|Written by Haroon Khalid|
Only about 50 kilometers from Takht-Hazara, the village of Ranjha - the protagonist of the folk story Heer Ranjha, is another historical village by the name of Salem. This was a Muslim dominant village before the creation of Pakistan, so its demography didn't suffer much at the hands of Partition. In 1996 this sleepy village made national news when a local farmer murdered his two daughters. Their crime was to step outside the boundaries of the household. They were 17 and 18. It didn't matter to him where they went. It was a crime enough for him that they had stepped out in the public sphere, something that is reserved for men.
This is not an isolated case in rural Punjab in Pakistan today. In a post-colonial state, struggling to define and redefine national identity, Pakistan - and Punjab in particular - has adopted a religious worldview in contrast to the secular sensibilities of the pre-partition days, as can be deciphered by its folk stories and songs. There are several reasons as to why Punjab, as opposed to other provinces, has seen this shift. One of them is that the middle class, which generally carries the "moral", "ethical", and "religious" values of a post-colonial developing country like Pakistan, is the most dominant group here. Instances of violence against women for allegedly trespassing the defined moral boundaries of the society have seen an exponential increase in the past decade or so as more such incidents are being reported in the media, underscoring that society has become much more violence prone. This could perhaps be a hangover after the repressive regime of the religiously inclined military dictator from the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq. In contrast to the diminishing spaces for women today, the folk stories and legends of Punjab present a picture of an alternative reality. This is not to say that the Punjab of an earlier age was a utopian society, but compared to where it seems to be heading now, at times the past looks like a paradise lost, one with which we need to be engaged to redefine the collective identity of the society.
In Ejaz Durrani's blockbuster movie, Heer Ranjha, while dancing and singing out in the open fields along with her friends, all of whom are, female; Heer is informed that a stranger is sleeping on her charpoy. Being short-tempered, she rushes to the site where she finds the protagonist of the story, Ranjha, sleeping on her charpoy. She wants to beat him up but she doesn't. Heer is wearing a black kurtha with dhoti, traditional dress of the Punjabi women from that era. There is no shawl or dupatta to cover her ‘modesty,' as majority of the Punjabi women wear now, when they leave their homes. Neither is she reluctant to talk to a stranger. Were she to undertake such action today, she would run the potential of provoking a violent feud. Doing this has the potential of turning into a bloody feud now. Her charpoy lies in the middle of the fields, out in the open, where she sleeps when she feels like it. Every day she goes out with other females from the community, where they sing and dance. In the movie Heer (1970), Heer is an independent figure, who even while living under the shadow of a patriarchal society enjoys the freedom of mobility, something out of reaches of many of her counterparts from contemporary Pakistani Punjab.
A study of other folk love legends from Punjab substantiates the claim made here. In the Pakistani Punjabi movie, Sohni Mahiwal (1976), popular in the Punjab, Sohni tells her father, in one of the scenes, that she is going out with her friends for Gidda, a traditional Punjabi dance for women. A Punjabi song follows. The very act of Gidda is deemed "un-Islamic" now and hence looked down upon. At the end of the dancing and singing Mahiwal shows up and they end up meeting alone for the first time. The fluidity of social movement for women plays an important role in fuelling love. Sohni also helps her father with his pottery business. She sits at the shop for him: a rare sight in Punjab now, including in the "developed" rural centers. While exploring the market of Gujrat, Mahiwal first catches the sight of Sohni at her father's shop and offers to buy all their products. Similarly in Sassi Punno, released in 1968, Sassi meets Punno for the first time when he is resting at her fields. She visits the fields regularly as part of her service to the family. The scene, as depicted in the movie, is akin to the first meeting of Heer and Ranjha in the movie mentioned above. Sassi wants to beat the transgressor with a stick but then falls instantly in love with Punno when she lays her eyes on him, just like Heer.
Whereas on one hand the freedom of mobility experienced by female protagonists in these movies plays a pivotal role in fomenting their romance it also serves as the basis in earning them the ire of the society. When Sahiban goes to the mela with her other female friends, the rest of the villagers realize that there is something going on between Mirza and Sahiban. They notice how the two young protagonists interact with each other, as depicted in the movie Mirza Sahiban (1947). Since Mirza and Sahiban are able to meet regularly outside of their homes other people end up finding out about their relationship, which eventually leads to their tragic end. This is a common theme in the four films discussed above: Heer-Ranja, Sohni-Mahiwal, Sassi-Punno, and Mirza Sahiban.
The very act of falling in love and expressing it openly is something unacceptable to their societies. One wonders: if instead of expressing their love openly they had followed the conventional route of courting each other within the confines of wedlock, would their families have embraced their relationship? Heer was a Sial. Ranjha was also from a high caste. However the only reason that Heer's father suggests that she marries somewhere else is because she has dared to challenge the norms of the society, which do not allow one to express one's love for the other outside of a marriage. The governing laws are not only applicable to our protagonists but also to other females in the stories. For example Sohni's cousin, who is also her suitor and the villain in the story, finds out that his sister is in love with Mahiwal; he subsequently tries to kill her. Similarly Heer's sister-in-law cannot marry Murad, a Baloch, with whom she has fallen in love.
The movie depicts Mirza and Sahiban as first cousins. Muslims of Punjab are permitted to marry cousins, irrespective of the side of the family they come from. Sahiban's other suitor is another cousin, from her mother's side. Given the social traditions of Punjabi Muslims, a marriage between Mirza and Sahiban would have therefore been acceptable and even possible, had the world not found out about their love. Love is not a crime, but its public demonstrations are; this is the transgression committed by the couple. A patriarchal society doesn't only define appropriate behavior for a female; it also constructs the definition of what is acceptable for a male to do and what is not. The first scene of the movie Sohni-Mahiwal shows us Mahiwal's perturbed father. He is a successful trader and now wants his son to take over the business. However his son, Mahiwal, has no interest in the business. He would rather paint. In the sort of society that the protagonist finds himself this is not a serious vocation. Similarly, in Sassi-Punno, a romantic Punno has no interest in managing the affairs of the state. He wants, rather, to explore the world. Our lead from Heer-Ranjha also doesn't fit within the mold for an acceptable male. Instead of working with his brothers he spends most of his time roaming the village with his friends, playing his flute. This behavior eventually invites the ire of his sisters-in-law; this becomes the reason for him to leave his house in search of Heer.
The flute is a common thread tying these folk stories with each other. At least three out of four protagonists are seen playing the flute in the movies: Ranjha, Mirza and Mahiwal. Out of these three, two of them - Ranjha and Mirza - are depicted as naughty characters. Both of them break women's water vessels for fun. Mirza is also depicted as stealing butter. One cannot help but draw comparisons between their depiction and that of Lord Krishna from Hindu mythology. In popular art, the god Krishna is depicted holding or playing a flute. It is believed that as a child he used to steal butter. Similarly, as a young man his encounters with the maidens (gopis) are celebrated. It seems like an attempt to seek inspiration from Krishna's stories for these folk characters. This is interesting as all of them are Muslim characters. To take inspiration from Hindu mythology reflects its deep impact on the psychology on the people of this land, transcending religious boundaries. Religious distinctions take a back seat in these stories, where concepts of humanistic values come to the fore. For example, disappointed at his failed love, after Heer's marriage, Ranjha travels to Tilla Jogian to live and learn from Hindu jogis. Eventually he also becomes one. His religion by birth, Islam, doesn't seem to inhibit him from undertaking this spiritual task. In the movie Sassi-Punno, one notices that the Muslim King has a Hindu astrologer, on whose advice he sends away his only daughter Sassi, when he is told that she would bring shame to the family by falling in love. These folk stories don't reinforce religious boundaries and distinctions; in fact they challenge them. The characters reiterate that their love for each other is even greater than that for God. Such a pronouncement would be regarded blasphemous and punishable by death today in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. After Mirza is thrown out of his uncle's house, he moves to live on the outskirts of the village, and continues meeting Sahiban secretly. When his uncle finds out he requests that Mirza leave, first in the name of God, to which the young man refuses. However when he is urged to leave in the name of his beloved, he is left with no other option but to depart.
Any folk story provides an insight into the culture of that particular society at that particular time. These stories are no different. Relationships between certain characters of the stories and their particular roles identify how certain family relationships interact with each other. For example they bring to fore the relationship of a sister-in-law with the bride, or a husband with the brother-in-law, of a nephew with his uncle, of a sister with a brother, etc. For example Sahiban's mother wants Sahiban to marry her nephew instead of Mirza, her husband's nephew. This phenomenon is often noted in Punjab even now, whereby mothers want their child to marry within their side of the family as opposed to that of the husband. Sahiban's father has no objections to the marriage between Mirza and Sahiban but he faces stiff opposition from his wife and his son. Similarly, in Heer-Ranjha's story one will notice that after Heer gets married her sister-in-law becomes her most vocal opponent in the house. Their relationship eventually improves when Heer and Ranjha help her with her love story. Initially the sister-in-law takes up the task of "correcting" Heer when she realizes that Heer is distracted and not devoted to her husband completely, depicting a typical antagonist relationship between sisters-in-law from this culture.
The stories also shed a light on the concept of bradari (clan loyalties) as a societal bond that cannot be broken. Even though Sohni's poor father wants to marry his daughter to Mahiwal, he is refrained from doing so by his bradari. They insist that he marries his daughter within the clan. When they threaten to boycott him, her father, afraid of losing his place in the society - which is defined by his clan - is left with no other option but to cancel the marriage of Sohni and Mahiwal. In a similar scene Sassi's father, Rangeela, is also summoned by her bradari and asked to throw Punno out of the house if he wants to remain part of the extended group. One realizes that the clan system not only situates a person in their society, but also serves as a social, economic and political net for an individual at a time when there were no social safety nets to safeguard an individual. There was no concept of an individual at that time, only that of a group. The love legends, which were stories of individuals like Heer and Ranjha, Sassi and Punno, Mirza and Sahiban, challenge the concept of identification through a group, or a bradari-centric approach, and focus on individuals.
One also notices other traditional practices of the Punjab in these stories. For example there is a strong sense of hospitality found in them. When Sohni is to visit Mahiwal across the river of Chenab he knows not what to offer his guest when she comes. Failing to find fish, he is said to offer her a part of his body, afraid to fail in duties of hospitality. In Heer-Ranjha, Ranjha feels humiliated in front of his friends when his sister-in-law sends them burned rotis. One can notice such instances of traditional hospitality in all these stories.
But by underscoring these familial and societal mores the stories also provide an opportunity to challenge and redefine them. Even when Heer gets married her heart remains in search of Ranjha, who has taken up a similar task of finding his beloved. Still married, she leaves her husband and elopes with her "true" love. Whereas the "sanctity of marriage" is deemed to be a scared bond in the culture of Punjab, her folk stories also enables one to challenge that "sacred" bond for the sake of "true" love. Sohni marries her cousin, but continues meeting her beloved Mahiwal secretly, challenging the very institution of marriage. Sahiban elopes with Mirza on the day of her marriage. The lovers in the movies continue meeting with each other despite opposition from their parents and family, challenging the notion of parents or elders "knowing best". In doing so they bring attention to the individual, an alien concept at that time and even now.
On the one hand, these folk love legends provide a space to rebel against the norms and ethics of a society. On the other, they reinforce traditionality, as defined by patriarchy. All the love stories are explained through a rationale of spirituality to justify a trespass which would be otherwise hard to justify. Instead of remaining stories of human beings who fall in love with each other, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, they have been attributed auras of metaphysical love, which transcend the boundaries of the world. Sohni had an image of Mahiwal in her mind before she ever saw him, one that she was rendering on the pottery that Mahiwal encounters. Mahiwal was painting an image of Sohni before he even knew she existed. He undertakes the journey to Punjab to meet Sohni. There is a similar subtext in Sassi and Punno's story, as depicted in the movie. Punno has an image of Sassi in his mind, because of which he wants to leave the Kingdom and become a traveler. He wants to find Sassi, whom he has already seen and fallen in love with in his dreams, the spiritual realm. Ranjha goes out in search of Heer when challenged by his sister-in-law. When they meet for the first time, it is love at first sight; the storytellers use allusions to the divine to condone a human "trespass". Instead of depicting two human being falling in love with one another, the act becomes one of predestination, possible because of a metaphysical will. Thus an act looked down upon in the wider society (i.e. falling in love) is justified to the audience, who is also part of that society, by explaining it through the metaphysical. Mirza says to Sahiban that their love goes back to the start of the world. This metaphysical quality becomes a requirement: even for these protagonists, for two human beings to fall in love across geographies, castes, creeds, and religion would be unacceptable. It becomes acceptable to listeners of the story because the legends are in the realm of the metaphysical, something that was destined to be.
One possible reason is that the stories were understood and then depicted (in movies, in this case) within a patriarchal system. Whereas on the one hand they allow an individual to identify and exert oneself, on the other hand they dilute the human and individual aspect of these stories by giving it a spiritual tone, making the entire exercise self-defeating. This is how these stories are depicted in the famous Pakistani movies. This explanation of an assertion of individuality, in a patriarchal society, through spirituality, provides a framework in which falling in love outside of one's caste, religion or creed occurs not because somebody was willing to challenge societal norms, but someone was predestined to do that. It ceases to be an act of the individual, but an act of divinity, which is a justification enough for any trespass or doing. This framework makes the legend acceptable to the audience, who would otherwise be members of the same society and keepers of tradition, which are being challenged.
"Hri" - a sound or a vibration, the utterance of which awakens the empathy that is an inherent part of every sentient being. Regionalism must no longer remain a prisoner of platitude, since there is a consensus that geopolitical friction, poverty and pressing environmental issues as well as cultural and social dislocation must be addressed through the regional framework. There is a need to revive and energise discussions of regionalism on the platform of mainstream politics, public information and research, with a dynamic Southasian sensibility.