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A seminar on Waris Shah


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On November 19, 2000 a seminar was held at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusettes on Waris Shah: Voice of Punjab. The seminar was sponsored by Pakistani Students Association at MIT, Academy of Punjab in North America and South Asian Center.

Jaspal Singh welcomed everyone and pointed out significance of Waris Shah for Punjabi literature and thought, and introduced the main speaker Dr. Manzur Ejaz, well known journalist and Punjabi scholarfrom Pakistan. Manzur started his presentation with an observation that generally educated persons from European countries get exposed to their poets or artists such as Shakespeare at some stage of their education, but the educated elite in South Asia or Punjab do not know even some of the best poets of their tradition.

After this observation Manzur started with the background of Heer story. He pointed out that Heer starts appearing in Punjabi literature somewhere in the 16th century. Shah Hussain refers to her, then Damodar Dass writes the first Heer Ranjha Kissa that is available to us during this time. After that many people wrote Heer Ranjha in Punjabi,Urdu and Persian. But Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah is the most popular amongst the Punjabis. Why is this the case? He also pointed out that Maqbul, another contemporary of Waris Shah also wrote Heer Ranjha but did not become as popular as Waris Shah amongst the Punjabis.

Before Waris Shah, Heer is presented in an idealistic fashion. For instance Ranjha sees Heer in a dream according to Maqbul and he goes in search of Heer and finds her. But Waris Shah presents the situation differently. Ranjha is son of Moju Chaudhry of Takht Hazara, favourite son of his father, a man who is of artistic bent and spends his time playing his flute. After his father’s death, Ranjha leaves home because he cannot make a living. His brothers bribe the judge and the five elders of the village Takht Hazara and give barren land to Ranjha. Ranjha is unable to make a living. Material conditions force him to leave his home and village. He does not know Heer, or does not have any vision or dream of Heer.

After leaving his home he does not know what he is going to do. On his way as the night falls he comes across a Mosque and wants to spend the night there. His flute enchants everyone - except the Mullah whom Waris describes as a ‘bundle of disputes’. Mullah reads the "riot act" to him and states that vagabonds like Ranjha have no place in the house of God. Ranjha points out the hypocrisy of the Mullah and, through this dialogue Waris Shah exposes the rigidl religion and Mullahism.

After spending the night in the Mosque Ranjha leaves in the morning and comes on the banks of Chenab and wants to cross it. Ludan Mallah, runs a ferry and takes passengers across. Ranjha prays Luden to take him across, but since he has no money, Ludan refuses and says "aseen Rab keh janaiy bhain bhara baidha thaildey Rab dey

wastey" In his dialogue with Luddan Mallah, Waris Shah exposes and criticizes the callousness of the commercial classes which had started emerging in the 18th century Punjab. Luddan is a secular small businessman, he had no other concern except to make money. He does not care about God or humanity. His sole aim is to make money from his ferry. Luddan has two wives. They get enchanted by Ranjha’s flute. Luddan is afraid that his wives may run off with Ranjha, so he takes Ranjha across - to get rid of him.

Crossing the river is an important metaphor for Waris Shah. It is going beyond limits of one’s historical crib and discovering new world, new situation and awakening. Across the river in theBarahdari is the bed of Heer where she comes with her female friends and rests. Heer is the daughter of the ruler of Sials of Jhang. She is beautiful, young and arrogant. Waris describes Heer in 17 stanzas which have become the master-piece of Punjabi poetry. Ranjha lies on Heer’s bed, where none of Heer’s female friends is allowed to lie, what to say of a man who is stranger. As soon as Heer hears of this misdeed by a strange man, Heer rushes there with her friends and finds Ranjha asleep on her bed. She rushes to hit Ranjha with a cane, but as soon as she sees his faces, she is smitten by him. Ranjha points out to her that she has to give up her arrogance. Because her beauty is given to her by God, by nature, and her power is due to her father being the ruler of the Sials. What is her own? Who is she herself? That she has to discover through love. Heer gets a job for Ranjha with her father to look after his buffalo herds. Heer and Ranjha enjoy each other’s love. But her parents and relatives do not want to marry Heer to Ranjha, who is nobody, just a humble servant. Heer’s parents and relatives arrange her marriage, bribe the Qazi, and forcibly marry her off to Khaira. In this dialogue between Heer and Qazi, Waris once again exposes the corruption of the judicial system of the times. Qazi was appointed by the Moghul state. Heer is taken off to the village of Khairas.

As the story continues, Ranjha decides to become a Jogi and goes to the mount of Balnath, the most famous institution of the Jogis. Ranjha begs Balnath, the great Jogi, to make him his desciple and give him the ‘Jog’, initiate him. After a detailed discussion with

Balnath, Ranjha is initiated. In this dialogue between Balnath and Ranjha, Waris Shah criticizes and exposes the institution of the Jogis, and seems to give the view propounded by Guru Nanak and others that salvation does not lie in leaving the world, but living in the world. Balnath tells Ranjha that he should be indifferent to the things of this world, but Ranjha tells him that his whole point of becoming Jogi was to fulfill his love and get Heer, enjoy this world.

Ranjha goes to the village of Khaira disguised as a Jogi and reaches the courtyard of Heer’s house. Her sister-in-law, Sahiti, gives Ranjha very hard time. She tells him that he is a hypocrite and a thief in the guise of a Jogi. This dialogue between Sahiti and Ranjha takes one third of Heer Ranjha. Through this dialogue, Waris Shah exposes all the arguments of the established order. This section of the Heer Ranjha is probably the most important section. Here Waris Shah, the social analyst is at his best and displays his knowledge of all the philosophies and ideologies of his time, offering a very powerful critique.

Ultimately Heer and Ranjha elope, Khairas chase them and overpower them. They take them to the local Raja, who is known to be a just king. The king gives Heer to Khaira. Ranjha curses the king and his city. The whole city is engulfed in fire. The king realizes his mistake and gives Heer to Ranjha. Heer Ranjha come back to Sial. The Sials tell Ranjha that he should come with a proper wedding procession with his family and relatives - and they will organize a proper wedding. Ranjha goes back to Takht Hazara to prepare for the wedding. The Sials poison Heer and she dies. When Ranjha hears about Heer’s death he also dies, and the story ends. Waris Shah in the end of the story writes that he has written this Kissa, to educate the people.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz pointed out that Waris Shah through the pages of Heer has examined all the social institutions with minute details and criticized them with the rigor of a social scientist and exposed all the contradictions in the society of his time.

After the presentation by Manzur Ejaz, many questions were asked by the students and scholars in the audience. There were many prominent scholars in the audience who enriched the discussion with their comments and questions. Shaila Haeri, Masood Khan, Tanvir Khan, Tariq Banuri and Subhash Sehgal, amongst many others, enlivened the discussion with their comments.

Academy of Punjab in North America and South Asian Center also announced that a seminar on Shah Hussain, the great Punjabi poet will be held in February, 2001 in Boston.

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