SOUNDCHECK: ETERNAL FLAME

11 Oct 2020

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Bhagat Bhooro Lal
Bhagat Bhooro Lal

It’s a story that is repeated almost endlessly through the works of Sindh’s most well-known and revered poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai — that of the princess of Bhambore Sassui’s inexhaustible, perpetual search for her lover, the prince of Kech, Punnhu. They are separated by force after having spent only one night together. She then spends her life searching for him.

Their tragic story appears in Bhittai’s Shah Jo Risalo and is one of the seven popular tragic romances that are a part of Sindhi folklore which are sometimes even referred to as the seven queens of Bhittai. Pick up any popular folk song from Sindhi culture today and the chances are it’s either about Sassui Punnhu or is drawn from one of the other stories from Bhittai’s poetry.

Muhinja Saathi, the latest offering by the Lahooti Live Sessions, is based on one choral element from Sassui Punnhu’s story by Bhittai. It features The Sketches from Jamshoro along with a few giants from the Sindhi folk music scene — Bhagat Bhooro Lal on vocals, Faqir Zulfiqar on flute and Amb Jogi on dhol.

The latest offering from the Lahooti Live Sessions is Muhinja Saathi, drawn from Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s poetry

Muhinja Saathi starts off with a playful flute riff by Fakir Zulfiqar before Bhagat Bhooro Lal, in his signature throaty voice that has the effect of transporting you straight into the desert, launches into a very folksy introduction of the song. Be warned, it’s impossible to do an exact translation of this song but this is roughly what he sings in Sindhi:

Sassui has dedicated her being to Kech
She lives in anguish, to be reunited with her beloved
Latif described that all of the trials she’s been through,
Is so she can reach where Punnhu’s feet stand

The lead singer of The Sketches, Saif Samejo’s voice is softer than Bhagat Bhooro’s and gives an interesting contrast. He launches into the chorus and is joined by Bhagat Bhooro.

My friend, comrades, those who share my pain,
Has the Hoth [Punnhu] passed through here?
Have you seen him in passing?

Just as the dhol picks up pace with a traditional Sindhi beat that has you tapping your feet, the song takes a very dark turn, or so it seems on the surface of it.

Bhagat Bhooro Lal:

I would feed my flesh to the beasts

Saif Samejo:

I would even feed them my organs
Like invasive wild vines, the pain of this separation,
Has completely consumed me

Judging by the music, the song is upbeat and happy. But the lyrics are quite graphic and seem macabre. What happened? “This song isn’t sad,” explains Saif. “It’s a wayee [choral chant]. A lot of what’s written is symbolic. When she says she wants to offer a part of herself to the beasts, it’s so they can carry a part of her to Punnhu. The ‘friends’ she is referring to are everything in nature — the trees, rocks, rivers, mountains etc.

“Her journey isn’t even about finding Punnhu. Sassui ends up finding herself through her search for him. Punnhu has always existed within her. These journeys symbolise an internal struggle.”

Lahooti also credits Mohan Bhagat for this version of Muhinja Saathi. “He was a folk singer from Tharparkar,” says Saif. “He used to sing Sindh’s bhagti [devotional] music. He’s sung a lot of Sassui.”

Why is so much of Sindhi folk music about Sassui’s unending search? “This was just one wayee from one chapter,” laughs Saif. “There are many out there. What sets each apart is that the manzar kashi [scene setting] in each is different. Sassui is from Bhambore and Punnhu is from the Makran-Kech side. If you read Shah Jo Risalo, you get the intricate details about history, the cultures of these places, the rules that governed their lives etc. It’s a mazaydar [delightful] cultural transition from Bhambore to Kech. You observe the same details and cultural transition in Moomal Rano — Moomal from Lodrwara [present-day Rajasthan] and Rano from Umerkot, Tharparkar.

“That’s why Bhittai is so important,” stresses Saif. “He preserved all of this, yet his poetry transcends language and cultures — it’s about our individual and collective struggle as human beings.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 11th, 2020