One thing, about which there is no dispute between Punjabis all over the world, is their love, affection, regard and respect for Waris Shah. One can say that Waris Shah is the most unique poet ever produced in Punjabi literature. His Heer is so popularly read and recited all over Punjab that people feel proud in owning Waris Shah as their very own bard, whose poetry has already survived two centuries of criticism and scrutiny and will stand the test of time in future, too.
Fact of the matter is that, in recent decades, the city of Lahore has expanded its geographical boundaries so much that the city of Sheikhupura has now virtually become Lahore’s suburbia. That’s where I was heading, accompanied by my friends, that late evening. Jandiyala Sher Khan, a small town on Hafizabad Road, some 14 kilometres away from Sheikhupura, gets over-packed in the last week of July every year, when people from all over Punjab visit the town to pay tribute to one of the greatest Sufi poets of Punjab, Waris Shah — popularly and affectionately known as the Shakespeare of Punjab. Infact, every country has a poet who defines the dreams and aspirations of its people and Punjab, too, has its own poet, Waris Shah, the creator of Punjabi epic “Heer”, who transformed the dreams and aspirations of his people in “Heer”. I was also one of the visiting adoring devotees.
Not only me but the Punjabis and all Waris Shah lovers all over the world celebrated the 18th century radical mystic and a progressive writer’s 210th Urs (death Anniversary) in the last week of July at Jandiyala Sher Khan, District Sheikhupura. The three-day long Urs of Waris Shah started with a bath of the grave of this great man of Punjab. Over the years, the event has attained an international acclaim, as Punjabi lovers, devotees of Waris Shah and men and women of literature from all over the world, including India, UK, Canada, Europe and other countries, converge to Jandiyala Sher Khan to pay homage to Waris Shah, who is revered by the simple folks of the rural Punjab as a saint and a holy man, and among high-brow intellectuals as the Shakespeare of Punjab, because of his in-depth knowledge of folklore and powerful heart-warming imagery.
During my stay there, the shrine of Waris Shah remained the centre of day’s long string of activities, including reciting of “Heer” by many well-known singers with music and by many folk story-tellers who came to participate in Waris Shah’s Urs. Special Qawaali evenings, Chadar Poshi, Dhamal and Quran Khawani were performed during the Urs.
Waris Shah’s powerful epic “Heer” is, in fact, more than a mere love story since it deals with all the prevailing issues of that era’s Punjab, including plight of the woman, human rights, highhandedness of the feudal and the influence of the clergy over the mighty and the powerful segments of the society. It is a comprehensive encyclopedia of the social system of Punjab. Waris Shah’s literary genius and his vast knowledge about the socio-economy of that times’ Punjab is amazingly displayed in this unique narrative. The fundamental questions Waris Shah raised in “Heer” about the human rights, rights of the women, weak and the downtrodden classes of the society are still relevant, alive and valid. “Heer” is a timeless story of love, tragedy and transformation. Heer is considered one of the quintessential works of classical Punjabi literature. The story of Heer was also put to paper by several other writers, including Damodar Daas, Mukbal and Ahmed Gujjar, but Waris Shah’s version is by far the most popular today.
Syed Waris Shah was born in a reputed Syed family in or around 1722 A.D. His father’s name was Gulshar Shah. Waris Shah acknowledged himself as a disciple of Pir Makhdum of Kasur. Waris Shah’s parents are said to have died when he was in his early years and he received his education at the shrine of his preceptor. After completing his education in Kasur, he shifted his residence to Malkahans. Here, he resided in a small room adjacent to a historic mosque. Waris Shah died in or around 1798 A.D when he was around 76 years of age. Waris Shah also exalted his own unrequited love for a girl (Bhag Bhari). The amazing poetic mould has not been bettered by any of his successors till date.
In the tradition of Punjabi Qissa poetry, the arrival of Waris Shah was an epoch making event, which changed the status, tone and tenor of Punjabi poetry. More than any other poet, it is Waris Shah alone who made Punjabi language enter every heart and hearth of Punjab. Heer is the supreme achievement not only of the poet but also of Punjabi poetry. Waris Shah is a model poet who inspired and guided generations of Punjabi poets belonging to the medieval as well as modern period. He borrowed the story and plot of the legend of Heer- Ranjha and structured it anew and contrary to early happy endings raised it to the level of tragedy of classic dimensions. The beauty of this epic poem is that it has attracted every critic worth the name and has led to a variety of interpretations and critical approaches.
Whatever be the conclusion of the critics, they are unanimous in their verdict that Waris Shah is the first people’s poet of Punjab, who sang full-throatedly about Punjab and Punjabiat and left a writing which is the soulful passionate expression of the Punjabi psyche, culture and aspirations. This poem can be viewed from the historical, sociological, mystical, artistic and poetic viewpoints.
The Heer by Waris is full of poetic intensity, authenticity, critical faculty, deep and wide observation, wisdom gained through living a full and rich life, critical daring, romantic imagination, poetic vision, artistic excellence and natural grace of perfect execution. No poet can raise poetic grace of love at so passionate and soulful a pitch without a deep by moving personal experience. It is because of this fact that bhagbhari is cited as the woman who was the passion inspiring Waris to sing his own unfulfilled love through the legend of Heer and Ranjha.
Like Shakespeare, Waris Shah, was a bard of highest order. Whose achievements are his command over language and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the contemporary social scene. Rich vocabulary and his ability to coin new words, a penchant for colourful detail, similes, metaphors, phrases and aphorisms, distinguished Waris Shah’s style. Language by expanding its appeal and by digging deep into its natural, fresh, apt and befitting expressions. Waris Shah is at his best when he describes the scenes of separation, details of beauty, graces of nature, human feelings and sentiments. His witty, humorous, satirical and sarcastic musings and phrases full of poetic beauty have become popular quotations in Punjabi lexicon.
As a man of greet wisdom, understanding and experience, Waris delves deep write analysing his characters. Except for Heer and Ranjha, he has made everybody else a butt of ridicule and criticism. He exposed the hypocrisy of the priests, the Balnath sect of yogis, besides being critical of the caste system and the cunning of men and women. Follies and foibles of social life are also focused upon. Again like Shakespeare, his in-depth understanding of life enables him to survey the vast expanse of human behaviour and sermonise on the affairs of life. It is because of these sterling qualities of a master artist that he still powerfully echoes our deepest emotions and dreams. All those who wish to enjoy him, should search for him in his Heer. The experience will not only be rewarding, but also enduring and enriching.
Indeed, it is beyond doubt that Waris Shah is the true cultural icon of Punjab, towering all above the rest!