“If there was a paradise on Earth, it was the beautiful valley of Swat. It had heritage, history, and traditions based on love and peace,” says Abdurrahman Roghani, 58, an eminent Pashtun poet, writer, and social activist from Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
A resident of the town of Matta, Roghani was targeted by the Taliban for his romantic verses, progressive thoughts, and prominent role in the local community….
“You cannot subdue human souls by force. It is not possible to stop the ever-flowing stream of life forcefully. You can channel it with craft and wisdom but you cannot stop it by erecting walls in its way,” he says, referring to the acts of militants who banned all artistic expression and destroyed hundreds of shops selling music in the valley.
“[The] human heart can only be dominated by love and affection, not weapons and war.”
Somewhere during the same timeframe, closer to home, nearer to the local vernacular, thirty miles from Lahore, in the tiny unknown city of Kasur, lived an unknown man, named Abdullah Shah. A man, whose writings - barely understood, even by those who speak his language (much less by those who do not) – contain, amongst them, such enlightening and powerful Sufianic philosophies that even Smith, Voltaire, Rosseau, Kant et. al. would have been proud to claim them, as their own.
Bulleh Shah was born Abdullah Shah, in the small village of Uch Gilaniyan in Bahawalpur, in 1680. At the age of six months, his parents moved to Malakwal. From there, his father, a preacher in the village mosque and a teacher, got a job in Pandoke – about fifteen miles southeast of Kasur. Bulleh Shah received his early education in Pandoke, and later moved to Kasur, for higher education, to become a pupil of the eminent teacher, Ghulam Murtaza.
Much of what is known today about Bulleh Shah, comes through folklore, and is anecdotal; to the point, there isn’t even complete agreement, amongst historians, about his exact date and place of birth. Some parts about his life have been connected together from his own writings. Other parts seem to have been passed down through oral traditions. However, what are neither anecdotal nor folklore, are the Punjabi verses that have been authored by Bulleh Shah – arguably the greatest Punjabi poet of all time, and perhaps one of the greatest humanist minds of his era.
Bulleh Shah practiced and enhanced the Sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry established by poets like Shah Hussain (1538- 1599), Sultan Bahu (1629-1691), and Shah Sharaf (1640-1724), to name a few….
Bulleh Shah’s style of writing is called Kafi (Refrain) – an established style of Punjabi poetry used by Punjabi Sufis and Sikh gurus (from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh). Sufi poets generally did not adapt the courtly languages of Persian and Urdu, and tended to write their verses in Punjabi, Sariaki, Sindhi etc. – languages of the common folk, amongst whom they lived. Though the number is disputed, Bulleh Shah is credited with authoring anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty Kafi, one Athwara, one Baramah, three Siharfi, forty-nine Oeodh and forty Gandhan. This appears to be a large content of work. However, in reality, this collection of works is so small that one can read it all in a few weeks.
Sufis, traditionally, spent their lives searching for the meaning of life, and for God, Himself. Those amongst them, who were poets, expressed this search, beautifully, through their poetry. Who is the Creator? What is the truth? What is the meaning of life? How can one find God? Who am I? These are some of the questions Sufis have tried to answer, by disassociating themselves from worldly knowledge and deeds, and moving onto a spiritual sphere, where they are no longer bound by traditionally interpreted religious or material restrictions.
Bulleh Shah gained knowledge of Arabic, Persian and the Quran, through his traditional teacher(s). After that, in an effort to move to the next level (of mystic realization) he searched for a spiritual guide. Eventually he found his murshid, in the form of Inayat Shah Qadri. Inayat Shah Qadri (or Shah Inayat, as he is referred to in Bulleh Shah’s poetry) was a Sufi of the Qadri tradition, who authored many Persian books on mysticism. He was from the Arian cast and grew vegetables to earn a living. Ironically, Bulleh Shah was of a much higher Sayyad caste. Yet, contrary to common social practice, Bulleh Shah accepted Shah Inayat as his spiritual master, and subordinated his life to his lower-caste murshid. Much of Bulleh Shah’s verses about love are actually written directly for his spiritual guide, Shah Inayat.
This first aspect of Bulleh Shah’s poetry and philosophy that strikes the reader is his bold and almost arrogant critique of the religious orthodoxy of his day; specifically the Islamic religious orthodoxy. His poetry is filled with direct attacks on anyone claiming control over religion, to the point of comparing mullahs to barking dogs and crowing roosters: Mulla tay mashaalchi dohaan ikko chit Loukan karday chananan, aap anhairae vich
Mullah and the torch-bearer, both from the same flock Guiding others; themselves in the dark
Yet Bulleh Shah does not denounce religion, as a whole. Nor does he seem to be pushing any other kind of man-made system of thought, mechanism, nor, “ism” to take priority over religious thought. His ideas, thus, cannot be placed into the category of an 18th century Punjabi secularist or atheist. In fact, Bulleh Shah seems quite critical of all individuals in powerful positions - including intellectuals, academicians and jurists - who create obstacles and unnecessary complexities for common people in discovering love; and through love, discovering God. Bulleh Shah preaches a simple concept of humanity, as the common bond through which individuals of all faiths, creeds and thoughts can attain a higher and more pure existence, eventually becoming one with God. Masjid dha de, mandir dha de, dha de jo kucch dainda Par kisi da dil na dhain, Rab dilan vich rehnda..
Tear down the mosque and the temple; break everything in sight But do not break a person’s heart, it is there that God resides
Bulleh Shah’s writings, thus, portray him as a humanist. Someone providing solutions to the sociological problems of the world around him, as he lives through it, describing the turbulence his homeland of Punjab is passing through, while simultaneously searching for God. His poetry highlights his mystical spiritual journey through the four stages of Sufism - Shariat (Path), Tariqat (Observance), Haqiqat (Truth) and Marfat (Union). He starts from the rules as laid down by Islam, and eventually ends up at a point where he accepts the existence of God, everywhere, with no discrimination between different religions, finally becoming one with God.
The simplicity with which Bulleh Shah has been able to tackle the basic issues of life and humanity is extremely appealing. Everyone has, thus, put his kafis to music - from simple street-singers, to the folk-tunes of Wadalis and Abida Parveen, the synthesised techno qawwali remixes of Nusrat Fateh Ali, to the electric rock guitars of Junoon.
It is difficult to find an historical figure from the Sub-Continent whose popularity stretches equally across Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims – each trying to claim him as their own. To the point that much of the written material about this great Muslim thinker is from Hindu and Sikh authors. This, perhaps, is the ultimate benchmark of the humanity of Bulleh Shah - a relatively unknown Punjabi Sufi, son of a village preacher, who wrote in the simple language and dialect of the illiterate common folk, who perhaps himself lived a life of relative peasantry having never ventured outside his neighboring localities of Punjab, who devoted his life to his lower-caste murshid, who never married, and who was even denied a funeral by the religious orthodoxy of his time.
Famous landscape painter Ghulam Rasul introduced a new dimension to the art of painting in Pakistan by portraying rural life in his masterpieces. He had obtained a Masters Degree in Fine Art in 1964 from the Punjab University and joined the university’s faculty as a lecturer in 1965. Despite his preliminary training as a painter, it was his involvement with printmaking that added a very distinctive, signature element to Ghulam Rasul’s work. The dynamic painter who was said to be keeping good health died of cardiac arrest on December 3, 2009. He was 67.
A career in rock ’n’ roll might not be a conventional – or easy – choice for young Pakistanis, but despite the militant insurgency and social difficulties, aspiring musicians are finding ways to keep an alternative music scene alive.