by: Nadir Ali

The News Karachi Edition

Waris Shah is much misquoted and misunderstood as a poet but the scholarship needed to separate chaff from his poetic grain may not be in the offing at all Most of the people, who thronged to the annual urs of Waris Shah last week at Jandiala Sher Khan in Sheikhupura, haven't read his Heer. Nor they can recall any passage from the book. This was unthinkable 50 years ago, when in every village in Punjab and in other Punjabi speaking areas, listening to live Heer singing was the most popular form of entertainment. When someone asked, "Can you read the book?," the book always meant Heer Waris Shah.

The tradition of reciting Punjabi poetry and telling stories has gradually disappeared -- either displaced by the transistor or TV or as a result of Punjabis' alienation from their mother-tongue. It totally came to an end some time in the reign of Gen Ziaul Haq when many good things came to an end in Pakistan.

Waris Shah was probably the most sung poet in the world. He was also one of the all-time greats among the Punjabi poets whose verse ranks with the classic poetry anywhere in the world. The masses who enjoyed it found pathos, romance, wisdom, philosophy as well as some explicit ribaldry in his poetry.

In Heer's historic edition, edited by Sheikh Abdul Aziz and published by Punjabi Academy, they put dots in place of risqué words and lines. This was not the intention of Sheikh Abdul Aziz bar-at-law, who put a lifetime of labour editing Heer Waris Shah, removing the admixture. He did it by acquiring the rare handwritten 1820 manuscripts of Heer. He then laboriously compared them with other handwritten versions and those printed over the next hundred years. This was most unusual for a man of aristocratic background, who was educated in England, was a friend of Sheikh Abdul Qadir and Allama Iqbal and was a scholar of history and European languages. But the reading of Heer by the Punjabi elite was not unusual. Most of the manuscripts used by Sheikh Abdul Aziz came from the personal library of Sir Shahab-ud-Din, then speaker of Punjab Assembly. Sir Shahab-ud-Din was not a collector of Punjabi books of the coffee table variety. He was a scholar of Punjabi and this translation of Hali's Musaddas in Punjabi verse is as good as the original.

A definitive work on editing Heer is by Sheikh Sharif Sabir. It was published by Waris Shah Memorial Committee in mid-1980s. The committee was formed by Hanif Ramay during his tenure as Punjab's chief minister. Sharif Sabir is one of the greatest scholars of Punjabi in Pakistan. Besides Heer Waris Shah, he has edited the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Qadir Yar and Mian Muhammad Bux. He has also translated Data Gunj Bux's Kashfal Mahjub from Persian into Punjabi. Ironically, the Heers edited by Sheikh Abdul Aziz and Sheikh Sharif Sabir appeared at a time when nobody is reading it anymore.

Why Heer needed editing in the first place? The most popular version of the book was compiled by Piran Ditta of Targar Wallay. It was published in 1880s. He added almost double the volume of the original on his own. He knew Waris Shah well enough to make a perfect copy of his style but the additions were tendentious and diagonally opposite of the spirit of the original. There was not a drop of pathos in Waris Shah, for instance. Nor there was much religiosity in his poetry. He was as opposed to priesthood as he was to feudal and traditional values.

He was an enlightened anarchist. The historical anarchy of his times, middle to the late 18th century, made him laugh and sing. His poetry has all been written with his tongue way up in his cheek. To read in it any pathos as Amrita Preetam does -- Ik roee si dhi Punjab dee toon likh likh maaray wain (a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote a hundred thousand dirges) -- is a travesty of Waris Shah. Nobody cries in Heer Waris Shah and double entendre abounds. Of course, those who had casually read Waris Shah or those who had not read but only heard the spurious passages did interpret Waris Shah differently.

He is not a Sufi poet; whatever they mean by it. The broad categorisation of a Sufi has been used for most classical Punjabi poets without much justification. It robs their poetry of variety. Waris Shah is the least Sufistic or religious. To call him a Sufi shows our ignorance of the sombre nature of religious thought as well as of the ribaldry of Waris Shah. If we continue doing so, like millions of Baba Farid's devotees who have never read a word of his poetry, we will have some pious memories of Waris Shah without knowing a word of his poetry. Piety was the last thing on Waris Shah's mind.

The popularity of Waris Shah cannot be narrowed down to a single factor but the spirit of rebellion and anarchy is perhaps the main cause. This has been a quintessential feature of the Punjabi spirit.

So much for interpreting Heer. The question arises whether there is any future for Waris Shah scholarship in Pakistan. It is dismal, to say the least. Even in East Punjab it is bleak because there they are getting out of touch with Persian and Arabic words which were in use during the time of Waris Shah and in few two hundred years preceding him. This is in spite of the fact that Punjabi is the official language of East Punjab and the medium of instruction in schools and colleges.

In Pakistan, teaching of all languages other than English is on the decline. Punjabi was never encouraged or patronised in Punjab. Those who graduate in Punjabi from the universities are not good enough to teach at the elementary school level. Those who use Urdu Bazaar notes and guess papers to learn the language by rote are good for nothing as far as understanding Waris Shah is concerned. Now there is really something to cry about.

A lot of work needs to be done before we can get a truly original version of Waris Shah. But who will do that? In editing a book, there are many hurdles and as time passes these become insurmountable. There are still many old handwritten manuscripts of Heer all over Punjab but nobody is making any effort to collect them.

Did you know that the line Doli chardian marian Heer cheekan was not written by Waris Shah? If you know Waris Shah, it could not have been written by him. Fazal Shah who wrote Sohni Mahiwal said, "Waris Shah hasaya jug aaman, khasaan aseen rulawana hai pyaray" (Waris Shah made the rabble laugh, we have to make the elite cry). Now there is nothing to laugh about.