An annual celebration where Waris Shah wrote his Heer keeps the story – and the poet – alive in the Punjabi cultural imagination.
You don’t get to know Waris at once. It takes time and multiple visits. The first encounter, for many, is a vague introduction, as someone who wrote Heer. It’s only after reading through Heer that you realize how deeply Waris knows the issues of Punjabi society.
Waris Shah (1722-1798) was a Punjabi poet of the eighteenth century, known best for Heer Waris Shah, that tells the story of Heer and Ranjha, the most popular love legend in Punjab, and of the couple’s struggle with the established norms and religious orthodoxy of the time. This monumental work is also read as a metaphor for humankind’s quest for union with the eternal being.
That summarizes my early introductions to Waris Shah. But there is more to the man, his work, and his resonance with people throughout the Punjab. The Heer of Waris Shah isn’t just a retelling of the story, something many had done before. After all, the story of Heer-Ranjha has been written in verse by over five dozen poets — but Waris’s telling is somehow distinct. The power of this particular rendition lies in his ability to capture the social fabric of Punjab; the elevated status he accords to mutual love in lyrical verse beyond compare. Waris Shah’s Heer includes something for everyone.
While certain facets of his life are clear, many others remain a mystery. After finishing his studies, Waris Shah settled in the town of Malika Hans, a few kilometers away from Pakpattan, the town where Baba Farid (1173–1266), known as the forefather of Punjabi poetry and whose works are a part of Sufi scripture, had settled earlier. While living in a small room attached to a mosque, Waris wrote his magnum opus: Heer. The place has now come to be known as Hujra Waris Shah. We know that he was done writing Heer in his 30s, and that he lived for another five decades but, to the best of public knowledge, did not compose anything else. We do not know when he left Malika Hans. What is known is that he eventually returned to his hometown and died there in 1798.
Walking around the town and spending an hour in the room where he was living during his years of writing Heer is an experience worth having. It was like making a connection with the writer, getting an inside view of the feelings that went under writing the magnificent piece of poetry. The town is surrounded by the green fields and has a very soothing atmosphere, away from the road connecting the neighboring cities of Sahiwal and Pakpattan.
Heer Waris Shah permeates the Punjab, and is usually heard in late-night gatherings where people from a community gather to hear an orator read or sing the verse. One such large event is held each year at his hometown on the occasion of his annual festival or urs. Urs are the annual celebrations of death held at Sufi shrines across Southasia. The commemoration is termed a ‘celebration’ because in the Sufi worldview, death is the path to become one with the ultimate reality: this is often referred to as ‘wisaal‘ (to join). While a Sufi poet is one who is a Sufi master, has followers, and writes poetry for the masses – such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain and Sultan Bahu — Waris Shah followed a Sufi saint but didn’t start a silsila, or following. He was a poet at heart, not explicitly writing for the Sufi faith. He is understood to have written Heer Waris Shah at the request of his friends. This, perhaps, is why his Urs is different. It is more like a tribute to the poet, proof of how he resonates with the people, and in return, their love of his work.
The Waris Shah festival, held annually in July, also attracts the traditional elements of a Punjabi mela: traders from neighbouring villages selling handicrafts, potters with their creations, the well of death, swing rides, museums featuring magical sights, and sometimes, a circus. These are part of almost every mela in Punjab. This year’s festival, however, was slightly different. The Punjab Government was concerned about their inability to secure the festival premises, and forbade most of the festivities. There was an audience, but there was no show.
There is another, more important, dimension to this festival: the oration of Waris Shah’s poetry. Surrounded by people of all castes eager to listen to the tale of love, struggle, and rebellion, the orators read or sing stanzas from Heer Waris Shah. A sizable proportion of Heer is devoted to the dialogues between Heer and Qazi, the religious master. The way she refutes his claims and makes arguments is admirable and something not many among the masses can do today. Heer stands out as the courage they need.
Qazi mahkame vich irshad keeta, mann shira da hukam je jeuna e
Baad maut de naal emaan Heere, dakhal vich bahisht de thiwna e
Heer aakhdi jeuna bhala soi, jehra hove bhi naal emaan mian
Mere ishq nu jaan-de dhawl bashak loh qalam te zameen asmaan mian
(Qazi: Follow Sharia if you want to live. Remember you can only enter heaven if you die in faith.
Heer: What good is life if I am not faithful to myself? My love is known to the earth and the skies.)
 Baba Farid is like the forefather of Punjabi poetry. He’s revered by Muslims and Sikhs alike. His works are actually part of the Sikh holy scriptures. He is widely known personality in Punjab, both Indian and Pakistani.
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