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Literature The Punjabi Literary Tradition: Baba Farid Blazes The Trail!


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Punjab Literary Tradition. Baba Farid Blazes the Trail


The medieval Punjabi literature is usually considered to be the product of a tumultuous period from the 11th century to mid 16th century when Punjab was a melting pot due to historical conditions created by the Arab penetration from the south and Turkish march from the north, resulting in the Muslim rule over large swathes of the subcontinent.

One of the consequences of the multifaceted interaction was the emergence of what we call contemporary Punjabi. Without going into the controversy whether it has Dravidian roots or Aryan origins, one can state the obvious; its grammatical structure is indigenous, while its vocabulary comprises the local and borrowed words, mostly from the Arabic and the Persian. It is worth remembering that the contact with the Persian was not something entirely new. Punjab had once been one of the richest satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire during the reign of Cyrus the great (529 BC).

Two larger than life figures — Baba Farid, the saint, (1173-1265) and Guru Nanak, the seer, (1469-1539) — bring this epoch-making period vividly to life. Apart from being men with an extraordinary spiritual vision, both were poets of high caliber.

Baba Farid Shakar Ganj, having succeeded his mentor Bakhtiar Kaki as the chief of Chishti Sufi Order, expressed his solidarity with common people and his poor disciples by shifting his seat from Delhi, the royalty infested capital of India, to a small town Ajodhan, now called Pakpattan, 120 miles from Lahore.

His bold decision showed in no uncertain terms his disdain for all the things royal. It is credibly reported that when he established his modest monastery at Pakpattan surrounded by pilu forests (Mahabharata describes the Punjab as a land having a lot of pilu forests), he had a family meeting where he declared that henceforth no smoke would rise from his home i.e there would be no family kitchen.

The food for his family would come from the monastery’s Langar (free mess). He saw to it that all, his family members and students, share the same food. And about the food, says Nizam-ud-din Aulia, his celebrated successor that whenever ‘dela’, the unripe fruit of wild Karir tree, was cooked, it was a feast for the students, implying that the food for the poorest of the poor would be a sumptuous meal for the people at the monastery.

Such was the measure of this saint’s humility and austerity! His world view informed by humanised social consciousness connected him with the common people who incessantly suffered the rigors of caste and class ridden socio political order.

Multiple themes run deep in his deceptively simple rhymed couplets called ‘Shlokas’. Ethically informed existentialist consciousness, for him, defines the essence of individual being.

“The whole world suffered, While I believed only I suffered When I rose, I found every house on fire”.

Baba Farid repeatedly but subtly suggests that defiance of oppressive political structures is the hallmark of authentic social being.

“O Farid, these stalks of mustard in the pan though sweet, are poison / Some toiled till they dropped, raising the crop, Others moved in, plundering it”.

The verse evokes a surreal image of productive but famished peasantry juxtaposed against the feast of militarised landed gentry, full of insouciant joy.

Talking of the producers and the plunderers, he says; “Some have piles of whole meal flour, While others have nothing to spice their loaf bread with’ Baba Farid’s philosophical and spiritual framework hinges on the notion of people as receptacle of divinity. System which robs people of their dignity by denying them their rights, in fact disgraces the divine presence. Of all the rights the basic is provision of food that sustains the physical being. That is why he, in one of his dialogues, declares bread as the sixth tenets of Islam.

In a society where resources were meager and peasant’s produce was appropriated by the landlords at will, the threat of famine and starvation always loomed large. So it is not surprising that many a time we come across the imagery of food or lack of it in the verses of Baba Farid who chose to live among the lowly, renouncing his all worldly possessions. His renunciation was not in any way meant to give up the world but rather to be at the centre of the real world inhabited by ordinary mortals, with the intention to help transform it.

His vision inspired by an intense existential urge, led him to a way of life that integrated him with the downtrodden in such a manner that he could be the voice of the voiceless and the cry of the oppressed. He, in fact, was blessed with what his contemporary, Saint Francis of Assisi prayed for: ‘Lord, grant me the treasure of sublime poverty — ‘. But the choice for Baba Farid was not without intense internal conflict:

“Let my cloak be drenched and soiled, Let the heaven pour out all its waters I must go ahead to keep my word with my love”.

Poetry, for Baba Farid, was never just about craft coupled with conventional poetic imagination. It was an expression of life the way he lived it. His way had no room for duality. The spiritual and the mundane were the elements which constituted totality. His was real praxis: no difference between words and deeds, no gulf between thinking and doing.

He did what he believed and believed what he did. Sadly world is hardly a place for this kind of authentic living due to historically created social and political structures which deny freedom of thought and action to overwhelming majority of people, dehumanising both the powerful and the powerless.

“Change of season; the wood shakes and the leaves fall down the path I explore the entire place and find no corner livable.” But the poet-saint, apart from being a collective voice which is invariably a hallmark of a great artist, can also compose love poetry of breathtaking beauty.

“I could not share my bed with my love today, I find my body and limb wilted and withered How does she who is abandoned by her love, Waits her nights out?”

Baba Farid is rightly celebrated both as a saint and a poet whose spiritual spark and creative expression initiated a cultural process that paved the way for the highly dynamic Punjabi literary tradition. It was no small honour that his verses were included in the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of the Sikhs. His was such a heeling touch that Waris Shah, our eternal bard, in his tribute to him proclaims: “Shakar Ganj comes to stay here; the Punjab will now be relieved of its suffering and pain”.

But nothing can end Baba Farid’s angst, born of his experience of time that creates and destroys and is thus a source of existential wonder:

“I have seen the eyes that mesmerized the world; In those eyes that did not suffer the touch of Kohl, Now the birds hatch their eggs”.

Despite all the ravages of time, he believes, there is something that will stand out as an undying sign of life.

“Gone are the birds that enlivened the riverside; The surging waters too will pass away Only the lotus will stand firm blooming”.
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