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Article of the Month

 Bulleh Shah (1680-1758): Leading light of Punjab

AUTHOR: Safir Rammah

Buleh Shah (1680-1758) and Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) shared the same time and space - eighteenth century Northern India - and were amongst the major poets of their respective languages. They had both lived during the time just before the proliferation of the printing press, state-sponsored educational institutions and standardized textbooks. Today, it is hard to find an educated Pakistani with any level of interest in literature who doesn't have some appreciation of Mir Taqi Mir's poetry. It is equally hard to find someone in that privileged group who knows much about Bulleh Shah.

The literary fortunes of Mir Taqi Mir and Bulleh Shah symbolize the far-reaching consequences of the British Government's educational policies in Punjab. There Urdu was chosen to become, and in Pakistan's Punjab of today still continues to be, the medium of instructions in government schools.

Mir Taqi Mir's poetry, riding the wave of mass literacy, not only became a household name among the Urdu speaking populace but also crossed the linguistic boundaries over to the Punjab. In this province too school and college students for the last 150 years have been learning to appreciate the exquisite compositions of his ghazals. Bulleh Shah's poetry, on the other hand, was almost forgotten. It was never introduced in the classrooms and hence missed the opportunity to reach and touch the minds and souls of generations of Punjab's educated elite.

Most of what we know about Bulleh Shah's life has come to us through unreliable anecdotes and folklore. The limited authentic historical record, based on sporadic references to events of his life in his poetry and in the writings of his contemporaries, is barely enough for a brief sketch of his life.

He belonged to a Syed family and was born in 1680, in a small village, Uch Gilania, in Bahawalpur. His father's name was Sain Mohammad Darvesh and his own real name was Abdullah. When he was six years old, his family moved to Kasur where he got his formal education from Maulvi Ghulam Murtaza, who was the Imam of the main mosque in Kasur.

For a while after completing his education, Bulleh Shah taught at the same mosque. He then became a murid of Inayat Shah Qadri, a famous saint of Qadirya school of sufis in Lahore, who belonged to the Arain caste. Bulleh Shah had to face the resentment and taunts of his family and other Syed friends for accepting the spiritual guidance of a non-Syed. The poetic response from Bulleh Shah rejected his critics' false concept of inherent superiority and nobility of any caste and set the pattern of his lifelong challenge to accepted norms:

Those who call me Syed
Are destined to hell made for them.
Those who call me Arain
Have the swings of heaven laid for them.
The low-caste and the high-caste,
Are created by God who is all-powerful;
He casts away the fair ones,
And clasps to His heart the meritless ones.

In 1729 when Shah Inayat died, Bulleh Shah succeeded him as the head of his monastery at Lahore. Bulleh Shah died in 1758. He never married.

Even with the recent upsurge in Bulleh Shah scholarship, credible critical works highlighting some of the most important aspects of his poetry are lacking. The initial scholarship was focused on collecting, editing and authentication of the earlier written records and folk memory of his poetry. Critical appreciation of his poetry has not yet gone beyond expositions of its religious aspects.

Bulleh Shah's poetry can be divided into three broadly distinct periods reflecting the progression of his thoughts throughout his life.

In the first period, the love and devotion of his murshid is the main theme. A minor turbulence in this relationship would cause a great anguish for him and the poetry of this early period reflects the whole vista of emotions from unbearable pain and dejection to the extremes of delight and exuberance:

Your love has made me dance to a fast beat!
Your love has taken abode within my heart!
This cup of poison I drank all by myself.
Come, come, O physician, or else I breathe my last!
Your love has made me dance to a fast beat!

In the second phase, poetic expressions of Bulleh Shah's mystic experience are prominent:

You alone exist; I do not, O Beloved!
You alone exist, I do not!Like the shadow of a house in ruins,
I revolve in my own mind.
If I speak, you speak with me:
If I am silent, you are in my mind.
If I sleep, you sleep with me:
If I walk, you are along my path.
Oh Bulleh, the spouse has come to my house:
My life is a sacrifice unto Him.
You alone exist; I do not, O Beloved!

Most of Bulleh Shah's critics tend to focus on the first two phases of his poetry. Generally, the writings on Bulleh Shah are little more than explanations of the mystic content of his poetry in the context of different sufi schools of thought. Some of his more enlightened, progressive and humanist compositions are said to be written under the influence of Bhagti ideas. His poetry is considered to be mainly concerned with the eternal life. This ignores the fact that the most significant part of Bulleh Shah's poetry is his fierce denunciation of all forms of oppression, especially the oppression of freedom of thought and other obstacles towards peaceful human coexistence.

It is this third phase of Bulleh Shah's poetry, apparently written after reaching the heights of his spiritual quest and gaining a unique wisdom and insight into human affairs, that has made him one of the most popular Punjabi poets.

He advocated the pre-eminence of truth, love, and compassion over religious scholarship, external formalities and blind faith. His outright rejection of any formal authority of religious institutions in regulating the affairs of society, in particular the role of the mullahs and religious scholars, became the subject of many of his famous poems. He sharply criticized the rigid beliefs and intolerance of mullahs and preachers that in his opinion were the main source of communal hatred.

The mullah and the torch-bearer
Hail from the same stock;
They give light to others,
And themselves are in the dark.

He believed that human beings equally deserve the right to live a life of peace and dignity regardless of their colour, creed or status:

There is only one thread of all cotton.
The warp, the woof, the quill of the weaver's shuttle,
The shuttle, the texture of cloths, the cotton shoes and hanks of yarn,
All are known by their respective names,And they all belong to their respective places
But there is only one thread of yarn.

Bulleh Shah never cared to mince words in his bold and courageous challenge to the forces of darkness of his time. He was a liberal and progressive thinker in the most modern sense. His outspoken and blunt style struck a chord with all segments of Punjabis who have kept his memory alive without the help of state institutions.

He was the leading light of a rich sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry that for many centuries had spread the message of religious tolerance, communal harmony, liberalism, humanism and love. Set to the tunes of folk and classical music, compositions of Bulleh Shah and other Punjabi sufi poets are remarkable pieces of literary art that synthesize highly complex ideas, emotions and experiences in the homely and deceptively simple idioms and metaphors of rural Punjab. The intention is not just to charm but also engage and enlighten the hearts and minds of the audience. By all critical accounts, the classical Punjabi sufi poetry reached its pinnacle in Bulleh Shah.

Loved by Punjabis of all faiths and creeds, Bulleh Shah could have easily claimed the title of a national poet of all Punjabis if such a title was ever considered to be politically correct

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