IT is easy to wax lyrical about a classical Punjabi poet without fear of reprobation by the guardians of literary canon. When the poet concerned is Bulleh Shah, one can employ any number of laudatory adjectives with critical impunity to praise his works. An occasional reviewer for an English newspaper, in any case, is least equipped to offer an impartial, academic critique of the verses written by one of the greatest Punjabi poets of all times. What follows, therefore, will confine itself to discussing how — and also how successfully or unsuccessfully — Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar has made Bulleh Shah’s works accessible to readers with either no or limited literacy in Punjabi.
Ghaffaar is a Lahore-based businessman who has been a patron of the arts and literature since the 1980s. He has authored and compiled several books including the Masterworks of Punjaabi Sufi Poetry, a series of which his compendium of Bulleh Shah-made-easy is a part. He mentions at the outset that five to ten per cent of approximately 150 million Punjabis living around the world (roughly 90 million in Pakistan, 50 million or so in India, the rest in Europe and America) “may thirst for a return” to their cultural roots. Some of them, he writes in his preface to the series, “may veer towards the very rich tradition of poetry in Punjaabi, but do not find an entry point”. Then there are others who “may wish to reach the high quality verse” written in Punjabi, but are hampered by various limitations. The books in the series, he notes, “are designed to provide an entry point” to these two groups of people “into Punjaabi literature, history, culture, and tradition”.
This is a laudable objective, except that it runs two serious risks: oversimplifying the meaning of the verses in order for the uninitiated and/or partially initiated to make sense of them; and undermining the need for Punjabi literacy by offering a Romanised transliteration of the verses and their English translation on top of that. The former may easily sacrifice the intrinsic complexity of poetry at the altar of accessibility. The latter can do even worse. Instead of attracting people to read Punjabi poetry in the Punjabi script, it may help them stay minimally literate, even illiterate, in the language even while trying to access its highest literary manifestations.
Ghaffaar provides original texts of Bulleh Shah’s poetry in the Arabic-Persian script used in Pakistani Punjab as well as in another one used in India — a 16th century script devised by the second Sikh Guru, Angad. That is where the problem starts.
The objective of introducing the Sufi giant’s poetry to the modern reader is commendable even if it falls a little short of the mark
Ghaffaar insists on calling the Arabic-Persian script by its font (Nastaliq or Naskh) rather than Shahmukhi for political rather than literary or linguistic reasons. Shahmukhi, according to him, “means ‘that which is facing or inclined towards the king’, or his court”. Opposed to that is Gurmukhi, “that which is facing or inclined towards the guru”. He declares Shahmukhi a “derogatory term” because “scholars of Gurmukhi” first “gave the name Shahmukhi to the Arabic-Persian script” used in Punjab before Gurmukhi was invented.
The history of how the two scripts have become associated with two different religions — Islam and Sikhism — is more complicated than what he suggests. And that is why his prescription of using font names creates more confusion than it resolves. Arabic and Persian, as well as Urdu and Punjabi, are written in many fonts other than Nastaliq or Naskh. What name will the script get when not written in the two fonts he mentions?
Ghaffaar also points out that the Arabic-Persian script “is derived from the Quraanic script and commands great respect”. Is he suggesting that associating the script with religion is fine (and that is perhaps why he has no issues with calling the script used in India ‘Gurmukhi’)but associating it with politics is not okay (and that is perhaps why he has issues with calling the script used in Pakistan ‘Shahmukhi’, the script of the king and his court)?
Offering a single-page summary of controversies around the script, as Ghaffaar does, is certainly not the best way to address such complicated questions. A book carrying Bulleh Shah’s poetry could have easily left the subject out in the spirit of what the Sufi poet always stood for: a stubborn resistance to both religious and political divides.
The second problem arises from Romanisation. “The Roman script devised here is more phonetic than the Arabic-Persian script used for Punjaabi,” Ghaffaar says. Note his use of double vowels in both his own name and in the word ‘Punjaabi’. He claims the Roman script he uses “gives more precise pronunciations” — Islaam as opposed to Islam, for instance, for a stretched sound after the letter ‘I’.
Soon, however, it gets more confusing: the Punjabi word for “lap” is transliterated as “god” even when it can easily be read as ‘god’ in English, but the Punjabi word for “head” is transliterated as “sirr” rather than “sir”. Ghaffaar seems to know what he has put himself into, though he does not offer a way out. “Sirr” is used because ‘sir’ is “extant in English”. So is ‘god’ but, he argues, it resists “helpful adjustment”.
He also uses diacritical marks in the Romanised script to denote sounds that do not exist in English, such as the sound of ‘r’ in “ghari”, the Punjabi word for ‘watch’ or ‘a moment of time’. But he does not sufficiently warn the reader that the English letter ‘d’ is not always to be pronounced as we do in, say, addenda, but sometimes rather as we pronounce ‘th’ in ‘that’ — so “door” should be read as a Punjabi word meaning ‘far’, not as an English word meaning ‘entrance’ (see how the problem with the use of double vowels is manifest in this word, too). It is difficult to find out how the script he has “devised” will treat such Punjabi words as sut [seven], sut [injury, strike] and sut [throw] which are all written the same way in the Arabic-Persian script, but sound and mean differently.
The complications of Ghaffaar’s Romanised script require as much effort — if not more — to master as learning a new script does. He could have avoided that by following a standardised method of transliteration used in some recognised dictionary and, more importantly, by somehow encouraging his readers to familiarise themselves with the original script (Arabic-Persian) in which the great master of Punjabi poetry wrote his works.
He himself provides the reason why that should be the case. “[…] most Punjaabi Sufi poets play with the sounds and meanings of words simultaneously using various tones and pitches of the meanings.” Transliteration and transfer into another script should not reduce or remove this interplay, though — as Ghaffaar notes — that is not always possible. “Being more phonetic, both the Roman and Gurmukhi scripts do not have [the] facility in playing with meanings and sounds,” as much as the Arabic-Persian script does, he writes in the preface.
The last problem concerns the English translation of Bulleh Shah’s works as given in the book. “The translations prepared for this series are not designed to produce alternative literature, but are an attempt to beat a path to the original,” Ghaffaar explains. He then says that “often the metre had to be compromised” in translation in “order to preserve meaning and to follow the rhyme scheme of the original.” Here he is conceding that there have been technical limitations in the process. What if there have been limitations in understanding the meaning of a verse and also in expressing it in another language?
Without going into the merits or demerits of his translations, it is sufficient to say that any translation, even that of the best variety, is an approximation. When, however, an approximation sits right next to the original in printed text, it is likely to be seen as a substitute for the original. That is where the argument about accessibility and the loss of nuance as a result of it becomes salient.
Punjabi Sufi poetry, as Ghaffaar points out multiple times, communicates with its audiences at multiple levels. A translation can do the same only if the translator has what John Keats calls “negative capability” — the ability to know and express someone else’s thoughts and emotions as they themselves would. Shakespeare, Keats notes, possesses “negative capability” of the highest order. Whether Ghaffaar also possesses it is moot.
Explanatory notes on Sufi practices and thoughts in general, and Bulleh Shah’s poetry in specific, also limit the meaning of the original work as they invite the reader to read the original with reference to the poet’s biography and the history of his age. Punjabi Sufi poetry is definitely more universally relevant than being little more than a record of the life and time of its creators.
In an alternative universe, the book would have included poetry only in Arabic-Persian texts, supplemented by a glossary in English of unfamiliar, or less familiar, words and phrases. It could have done better by including longer essays on the history of the Punjabi language and literature (including on its scripts) and a well-sourced and detailed personal history of each poet (preferably within the broader political, religious, and cultural contexts of their respective eras). These essays should have aroused the intellectual curiosity of the readers to the extent that they could engage with the original text without the distractions of transliterations, scripts, and copious notes. That could have created a lasting connection between the poetry and its (aspiring) audience than the book — and the series — in its current format may facilitate.
The series, though, can easily claim that it has already accomplished something significant: it includes a version of Sufi poetic texts finalised after decades of meticulous research and painstaking investigation by some of the best minds in Punjabi literary circles. This feat has been achieved at a weekly sitting, or sangat, of Punjabi writers, intellectuals, historians, and lovers of the language, a constant since 1973 at the Lahore residence of Najm Hosain Syed, the doyen of Punjabi letters. On this count, Ghaffaar deserves the gratitude of all those who hanker after the universal truths infused in Punjabi Sufi poetry, but are often hobbled by multiple versions of the same verse.
The series merits a prominent place in the library of anyone interested in Punjabi literature for that reason alone, but then Ghaffaar has complemented it with CD recordings of high quality. These CDs contain compositions of Sufi poetry also developed at the sangat sessions. Many of them were sung at literary sessions that Ghaffaar himself arranged under the Lahore Arts Forum, a cultural and literary organisation he has been running in Lahore since 1986.
Unencumbered by arguments about script, glossaries, and explanations, Bulleh Shah’s songs of love, longing, and self-abnegation, as rendered in the CDs, reach straight to the heart the moment they hit the ear. The recordings are, undoubtedly, more suited to bringing the works of the great Sufi poets of Punjab within reach of modern-day audiences than Ghaffaar’s written word, which confounds the mind as soon as it catches the eye.
The reviewer is the editor of Herald magazine.
Masterworks of Punjaabi Sufi Poetry: Bulleh Shah, Within Reach
By Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar
709pp. (Two volumes and eight CDs)
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017