Epitome of Punjabi ethos

March 29, 2015

The urs of the leading Punjabi poet Shah Hussain and how it became a festival to celebrate spring, the season of regeneration, rebirth and rejuvenation

Epitome of Punjabi ethos

There has been reconstruction of the shrine of Shah Hussain during the last year. At his urs this year, the focal point will be the new structure rather than the older edifice that was far more modest. The shrine in terms of its structure had always been unassuming compared to some of the other shrines that had royal patronage like that of Mian Mir. Even Data Hajveri too in comparison was a modest structure till it was expanded and made into a sprawl about twenty years ago.

Till about twenty years ago Mela Chiraghaan was the biggest festival of the Punjab. A date and a season coincided to form the mela. It was the urs of the leading Punjabi poet Shah Hussain and, since it was held in the second week of Chet, it also became a festival to celebrate spring, the season of regeneration, rebirth and rejuvenation. People from all over the subcontinent visited the congregation that somehow epitomised the Punjabi ethos. Now no charaghs are lit as they might have been at some point but at the centre of the congregation a fire glows, a huge lapping flame during the three days of the festival. The visitors and the devotees keep throwing wax candles into the flame to keep it bright to signify that the mela is in progress.

Melas, even now, but more in the small and market towns also have an economic aspect to them. Till about the middle of the twentieth century the agricultural and rural ethos of the mela was an integrated expression of a totality but now it does not appear to be so. Being part of the everyday life is now quite reduced and its cultural aspect now stands as some kind of a specialised activity. The link between the two is still very much there, though it may not have the immediacy of yore.

Now the mela is a much reduced affair for a number of reasons , primarily because there are other platforms that provide popular entertainment. This particular mela is now held bang in the middle of a sprawling city of Lahore and, though it retains the rural flavour, it is surrounded on all sides by the urban sprawl, not only in terms of streets and houses but also the behaviour and consumer habits that prefer to welcome cheap Chinese goods and gadgetry to something that is indigenous and probably more expensive. Most of the mela activity is held on the main road which only causes traffic problems for everyone including the residents of the area and the general passersby using the thoroughfare.

At some point, the mela was shifted to the Shalamar Gardens and it was the lighting of the charaghs in the gardens from where probably it got its name. During the times of Ranjeet Singh it really became a very big affair and it was even given state patronage which it has rarely received in the last five hundred years or so.

During the colonial period too it remained the biggest mela of the Punjab thronged by people of all religious denominations. Probably in the 1960s, it was decided to shift the mela from the Shalamar Gardens to its outskirts because it was thought that the throng of people on the occasions damaged the garden. Since then it has been held round the shrine of the sufi.

It draws a large number of performing artistes who mostly sing the kalam of Shah Hussain and whip themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy through the traditional dance form of dhammal. Melas and urs extend the opportunity for the masses to mix through the cultural manifestation of music and dance.

The name Shah Hussain is a myth, not in the sense of being a fabrication of a person who did not exist in history, but as one who possessed powers much more than that of an ordinary mortal. Shah Hussain is surely one of the greatest poets of Punjabi and he cut a defiant figure rebelling against sanctimonious piety, dehumanising hierarchy and subjugating imperial rule. He is credited with raising the kafi to a definitive poetical form and using Heer and Ranjha as symbolic figures in the triumph of truthful love against the castes and creeds that perpetrated division in society.

With such poetry aspiring to the higher truth the poet does become part of the myth. The oral transmission of Shah Hussain poetry could have added to the making of the myth because it was only in the twentieth century that the Punjabis were able to lay their hands on the written kalam. The bards had been singing him for centuries and the poetry travelled in a personalised form creating on its way its own halo of a myth -- that which could be heard and sung but not seen.

Despite all the efforts that have been undertaken, especially in the last forty years Punjabi as a language has continuously been marginalised. Now the Punjabi speaking youth quote Urdu as their mother tongue when they fill official documents but the marginalization has primarily been effective because the connection of spoken and the written word has been severed. There are also some issues regarding the script but these were not so big as not to be surmounted. But the Punjabis on the whole, despite all conferences and seminars, have not really been able to make such headway in this regard.

As more of Punjab becomes urbanised and formally educated, the links with the oral traditions are being weakened further. The knowledge that one has of the Punjabi classics has been primarily transmitted through the spoken word as sung by the minstrels in the area. Even now most of the Punjabis are aware of the smatterings of their literature through the kalam which is sung. Occasions like the mela bring forth and live too the relationship of the audience with the spoken word.

Epitome of Punjabi ethos