The Dawn: 5th April, 2013

Mela Chiraghan: MysticLaughs and poet sings!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Shah Hussain, one of the best loved poets of the Punjab, stands out not only for his highly urbane tone and tenor but also for some of the themes which are uniquely exclusive to him. His urbanity was product of his city, Lahore, which evolved into a metropolis. The city functioned as the capital of India for so many years. Emperor Akbar the Great held his grand court at Lahore for almost fourteen years, attracting scholars, poets, architects, noblemen and the hoi polloi from across India, Iran and Central Asia.

Shah Hussain was the poet who exclusively employed the genre of ‘Kafi’ for his creative expression, though he was not the first one to use it. Guru Nanak is said to be the first poet to have introduced this lyrical composition. Shah Hussain made it immensely popular. All the later spiritually-inclined poets exploited it with great relish. All of his ‘kafis’ are set in Ragas.

Prince Dara Shikoh wrote that the legendry musician of Akbar’s court, Mian Tan Sen was one of Shah Hussain’s devotees. Music was an essential part of his social and spiritual life. And “music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life” declares Beethoven, the greatest music composer of the west.

Apart from being a musician, Shah Hussain was also a great poet. And this is what Beethoven says about poets: “a great poet is the most precious jewel of a nation”.

The unique underlying themes of his poetry can be appreciated in terms of his concepts of individual and collective living, work and time. “Playing and laughing is our lot. The Lord himself granted us this bounty/Some go out of the ground weeping and crying while others run with the ball, smiling —” Life is to be ‘played’ and played delightfully in a state of abandon resisting the social restrictions placed on the individual in search of human joy. “Mother, let me play, who else would come to play my innings—”.

His notion of individual and collective life has the underpinning of joie de vivre. The voice of a young girl reverberates in many of his lyrics, insisting on her freedom to play “come friends, let us join hands and dance/like a kite with multiple strings I go up into the sky”. The dance is not just the dance of the body but also that of the soul.
It evokes at the imaginative level a glimpse of a feminine version of the cosmic dance of the Lord Shiva. The metaphor of play and dance suggests irresistible urge for the emancipation of being. The girl must defy her mother who as a custodian of patriarchic conventions, has to keep the daughter away from the forbidden fruit of freedom.
The girl has to be coerced to learn how to manage the household chores that in the guise of domestic empowerment in fact disempowers her as a social being.

Shah Hussain in his life dances the “dance of mockery” while his protagonist in poetry performs the dance of innocence defying the social norms of male-dominated society. From the experience of experiencing the playfulness of life emerges another theme; the re-defined relationship with work. Work in a caste and class-ridden society is forced labour offered at the altar of the powerful that appropriate its fruits known as surplus value. Hence work is an act performed in a state of un-freedom that alienates the producer from what he produces.

Shah Hussain explores the phenomenon of alienation centuries before western thinker, Karl Marx, elucidated it in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”.
Shah Hussain borrows imagery from weaver’s profession in an innocently ironic way to expose what work means for the worker and how it denies his/her productive potential. We hear the feminine voice. “Lord, my saviour, the forgiver, I have hidden my shuttle (in my aversion to weaving)! How can I work? Rings adorn my fingers.
How can I run around, stretching my warp? I may spoil my red slippers. How can I maintain my stocks if forced to pay the levy?/I hear the hens crackling inside the quarters; the peacocks raise their calls out there. And the thieves have already fled with the warp and woof!”

Shah Hussain realises that work as an unavoidable social obligation in a hierarchical society impoverishes the worker instead of enriching him. Another lyric hints in direct manner to the loss of mental and intellectual equilibrium of the worker as a result of forced labour.

“My mother, my darling insists; I must learn the spinning. I try it, day in day out and lose my mind. I smash the spinning wheel, shred the cotton rolls and kick the basket–.”

Another theme Shah Hussain touches frequently is that of time. Time is something, if it is something at all, that forces mystics and scientists alike to pause and ponder.
One feels the palpable presence of time in the process of change and transformation. Time seen as movement has contradictory nature; it destroys as well as regenerates.
The experience of such a process for individual physical being with a limited span at its disposal is a constant source of anguish when juxtaposed against the individual’s consciousness and imagination which seem to be limitless. “The world with its entire flourish lasts the way a dew-drop does”.

Time slipping like sand from one’s hand creates a sense of loss. Non-realisation of individual human potential in our time-driven world is what causes angst. “All my days gone waste, not a moment I found to ponder/spinning and weaving was all I did but could not cut a yard for myself/I wore the homespun, the colorful wear was not for me/The lake swayed with its vaulting waters but I found no drop to drink/No body even said adieu to poor Hussain in his parting journey”.

Spirituality, poetry and music are the elements that constitute the complex personality of Shah Hussain. His highly unusual spiritual practice created a wave of shock and awe. His social life and his love for his young friend and disciple Madho Lal in particular, caused a public scandal. His music transformed itself into collective singing expressing the inexpressible; the sufferings of the voiceless. His lyrics attained simplicity without losing the depth of feelings and thought. His notion of simplicity in poetry can be understood in the words of Albert Einstein: “Every thing should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

We may try to define Shah Hussain but he defies being defined. So what was he? Let us hear it in his own words: “Look, there goes Hussain, the weaver/He was neither engaged nor married/For him no get-together and no celebration/He was neither a family man nor a vagabond, neither a man of faith nor an infidel/He was what he was!”
And he perhaps was what no one else could be! To describe Shah Hussain let us borrow words from his great contemporary Shakespeare, “The elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man’.” — Concluded

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