by: Nadir Ali

The News 02-10-05

Bulleh Shah Within Reach
By Muzaffar A Ghaffar
Published by Ferozesons Limited, Lahore
Pages: 480 (two volumes)
Description: Ghaffar is a remarkable person. For the last 15 years, under the Lahore Art Forum, he has been bringing together writers, poets, scientists, musicians and painters to speak, perform and demonstrate. The forum, almost a one-man show, is culturally very active, may be because Muzaffar Ghaffar has diverse interests in life. Literature may be his first love -- he is a published poet in English -- but his interests range far and wide, from physical sciences, business and administrative sciences to Punjabi poetry and Sufi and Zen practices.

It, therefore, comes as a no surprise that he has taken up a monumental project on Punjabi Sufi poetry. The two volumes under review are part of this twenty-seven volume project entitled Masterworks in Punjabi Sufi Poetry. No work of this range and scale already exists in English about Punjabi poetry. In fact very few works of literary and critical significance exist in English language about Punjabi letters.
Najam Hussain Syed's single volume Recurrent Patterns of Punjabi Poetry, though invaluable, covers a small part of Punjabi poetry. Same is the case with other books and authors. Dr Ather Tahir's book on Qadir Yar, Taufique Rafat's selection of Bulleh Shah's poetry and his translation of Puran Bhaghat, Shahzad Qaiser's books on Khwaja Farid and Nanak, Dr Lajwanti's Punjabi Sufi Poets, Dr Mohan Singh's History of Punjabi Literature, Anwar Yaqub's translation of Shah Hussain, Maqbul Elahi's of selections of Baba Farid's poetry, Puri and Khak's selections of Sultan Bahu's works -- these are the only books one finds written and compiled in English on Punjabi literary themes. Professor Saeed's thin volumes of translations of some selected Sufi poetry also fall in the same category. In its volume and range, Muzaffar Ghaffar's work in fact outweighs the entire work done in English about Punjabi literature.
Bulleh Shah Within Reach is truly a labour of love. It is a pioneering work -- very comprehensive and original one at that. The book has the largest glossary provided with any work of poetry. The only other book that is accompanied by such a huge glossary is the Granth Sahib.

The book under review, which covers 35 of the longer and more significant of Bulleh Shah's poems -- is followed by three volumes on Shah Hussain in his grand series and he has plans that he will bring out two more -- one each on Baba Farid and Guru Nanak -- during the current year. In fact, Muzaffar Ghaffar has already written all the twenty-seven volumes in the series and I have the privilege to have seen all of it.

Bulleh Shah is probably the most complex and colorful of the Punjabi classic poets. He was also very popular and his verses are sung all over Punjab and Sindh. This has resulted in endless admixture to the original body of his works. No old manuscripts of his poetry are available to compare and correct the new editions of his work. There have been significant efforts by Anwar Ali Rohtaki, Faqir Mohammed Faqir, Sheikh Sharif Sabir, Professor Asaf Khan and Dr Nazir to rid Bulleh Shah's poetry of extraneous elements. But the problem with all these efforts is that no scientific criteria exists to gauge their authenticity. Ironically, however, most of the obviously spurious parts in Bulleh Shah's works are more religiously inclined than the rest of his poetry.

Muzaffar Ghaffar, in the book under review, seems to be more inclined towards Dr Faqir and Sheikh Sharif Sabir's versions. One of the major problems I find in the translations that Muzaffar Ghaffar does lies in versification. Of course, Muzaffar Ghaffar is fully qualified to do the translation. In fact, he is the best endowed of all the people rendering Punjabi literature into English. He has great facility in English language and a mastery over meter and rhyme. His translations are mostly faithful to the original text, closely following the meter and rhyme of the original work as much as is possible. But the constraints of meter and rhyme do result in some minor compromises, which may deprive the translation of some nuances of the original verses though the translation is poetry par excellence in its own right.

A literal translation may have its own problems but it gives the reader a greater room to find his way to the original text. But the glossary and very exhaustive notes that Muzaffar Ghaffar provides more than makes up for the shortcomings in versification. The notes, in fact, discuss all possible interpretations.
But let me add that in the whole book, I only disagreed with one translation. In translating "Maati Qadam Karendi Yaar", maati has been translated as dust not as clay. Clay as in 'feet of clay' will rightly convey the irony in the line.

There is a great amount of original research in the book under review. There are knowledgeable explorations into the meanings of metaphors that Bulleh Shah uses. For instance, discussions on theatre forms and the metaphor of the seed and the tree are very scholarly.
In the interpretations that Muzaffar Ghaffar offers, he has a point of view of his own but at the same time he leaves them sufficiently open ended allowing the readers to make their own interpretation. I, too, have some problem with some of his interpretations. To me, he is somewhat inclined to the esoteric and the spiritual. Maybe, my point of view is more informed by my leftist leanings. I see the entire works by Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah as secular. They are not at all inclined to or against any particular religion. Bulleh Shah frontally attacks fundamentalist and the exponents of conventional religion.

I will sum up this debate by quoting Muzaffar Ghaffar's own words: "Sufis also militated against class division in society. They lived in poverty, sharing their modest means with everybody. Often their 'Khanqaahs' (convents) were supported by the pious well to do. But Sufis shunned both wealth and the wealthy. Most particularly the Sufis shunned from the foci of power, such as kings court and the public office. Perhaps their greatest strength was that they were exemplars in personal life. They lived what they preached and demonstrated infinite love for humanity."
I feel Bulleh Shah would have had problems with the 'pious well to do'. "Amman baba chore dhuraan day puttar dee vadyaee" (Father and mother are inveterate thieves, therefore, the son is a distinguished man!), says Bulleh Shah. Piety and being well to do cannot go together. I tend to agree with Balzac that behind every fortune there is a crime.

Muzaffar Ghaffar's spellings of romanised Punjabi words are scientific but usage is of paramount importance in spelling. As late Sardar Mohammed Khan, a great lexicographer, said: "Spellings are the shibboleth of dictionary writing". Punjab may be closer to the original Persian sound but in usage it will only create confusion. This is a small point but like versification it creates distraction in an otherwise important work.

Lastly, the price of the book puts it out of reach of people like me. Even for the English reading crowd the price is high. I know the comparable volumes in the market cost twice as much and the quality of production is worth the price. The book can easily be categorised as one of the best printed ones that I have seen in Pakistan. But ideally it should be within the reach of serious readers, instead of the coffee table crowd. Its target readership ideally should be youth trained in English but with little knowledge of Punjabi and the immigrants who need to know about their cultural roots. A paperback edition may reach more serious reader more easily. The captains of industry, who often proclaim love for the language, should consider donating the book to keen and deserving institutions.