Baba Guru Nanak [1469-1539] was an unusually remarkable figure in the history of Punjab and subcontinent in so many aspects. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of great historical personages that exited during the last one thousand years. His unique contribution has been unmatched in the realm of faith, spirituality and literature. He like Lord Buddha changed our society for all times to come. Take for instance his role in the evolution and formation of our literary tradition which is usually overshadowed by the preponderance of religious tradition his teachings established.
Baba Farid and Guru Nanak are two giants who employing the people’s language for their creative expression laid the firm foundation of contemporary Punjabi which richly flourished in the times that followed.
Baba Nanak knew several languages but generally preferred to write in the local ones which obviously were closer to the masses he wanted to reach out to. He was also aware of hegemony of ruling elites’ languages and dynamics of changing patterns of people’s language in Punjab. Here is one of the revealing verses we come across on the page number 1192 of Guru Granth Sahib: “Ghar ghar Mian, sabhna jiaan / boli awwar tumhaari /in each and every home, everyone addresses other as Mian (Muslim greetings); your speech has changed”. Nothing, it seems, eluded his eye, not even such a thing as language politics which wasn’t as obtrusive as it is in modern times. It was a historically correct observation as a sizable chunk of populace had already converted to a new faith in Punjab.
In other words, Guru Nanak was perhaps the first important historical figure to raise his defiant voice against the linguistic dominance of the ruling cliques of foreign origins.
No one can think of history of Punjabi literature without taking into account the sacred verses composed by him. His oeuvre is refreshingly overwhelming in terms of substance and quality. It would be no exaggeration to say that his writings influenced in a fundamental manner all the writers especially the poets who came later. In fact almost all the literary seeds that germinated in the classical era lay hidden in his verses.
Shafqat Tanveer Mirza in his introduction to the selected verses of Guru Nanak published by Pakistan Punjabi Adbi Board, Lahore, writes: “in the time period stretching from Baba Farid to Shah Husain, we find two genres of the Punjabi poetry; Sholk [couplet] and Kafi [a lyrical form designed to be sung]. If we try to find the origins of other genres, our literary history has no answer save to take us to Baba Nanak. This is the literary compulsion. So we can’t turn away from him. We can never be complete without him”.
Anybody who knows Punjabi literature will not contest the validity of the statement. Variety of literary genres employed by him is staggering if we glance through his verses. No one before or after him had the ability to use such an array of genres for expression with such a panache. Genres he employed were adopted and popularised by the poets and saints who succeeded him. In the list of genres are included Shlok [couplet], Var [epic], Baramah [Twelve months /poem on the months of the year], Sohlay [panegyric in praise of the Lord], Sidh Gosht [a distinct poetic structure based on dialogues], Paihir [a distinct poetic structure describing the four stages of life]. Yet other genres he expressed himself in are Rehrasand Arti which have hymn like distinct structures. The list may not be exhaustive. Guru Nanak inherited Sholk [couplet] from the tradition as it was used before him by grand saint and poet Baba Farid. Rest of the genres were employed by him for the first time in Punjabi, it seems. Some of them might have had their origins in folklore but he was the master who infused them with creative significance and made them an inseparable part of literary and spiritual landscapes of high value. Our literary tradition would not only be different but also impoverished if this sage was not there. And our great classical poets would be left with poor legacy which their repertoire ensued from.
Another aspect, closely related with the use of diverse genres, in which Guru Nanak remains unequalled, is his astonishing mastery over prosody [Chhanda Banddi]. The variety of metres we come across in his verses is incredible. No other great master has been able to be even a patch on him in the matter. Two things need to be emphasised; metres bequeathed by tradition and Guru Nanak’s creative ability - not only to appropriate them and also to create new ones. He is as comfortable with simple metres as he is with those that are highly complex and thus can test your genius. And remember he uses indigenous Punjabi metres, not the ones borrowed from Persian or Arabic.
A line may amply show how he handles intricate and delicately difficult metres with prosodic skill and rhapsodic panache: “…Gaawan tudh nu jati sati santokhi, gaawan tudh nu veer kararay”. Creating such a stirring lilt and undulation can be challenging for any great master of our language.
Yet another dimension of the sage who in his humility calls himself Dhaari wekaar [a jobless minstrel] is evident from his deep understanding of music which he puts to poetic use. He is the first to put his verses to classical Ragas keeping in view the contents. His verses are naturally meant to be sung. In order to enhance the impact, aesthetic and spiritual, he suggests a particular Raga for each set of verses. Verses, if sung in the suggested Raga, can have greater impact as the singing would help create the desired mood and the ambiance facilitating the communication flow. This practice has been followed by almost all poets with mystic inclination who composed Kafi, [a lyrical genre] in Punjab and Sindh.
Punjab’s classical poetry is what it is –immensely rich and nuanced - because of Guru Nanak who paved the way for all that came later. But sadly he is not frequently talked about in this part of Punjab which is predominantly Muslim in terms of faith. His teachings provided the foundational principles of Sikh religion which perhaps deter people here to take him as a poet fearing that any secular or unguarded remark about him may offend the faithful. So he is owned but better left undiscussed.
Baba Nanakis also not easily accessible to intellectually lazy people because of complex structure of his verses and profound philosophic thought. But nevertheless he is universally accepted as the brightest son of the land and the soul of Punjab whose eternal presence continues to inspire people generation after generation with its creative radiance. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2019