The Dawn: Oct 02, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Dr Saeed Bhutta: people’s history and storytelling

Mushtaq Soofi 

Oral history is obviously older than written history and storytelling has longer life than fiction writing. The reason is simple: a written word saw the light of day much later than the spoken one. A word when written gained an immense power because it rid itself of the prison of human memory. Its preservation was not dependent any longer on being learnt by rote to inform, entertain and transmit the message orally from generation to generation. Hence it was a great leap forward in human evolution to preserve, produce and disseminate knowledge in its innumerable forms. Consequently, oral word gradually started losing its function as a vital tool of transmission. Those who learned to write rightly asserted that a spoken word was not that reliable due to its very process of transmission which allowed a lot of freedom for addition, deletion and interpolation. But the flip side of the whole process has been the unnecessary degrading of speech. A written word initially became and still is the monopoly of a few, especially that of clergy and the ruling elite which have always acted in collusion to the great disadvantage of the ruled, the people, anywhere and everywhere. It is only in the recent past that the status of a written word as gospel truth has been challenged and shown that it can many a time be more insidious in its implications than the inadequacies of the spoken one. Vagaries of an oral narrative can be less misleading than the subtlety hidden lies of a written statement as the former invariably signifying people’s view and is closer to historical reality.

Devindara Satiarthi and Vanjara Singh Bedi, the great folklorists, laid the foundation of people’s narrative in the Punjab with their pioneering works and researcher like Dr Nahar Singh further strengthened it. They painstakingly collected a huge body of folk-lore which was there but not properly recorded, edited, analysed and published before. Their stunningly large repertoire paved the way for discovering and re-discovering of the people’s Punjab which lay hidden in the innards of our passive conscious and sub-conscious. This side of the Punjab Afzal Pervaiz, AD Ejaz, Abdul Ghaffur Darshan, Ahmed Saleem and Sharab, to name a few, collected folk-songs, ballads (Dholay) and dirges that opened a new window to the vistas of hitherto unexplored cultural, emotional and intellectual horizons of our popular life.

A crucial component of people’s narrative is storytelling which has the structural capacity to encompass the multi-faceted experiences and events of people’s life. This component was brought to fore with a bang by Dr Saeed Bhutta who is a research scholar, folklorist and professor at the Punjab University when in 1990s he tape-recorded the greatest storyteller of the 20th century, Mian Kamal Din, of Chiniot. He transcribed the recordings and published ‘Kamal Kahani’, a book of Mian Kamal’s stories that proved to be one of the most significant literary events in the history of folk-literature, changing our concept of oral construct forever. His stories with immeasurable depth and impeccable craft may put him in league with impossible-to-surpass Damodar and immortal Waris Shah. We find in his narrative at times the creative flourish of Damodar and suggestive brevity of Waris Shah blended effortlessly. Mian Kamal’s out-of-this-world stories paint another Punjab where a lord (Rath) can die to keep his word of honour; a poor rustler can be forgiven and rewarded for his audacious art of stealing; a Sikh general can adopt a hospitable young wife of a defaulting Muslim landlord as his daughter; a poor man of wisdom (Sathi) can be an arbitrator in disputes between the powerful, and a tribal chief can go to his mortal foe to seek council on his family matters without fear of being disgraced or misled. ‘Kama Kahani’ is so magical that it has influenced the prose writing of some of the leading contemporary writers. Anybody who has not read the book will fail to fully understand the people’s narrative of the Punjab from ancient times to 19th century. Credit goes to Dr Saeed Bhutta for unearthing such a treasure. It was not a serendipitous find. Dr Butta’s passion and hard work which included the tedious chores of transcription and preparation of glossary introduced us to this giant of people’s narrative.

After such a rewarding project, Dr Bhutta never looked back. Realising that there were many more Kamal Dins in our apparently benighted land he traversed far and wide in search of storytellers and indeed found them shrouded in obscurity and poverty due to the dying art of storytelling under the shiny but dead weight of banalities repeated on ever shining electronic screen ad nauseam. ‘Nabar Kahani’, ‘Bar Kahani’ and ‘Raj Kahani’ are the books of stories he published later. ‘Nabar Kahani’ contains stories on oppression and resistance, rebels and quislings, highlighting defiant struggle of Punjabi people against invaders and marauders, and kings and oppressors. ‘Bar Kahani’ deals with local tribal feuds and highlights the perennial values of valour, honour and friendship. ‘Raj Kahani’ has a larger canvass where we see popular images of historical Rajas and Maharajas, Kings and warriors such as Alexander, Porus and Raja Karnal( Kunal in Sanskrit).

Dr Saeed Bhutta’s outstanding contribution has been his untiring but highly successful intellectual effort to re-discover the socio-cultural life of the Punjab through storytelling. Storytelling is a part of people’s narrative which can play a crucial role in constructing people’s history embodying incessant popular resistance that invariably contradicts the ‘truth’ churned out by official historians exposing the uncertainties of official certainties. Narrated stories meticulously collected by Dr Bhutta have shown us the other dimension of our collective life of which we can be proud but the process needs further exploration to debunk the myth that the Punjab proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the sub-continent whenever it faced the hordes from the north. —

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