An icon of our culture

October 30, 2016

Muzaffar Ghaffar is a lover, scholar, fan, student and teacher of Punjabi classical poetry. An introduction to the master and his masterpieces

An icon of our culture

I first met Muzaffar Ghaffar 25 years ago at the poetry reading Sangat of Najm Hosain Syed. Ghaffar was a different individual from the mixed lot present there, some serious, some not-so-serious lovers of Punjabi and students of Punjabi classical poetry.

Ghaffar like the rest of us was guided through eight centuries of classical Punjabi poetry from 12th to 19th century by Syed. Ghaffar was a very serious student. Although he didn’t have a background in Punjabi poetry, he did have training in English poetry (he had also written a few books) and soon became an inspired and dedicated researcher, taking copious notes. Most of the old lot at Sangat came from a left leaning background (National Students Federation and Mazdoor Kissan Party) where poetry was discussed in the light of people’s politics.

Ghaffar approached poetry from a more spiritual and mystical angle. But it wasn’t long before we were all referring to him to confirm what was discussed about the work of a particular poet a few months ago or even the past year. His memory was so sharp that he remembered the verses and chapters from English literature, science, logic and other similar subjects. This memory and knowledge was slowly and surely being expanded to include the full gamut of interpretations of Punjabi poetry at the Sangat.

Ghaffar was also responsible for single-handedly establishing and leading the Lahore Art Forum (LEAF) which ran a staggering number of programmes. No other cultural organisation, run privately or by the government, ever achieved a fraction of this work. He trained a team to manage this organisation, its literary as well as music and arts programmes. I was also involved with LEAF’s weekly programmes that were held at Qaddafi Cultural Complex and Model Town Library (some programmes were initially held at Lahore Press Club). One of these was a weekly trilingual programme that covered Punjabi, Urdu and English. The segments varied and touched upon literary, visual and performing arts including theatre, film, music and dance. Prominent people from all these fields, Pakistani and otherwise, also contributed.

Another important weekly programme was ‘Sing along a Kafi,’ where the works of more than 14 Punjabi classical poets were read and sung with the audience joining in and participating in the discussion. This programme was run by LEAF for more than two decades.

Ghaffar was also responsible for single-handedly establishing and leading the Lahore Art Forum (LEAF) which ran a staggering number of programmes. No other cultural organisation, run privately or by the government, ever achieved a fraction of this work.

Another monthly programme included a team of artistes under the late Samina Hassan Syed, a classical vocalist par excellence and the wife of Najm Hosain Syed, who organised the music programmes. A video/audio recording of all events has been kept. Moreover, a comprehensive collection of Bulleh Shah’s poetry is included in a set of 8 compact discs with a book on the poet by Ghaffar. This poetry has been sung by Samina Hassan Syed along with her daughter Risham Hosain Syed. Compositions from the sangat by Najm Hosain Syed are remarkable pieces of music, especially because of the incredibly rich variety of the raags.

Bulleh shah1 copy

Ghaffar was also the genius behind the comprehensive archiving of this music and the literature studied at the Sangat. A decade ago, he produced a monumental work of 22 volumes on all major Punjabi poets from Baba Fareed to Khwaja Farid. The reason for his high level of productivity was his work habits and routine. These had to be seen to be believed. He would wake up at the crack of dawn and for a decade he wrote for more than eight hours a day. He occasionally brought his drafts to show to Najm Hosain Syed, who in his typical style only gently suggested some changes. The translations and interpretations on the poets and their poetry is entirely original and Ghaffar’s own work.

There is very little work in the English language on our classical poets. I have seen Kartar Singh Duggal and Sant Singh Sekhon’s work from East Punjab on History of Punjabi Literature. I have also read a very poor commentary on Heer Waris Shah by Seetal. The total works in English, on Punjabi literature, would be in single digits and their quality is mediocre at best. Now that Punjabi Literature is being taught in various South Asian History departments across the world, the lack of material in English is a terrible shortcoming. Ghaffar’s work is vital in filling this gap.

His four-volume work on Damodar’s Heer alone can generate graduate students for years to come. The works in their entirety make a contribution to literature that is globally unsurpassed.

Unfortunately, after this monumental work came a monumental failure. This was in the launching and marketing of these books. A tragedy of Greek proportions hit the works as the publishing house lost the books to a terrible fire and simultaneously Ghaffar fell seriously ill.

But Ghaffar did not give up. He has brought out a second printing of Bulleh Shah and four volumes on Heer Waris Shah is due soon. These four volumes and Damodar’s Heer, another set of four books, is unique as they have a complete versions of the two poets’ masterpieces. Those who know about the history of the many versions in print that claim to be Waris Shah’s original Heer understand the significance of Ghaffar’s work.

These are the best available versions of this epic in print available anywhere in the world. Heer is a dying phenomenon in Punjab today. From the time Waris Shah wrote his work in the middle of 18th century, these verses have been sung by millions. Reading Heer meant singing Heer.

In the last century, films and the portable radio transistors transmitting film songs, and later the TV, displaced the rich oral folklore of Punjab. These new media became the worst enemies of our mother tongue Punjabi. Among the many things that may still survive the onslaught and degradation of our language in this age of digital media and internet, show the unmatched richness of our language and literature, and be a valuable reference would be Ghaffar’s magnum opus: Masterworks of Punjabi Sufi Poetry

Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah were witnesses to the Punjabi people’s struggle, the peasants’ rebellion, the Sikh revolution and the subsequent Mughal Kingdom’s decline. The poets’ critique of power politics in revolutionary Punjab, as the Sikh Misals were taking hold, is a study of the history and culture of Punjab from a vantage point. Folk singers passed on this poetry from one generation to the next in the pre-print era. They also added their own colour and taste to it, often in the form of a forced religiosity and pathos -- to appease the establishment and soften the sharp and biting critique of it by the Bulleh Shahs and Waris Shahs of this land. Both the masters stayed away from the tendency of pathos in poetry and were diametrically opposed to trends that lent to convention and a tyrannical status quo.

Popular tradition tells of Bulleh Shah’s body not being allowed burial by the establishment due to his anti-religious iconoclastic poetry. His saintly celebration thrives to this day, ironically now under an officially-sanctioned and managed mazaar and urs like that of all our classical poets. Bulleh Sah has been sung all over Punjab and even Sindh. A Sindhi friend seriously asked "Why do you Punjabis sing Bulleh Shah, he is our poet!" Now I am going to venture where angels fear to tread but fools do rush in.

All said and done Bulleh Shah is the best poet of Punjabi language.  The Bulleh Shah selection must be read, it will add a new dimension to your thinking. It costs much less than a bottle of scotch whiskey.

After the stock of his hardcover books in Ferozsons was burnt in the fire, Ghaffar added two paperback volumes with selections from all the major poets, the original Punjabi in Urdu, Gurmukhi and Roman script like the previous volumes, and the translations are done in English. The translation of poetry is always an arduous task. To translate verses with strict metre and rhyme is even more demanding. But trust Ghaffar to do the impossible. Having written and published six books of his own poetry in English, he knows his craft.

fareed to fareed - anthology

The two new books that he has added to his repertoire, Fareed to Fareed -- Translator’s Bouquet and Fareed to Fareed -- Anthology, in paperback are more easy to access, affordable and all round "within reach". Ghaffar has applied this phrase, "within reach" on his entire series of books. The second paperback book is a selection of Baba Fareed, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Khwaja Ghulam Fareed’s poetry. In addition to the original poetry and its English translation in verse, it also has meanings of words and brief discussion of the lines and words. These are not as encyclopaedic as in the original hardcover volumes, but enough to guide the reader to an interpretation.

Ghaffar is a lover, scholar, fan, student and teacher of Punjabi classical poetry. Whether you are a beginner or a scholar, these masterpieces are a treasure trove of writing. I request all librarians, especially those outside Pakistan to have it ordered for their South Asian shelves. This work will endure for years to come. The author and the publisher, Ferozsons, deserve a lot of credit for this Herculean effort. This work deserves to be widely distributed and disseminated.

Masterworks of Punjaabi Sufi Poetry
Fareed to Fareed (within reach) Anthology
Pages: 420
Price: Rs895
Fareed to Fareed (translations bouquet)
Pages: 264
Price: Rs 495
Bulleh Shah (within reach) reprinted hardcover deluxe with 8 CDs of compositions sung by Samina Hasan Syed
Publishers: Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Lahore
Price: Rs 4500 with audio CDs

An icon of our culture