We know little about Damodar except that he, the greatest classical story teller of Punjab, was the first to compose the legend of Heer Ranjha that captured the imagination of not only Punjabis but also non-Punjabis across the subcontinent. Whatever we know about Damodar is based on the scant internal evidence and the references found in some of the writings of various authors.
“Damodar is my name, Gulati is my caste. I came to the fiefdom of the Sial my heart using its discretion led me to spend my days there,” is what he says in the opening lines of his story.
Whether he was a Hindu or a Sikh is still a matter of debate. Bhai Guru Das (1551-1629), a celebrated Sikh religious writer, in one of his Vars (Epic) mentioned the names of some prominent early Sikh converts. One of them is Damodar the wise, resident of Sultanpur. Sultanpur village is still there, on the road from Jhang to Shah Jewna where a number of Hindus of Gulati caste lived before the partition of India. His date of birth is a matter of guess but literary historians agree that he was contemporary of Emperor Akbar the great and Shah Hussain, the most refined poet of the Punjabi language. That the story was already popular among the people is evident from the fact that Shah Hussain employs metaphors and symbols of Heer Ranjha in his lyrics (Kafi) at several places without fear of their being little understood. But huge credit goes to Damodar who composed the complete story in its multidimensionality, raising it to the level of social and cultural odyssey of entire society full of complexities and contradictions. Once written, it inspired innumerable poets of the Punjabi, the Persian, the Hindi and many other languages in the subcontinent for a long time to come who created their own versions.
Poets like Muqbal, Waris Shah and Charag Awan to name just a few built their versions based on Damodar’s narrative, albeit with some changes here and there to suit their creative needs in different historical conditions. Damodar constructed the structure of the story encompassing the life of individual in all its social and existential dimensions. The main protagonists he created emerged as eternal symbols of defiance of class and tribal norms that forcibly offered individual at the altar of traditions born of needs that were considered to be essential to sustain the hierarchal socio-political structure.
Interestingly, the first character Damodar introduces is that of himself, all set to tell the tale with his eyewitness account, insisting that what he is going to narrate unfolded before his very eyes. The poet appears throughout the narrative at important occasions with his comments, creating a strong impression as if he is an integral part of the story that amusingly led or rather misled many a credulous literary pundit to conclude that the whole saga took place in Damodar’s time, failing to discern that it was an element of clever literary strategy employed by a crafty poet to enhance the impact of his narrative.
Najam Hussain Syed in his remarkable book on Damodar debunked this myth of so-called eyewitness account exposing the intellectual shallowness of the traditional critics. The role of Damodar in the story he composed, vaguely evokes the image of visionary narrator, Sanjaya of Mahabharata who using his spiritual power while being in the court with the anxious blind King Dhritarashtra, looks at the war theatre of Kurukeshetara and narrates the happenings to keep the King informed of progress on the war.
The way Damodar goes about telling his story is unique in the sense that it is quite untraditional. After introducing himself, not merely for the autobiographical purposes, he brings in Heer’s family and clan headed by her father Chuchak, a powerful lord and a reputable tribal chief. Further he tells us of Heer’s birth and praises the Almighty God just in one stanza and goes back quickly to the story.
Compared with him Waris Shah though iconoclastic in his world view looks traditional in the beginning simply because he begins his narrative in a tried and tested conventional manner. Damodar creates characters and arranges the sequence with a keen sense of realism. He builds the character of Heer gradually in Punjab’s medieval society where her family rules.
As a pampered child of Lord Chuchak surrounded by an ambiance of riches and pleasure she grows into a young lady; bold and beautiful. Young Heer full of self confidence has an aura of power: she has the generosity of a lord and the courage of a princely fighter. Luddan, the sailor is employed by Lord Noora at some distance in the neighbourhood to look after his fleet of boats. One day Luddan obliges some gentlemen by allowing them to have a joyride on the boats. Noora in his fury insults and punishes Luddan who in his old-age feels wrongly disgraced. Luddan in retaliation, when Noora is away from his home, weighs the anchor and sails the flotilla on the river Chenab, crying for help.
“He sailed through the night like a vagabond and kept crying; is there a lord, born of lady who can take me into his fold?” The gentlemen heard him; silence was the response as nobody uttered a word. Why to enkindle the fire, why to start the fresh feuds! It is inappropriate to do battle and get people killed for this flotilla hearing of Noora no one let the sailor drop anchor--”.
The lords proud of their knightly deeds and having an inflated sense of honour are scared of giving protection to the hapless sailor, fearing the wrath of Noora. Heer along with a bevy of girls hears the cry and acts like a mighty gracious queen” cast your anchor along the side of our bank, you will not lack anything here who is this monster Noora, the owner of the vessels? No one can shelter you except me, the daughter of Chuchak”.
On refusal of Heer’s father to return the vessels and the sailor, Noora conducts a raid and to his utter surprise finds a female battalion led by Heer ready to confront his party that proves to be bigger disgrace for him.
The profile of young Heer sketched by Damodar gives us a clue about the physiognomy and the psyche of a woman who in time to come, defying a repressive society, would emerge as a metaphor of love and emancipation, fighting all her way to join the league of immortals.