Reinterpreting Qadiryar's Qissa Puran Bhagat
During the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), Punjab enjoyed relative peace. The secular outlook of the Maharaja had instilled in the hearts of the common people patriotic feelings. Interestingly, Qadiryar (1802-1892), a Muslim poet, sings whole-heartedly in praise of the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa who unfurled Khalsa Nishaan on the fort of Jamraud.
Primarily, Qadiryar is a poet with a moral purpose. Even when he writes about an Islamic theological event in Mehraj Nama or a Hindu classical legend in Qissa Puran Bhagat, he does not lose sight of his moral vision. With a view to bringing home his message of piety and purity, he chose a Hindu legend about whose impact on the masses he was quite certain. As such Puran Bhagat became the mouthpiece for ethical values, not only of that age but also of all the ages to come.
The story of Qissa Puran Bhagat is reminiscent of Euripides's play Phaedra wherein Phaedra is infatuated with her youthful stepson, Hippolytus. The course of events in these two works is different but the situation is the same. Puran is of tender age and has no inclination to establish rapport with the opposite sex. He is appalled when his stepmother Luna tries to involve him in her lascivious designs. When Puran refuses to deviate from the path of virtue, she puts forth her argument:
Be sensible, O' Puran !
Compel me not to be harsh to you.
I am standing beside you,
With my arms extended.
Will you not be considerate ?
Do not call me your mother,
tell me Were you ever fed at my breast ?
In the case of Hippolytus, his step-mother Phaedra does not express her desire in such a blatant manner. She expresses her feelings to the old nurse who is her confidante. Phaedra's infatuation with Hippolytus had been in existence for a long time. All the while she had been engaged in making efforts to snuff out the flame of her guilty love but to no avail. Obsessed too much by her amorous cravings for Hippolytus, she opens her lacerated heart to the old nurse but repents shortly afterwards for doing so:
Dear Nurse, my veil again
I am ashamed to think what I have said.
Cover me, my tears are falling,
And my face is hot with shame.
To be in my right mind is agony.
Yet to be mad was intolerable.
It is best then, to be aware of nothing
At long last when Hippolytus comes to know, through the Nurse, of Phaedra's passion for him, he is beside himself with pious rage and wild fury. He reprimands the Nurse for her misdemeanor in giving expression to such a proposal :
Yes, you, for one, who come here like a she-devil
Inviting me to incest with my father's wife !
I'll flush my ears with water to purge your filthy words !
Do you think I could do sin, when even hearing you
I feel polluted ?
Whereas in Qissa Puran Bhagat there is an interminable dialogue between Luna and Puran on the subject, in Phaedra not a single word is exchanged between Phaedra and Hippolytus in this regard. In the case of Luna, the rebuff is direct whereas in the case of Phaedra, it is indirect. In both the cases the result, however, is the same. Luna maligns the reputation of Puran in no uncertain terms in the presence of her husband, Raja Salwan. She not only points an accusing finger to her step-son but also presents herself in a tell-tale fashion to her spouse :
I called him Puran, my son
But he laughed like a husband.
So saying she showed her cracked bangles
And blamed him for straining her wrists.
When she raised a hue and cry,
He ran away from the palace.
Phaedra, on her part, commits suicide but leaves behind a note that seals the fate of Hippolytus. In both the cases the immediately, without entertaining in their minds an iota of doubt about what has been reported, directly or indirectly, to them. In the case of Puran, the punishment is more cruel and the results more devastating. His limbs are dismembered and he is thrown into a deserted well. On his part, Hippolytus bids goodbye to the lads of Trozen and goes away forever, but not before telling his father, Theseus- 'you will never meet a man whose nature is more pure, more sound, than mine'.
Puran is supposedly banished from life but fate so conspires as to bring him back, after more than twelve years, to his native town, Sialkot. Ichhran, his mother, gets a new lease of life, whereas Salwan is filled with remorse and Luna feels penitent. Puran pardons both of them, though not before making them eat a humble pie. He had all along been burning with the zeal of reestablishing his dislodged image of a chaste and upright son.
Unlike Puran, who comes back after more than twelve years, Hippolytus faces his father shortly after his banishment. As he nears the frontiers of his land, he is struck down by the horse on which he was riding. Later he is brought home on a stretcher. His father Theseus refuses to relent even now. At this stage Artemis, the goddess of chastity, apprises him of the truth of the matter. This revelation turns the wheel and Theseus lets out a cry of despair:
O endless misery ! what shall I say ? How can I free my life from suffering And forget pain ?
Hippolytus is still alive. The grief of his father is too much for him. Before breathing his last, he absolves his father of the guilt of homicide- 'I here absolve you of my death'. Of course here is no Phaedra, as in the case of Luna, to seek pardon from the person whom she has wronged.
"What gives the story of Qissa Puran Bhagat an edge over the tale told in Phaedra is the role of three women in the life of Puran. Ichhran, the mother is the symbol of maternal love and tenderness. She considers her son Puran the pivot around which her life revolves. With the coming of Luna in the household, she has been relegated to a secondary position. In these altered love-starved adolescent son. In Puran's absence she is deprived of her eyesight which she regains on hearing his voice after a long spell of time.
Luna, on the other hand, is the symbol of a temptress who is not much bothered about the ethical values of the society nor does she have any compunction about her stupidity. The circumstances put her in an unenviable position and she is determined, unmindful of the consequences, to have her pound of flesh. It's another matter that she brings havoc to the royal household by the foolish action and vengeful attitude.
Sundran is the third woman whom Puran comes across at the crossroads of his life. The co-disciples of Puran tell him to go to the palace of the princess Sundran for alms. The maidservant of Sundran offers alms to Puran which he duly refuses, and insists on the audience of Sundran. The princess is furious but relents as she listens to the description of the handsome figure of the new yogi. On seeing him, she loses her heart to him. She invites him in but he refuses to cross the threshold. She overlays Puran with the gifts of pearls and diamonds. Guru Gorakh Nath refuses to accept these glittering objects. Sundan then prepares the choicest dishes for the Dera. The Guru is highly pleased. Sundran gets Puran as a reward.
The prince-yogi deserts his princess soon. They are like two heterogenous elements held together, as if by violence, for a short while. Their coming together and the moving apart have deep-rooted psychological repercussion, not so much on Puran's mind as on the mind of Rani Sundran. Why did the prince-yogi discard her in such a callous and deceitful manner ? This small event affords the reader to have a peep into the mind of the self-righteous person. From the ethical point of view, Puran's stature gets a fillip but on the human plain his image is tarnished. From the beginning he is not of the common run but this step of his removes him further from the sea of humanity. Indeed he creates awe, and to a degree admiration, in the minds of the people around. But in the process he fails to have rapport with them and stands isolated. There is no identification of the reader with the protagonist, as such the much-needed catharsis is held in abeyance."
Incidentally, Sundran emerges as an admirable character and her supreme sacrifice invests her with a halo. She is a symbol of true, selfless love. She is ready to win the hand of Puran, the yogi, even if she has to become a yogin herself. It is not she but Puran who is found lacking the warmth of human relationship. The reason, of course, is nor far to seek. He had been denied parental affection during his infancy and boyhood. As an adolescent, he did not receive the tender love of a shy, innocent girl of his age. Instead he came face to face with a lustful woman whose attitude to life and love had been warped by her thwarted desires. She was a passionate woman seeking the response of the body and not of the mind. The coarseness and crudeness of Puran's experience distorted his vision in respect of the opposite sex.
The interplay of emotions at different levels of these three female characters has made this Qissa truly a work of art with a universal appeal. It is interesting to note that there is a thaw in the iciness of Puran's feelings for women- folk when he meets his mother Ichharan in the garden at Sialkot after a very long spell of time. He addresses her with such affection as is evident in the case of a small boy for his mother. In that expansive mood he forgives Luna and gives her a grain of rice, the partaking of which would bless her with a son. Puran is, however, reluctant to forgive his father, Salwan, for his cruelty to him. It is beyond his understanding as to how a father could treat his innocent son in such a barbaric manner. Even at that time of his life, the bitterness of his relations with his father lingers on in Puran's mind-
Qadiryar, jehi mere baap keeti Aisi kaun kardaputtar naal koi
Qadiryar ! What my father did to me, Who ever does such a thing to his son ? In Punjabi folklore there are a good many tales which have the same motif as is found in Qissa Puran Bhagat. In the well-known folk-tale Roop Basant, Rani Roopmati falls in love with her stepson, Basant, who is of her age. He refuses to fall into the
trap ana is, as a stock response, accused of attempted incest. The father, Raja Kharag Sein, banishes his son from his kingdom. In this way the hurdle is removed but no attempt is made to know the reality of the situation. In Qissa Puran Bhagat, however, the story heads towards its logical conclusion. The guilty feel penitent and the wronged person forgives them graciously. He even blesses his stepmother with the birth of a son. In their ignorance the parents had 'thrown away a pearl dearer than the whole tribe'. Now the birth of a son to them, he realises, will restore the filial bond that had been miserably snapped in the case of Salwan and Puran.
There has been over the years a number of interpretations of the story of Puran Bhagat. In the words of Dr. Gurinder Singh Randhawa, "In it there is an unconscious reversal of the Oedipus complex. Puran refuses to violate the sanctity of mother-son relationship nor does he stoop to discard the social and ethical values of the society. Luna's emotional insecurity finds a new orientation and she makes a frantic effort to change the deadened pattern of her life. She tries to coax and seduce Puran to unite with her. But Puran, being a strict moralist, refuses to overstep the bounds of social propriety. He insists that their relationship remains within the mother-son framework because 'it has never happened that a mother and son have fallen in love' and entreats her to 'think that I am born of your womb'. For Puran, indulgence with his stepmother would be an unpardonable sin and in this aura of a moral superiority he does not respond to Luna's animal sexuality. This non-acceptance represents the release of an inner turmoil that Luna has all along been compelled to suffer and she becomes so demanding that she fails to see through Puran's eyes."
Likewise, Prof. Harjeet Singh Gill is of the opinion- "The legend of Puran Bhagat deals with the compunctions of public morality and collective consciousness. Immediately after his advent in the light of human relationships, Puran is enticed by his stepmother, Luna, who, rejected by Puran's public morality, gets him executed by his fathec, Salwan. He spends the next twelve years in the forlorn darkness of the deserted well. The seclusion, darkness and the immobility in the deserted well is far more severe and acute than the darkness of the dungeon. In the dungeon, Puran was a child. He was deprived of his parents, but he had the company of his servants and counsellors, who helped him grow and acquire the necessary human awareness. In the deserted well Puran is an adult. He has had a contact with sex, the most essential ingredient of manhood, and a confrontation with the authority of his father, an obligatory step in the development of individual conscience. It is with his confrontation that the psychic umbilical cord is broken. Puran is now on his own. He must face the world without, and the world within, all alone. During the sudden confrontation, he made use of the cudgels of using collective consciousness to assert and realise the urges of his individual consciousness. The world within the deserted well, and the world without, are in a strange contrast. The extreme physical immobility, and unfettered imaginative, individual conscious flights are in perfect harmony. The deserted well represents both the dark, fathomless prison-hole and the absolute freedom of mind."
M. Athar Tahir has made a very profound psycho-analysis of the various characters of Qissa Puran Bhagat. When Puran approaches Luna with filial respect, she is inflamed by love : Dilun puttar nun yar banaya su Us di sabti di vichon luj tutti
In her heart
The son was transformed into a lover
The rope of her rectitude
Snapped in the middle.
The word luj/rope used for drawing water from the well is significant. It links the dark unknown of the well with the light of day. Its sudden snapping symbolises Luna's break with the light of the accepted code. It may also mean her plunging to the depth of immorality and disorder.
Ichhran refuses to believe that her son Puran is guilty of the charge levelled against him by Luna. Salwan, however, is easily taken in. Ichhran implores her husband not to be too harsh on her son. She compares Puran to the fruit-giving tree and Luna to the poisonous shrub :
Pachhotawen ga waqt vaha kejee (Mango tree you are cutting for providing a hedge to the Ak shrub. Repent you will, when the time is lost.) She amplifies the vegetal metaphor signifying, "continuity and relatedness' of human existence. Later, when Puran returns as a Bhagat. saint, metaphors manifest in reality, the decaying royal garden blooms into life again.
Qadiryar has very artistically juxtaposed the suffering of Puran's mother, Icchran, when the executioners are on the verge of lopping his hands off- '/war jawe gi rondri mai meri (In my absence my mother will die, of grief) with Luna's joy and exultation when Puran is thrown into a deserted well, after his hands have been lopped off-
Uhde dost sekhaye ke vadheo neyn
Uhdi loth vahanwde vich khuhe Qadiryar,
aa Luna nun deyn rattu
Vekh laanwdi haar Shingar suhe
(They chopped off his hands
and threw the body into a well.
Qadiryar, they brought home his blood
that prompted Luna to decorate herself
In recent times Shive Kumar Batalvi has made a laudable attempt to versify the legend of Puran Bhagat but with a difference. In his poetic play Luna, the emphasis is altogether on the plight of Luna who had been much maligned by the earlier bards. Shiv Kumar has put forth his point of view convincingly.
He avers that it is but natural for Luna to be attracted to the youthful Puran. On his part, Puran too cannot ignore the ludicrous situation in which his father Salwan has put himself.
Consequently the characters in this work have assumed symbolic significance. The interplay of elemental passions has also invested this poetic play with universal appeal. Here the poet has not told the whole story, althought he appears to have taken Qadiryar's Qissa Puran Bhagat as his model. Luna ends on a sad note when Puran is writhing in pain when his hands and feet have been lopped off.
The earlier Qissa-kars had seen the whole story from a moralistic point of view and eulogised Puran. However, Shiv Kumar thinks that Luna is more sinned against than sinning, though he is all praise for Puran for the nobility of his character and the firmness of his resolve. The villain of the piece is not Luna but Salwan who had married a girl worthy to be his daughter. She has been deprived of youthful response to her natural impulses. As a result, her sex urge is destroyed and depraved. She craves for the liberation of her suppressed personality and finds it hard to put up with her injured ego. The poet identifies himself completely with the woman and her erratic moods. He shares with her the conflict of moral values in her mind.
Darshan Singh Maini is of the view- "Shiv's Loona, which is something of a cross between an epic and a poetic play is generally considered his crowning achievement. It won him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967. Shiv has invested this well-known historical tale with overt Freudian meanings. Upsetting the traditional interpretation.... she has been shown by Shiv as possessing a radical consciousness. In a manner, this is an example of prognosticative sensibility, and the poet puts some of the 20th century sentiments and cannons of sexual ethics into the mouth of a medieval outcaste girl. Clearly, Shiv is not writing a historical play, but a poem of dramatic and immediate interest."
Despite the liberties with the historical legend and the plethora of modern interpretations, Qadiryars Qissa Puran Bhagat stands apart like a lighthouse, illuminating the paths that lead to eternity.
1. M. AtharTahir, Qadir Yar, Pakistan Adabl Board, Lahore, 1988, P. 71
2. The essay 'The Human Condition in Puran Bhagat' by Dr. Harjeet Singh
Gill, included in Pakha Sanjam (Vol XVI) 1983; Patiala, P. 19-20.
3. The essay 'The Semiotic Structure of Puran Bhagat' by Dr. Gurinder Singh
Randhawa, included in Pakha Sanjam (Vol XIV), 19-81, Published by
Punjabi University Patiala, P. 66-67