By Ashraf Naushahi
Waris Shah composed his epic poem, known as “Heer Waris Shah”, around 1765. In the Punjabi literature, no other composition could attain an equal literary stature. Yet the celebrated epic could not itself attain the appreciation, it deserved. It happened due to two obvious reasons: absence of an authentic text, and misinterpretation of the story around which the narrative was woven by the poet. Both these reasons become obstacles obstructing proper comprehension of the epic and its literary appreciation.
Outcome of the absence of an authentic text and misinterpretation of the story, has been the romantic twist limiting the epic to a romantic narrative, which it is obviously not. This anomaly can be solved by comparing it to “Hamlet” composed by William Shakespeare, around 1601. Hamlet was the longest drama composed by Shakespeare. Similarly, the composition known as “Heer Waris Shah” was the longest composition by Waris Shah. Both the compositions have lengths of epics. However, both belonged to different parts of the world and probably that made the difference. The authentic text of poetry composed by William Shakespeare around 1601 is available, but that of poetry composed by Waris Shah around 1765 is not available.
“Hamlet” was composed as a play for theatre and have been staged continually since the seventeenth century. Similar to the story of Heer and Ranjha, is the story of Hamlet and Ophalia, yet “Hamlet” is considered as a composition containing philosophical ideas, while “Heer Waris Shah” is often discussed as a romantic narrative.
Waris Shah assimilated his philosophical ideas in his composition, as well as narrated the social, cultural and economic conditions prevailing in the eighteenth century Punjab. The story of Heer and Ranjha was already composed by poets, thus Waris Shah brought these names in his poetry only as already known symbolic characters. Waris Shah has mentioned it both in the beginning and concluding stanzas. Names of Heer and Ranjha were often used in short compositions as symbolic characters. The composition known as “Heer Waris Shah” was only a comparatively longer poem but it didn’t mean that it was the story of Heer and Ranjha.
In the Punjabi poetry, the tradition was to bring symbolic characters from the already known compositions. Not only Heer and Ranjha, but also other symbolic characters were brought in compositions in the same manner. Similarly, twisting theme of the poem towards autobiographical narrative was also unreasonable on the basis of reading the text, even in the absence of an authentic text. Biographical knowledge about Waris Shah, collected as yet, is neither complete nor authentic to support such theories. Also incidents mentioned in the poem were not uncommon in the eighteenth century Punjab.
By understanding that the poet was neither composing an autobiographical nor a romantic story, it becomes obvious that the theme of Heer Waris Shah was actually social, cultural and philosophical. A glimpse of the eighteenth century Punjab can be seen in the epic poem.
The epic poem by Waris Shah began with the damages caused by feudal and unfair social structure of society in the eighteenth century. Ranjha was deprived of his rights and circumstances compel him to leave his brothers and village. It should be considered that Ranjha said adieu to his village not because of any romantic but purely economic reasons. There were many young men who thought it better to go somewhere else when deprived of their rights by the very people they were grew up. Thus Ranjha is a representative character of the young men deprived of their rights. Such incidents were common causing inequality and several social problems.
When Ranjha embarked on his journey to an unknown destination, he met different people or representative characters in the way. Mostly they represented what was wrong in the society. For instance, the boat man was very greedy and didn’t let a penniless traveler to sit in his boat for crossing the river Chenab. The story concluded on the tragic outcomes of inequalities and insensitivities permeated in the society.
Words and stanzas got more attention than the sequence of events in the poem, despite knowing well that all words and stanzas were not written by Waris Shah as various copiers and poets changed much of the text. Those who altered the text of the poem could not change the sequence of events as the story was well known and composed by several poets before Waris Shah.
The sequence of events was a depiction of the social, cultural and economic circumstances prevailing in Punjab and causing suffering and tragedies for the people. Waris Shah wasn’t composing his feelings or narrating his biography but telling what was happening in the social milieu he was well aware of and writing in. The poet talked to the people through his literary work and tried to guide them in the right direction. It is another story whether the literary effort of Waris Shah was succeeded or not in changing the society for the better, however, it attained an appreciable literary significance in the world literature.
By: Ashraf Naushahi
(Educator, Writer, Book-Reviewer and Translator)