BULLEH SHAH AND THE ARTIST'S VISION OF HISTORY
By: Najm Hussian Syed
In the beginning was the stone. And man stood before the stone possessed by the need to live and
the urge to be. In the end too, is the stone and man stands before it as unsatiated as in the beginning.
Between these two points there is movement- movement that cuts and chisels the stone to form the axe, that
strikes two stones against each other to rouse the slumbering spirit of fire, that smithers the stone to fragments to touch off the multifaced dance of water, that splits the very being of the stone to release demons
whose dance is infinitely subtler and infinitely mightier. The movement breathlessly explores the mazes wrought by its own course and then shapes the stone into forms of pain, pleasure and silence, to envision through
them what is beyond pain and pleasure and silence.
It is this movement which is the history of man past, present and future. Within the course of this movement is contained all that man has felt, thought and done.
Also within the course of the movement lie the dimension of unrealised potentiality. Whatever man has felt, thought and done carries the memory of what he could feel, think and do-the memory of the stones that hedge the
This two-fold character of human history points to only one direction inexhaustible continuity. No action is decisive, no ideology is absolute. What has been is always accompanied by what could have been and
no end is completely and finally achieved. . It is only the limited perspective of day-to-day life which gives us the illusion of finality and deceives us into believing that in what surrounds us now life has finally
fulfilled itself. Men, objects and events in one's immediate vicinity seem to wear a finished and independent look. One is never prepared to bargain the smug solidity of familiar objects for the chimerical flux of
unending time. There is nothing surprising in such an inhibition. No one can actually see or feel the movement of the earth. T o
Most men a complacent belief in the solidity and permanence of their surrounding is a
precondition of existence. The set of beliefs, ideas and attitudes in which I have grown .are the benevolent Himalayas that stand as eternal guards around the smug rotation of mornings my and evenings. My rigidly
conditioned emotional reflexes stretch round me a steel shelter of psychological security. Loosen a rivet and you smother my soul, you threaten to blot out my very being. Study of History is the means of loosening the
rivets of this steel shelter. And this explains why we maintain a hidden, unacknowledged suspicion of history. It is only within certain limits and with certain reservations that we admit our connection with history.
Instead of discovering what trends in history are responsible for our frame of attitudes and emotions have zealously busy ourselves in fitting history to our frame of attitudes and emotions. The nature and extent of our
willingness to associate ourselves with the past, present and future time is determined by our own impulse for personal security. Such an attitude towards history represents a consciousness which has foregone the
opportunities of expansion, marking out a narrow path in past and future, sidetracking discovery and challenge. The awareness of time we thus achieve is a projection of a private sentiment, an exaggerated dramatization
of personal frustration and daydreaming.
Any vision of history is thus both an index of, and a pril1iary factor in, the spiritual makeup of a person or a group. Once you finally commit yourself to a particular limited
vision of history and your hedged place in that vision you deliver yourself in the hands of ruthless gods who are jealous of the intrusion of human will in their realms. They grip you, mould you and set you in motion
according to their own designs. And ironically you maintain the belief that your actions and thoughts are the results of your own conscious will. You scarcely have the detachment to reflect that your conscious will
itself has been harnessed by the image to which it surrendered itself. The physical or ideological tyranny to which our honest hands subject others is only a reflection of the tyranny of a partial vision of history to
which we submitted ourselves.
The individual sentiment is comparatively flexible but the group sentiments and attitudes pile up in the course of ages and harden to a degree where it is difficult to successfully resist
or dislodge them. The group sentiments appear in obsessive touchiness about its vision of history: As a spokesman of the group one does not find oneself prepared to tolerate any individual deviation
The individual deviation which is an internal challenge and an agent of dynamic development is thus suppressed. The deviating individual instead of acting as a source of enlargement and modification is compelled either
to become a desensitized appendix to the mass of social sentiment or to remain socially unacceptable. In the center rests the mass of passively conformist elements which, in the absence of necessary circulation
progressively decay into a dead weight. On the fringes or outside them the deviating individual is kept ineffective in his alienation. When a community continues to subscribe to a partial vision of history it runs the
risk of ultimately destroy~ the basis of a creative relationship between itself and its members.
It must be seen now what is the difference between a complete and a partial vision of history and bow this difference
has been important in the evolution of human consciousness. Once, though not long ago, man lived in caves and hunted for his food like his fellow animals. Man preyed on his fellow animals and fell a prey to them. He
remained in perilous communion with wind, rain, heat of the day and chill of the night. In his intense physical experience he had only one relation with time - the direct personal relation with the current moment that
glared at him from behind a thicket, the moment that suddenly thrust its glistening teeth and claws into his flesh. He sought to conquer this vm1 current moment by contemplating it in an abstract eternal frame. He
caught the current moment in all its aliveness on the walls of his cave and felt that he had entered into an inner relationship with the moment beyond the moment. There was an intense synchronization between the acts of
contemplating. The artist-man was not perhaps conscious of his contemplation as one is conscious of an expressible idea. He lived his vision of time rather than formulate it. He felt himself to be a part of the creation
and not a product of a creed or ideology. He found his fulfillment by affirming his contact with the current moment. And art was not a by-product of his internal deferred living. The distinction between internal and
external living is of later origin. It was after the synthesis was disturbed that human consciousness found it impossible to retain the spontaneous wholeness of experience. And those who still sought a personal contact
with the current moment were termed as artists, mystics, heretics or lunatics.
These designations are less the products of convenience and more of fear-man's fear of his own inner impulse that urged him to look beyond
the silence of the stone. In fact the "artist" and the "mystic" were only a disowned part of the ordinary man; they themselves were more genuinely ordinary than was realised. I t was left only to
"the artist'. or "the mystic" to retain an intimate relationship with time. The artist knows time as an ever-present reality. To him the moment is an ever-open door - a door which within its shape
integrates his entire experience as a unit of creation. He finds himself perpetuated within the door. He knows that the door is not the final end-and nothing that he knows, is constantly yearns to realise what is beyond
the d~. The artistic creation too is not an end in itself; it is an act within the door. Associating the performance of Ragas with particular seasons and particular hours of day is a really significant phenomenon. The
Raga itself is a comprehensive formulation of human experience; it is the door. The performance of the Raga is an act within the moment-the moment which is physically present as an hour of the day or a season of the
year. The performer and the listeners with him try to enter into an intimate relationship with the moment. The artist' s relationship with time is not one of antagonism resulting if1 either his surrender or the conquest
of time. This relationship is undertaken as a dialogue between man and the moment. But as the moment itself is not the end man strives to wrestle out of its embrace. The cherished attainment of the ~~~1~ former is to
arrive at a point where the moment wanes and the Raga itself is left behind.
The example of the classical Raga indicates the nature of the artistic effort and its goal. Art is essentially an act of impulsive
meditation in which life tries~.' to measure and stretch its limits; the knowledge of the limits implies the strength to stretch there. The artist has little use for chronology. F or him past is not made of events but
of experience; and experience lives when events are dead. And for a communion with experience he does not go to events; he goes to his own consciousness-which contains the past in a living form and which contains the
future too. He is not haunted by fear of the past or fear of the future nor is he shy of facing the present because in his consciousness they live as one intimate experience-an experience not based on any principle of
moral or dogmatic selection but comprehending all harmopies and discords implicit in the fact of existence.
The poet Bulleh Shah is one deeply stimulating representative of the class of artists who felt intensely the
need of discovering time through live contact.
"Bullah! Can I know who I am. I neither join the faithful in their devout affirmation in the mosque nor I find myself scaling the subtleties of denial. I do not raise my finger with the righteous
nor do I bare my breast with the condemned. I am not Moses nor the Pharoah either . The sacred scriptures from this world or that contain no clues for me. I do not discover myself in the sensual
surrender. I am neither concealed by the profane ecstasy of intoxication nor made manifest by the holy Vedas. I am not contained in what is uncovered by the wary eye of wakefulness nor in what is
revealed by sleep. No form of pleasure or pain, revelry or remorse finds me out. I am not disposed by fire, air, water and dust. 1 am neither a Hindu nor a Turk. My identity lies neither in the
wilderness of Arabia nor within the walls of Lahore. I am not the secret essence strenuously revealed by creed and religion. I was not born of Adam and Eve. I did not adopt any name nor can I owe any. 1
am neither stationary nor adrift. Can I know who am I? I t is myself I know to be, the beginning and the end. Neithe1' do I recognise any other being. It is nowhere else within myself that perception and
knowledge are embodied. Then who is He that stands as the Other? And who am I? Can 1 know Bullah?"
The popularity of this poem, as of several others of Bulleh Shah, has been largely responsible for blurring its virtues. Popular applause where it may indicate the aliveness of any poem also
signifies that the poem has, in the course of its life accumulated a certain amount of dead matter. There is no surer signal for a poet. To overhaul his wares than an undefined acclaim. The popular reading
of this poem takes the refrain to be a suave abstention from commitment of any kind-who knows and who can know, so let us shelve the ungainly business of knowing altogether. The appeal lies in the
satisfaction yielded by the escape supposedly implicit in the refrain, from an essential inner questioning about reality. The popular interpretation is the result of a conveniently indifferent
way of reading the poem. For a better appreciation of the poem it is necessary to rediscover the subtleties of tone and gesture inherent in each phrase. Also there should be an awareness of the cultural
background of the form used here by Bulleh Shah.
The present English rendering in its effort to indicate the content of the poem can do little justice to the other levels of the poet's
intention which are served by form and manner.
Bulleh Shah here undertakes a contemplative self-questioning. The questioning takes the shape of a riddle-a riddle posed by the poet
to himself. This reference to the pattern of riddles which are asked of children is vital for the understanding of the poem. In his own self the poet combines the awareness of the grown up person who has
posed the riddle and the bewildered curiosity of the child who has been asked the question. This peculiarity of the form represents a consciousness which works towards a solution through all the
intricate levels of mature reflection and experience, and yet retains the insistent curiosity of the child in face of every conclusion. The stanzas of the poem are the suggestions of mature
reflection and experience; the refrain is the child's quarry which breaks and dissolves these suggestions.
Those conversant with the form of Punjabi riddles would know that
the children demand certain clues as a matter of right. "In what direction lies the answer in eatables or in things of ordinary use 1" In the riddle of Bulleh Shah a series of negatives dismisses all
the possible clues. What is left is the elemental question. And the question itself is worded with a view to suggest a deliberate vagueness. The three possible literal translations of the refrain would be:
(a) "How do I know who I am?"
b) "How do I know who He is"?
and (c) "How can I know the whoness?"
And the three translations do not exhaust the subtlety which the
apparent simplicity of the refrain's syntax hides. The "I" of Bulleh Shah represents man in his very essential capacity as a unit of
creation. The "I" is inevitably confronted by "who". And in answer to this chimerical question the poet with an amazingly casual touch
recreates the entire panorama of hULD3.n experience in Time. For an ultimate fulfillment man took up the search for identity and affiliation. Each level of experience deceived him with an answer
which took the shape~ of a dogma, an institution, a belief, a value, an attitude or a relationship. But in elemental tussle of "I" and
"who" the child dismisses all the answers provided by the experience of man, breaking one toy after another in his frenzied curiosity. The poem is a dance of negative phrases accompanied by the double
interrogative of the refrain. The only positive phrase is contained in the beginning of the last stanza.
This affirmation is a climax to the passion of denial. Where do 1 go
from here? Where does the endless road lead? I have distinguished myself from all that has existed in identity. I know what I am not; then how do I know what I am?
Bulleh Shah's question embodies a moment containing past, present and future time. The moment contains the total individual and social experience of human history .The rejection of suggested identity and
affiliations when it comes is complete and indiscriminate and implies a passion for being anew, for recreating the I. There is no preference or more exactly, all preferences have fallen in favour of the unknown positive.
The artist's vision of history of which Bulleh Shah provides an example is the vision which alone is responsible for the creation of an inner dynamism and Thus the direct opposite of our parochial view of history.