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The Indus is one of the oldest and longest rivers in Asia. Though it originated in the Tibetan Plateau in China, much of it flows across Pakistan.
Over the centuries, a wide variety of cultures, languages and religions have sprung up on both sides of the Indus.
Five thousand years from the moment the first major civilisation emerged along the Indus, till the creation of Pakistan in 1947, various religions and cultures have thrived here: Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam. Each of these religions were indigenised.
Even though Islam has become the major faith along the Indus in the last 500 years, the dynamic history of the region has kept cultures largely heterogeneous and varied. A commonality was not attempted on the basis of a homogenous or monolithic idea of faith and culture here.
Rather those preaching Islam in the region — especially from the 12th century onward — absorbed existing cultural traditions that had evolved for thousands of years along the river, and, in turn, expressed them through the more esoteric strands of Islam (Sufism).
Historically, the strand of Sufism which emerged on the banks of Indus (especially in Punjab and all the way across Sindh), consciously eschewed religious orthodoxy and, at times, even rebelled against it.
The poetry and music that emerged from Sufi circles along the river is therefore largely a result of the theological, political and social tensions between Sufis and the orthodox ulema and clerics.
This is still the case, as we shall see while reviewing a series of songs related to the historical Sufi tradition along the Indus.
One of the most well-known poems by a Sufi saint in the region is Bulleh Ki Jana Mein Kon (Bulleh, to me I am unknown).
Penned by the 18th century Sufi saint and poet, Bulleh Shah, for over 200 years, it has been used as a popular deterrent against the ‘orthodox’ ulema who have continued to be critical of the strands of Islam that have developed (over centuries) in cultures on both sides of the Indus.
Bulleh Shah was born in Southern Punjab in 1680 and largely preached there in the Punjabi language.
He wrote mostly in Punjabi because as opposed to Persian (which was the language of the Muslim Mughal court at the time), Punjabi was a 'common man’s language'. He also wrote in Sariki (spoken in South Punjab) and in Sindhi.
The poem is a hurtling lament against religious orthodoxy in which Shah distances himself from the layers of belief that organised religions are wrapped with. Instead, he comes out looking for something which is free of cultural, political and religious prejudices and perceptions.
This is how, he believes, he can discover true humanity and consequently the Almighty. However, in the end, he realises that by rejecting existing theological, political and social labels, all he is left with is the question of who he is.
To him, this nothingness may as well be everything which humans should become (to eschew bigotry and divisions).
The nothingness (in the context of traditional Sufi imagery and concepts) is a seamless, almost inexplicable, void in which the presence of the Almighty can be felt. It has no room for man-made prejudices.
Bulleh, to me, I am not known
Not a believer inside the mosque,
Nor a pagan of false rites,
Not the pure amongst the impure,
Neither Moses, nor the Pharaoh…
Bulleya! to me, I am not known
Not in the holy Vedas am I,
Nor in opium, neither in wine,
Not in the drunkard’s intoxicated craze,
Neither awake, nor in a sleeping daze,
Bulleya! to me, I am not known
In happiness, nor in sorrow am I
Neither clean, nor a filthy mire,
Not from water, nor from earth,
Neither fire, nor from air is my birth.
Bulleya! To me, I am not known
Not an Arab, nor Punjabi
Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri
Hindu, Turk, nor Peshawari,
Nor do I live in Nadaun
Bulleya! to me, I am not known
Differences of faith, I have not known,
From Adam and Eve, I am not born
I am not the name I assume
Not in stillness, nor on the move
Bulleya! to me, I am not known
I am the first, I am the last
None other have I ever known
I am the wisest of them all
Bulleh! do I stand alone?
Bulleya! I am not known.
Another popular kalam (poem) by Bulleh Shah is Asaan Ishq Namaz Jadoun Neeti Aye (Ever since I resolved to say the prayer of love).
Written in Sariki, it is by far his most pointed indictment of the criticism he received from those accusing him of ‘distorting faith’.
He directly addresses his critics and taunts them for always looking at others and never within their own selves. He also lambasts them for finding spirituality and the Almighty in books, rituals and places of worship, without looking for Him where he really resides i.e. in one’s heart.
He dismisses the clergy as being worthless even when compared to a rooster because at least the rooster does his duty of waking up people (instead of stifling them and encouraging them to remain asleep).
You may have read thousands of books,
But have you ever read yourself?
Whereas they all run towards mosques and temples,
They never enter their own hearts.
Your fight against Satan is futile;
Because you have to first fight your own desires.
You seek the one in heaven,
But you never try to reach the one who resides with you.
Ever since I have resolved to say the prayer of love,
I have forgotten the mosque and temple.
The roosters are better than the clerics;
For at least they wake friends who are asleep…
A wine-seller is better than a moneylender,
At least he serves a drink to the thirsty.
Oh, Bulleh, make friends with your critics,
Before they beat you up.
Cleric, leave those books alone,
You just have shallow knowledge.
You need to cleanse yourself from the wines of passion,
Your exterior and interior are both stained.
You continue to enter places of worship,
But when will you enter your own heart?
Laal Meri Pat has been around for centuries. It was a poem dedicated to the 13th century Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
Lal Shahbaz was born in Afghanistan in 1149 CE. As a young man, he studied religion under various scholars before leaving his home and visiting various countries. He eventually arrived and settled in Sehwan — an ancient city in what is the present-day province of Sindh.
Shahbaz began preaching a highly esoteric strand of Islam here, and almost immediately attracted devotees from the region’s Muslim and Hindu communities.
Shahbaz was a rebel and refused to submit to the dictates of the conservative clergy. He mastered various languages, including Sindhi, Pashto, Turkish, Arabic and Sanskrit.
He was known for his nonchalant and ‘possessed’ mannerisms. He died in Sehwan and was buried there. It is also where his shrine stands.
Amir Khusro (a poet and scholar in the court of India’s 14th century Delhi Sultanate), after being moved by the stories of Lal Shahbaz, wrote a poem celebrating the life of the saint.
18th century Sufi saints, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah (from Punjab), added some verses to Khusro’s poem. By the 19th century, roving fakirs (spiritual vagabonds) were singing it outside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz.
Sung in Punjabi, the poem/song, though already well-known in Punjab and Sindh, was given a more mainstream make-over in the 1960s by composer, Master Ashiq Hussain.
The words of the song were updated by the tragic poet, Saghar Siddiqui, before it was offered to famous Pakistani vocalist, Noor Jahan to sing.
It was this version of the song which became the most popular; and a modern component of Punjab’s folk music realm. Later, it was covered by various famous singers of both Pakistan and India.
The song is a whirling tribute to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. It is often sung with reckless abandon, as if in a trance, and to the beat of the South Asian Sufi music genre called the dhamal.
The song is a particular favorite of the saint’s women devotees, who mostly belong to the working class and peasant communities of Punjab and Sindh, and find the words and music highly liberating and healing.
Oh Laal, please keep my matters straight;
Long live Laal!
From Sindh and of Sehwan,
Comes the generous Shahbaz Qalandar …
In every step, I trade the path of Qalandar;
Ali (RA) is in my every breath…
Four of your lamps burn forever,
I've come to burn a fifth one;
Long live Laal!
Oh my mentor, your shrine is high,
Songs are played in sync with the clocks…
Long live Laal!
Ghanan Ghanan(!) is the sound of your drum,
The clocks tick along with it…
Long live Laal…!
14th century poet, Amir Khusro used elements from ancient Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Indian music to create a distinct music genre called the qawaali. The qawaali quickly became attached to the music performed at Sufi shrines in India.
By the 16th century, the qawaali had developed into a bona fide Sufi devotional music form, in which odes to the Almighty and divine Muslim personalities were sung to the beat of rhythmic and hypnotic beats.
Till the mid-20th century, Qawaali remained confined to Sufi shrines in the Punjab and in some other areas of South Asia.
However, from the late 1950s onward, it was introduced to a wider urban audience in Pakistan by qawaali singers (qawaals) such as the Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian.
One way they did this was by delivering their qawaalis in Urdu. This was also when the Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian incorporated modern poetry, but which was delivered in the established imagery and ethos of the traditional qawaali.
For example, Aziz Mian would often address modern-day issues through Sufi idioms and concepts first developed in the poetry and songs of ancient Sufi poets of the region.
One such idiom was of the inner conflict a Sufi poet often experienced in his attempt to achieve a unique unity with God. In the process, he annihilates (fana) his ego which keeps a person anchored to the trivialities of everyday life.
The union with God (a metaphor for a clear understanding and awareness of His existence) was explained as an intoxicated state which the Sufi poets likened with the effects of sweet wine.
However, the union in this context was not the end of it. Because after becoming strikingly aware of God’s presence, many Sufi poets would still find Him to be perplexing and unable to be fully grasped by the limited capacities of the human mind.
This is when many poets would stretch their poems and turn them into imagined conversations with the Almighty, exposing their conflicting emotions made up of awe as well as anger; ecstasy as well as desolation.
Aziz Mian mastered this aspect of the qawaali. But his frustration was more to do with his immediate surroundings in which he was often criticised for being violent and too admiring of intoxicants, especially alcohol.
In 1975, when the Sabri Brothers mocked his ‘perpetually intoxicated state’, and style of qawaali, Aziz Mian retaliated by penning a long qawaali which sardonically hit back at his critics.
This was Haye kambakht tu ne pi hi nahi (Oh, unfortunate soul, you never even drank). In it, he begins by proudly owning up to his liking for intoxicants, taunting his opponents that they were criticising something they had never even experienced.
He then moves on by suggesting that those who like delivering lectures on morals and still commit misdeeds were worse than drunkards, and thus were hypocrites.
As the qawaali goes deeper towards a whirling climax, Aziz Mian suggests that he was intoxicated by his love of the Almighty; an intoxication which his detractors can’t even imagine or achieve because they were shallow. He damns them for being myopic and simplistic in their understanding of his words.
One of the most intense examples of a Sufi poem which deals with the conflict and frustration of a man who is left perplexed by God even after reaching the state of ego annihilation was penned by Naz Khialvi — a poet from the city of Toba Tek Singh in the Punjab. He titled the poem Tum aik gorak dhanda ho (You are puzzle).
In the late 1980s, Khialvi gave the poem to the famous qawaal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who took almost two years to compose it the way he thought it deserved to be delivered.
The poem presents God as a perplexing paradox, putting the poet in a state of both awe as well as frustration because even after understanding some aspects of the Almighty, the poet is baffled by those aspects that go the other way, often replacing (within the seeker) euphoria with bewilderment.
The poet pleads that he has every right to question the paradox because he was completely in love with an entity which draws him closer, but does not allow itself to be fully comprehended.
Tarrin Paunda (Plant) is one of the most haunting songs in the vast reservoir of Sindh’s ancient Sufi music genre. It was first recorded by Allan Fakir (for Radio Pakistan) in the late 1970s.
Allan was the quintessential Sindhi folk singer, who had mastered the art of expressing the poetry of ancient Sufi saints who had settled along the River Indus in the arid province of Sindh.
Tarrin Paunda is often mistaken as being the work of 18th century Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. But it was actually authored by Shaikh Ayaz.
As a young man, Ayaz was a Marxist who went on to become a close colleague of the ‘father of Sindhi nationalism’, GM Syed (before they fell out in the 1980s).
Ayaz’s most prolific period as a writer and poet was between the early 1960s and late 1970s. And it was in the 1970s that he penned Tarrin Paunda, which was inspired by the mesmerising poetic style of Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai.
The poem is about a man’s hope to one day meet his beloved when his natural surroundings will be in full bloom.
He sings (in Sindhi):
‘When red roses will bloom, then we will meet;
When those birds will return and we will make their sounds, then we will meet;
When the tears will move down the cheeks like pearls, then we will meet;
Those days of parting were a mistake of youth, so we will meet when there are roses in bloom…’
The poem was written by Ayaz to be sung in a hypnotic manner, as if the singer was blissfully caught inside an eternal loop of both hope and despair; love and melancholy.
Allan Fakir achieved that perfectly.
In the north along the River Indus, Sufism did not have the kind of impact that it had in the Punjab and Sindh. But it was still present there in a slightly different and more earthly form.
For example, regarding Sufi music and poetry, poets in Sindh and Punjab saw Indus as a fluid mystical pathway which carried men and women towards an esoteric realm, whereas in the north, or more so, in what is now KP, poets saw the river as a blessed source of nature that replenished the land on which people cultivated their crops, grazed their cattle and moved to and fro as tribes.
That’s why poetry on Pashtun folk culture is often about a beloved land and/or the memory of it by those who had to leave it due to various economic or political reasons.
Some of the most moving poems/songs in this respect were written by roving Pashtun gypsies, one of whom went on to become a singing legend.
Pashtu folk singer, Zarsanga was born in 1946 into a nomadic tribe in Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The tribe’s main vocation was singing, so Zarsanga began to sing at an early age.
She would travel with her tribe all over Pakistan, and even to Afghanistan, where the tribe would settle in the summers. By the time she got married in 1965 at the age of 19, she was already a famous singer among the Pakhtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Most of the songs that she sang were written by the common people of her nomadic tribe. The songs spoke about the joys and tragedies of the lives of Pakhtun gypsies.
The non-Pashto sections of the country discovered her when she began to record songs for Radio Pakistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One such song, ‘Ya Qurban’, was regularly played by the station. It was penned by a fellow gypsy (in the 1960s), and is a longing for the stretch of land on which gypsy tribes moved to and fro, and for those who have travelled far away from these lands and their loved ones.