A reader's guide to Bulleh Shah
Source: The News
Bulleh Shah Within Reach
By Muzaffar A Ghaffar
Published by Ferozesons Limited, Lahore
Pages: 480 (two volumes)
Ghaffar is a remarkable person. For the last 15 years, under the Lahore Art
Forum, he has been bringing together writers, poets, scientists, musicians and
painters to speak, perform and demonstrate. The forum, almost a one-man show, is
culturally very active, may be because Muzaffar Ghaffar has diverse interests in
life. Literature may be his first love -- he is a published poet in English --
but his interests range far and wide, from physical sciences, business and
administrative sciences to Punjabi poetry and Sufi and Zen practices.
It, therefore, comes as a no surprise that he has taken up a
monumental project on Punjabi Sufi poetry. The two volumes under review are part
of this twenty-seven volume project entitled Masterworks in Punjabi Sufi Poetry.
No work of this range and scale already exists in English about Punjabi poetry.
In fact very few works of literary and critical significance exist in English
language about Punjabi letters.
Najam Hussain Syed's single volume Recurrent Patterns of
Punjabi Poetry, though invaluable, covers a small part of Punjabi poetry. Same
is the case with other books and authors. Dr Ather Tahir's book on Qadir Yar,
Taufique Rafat's selection of Bulleh Shah's poetry and his translation of Puran
Bhaghat, Shahzad Qaiser's books on Khwaja Farid and Nanak, Dr Lajwanti's Punjabi
Sufi Poets, Dr Mohan Singh's History of Punjabi Literature, Anwar Yaqub's
translation of Shah Hussain, Maqbul Elahi's of selections of Baba Farid's
poetry, Puri and Khak's selections of Sultan Bahu's works -- these are the only
books one finds written and compiled in English on Punjabi literary themes.
Professor Saeed's thin volumes of translations of some selected Sufi poetry also
fall in the same category. In its volume and range, Muzaffar Ghaffar's work in
fact outweighs the entire work done in English about Punjabi literature.
Bulleh Shah Within Reach is truly a labour of love. It is a
pioneering work -- very comprehensive and original one at that. The book has the
largest glossary provided with any work of poetry. The only other book that is
accompanied by such a huge glossary is the Granth Sahib.
The book under review, which covers 35 of the longer and more
significant of Bulleh Shah's poems -- is followed by three volumes on Shah
Hussain in his grand series and he has plans that he will bring out two more --
one each on Baba Farid and Guru Nanak -- during the current year. In fact,
Muzaffar Ghaffar has already written all the twenty-seven volumes in the series
and I have the privilege to have seen all of it.
Bulleh Shah is probably the most complex and colorful of the
Punjabi classic poets. He was also very popular and his verses are sung all over
Punjab and Sindh. This has resulted in endless admixture to the original body of
his works. No old manuscripts of his poetry are available to compare and correct
the new editions of his work. There have been significant efforts by Anwar Ali
Rohtaki, Faqir Mohammed Faqir, Sheikh Sharif Sabir, Professor Asaf Khan and Dr
Nazir to rid Bulleh Shah's poetry of extraneous elements. But the problem with
all these efforts is that no scientific criteria exists to gauge their
authenticity. Ironically, however, most of the obviously spurious parts in
Bulleh Shah's works are more religiously inclined than the rest of his poetry.
Muzaffar Ghaffar, in the book under review, seems to be more
inclined towards Dr Faqir and Sheikh Sharif Sabir's versions. One of the major
problems I find in the translations that Muzaffar Ghaffar does lies in
versification. Of course, Muzaffar Ghaffar is fully qualified to do the
translation. In fact, he is the best endowed of all the people rendering Punjabi
literature into English. He has great facility in English language and a mastery
over meter and rhyme. His translations are mostly faithful to the original text,
closely following the meter and rhyme of the original work as much as is
possible. But the constraints of meter and rhyme do result in some minor
compromises, which may deprive the translation of some nuances of the original
verses though the translation is poetry par excellence in its own right.
A literal translation may have its own problems but it gives
the reader a greater room to find his way to the original text. But the glossary
and very exhaustive notes that Muzaffar Ghaffar provides more than makes up for
the shortcomings in versification. The notes, in fact, discuss all possible
But let me add that in the whole book, I only disagreed with
one translation. In translating "Maati Qadam Karendi Yaar", maati has been
translated as dust not as clay. Clay as in 'feet of clay' will rightly convey
the irony in the line.
There is a great amount of original research in the book
under review. There are knowledgeable explorations into the meanings of
metaphors that Bulleh Shah uses. For instance, discussions on theatre forms and
the metaphor of the seed and the tree are very scholarly.
In the interpretations that Muzaffar Ghaffar offers, he has a
point of view of his own but at the same time he leaves them sufficiently open
ended allowing the readers to make their own interpretation. I, too, have some
problem with some of his interpretations. To me, he is somewhat inclined to the
esoteric and the spiritual. Maybe, my point of view is more informed by my
leftist leanings. I see the entire works by Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Bulleh
Shah as secular. They are not at all inclined to or against any particular
religion. Bulleh Shah frontally attacks fundamentalist and the exponents of
I will sum up this debate by quoting Muzaffar Ghaffar's own
words: "Sufis also militated against class division in society. They lived in
poverty, sharing their modest means with everybody. Often their 'Khanqaahs'
(convents) were supported by the pious well to do. But Sufis shunned both wealth
and the wealthy. Most particularly the Sufis shunned from the foci of power,
such as kings court and the public office. Perhaps their greatest strength was
that they were exemplars in personal life. They lived what they preached and
demonstrated infinite love for humanity."
I feel Bulleh Shah would have had problems with the 'pious
well to do'. "Amman baba chore dhuraan day puttar dee vadyaee" (Father and
mother are inveterate thieves, therefore, the son is a distinguished man!), says
Bulleh Shah. Piety and being well to do cannot go together. I tend to agree with
Balzac that behind every fortune there is a crime.
Muzaffar Ghaffar's spellings of romanised Punjabi words are
scientific but usage is of paramount importance in spelling. As late Sardar
Mohammed Khan, a great lexicographer, said: "Spellings are the shibboleth of
dictionary writing". Punjab may be closer to the original Persian sound but in
usage it will only create confusion. This is a small point but like
versification it creates distraction in an otherwise important work.
Lastly, the price of the book puts it out of reach of people
like me. Even for the English reading crowd the price is high. I know the
comparable volumes in the market cost twice as much and the quality of
production is worth the price. The book can easily be categorised as one of the
best printed ones that I have seen in Pakistan. But ideally it should be within
the reach of serious readers, instead of the coffee table crowd. Its target
readership ideally should be youth trained in English but with little knowledge
of Punjabi and the immigrants who need to know about their cultural roots. A
paperback edition may reach more serious reader more easily. The captains of
industry, who often proclaim love for the language, should consider donating the
book to keen and deserving institutions.