Pandemic disruption

August 22, 2021

Traditional cultural activities face corona-related restrictions

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It appears unfortunately that major cultural events in the country will continue to fall victim to the coronavirus crisis this year as well. Urs celebrations for two of the most popular Punjabi poets, acknowledged, recited and quoted across the political divide, Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, follow the local calendar.

Waris Shah’s urs, on the fourth of Sawan, has gone unnoticed, Bulleh Shah’s, falling on the ninth of Bhadoan will at best be a tame affair compared to the usual mood of revelry.

Even before Covid, the dates had been moved around or adjusted around Ramazan and Muharrum and the urs celebrated at some later date. Mela Chiraghan, the urs of Shah Hussain usually held on the 27th of Chet, is usually held in the last week of March every year, irrespective of the date of the local calendar to facilitate the people or the populace in attending the mela. The people are fast forgetting the actual dates when the urs is supposed to be held and the adjustments are made to suit the convenience.

Both Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah lived in an age when the Punjab was in total turmoil. In the beginning of the 18th Century, the central rule exercised from Delhi was breaking down and the entire population was exposed to great disruption, war and savagery. The raids and uprisings had become characteristic of the life of the region. Waris Shah, despite the uncertainty, was able to stay calm and write his Heer with the composure of a poet who detaches himself from the daily upheavals. Bulleh Shah, to the contrary, was angry and unhappy at the state of disintegration of the order reflected in the society, saying one thing and doing another.

At the grassroots level, Heer was a common folk tale written in a number of languages. Its most brilliant manifestation probably being in Punjabi. Heer is traditionally sung in raga Bhiraveen that is popular across the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

It started from Afghanistan in many compositions played on the rubab. If there is such a thing as Punjabi Bhairveen, there is also a Bangla Bharaveen. Even if the notes do not vary, the ang is conditioned by the area or the region that it is being sung in. Bhairveen, sung in Benarus/ Uttar Pradesh, has a different nuance from the one sung in Sindh.

Kaafi has been sung in the Punjab and Sindh for centuries and it is difficult to say whether it was the poetic form that determined a raga to be labelled as kaafi or it was the raga that influenced the musical format of the poetical form as it evolved.

It is very difficult to say when Heer started being sung in bhairveen and who the first bard or the minstrel responsible for this was, but like so much else in our history, it is better left that way. There is some research and documentation of the higher forms of music including marg, or shastria or classiky because it mattered more and was the preserve of the religious or cultural establishments. The desi, lok or folk music was considered more a matter of practice than of any theoretical and philosophical underpinning.

The music of the people, so to say, was spontaneous, and not accompanied by the reams of theoretical or theological justification advanced by ideological apologists. Kaafi, too, has been sung in the Punjab and Sindh area for centuries and it is difficult to say whether it was the poetic form that determined a raga to be labeled as kaafi or it was the raga that influenced the musical format of the poetical form as it evolved. These are secrets embedded in the womb of history. They form the raw material of the cultural matrix as it has matured, keeping in view the large number of influences in the area as well as outside of it.

The diversity could be because of the respect for local customs, practices rituals and languages; even religions. It could also be on account of the yearning to say something spontaneously and with openness than to be tied down by established norms, rituals and practices.

Serious efforts were made some 50 years ago to identify the poets and their works and the mausoleum of Waris Shah was rebuilt at Jandiala Sher Khan in Sheikhupura district. Efforts at serious scholarship, too, went into producing an authentic Heer by Waris Shah, as we know that much additions and subtractions have been made in the text facilitated by the free use of the oral tradition. The local cultures and the poets, particularly in the Punjab, have been relegated to lesser significance. A few years ago, a committee was formed to look again at the text and to publish the works of the poets in editions that are aesthetically pleasing. However, the project is again at a standstill.

The mausoleum of Bulleh Shah has been rebuilt. Its historical sanctity has been sidelined. Such efforts should always be about conservation rather than about building everything anew. Most of the initiatives about historical buildings and structures leave a lot to be desired. It is often work completed conveniently rather than a painstaking effort involving experts. The buildings are not just of functional value, they also reflect the spiritual concerns of the times.


The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.



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