The Dawn: 28th December, 2012

Music of poetry and poetry of music

Mushtaq Soofi 

In Punjabi literary tradition poetry is organically linked with music. Conscious of the role music can play in creating poetic structures; classical poets relied as much on it as on words. Baba Guru Nanak in his inimitable manner pointed to the linkage between a poet and a musician. “Haun dhadi wekaar, kare laya e, raat dine keh vaar dhuron famaya e”. “Useless minstrel I was but he [the Lord] gave me a task. Sing your verses day and night, he ordered”.

One of the most significant sound-based tools, humans invented, is music which is hallmark of our culture. Music is an endeavor designed to give expression to the deepest human feelings and experiences. It is an abstract art in its structure but very concrete in terms of its impact. Sound humanised in the form of music silences the conflicting shades of noise. It in fact creates another kind of noise, a joyful noise signifying meaning. In classical Punjabi poetry music is neither a veneer put on words nor an accoutrement. It is an integral part of the holistic worldview, the poets espoused. Use of metres with a view to create rhythmic patterns with the help of manipulated sound effects has been a distinguishing mark of poetry till recent times. Words arranged in a specific sound pattern were what made poetry look different from prose.

Classical Punjabi poets no doubt employed ‘chhands’ [metres] inherited from the tradition as well as created new ones to suit the creative needs of their expression. But they did not stop at that. Some of them made Raga based poetic compositions, adding a whole new dimension to literary audio landscape. This innovative exercise paid rich dividends. It helped achieve two important objectives. Raga based poem when set to tune made itself instantly accessible to common folks. Rendition of poem would enhance its impact on the listeners, inducing a state of near ecstasy. Singing, individual and collective, would make the intellectual content less exacting. Secondly, poetry in the absence of printing press had a better chance of being preserved if it could be sung and transmitted orally from generation to generation.

Baba Farid, apart from being the pioneer of Punjabi poetic tradition, was first to have Raga in mind while composing his ‘Shlokas’ (couplets- some of them contain more than two lines). A few shlokas indicate the Ragas in which he would have liked them to be composed and sung. Not that they could not be set in other Ragas. The preferred Ragas perhaps would capture the spirit of the couplets better.

Guru Nanak, a giant of a poet and sage, composed all his sacred verses in Ragas some of which such as Sorath and Sehiskrati, are seldom performed and have thus become rare. It is said that he was always accompanied by a legendry musician, Mian Mardana whose descendents are known as Rababias. Senior classical vocalist Ustad Ghulam Hussan Shaggan and celebrated music director Wazir Afzal are from the family of Rababi musicians. Late Rasheed Attre who had lot of film songs to his credit, too was a Rababi musician.

Another Punjabi poet and unorthodox saint, Shah Hussain (popularly known as Madho Laal Hussain) had insatiable passion for music. He was derided and reviled by orthodox clerics for playing music despite having thorough knowledge of Sharia which in their opinion, disapproved of it. He constructed a poetic structure called Kafi that caught the imagination of the people and became hugely popular. This new lyrical genre was ideally suited for musical rendition and was subsequently appropriated by later poets including Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast and Khawaja Ghulam Farid for expressing their existential and social experiences. Each of Shah Hussain’s Kafi carries name of the Raga in which it is intended to be rendered. Same is case with Kafis written by yet another classical poet Sachal Sarmast.

The story of music in poetry does not end with the lyrical poets enamored of Ragas. Music through a mysterious process that needs to be explored separately came to be inseparable element of romantic legends (Qissa) and epic poems (Vaar). A few examples can give us a measure of it. Heer by Waris Shah is a long and complex tale highlighting the social conflicts and class tensions beneath the calm waters of an apparently stable agrarian society. Nobody really knows how Heer of Waris got bonded with Raga Bhairvin. One can listen to various tunes of Heer but all are based on Bhairvin. The soft tranquility of its flat notes may perhaps give us some clue. Whenever you think of Heer what comes to your mind first is the delicate resonance of the Raga associated with it. The tale of Miza Sahiban penned down by rustic Pilu and sophisticated Hafiz Barkhurdar is always sung in Raga Talang. You can have variation. Singing of Miza Sahiban demands vigorous application of notes and aggressively pronounced beat. The exotic fairy tale of Saiful Maluk by Mian Mohammad Bakhsh is invariably rendered in Ragni Pahari and sounds like stirring cool breeze of mountains.

Music runs through the very fabric of our classical poetry spanning over a period of more than eight hundred years. If music is forbidden as some quarters vociferously claim, so will be this great heritage handed down to us by great poets and Sufis.
Disowning of what we legitimately own will leave us with nothing but a soundless void.

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