by: Nirupama Dutt


THE Chenab is the largest of the five rivers of Punjab and also the most rapid. It is picture pretty with low but open banks that are still well wooded. Perhaps its scenic beauty contributed to the three love-legends of the land that blossomed around it — Mirza-Sahiban, Heer-Ranjha and, of course, Sohni-Mahiwal. The last romance ended in the drowning of Sohni as she went to meet her Mahiwal, swimming across the river with a half-baked earthen pitcher.

It was the Chenab and the Jhelum that were lost to East Punjab as the Radcliff line cut through Punjab. Yet, the Chenab became the most important metaphor of love, longing and pain in the works of writers and painters in our Punjab of two rivers and a half. Amrita Pritam in her famed Partition poem called out to Waris Shah to see the misery of the land and said that the Chenab was full of blood.

In the fifties, Andretta-based Sobha Singh painted Sohni-Mahiwal in ecstasy in the waters of the Chenab. Earlier, an 18th century painter of the Pahari School, Nainsukh Sen, had painted a miniature of Sohni swimming across the Chenab. But it was Sobha Singh’s work that became so popular that its print found its way for many decades into the drawing rooms of middle class Punjabis. In recent years other Punjabi painters like Satish Gujaral, Manjit Bawa and Aparna Caur have re-painted the romance.

During a recent visit to Wazirabad in West Punjab, one got a chance to see the beauty and bounty of this vast old river that keeps rolling on. The people call it Pir the Chenab and as they pass it they throw coins and flowers into its waters.

Across the river from Wazirabad is the area of Gujarat, which according to legend was the home of Sohni. The inevitable question that comes to the lips as one walks through the rushes on the side of the mighty river is that at what place did Sohni cross the river to be at Mahiwal’s hut? This because the enchantment of the Chenab is such that past and present; myth and truth all blend into magic realism.

Sodara, some four miles away from Wazirabad towards the east, is believed to be the place for the midnight rendezvous. But it is in the woods on its banks at Wazirabad that a wood engraver of the town named Shaadi Khan, a migrant from Gurdaspur, has etched out the image of Sohni on a tree. Well, Sohni is the symbol of the collective Punjabi imagination. So reach out and she will be there and here, never mind the Radcliff line!