A photograph by Imran Mani
The Cult of Co-existence
Nirupama Dutt visits a unique Sufi tradition in Lahore
Shah Hussain (1538 to 1599) is one of the most quoted and loved poets of the Punjabi Sufi poetry. He lived during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar and was born the same year in which Guru Nanak passed away. Grandson of a converted weaver he belonged to the Dhuda clan of Rajputs. The other great weaver poet, Kabir, was his forerunner and died some four decades before the birth of Shah Hussain. This son of the weavers chose scholarship as his path and as a young man he became a disciple of Behlol Daryaee of the Qaadri tradition of Sufism which lay emphasis on devotion or bhakti, a concept taken from the Bhagwad Gita. He was the pioneer of the Sufi Kaafi, a genre that is somewhat akin to the sonnet and ranges from four to ten lines in length.
He is the pir-faqir or patron saint of Lahore city and his shrine lies on the side of the famed Shalamar Gardens of Lahore, developed by Mughal emperor Shahjahan. A visit to the city is not considered complete if one has not paid obeisance to the poet-saint at his mazar. However, what comes as a surprise is that unlike the the Punjabis in India, the Punjabis in Pakistan refer to him as Madho Lal Hussain. “Why does one call Shah Husain Madho Lal? Wasn’t Madho Lal the friend and disciple of the great Sufi poet?” These are the obvious questions that come to the lips. Poet and painter Akram Varraich says: “He took the name of his young friend so that his name would be immortalised. A parallel can be found in the Radha-Krishan tradition where the name of the beloved precedes the person’s name.”
Indeed, Shah Hussain's love for a Brahmin Madho Lal is famous, and they are often referred to as a single person with the composite name of Madho Laal Hussain. Madho's tomb lies next to Hussain's in the shrine. The shrine is situated in the Baghbaan colony where once the gardeners who took care of the Shalamar Gardens lived. Outside the shrine one finds small shops selling stoles, scarves and pottery. Pigeons abound the little temple to composite culture. The transistor is playing popular Hindi film songs of the melody era and Lata’s voice reaches the ears: Main piya teri tu maane ya na maane…
Appropriate lyrics indeed at the mazaar of the rebel poet who believed in love, who chose to break away from the rigid tenets of Islam. It is said that at the age of 36, he turned away from the Quran, put on red clothes and started singing and dancing in the streets of old Lahore. He had a considerable following in Lahore and Kasur. While green is the colour of Islam and mazaars but festivity time followers of this Sufi poet come to the shrine to dance and sing, bedecked in red. Lahore-based theatre director Madeeha Gauhar says: “This is one of the most cherished spots in Lahore and it speaks volumes for the culture of togetherness of old Punjab where different faiths lived together in harmony.”
Before the Partition, this memorial to multi-cultural co-existence was the site for the annual Mela Chiragan or Festival of Lights, that had its roots lay in peasant festivity. In medeival times, peasants would come to light lamps to the memory of their favourite poet. In fact the Mughal, Sikh and British administrators continued to celebrate this popular festival right up to the Partition. During the Sikh period, Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to lead the procession of the devotees from the Lahore Fort. However, with the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan the administration withdrew its support to the festival because such song, dance and abandon was considered un-Islamic.
Yet it is hard to destroy a tradition once established. The festival was nearly lost to time until singers like Hamid Ali Bela and Pathane Khan revived it by singing at the shrine and drawing the crowds. Among the singers who have sung the poet with zest are Pathane Khan, Abida Parveen, Jagjit Kaur, Zubaida Khanum, Wadali Brothers and Puran Shahkoti. The Punjabi activists in Pakistan, who are still struggling to get a rightful status for their language, formed Majlis Shah Husain to revive festivity and also highlight the poetry of the Sufi saint. Shah Husasain’s poetry has found critical acclaim on both sides of the border and Indian writer K.S. Duggal says thus of his poetry: "Shah Hussain wrote in impeccable central Punjab idiom and can claim to be one of those writers who have brought mediaeval Punjabi closest to modern usage." Najm Hosain Syed, a celebrated poet and critic of Punjabi in Pakistan describes the myth thus, “Grandson of a convert weaver, he embarrassed every one by aspiring to the privilege of learning what he revered guardians of traditional knowledge claimed to teach. Then again, fairly late in life, he embarrassed every one by refusing to believe in the knowledge he had received from others, and decided to know for himself. He plucked the forbidden fruit anew. “
So the tradion lives on with just one long interruption during the martial law regime of Zia-ul-Haq. But the followers of the man, who dared to pluck the forbidden fruit found ways even to tackle this.
BOX 1 with the story (with B & W pix)
Caption: Najm Hosain Syed leading the dance at Shah Hosain’s mazaar in the Eighties
Dance of Defiance
All music and dance at the mazaar of Shah Husain was brought to an end during the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq. There was no Mela Chiragan. Thursdays heard no crescendo of the qawwali rising from the mazaar. The sound of music was unheard until after some years progressive university students picked up the drums and reached the shrine. The mood was such that the staid and sober writer Najm Hosain Syed joined the dance as others chanted: Madho Lal, Madho Lal, Mehangi roti, mehangi dal, Ho gaye poore sat saal ( Madho Lal, Madho Lal, for seven years we have had costly roti and costly dal). It was a dig at the socio-political conditions of the times. The protest served a purpose. Dance and song returned to the mazaar.