’s historically informed view of looking at society in terms of conflicts between different social groups but also immensely added to the tradition by focusing on the devastation in Punjab wrought by invading hordes from the North which created militarised gentry to keep the common people in a state of subjugation. These two elders of Punjabi literary and spiritual tradition created a conceptual and intellectual framework that resulted in a holistic view of life, guiding and inspiring the writers and the people alike in coming times to discover what simmered at the surface and lay beneath the complex social patterns.

Dialectical interaction with society is what defines the foundations of Punjabi creative expression.

Baba Farid’s worldview, informed by humanised social consciousness, connected him with the common people who incessantly suffered the rigours of class-ridden socio-political order.

Baba Farid suggests in his verses that defiance of oppressive socio-political structures is the hallmark of conscious social being.

“O Farid, these stalks of mustard in the pan though sweet, are poison / some toiled till they dropped, raising the crop, others moved in, plundering it”. The verse evokes a surreal image of productive but famished peasantry juxtaposed against the feast of militarised landed gentry, full of insouciant joy. Talking of the producers and the plunderers, he says: “Some have piles of whole meal flour, while others have nothing to spice their loaf bread with’.

In a society where resources were meagre and peasant’s produce was appropriated by the landlords at will, the threat of famine and starvation always loomed large. So it is not surprising that many a time we come across imagery of food in the verses of Baba Farid.

“Lone bird and fifty hunters with traps / this wave swept body pins its hope on you, my true Lord”.

He, in his unusual imaginative sweep, conceives the people who are in innumerable number as a lone bird surrounded by hunters no less than fifty. What he hints at is that people though large in number are one body and the hunters, the oppressors, with killing instinct despite being a few, represent an image of a horde. He subverts the reality of number to point out the reality of oppression of so many by a few who by their threating ubiquitous presence seem to outnumber the innumerable.

Baba Guru Nanak, a great seer, had the vision to look beyond the restricting divide that existed between the rich and the poor and the Hindus and the Muslims. His scathing critique, on the one hand, loudly condemned the economic and political exploitation of the masses by the alien aristocracy and its cohorts and on the other dazzlingly exposed the Hindu and Muslim religious trickery.

Guru Nanak in his verses challenges the entrenched aristocracy and its co-opted clergy as well as the new invaders, the Mughal. The vision of Guru Nanak was not serendipitous. The Bhagti (Devotion) movement had already transformed the spiritual landscape of the Sub-continent. The movement embodied the defiant spirit of working classes, of artisans in particular that, with the rise of urban centres, started challenging the notions of caste, creed and spirituality of upper castes ensconced in the chambers of power. The movement was intrinsically defiant of the regressive metaphysics that sanctioned oppressively rigid socio- political class hierarchy and caste system.

Guru Nanak was profoundly aware of the political implications such a new worldview entailed.

Referring to the aristocracy he lays bare its predatory nature. “Tigers are the rulers, dogs are the chiefs”, implying that they hunt the people for extracting their pound of flesh. As to the clergy, he chooses to play on their pitch exposing their collusion with the elite. “A bloodstain can make the robe unclean/how can one who sucks human blood, claim purity”.

When Babar’s troops plundered anything and everything, and committed mass rape in Punjab, Guru in his anguish wrote his famous ‘Babar Vani’. Talking of terrible dilemma of women who faced the rapacious soldiers he says: ‘Their beauty and riches are now bane of their lives.’ Guru Nanak exposed the barbarity and hypocrisy of this so-called great Mughal.

The founders of the Punjabi literary tradition on the one hand explored the dynamics of class phenomenon at imaginative and aesthetic level and on the other proclaimed their pro-people stance glorifying the people’s resistance against the dominance of predatory upper classes.

The contemporary writings inspired by the classical literary products continue to fight the class oppression in an incessant struggle to create an emancipated society based on the concepts of human equality and dignity of work. —

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