In this era of hyperactivity, loudness and exaggeration, there is no room for mellow and soothing arts
This year, the urs of Bulleh Shah went largely unnoticed as it fell during the first 10 days of Muharram. The coronavirus pandemic also dampened enthusiasm for the local gathering.
The urs celebrations for both Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah are held according to the Bikrami and not the Hijri calendar. Usually, when these fall in the months of Ramazan or Muharrum they are rescheduled. However, it did not happen this time around.
As it is, the annul urs fairs have become smaller affairs over the years and to many living in the cities, almost irrelevant. The younger generation just do not connect with it and show indifference to its quasi-rural atmospherics. These urs observances were traditionally associated with melas where the major activity was buying and selling of farm produce and associated handicrafts. They also involved plenty of singing and dancing.
But the buying and selling activity is now an urban affair with greater disposable incomes, far removed from the rural signature in style and content. The thirst for singing and dancing, on the other hand, can be quenched by the plenty that is offered online. The younger generation is more responsive to digital creation of the arts than its real time live performance because there is great scope for post-production invasiveness. The ears have become attuned to listening to this sonic version than to the sound in its natural form.
The Punjabi poets in the sub-continent, unlike some of their colleagues writing in the mainstream Persian, were, what in the present parlance would be called, activists. The classical poets transformed their experiences into great gems, but rarely stepped out of that role to be physically seen as fighting for a cause. For that, they had to abandon their more wholesome understanding of the human phenomenon in the backdrop of doubt. Activism or action can be read as being totally overwhelmed by a one-sided experience or truth so as to be forced to act on it.
To many, this may be stretching the role of the artistes or the poets a little too much and the expectation of being involved wholeheartedly with a cause as being a sort of a compromise. However, one has seen that some do step out even to the extent of being a threat or putting their own lives on the line.
With action being more determinant in the authenticity of expression these days, it is expected that the artistes would put their pen, paper, the brush or their thespian/cine skills to march on the streets to join the forces, so to say. All arts, these days, are seen to be a partisan activity by the majority in which the demons of doubt and failure are put aside to lurch headlong into action. Action is seen to be the most effective way to announce your commitment in an era which is more conditioned by loudness and exaggeration. Everything big and extreme is good; the rest is mellow and compromising. So Bulleh Shah would fit ideally into the present day scenario with his outspokenness and violence of expression. There seems to be a no-holds-barred approach in his poetic expression. But is that really so?
Perhaps, he was more courted about a couple of decades ago for his extremism and violent rebellion against the accepted understanding of human values, both positive and negative. These days, with his denunciation of the accepted values as being a travesty of truth, he may be seen as just ranting against the practice of values rather than challenging the truth of their being around. He was accused of being too non-conformist and rankled in the consciousness of the more orthodox sections of the society.
Bulleh Shah lived in one of the most uncertain times in the history of the Punjab when the social fabric was being ripped apart by invasions, upheaval and lack of security.
Much of that was happening in the name of religion. He was to challenge and question the various accepted interpretations of values and concluded that some of them were inhuman.
In the past two hundred years or so in the sub-continent, the written word with its bind to citation and references has been considered more acceptable, reliable and legitimate while the oral tradition has become less authentic and, therefore, less valid. But the greater fund of our languages has been transmitted and communicated through oral sources or is preserved thus. In this day and age where the written word is given scholarly precedence over the spoken word poetry, proverbs (bolian), anecdotes, qissas and hikayats etc are summarily dismissed as not worthy of consideration. But if we look at our history, oral tradition was given precedence over the written word and for centuries the oral tradition expressed the intellectual and cultural developments of the people here.
Perhaps with the internet and cyber means of preservation, dissemination and communications, the strict adherence to the written word as expressed through the mechanical printing presses is coming to an end. There is much that is common between the oral tradition and the cyber sources, the least being a casualness about attribution to the sources. Every person enjoys the freedom of a platform to express and needn’t get into the rigmarole of quoting sources and penning citations. Ambitions, desires and wishes are treated as facts and authentic information.
A growing body of work is being added to it all the time. The oral tradition, too, was not static, but was cumulatively treated as such by those carrying on the tradition of either narrating or reciting the works. It was a living experience that was not encased in the finality of the printed word, but was fluid, flexible and malleable.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore