Heer, through the ages

July 24, 2022

A debate begins on Heer as the urs of Waris Shah approaches

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he urs of of Waris Shah, held on the ninth of Sawan, rekindles the debate about the text that Waris Shah wrote.

It was not so long ago that the effort to discover and unearth “the authentic” was more urgently addressed in the oral cultures where the general assumption was that the fluidity of the oral tradition lends itself to a change that the written text resists by virtue of its fixity. The problem was that there was no written text, and if it existed it was scripted some time back, probably with the introduction of the printing press in the Indian sub-continent in the nineteenth century. Whatever was available in the oral form was transcribed and printed, thus creating the false impression that whatever was printed was authentic. The present-day generation of Punjabis finds it difficult to understand the texts since these were written centuries ago. The language has changed and so has the way it is pronounced. It would be far better if in the printing and publishing of text, the multimedia facility is used. The text which is printed should also be accompanied by an oral version of the text. Similarly, the recitation of Heer by various exponents should also accompany the text. It will help to identify the differences one finds between the oral rendition and the so-called authentic written text.

But now in the post-modernist landscape it has become more complicated for whatever available is supposed to be used for the purposes of the present and that may include all the available technological means and then reworking these to the convenience of the generation that can relate to it without much effort. The question of what is authentic and what is not is thus rendered irrelevant and the continuity of a tradition in its living format, with the means of communication present, is sufficient for it to be made relevant. In the hamlets of scholars, this might still cause great concern but in the market and the platforms, the reworking is the mantra that sails you through. And then, the emphasis which is related as to what is authentic culture or what are authentic practices and what is an amalgamation also falls by the wayside.

It appears that with the digital media and ready availability, the virtues of the oral tradition are becoming more prominent, relevant and acceptable and the days and nights of burning the midnight oil in seeking what was authentic are not of critical importance in this day and age.

The documented history of Heer is not more than five hundred years old. Waris Shah wrote his Heer at Malka Hans/ Jandiala Sher Khan in 1766. The original manuscript has been lost to history as the oldest goes back to 1821. Its first printed version in the Persian script known as Hope Press Edition came out in 1865, though according to Mohan Singh Diwana it was first published in 1851 by Chasma Noor Press, Amritsar. In the 1930s, Mohan Singh Diwana pointed to the necessity of an authentic text of Heer Waris Shah and himself edited Heer by going back to the manuscripts rather than the printed edition. Abdul Aziz Bar at Law continued with the effort and his edition was printed in 1960. He mentioned having consulted 23 manuscripts. In the 1970s, Sharif Sabir went to work on Aziz’s edition with the advantage of having examined three more manuscripts –one he found in Chunian, one in possession of Mian Anwar’s family and one with the Punjab Public Library. Since the Punjabi texts other than Heer as well have been reworked due to the oral transmission through centuries one of the many efforts earlier was made under the supervision of Dr Nazeer Ahmed and published by Packages Limited. The scholars who went through the texts of the various poets for the purpose of authentication were Ahmed Rahi, Ashfaq Ahmed, Afzal Soofi, Soofi Tabassum, Hafeez Jalandhari, Ustad Daman, Saleem ur Rehman, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Najm Hosain Syed. Of course, there was a great deal of difference of opinion in the authenticity of the text and it was resolved by giving the views of all the scholars on the kafis rather than limit just one as being more authentic. Bulleh Shah’s text was first published by Malik Heera in 1882 and later, which is more important, was collected by Prem Singh Qasuri in 1896.

Because of the various digital devices, the younger generation is becoming distant even from the alphabet of the languages. As it is, there has been a wall of script in Punjabi between Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi but now it is all in the Roman script where the English alphabet has replaced the local ones. This has further compounded the issue that the modern educated Punjabi has just reduced the language to its spoken version, with massive difficulty in reading it, being unfamiliar with the connection between the letter and the sound. We could be on the cusp of losing our script — and retaining in whatever form the sounds and phonetics of the languages take. It could be a matter of grief at the loss or expectation of an evolving language depending on where one stands.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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